• We dodged a bullet in 2012. We almost got a president who misuses Twitter.
• In explosive testimony to the House committee investigating the Ukraine mess, acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor testified that last summer President Trump and people around him were scheming to use withheld defense aid to get the Ukrainian government to publicly commit to investigations. Taylor’s account goes a long way toward establishing, at the very least, the intention of a quid pro quo. To what extent the president’s shambolic Ukraine operation actually acted on this intention is an open question (the defense aid was released in mid September without Ukraine committing to anything). Meanwhile, two business partners of Rudy Giuliani, who were involved in his machinations in Ukraine, were indicted for campaign-finance violations. For anyone paying close attention to the Mueller probe, it was clear, despite media hyperventilating, that the facts were getting better for Trump as the investigation into alleged collusion proceeded. In Ukraine so far, the facts have gotten worse, and they are likely to continue to do so.
• Recent polls showed Elizabeth Warren either in a three-way tie for the lead in Iowa, or out in front. Fellow Democrats — especially an awakened Amy Klobuchar — accordingly targeted her at their fourth debate. One hopes that rivals and media will continue to scrutinize her wilder ideas. “Medicare for All” is a funding nightmare; she now promises to explain how it can be done without punishing the middle class (one suspects she will argue that net costs will decline, though she can no longer credibly escape saying that taxes will rise). Her education plan calls for banning for-profit charter schools and ending vouchers — an “A+” for teachers’ unions, an “F” for parents and students. She wants to pull all combat troops out of the Middle East, joining President Trump and Tulsi Gabbard on America First Island. Most sinister of all, her 2 percent wealth tax, an annually renewed levy, would over time drain all pools of capital to the federal government — to be wisely dispensed by politician profs like Elizabeth Warren.
• Bernie Sanders isn’t polling as well as he did last time around, when he was the only real opposition in the Democratic primaries to Hillary Clinton. While he is back campaigning, his recent heart attack raises legitimate questions about his health. But if he is not favored to win, he is doing well enough to affect the outcome of the race. He has money: He outraised all the other candidates in the most recent quarter. Now he also has the backing of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, and Ilhan Omar. They have evidently decided they want a self-proclaimed socialist rather than someone who, like Elizabeth Warren, agrees with socialists on most issues but disclaims the label. Warren therefore can’t consolidate the Left just yet. Which means that there is some good news as well for Joe Biden, the other old guy in the race.
• Biden would like you to know that there was absolutely nothing shady about his son Hunter’s business dealings in Ukraine and China — although, should he be elected president, Joe Biden will ensure that nobody ever, ever, ever does it again. Poor Hunter is a basket case, whose last run-in with the police was as recent as 2017 and who was kicked out of the Navy for drug abuse. His are not exactly the steadiest of hands, but foreign businesses have sought him out for lucrative sinecures. Democrats are committed to describing the imputation of corruption in this mess as a “conspiracy theory,” but Hunter Biden himself doesn’t quite see it that way: “I don’t think that there’s a lot of things that would have happened in my life if my last name wasn’t ‘Biden,’” he told ABC News, showing that even in his current condition he has a more realistic view of the situation than most of those defending him.
• Beto O’Rourke has been resorting to ever more dramatic gestures to get attention for his fading presidential campaign: saying “Hell, yes, we are going to take your AR-15,” and now saying that churches that oppose same-sex marriage shouldn’t be exempt from taxes. After catching hell from nearly all sides over that one, O’Rourke’s campaign said he merely believed that religious organizations shouldn’t be allowed to fire or refuse to hire people for being in same-sex marriages. That’s not what he said, of course. It’s also a departure from the First Amendment, which the Supreme Court rightly interprets to preclude such regulation of churches. Out-of-the-mainstream positions, right or wrong, can be politically brave. O’Rourke is showing us how one can be simultaneously extreme, wrong, and cowardly.
• During the most recent Democratic debate, Hawaii congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard provoked controversy for repeating a line once commonplace among Democrats: “Abortion should be safe, legal, and rare.” Under fire from progressive activists, Gabbard received backup from an unlikely source: the former president of Planned Parenthood. Dr. Leana Wen, who was recently ousted from her role as Planned Parenthood chief for not being zealous enough about pro-abortion activism, tweeted after the debate that she agreed with the congresswoman. The standard on the Left for what it takes to be a relative moderate on abortion keeps getting easier to meet.
• Hillary Clinton wondered aloud whether “someone . . . currently in the Democratic primary” was “the favorite of the Russians,” who were “grooming her to be the third-party candidate.” In reply, “someone” — Representative Gabbard — tweeted: “Thank you @HillaryClinton. You, the queen of warmongers, embodiment of corruption, and personification of the rot that has sickened the Democratic Party for so long, have finally come out from behind the curtain.” Failed ex-candidates should kibitz seldom, and then without coy evasions; Mrs. Clinton deserved the rebuke. But Gabbard deserves scrutiny for foreign-policy positions that go beyond isolationism to praising the Assad regime in Syria, and Russia’s support of it. There is no reason to doubt that Gabbard comes by her views honestly. That doesn’t make them any less reckless.
• “I thought I was doing something very good for our country by using Trump National Doral, in Miami, for hosting the G-7 leaders,” wrote the hotelier-in-chief on Twitter. Because nothing shows off America like inviting foreign dignitaries to convene in the steam-room damp of Florida in the month of June. The Trump National Doral boasts four excellent golf courses, but it has struggled with debt over the years as owners have handed it off one to the other (Trump bought it out of bankruptcy). The president was offering to host the G-7 for free, but he would have reaped a windfall in free advertising. Even Republican congressmen squawked at this self-dealing. “Therefore,” Trump concluded his tweet, “based on both Media & Democrat Crazed and Irrational Hostility, we will no longer consider Trump National Doral, Miami, as the Host Site.” Acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney told Chris Wallace that the president still considers himself to be in the hospitality business. Maybe it’s time to quit that.
• President Trump doesn’t think much of his first defense secretary, James Mattis. “The world’s most overrated general,” he called him in a meeting with congressmen. As it happened, Mattis was the keynote speaker at the Al Smith charity dinner in New York the next night. “I stand before you,” he told the audience, “having achieved greatness. I mean, I’m not just an overrated general: I am the greatest, the world’s most overrated.” He continued, “I am honored to be considered that by Donald Trump because he also called Meryl Streep an overrated actress. So I guess I’m the Meryl Streep of generals.” Finally, “you do have to admit that, between me and Meryl, at least we’ve had some victories.” Yes, they have.
• You know you’re taking politics too seriously when you see a Washington Post article that starts: “A close reading of Mitt Romney’s secret Twitter account . . .” and you don’t immediately flip ahead to see how the Skins did. Romney revealed the account’s existence himself in an interview, and as soon as it was published, Twitter-savvy journalists raced to see who could find it first. But when it was finally tracked down, the results were far from exciting: Romney used the account almost exclusively to follow others, and on the few occasions when he posted something himself, there were no embarrassing juvenile outbursts and no episodes of late-night grumpiness to be found. He clicked “Like” for some pro-Romney tweets and promoted himself once or twice, but beyond that, it was all decaffeinated rhetoric and mild-mannered corrections; he even attempted the daunting task of getting Jennifer Rubin to show a little perspective. Even Mitt Romney’s secret online life is strait-laced and aboveboard.
• In a single day, the Trump administration’s immigration policy suffered a series of setbacks in court. One judge ruled that the president could not use an emergency declaration to redirect funds to a border wall: a fair, if debatable, interpretation of the relevant law. Less defensible were rulings by three different judges against the Department of Homeland Security’s “public charge” rule, which aims to put teeth in a longstanding provision of federal law under which immigrants who rely on government programs for support are “inadmissible” and ineligible for green cards. (Specifically, the rule defines a public charge as someone who receives certain government benefits for a full year over a three-year period. The previous rule applied only to those who were primarily dependent on cash welfare, which is today but a small part of the welfare state.) The statute says that the executive branch is to enforce its “opinion” of who is “likely” to become a public charge “at any time”; we wish Congress would not use such vague terminology when making important policies, but it did, and the courts have no solid basis on which to invalidate the resulting policy. The Supreme Court should step in to restore the public-charge rule, and Congress should start writing better laws.
• A federal judge overturned a rule implemented by the Obama administration that required doctors to administer “gender-affirming” procedures (psychological, chemical, and surgical sex-change treatments), finding it to be in violation of conscience rights. This came after the Department of Health and Human Services clarified in May that, for the purposes of federal anti-discrimination law, sex does not include “gender identity.” That matter also was taken up at the Supreme Court in September, as justices heard three oral arguments related to the 1964 Civil Rights Act. In the end, the question of whether, in legal terms, sex means biology or also means one’s subjective sense of gender should be for Congress to decide. And it will be for doctors, parents, and vulnerable patients to reap the consequences.
• Elizabeth Warren advisers Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman have a new book, and New York Times writer David Leonhardt swallowed it hook, line, and sinker. Leonhardt wrote a (predictably viral) story claiming that the book’s “newly released data” proved that the very richest Americans paid the lowest tax rates of any income group — and that taxes on the rich had dramatically fallen in recent decades. It didn’t take long for critics to rip this narrative to shreds, pointing out countless ways in which Saez and Zucman had warped the data through dubious and sometimes bizarre assumptions. The duo ignored government benefits and refundable tax credits, but not the sales taxes the poor pay when they spend these payments. Saez and Zucman also assumed that the corporate income tax falls entirely on shareholders (as opposed to labor and other forms of capital), which, because corporate rates have come down over time, exaggerates the trend of falling taxes for the rich. We won’t bore you with all the other technical problems; suffice it to say that the tax system really is progressive, and the rich really do pay higher rates than everyone else.
• Ever since Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a prominent essay making the case for slavery reparations, redlining — that is, denying financial and other services in areas with concentrations of minorities — has loomed large in the debate over race in America. As a real-estate practice, it has been illegal for half a century. Three different presidential candidates (Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, and Pete Buttigieg) have proposed plans to help neighborhoods today on the basis of their having been redlined in the past — for example, by subsidizing down payments. But a recent Brookings Institution report notes an important fact: Once-redlined neighborhoods are today only 28 percent black, on average. They are disproportionately black relative to the country as a whole — and disproportionately disadvantaged in other ways — but only 8 percent of American blacks live in them. Perhaps efforts to improve life for African Americans in 2019 should not begin with maps from the 1930s.
• California hates Uber. Young, progressive Millennials may love the convenience of hailing a ride on their phones, but California is not run by them — it is run by crotchety, elderly, decrepit, progressive Baby Boomers, who understand and appreciate the power of a government-blessed cartel, whether in the form of teachers’ unions or that of the taxi mafia. And so the state has enacted legislation intended to regiment the “gig” economy and force companies such as Uber and Lyft to treat their partners as full-time employees, which very likely will be the end of many drivers’ careers. And not only drivers: The same legislation would require that freelance writers produce no more than 35 freelance articles per year for a publication; more than that and they will have to be hired as full-time writers or — there’s always an “or” — passed over for work. We are not sure who wrote that bill, but we suspect the legislator in question never worked as a freelance writer; in the heyday of American newspapers, many reporters wrote two or three articles a day, whereas California effectively would cap them at three a month. American journalism is already diminished. Leave it to the geniuses in Sacramento to help writers right into bankruptcy.
• Home to Silicon Valley, California is arguably the most technologically capable community in the world. Yet somehow, the better part of 1 million of its residents have been held hostage by power cuts because the state’s utility monopoly, PG&E, cannot figure out how to provide electricity without starting wildfires. To make things worse, PG&E is in bankruptcy because of the financial consequences of the catastrophic wildfires it started a few years ago. The problem is that California’s power-transmission lines cannot withstand high winds and that decades of ideologically hobbled forest management have left much of California, especially its more remote stretches, unnecessarily vulnerable to wildfire. In California, American progressivism has reached its apex: The heavily regulated utility monopoly is the very model of progressive corporatism, the Democratic party has long enjoyed a virtual monopoly on power in the state, and the public-sector unions are by far the most powerful political constituency. The result? Not far from the headquarters of Google and Apple is a world that’s from time to time like the Middle Ages: illuminated only by fire. California’s to-do list is long: reform forestry protocols, fortify the power lines, bring utility practices into the 21st century. The only thing stopping California from doing that is California.
• In a speech at Georgetown, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg insisted that it is not his company’s proper role to vet every potentially disputed claim in the political ads that are published on its platform. His position was swiftly denounced by presidential contender Elizabeth Warren and other Democrats, which is ironic given that her personal story is a tissue of lies: Cherokee heritage, “woman of color,” the dubious story about being fired from a teaching job because she was pregnant, etc. Zuckerberg offered a solid if only partial defense of free speech, but on the specific question of fact-checking political ads he might have pointed to the utter failure of fact-checking operations undertaken by the theoretically objective and politically neutral mainstream news media. Politifact has long been engaged in outright advocacy in the guise of “fact-checking” and has put forward deeply dishonest claims about everything from the Affordable Care Act to California’s transgender “bill of rights.” Snopes and other fact-checkers have often followed the same sorry path. (Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?) Both Zuckerberg and those on the left who want him to censor more aggressively frame this as a question of public safety, but the fundamental issue is power — who speaks, and who gets to decide who speaks.
• LeBron James went from being GOAT to being the goat when he criticized Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey for his tweet in support of Hong Kong (“Fight For Freedom Stand With Hong Kong”). Morey, said James, was “either misinformed or not really educated on the situation.” James’s attempted elaborations were no better. “Just be careful what we tweet and say. . . . We do have freedom of speech, but there can be a lot of negative that comes with that, too.” James concluded that he would speak no more about the matter, “because I’ll be cheating my teammates by continuing to harp on something that won’t benefit us.” If centimillionaires such as James wish to earn even more money by playing games in Communist nations with which we are at peace, that is their right. But when others correctly criticize the policies of those nations — in this case, for attempting to strip away the rights of the people of Hong Kong — then the athletes should play on, silently. It is so much more dignified than kowtowing.
• In a special sitting of Parliament, “Super Saturday,” the first Saturday session since 1982, the British House of Commons voted to postpone a “meaningful vote” — that is, one meant to gauge parliamentary preference before the real vote — on Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Brexit plan. MPs also forced Johnson to request an extension of the current Brexit deadline, October 31. In accordance with Parliament’s demands, Johnson then sent a letter to the EU to request an extension. But he did not sign the letter, and he sent two additional missives (one from him personally) that contradicted the first. The following Monday, the government’s attempt to hold a meaningful vote was thwarted again by the speaker of the house, John Bercow. But meaningful votes are, at this point, pointless. Proof of this fact came when Parliament voted in favor of the prime minister’s Brexit deal by 329 votes to 299 (the first time it has ever passed any Brexit deal). Yet it also rejected, by 308 to 322 votes, a procedural motion on a bill establishing the Brexit timetable. What does all of this mean? Tentatively, one should expect that both a Brexit deal and a delay are likely.
• The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, told an audience of young members of her party, the Christian Democratic Union, that too little has been demanded of immigrants to the country. She repeated what has been one of her lines for some years now, that immigrants must learn the language and integrate. Multiculturalism, the modish word for letting them go their own way, is “misguided tolerance” and has “utterly failed.” All very well, reply critics, but she is the one whose misguided tolerance in 2015 opened the border to a million more immigrants, adding to the 3 million already admitted and creating what August Hanning, onetime director of Germany’s foreign-intelligence service, called “a security crisis.” Meanwhile, in person she has just welcomed some 300 Somali and Ethiopian immigrants, and with French president Emmanuel Macron is putting pressure on the Italian government to reopen its ports to immigrants. Merkel’s legacy seems set to illustrate how to fall between two stools.
• Abiy Ahmed is the prime minister of Ethiopia and the latest Nobel peace laureate. Forty-three years old, he assumed office in April 2018. Immediately, he threw himself into peacemaking with neighboring Eritrea. These efforts have borne fruit. Families on opposite sides of the border can at last be in touch with each other. Ethiopians and Eritreans dialed numbers at random, simply delighted to be talking with someone on the other side. At the same time, Ahmed liberalized within Ethiopia, politically and economically. “He spent his first 100 days,” said the Nobel committee, “lifting the country’s state of emergency, granting amnesty to thousands of political prisoners, discontinuing media censorship, legalizing outlawed opposition groups,” and so on. The committee said that some people, “no doubt,” would regard the prize to Ahmed as “too early.” But now is the time, the committee continued, to acknowledge and encourage the prime minister’s efforts. Yes. N.B. Alfred Nobel intended his prize to go to someone who had performed commendably “during the preceding year.” The old, noble Swede would be pleased.
• The Chinese government doesn’t like Quentin Tarantino’s latest movie, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Apparently, the objection is to the portrayal of Bruce Lee, the iconic actor who was born in San Francisco and grew up in Hong Kong. Beijing demanded a recut. Tarantino said nothing doing — thus taking a stand for artistic freedom, and freedom. May others be inspired by his example, whether they like his movies or not.
• The drive from Madrid to the Valley of the Fallen takes about an hour. The Spanish civil war claimed half a million lives, and of these, some 33,000 are buried in the mausoleum here. Which side they were on is unknown, and their names are not recorded. General Francisco Franco, victor of the war, self-styled “El Caudillo” and dictator from 1939 until he died in his bed in 1975, is an exception. His name is on his tomb. Sightseers come in such masses that they cannot help giving the impression that they are paying respects. The Valley has a crypto-Fascist atmosphere that successive governments have tried unsuccessfully to deal with. The Spanish supreme court has at last found the solution. Franco is to be exhumed and reburied next to his wife in one of Madrid’s cathedrals. The granite slab that goes with his remains weighs one and a half tons, and the cost of removing it is not quite $3,500.
• Peter Handke has won this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature. No sooner had the Swedish Academy made the announcement than critics began to pile on. They reduce his literary achievement, the work of decades, to a single episode, his disgraceful support of Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian president and war criminal, at whose funeral in 2006 he delivered a eulogy. Handke has no political philosophy that could fit on a label. His misplaced sympathy for Serbia in its genocidal aggression against its Balkan neighbors was contrarian, given his tenderness toward Slovenia, which borders his native Austria and gave his mother her ethnic identity. A Sorrow beyond Dreams (1971), his semi-fictional account of her suicide, is a minor masterpiece, full of taut sentences and emotional discipline. The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (1970) is his most famous novel. Ezra Pound was a Fascist; Martin Heidegger, a Nazi; Karl Marx, a Marxist. They belong on the short syllabus of any great-books curriculum even so. Time worships language, and forgives nearly everyone by whom it lives.
• The latest entry in the ever-lengthening list of Things You Never Knew Were Racist is none other than SpongeBob Squarepants. His animated antics with Patrick Star, Pearl Krabs, Squidward Tentacles, and the other Sponge worthies may seem innocent but in fact, says University of Washington anthropology professor Holly M. Barker, suppress “public discourse about the whitewashing of violent American military activities” by “normalizing the settler colonial takings of Indigenous lands” and “maintaining American military hegemonies in Oceania.” How so? The series is set in Bikini Bottom, a seafloor community assumed to be underneath Bikini Atoll, the site of a 1946 U.S. nuclear test for which the indigenous population was permanently removed from the atoll. That action was arrogant, to be sure, but blaming “the cartoon’s appropriation of [the islanders’] homelands” for the indigenous population’s current troubles is problematic because (a) the show’s characters don’t live on Bikini Atoll, but miles beneath it, (b) they are a wide variety of diverse colors, so it makes no sense to call them racist, (c) they’re sea creatures, and (d) did we mention that it’s a cartoon?
• This year’s calendar saw, in rapid succession, International Pronouns Day (October 16) and National Period Day (October 19). You might be thinking that English teachers have finally taken over the world, but in fact both events were based not in grammar but in sexual politics: Pronouns Day encourages the non-gender-conforming to tell everyone else what pronouns they want to be called by — for instance, “xe,” “zyr,” “they,” or perhaps “that guy” — while Period Day envisions marches in every state to demand the elimination of sales tax on tampons and other “period products,” an unfair and regressive penalty on women (sorry, we mean “persons with uterus”). The latter, at least, is not a bad idea.
• Rachel McKinnon, who was born male and lived as a man unambiguously for almost 30 years, won the women’s Master Track Cycling World Championships in England. McKinnon also won last year, but this time set a women’s world record for the 35–39 age category in the 200-meter race. The former cycling champion Victoria Hood complained that this was “unfair,” since “the male body, which has been through male puberty, still retains its advantage.” McKinnon accused Hood of having “an irrational fear of trans women.” In the past, Mc-Kinnon has celebrated the terminal illness of a woman with similar concerns, calling her a “trash human.” McKinnon has also lashed out at Martina Navratilova, the tennis star and longtime defender of sexual minorities, for her views on men competing in women’s sports. All of which goes to show that Rachel McKinnon is no lady.
• Eliud Kipchoge ran 26 miles, 385 yards in less than two hours in Vienna last month. No one in recorded history had accomplished the feat, although Kipchoge had come close: In Berlin last year, the champion marathoner from (of course) Kenya ran 2:01:39, which is still the world record. In Vienna he had no competitors, only 41 pacesetters, in an event that was not an official race. Its purpose was to provide ideal conditions under which the world’s fastest marathoner could make history. The two-hour barrier in the marathon has had something of the mystique that the four-minute mile did before Roger Bannister broke it in Oxford in 1954. While such earthbound athletic achievement has its appeal, Kipchoge, justifiably ebullient after his 1:59:40 in Vienna, let his imagination fly high as he compared himself with “the first man on the moon.” Indeed. He seems to be running in a different world.
• “I’m not a number person,” said Simone Biles on the occasion of becoming the most highly decorated U.S. gymnast in history. At 22, she holds the record for winning the most medals, 25, in the World Artistic Gymnastics Championships. Nineteen of them are gold. In 2016 she won five Olympic medals, four of them gold; she was a member of the Final Five, who won gold for the United States in the team event that year. If you’re a number person, you’ll have figured out that she has 30 Olympic and world-championship medals combined since she made her international debut in 2013. Biles joins power to grace like no gymnast before her. Her many medals are impressive in number but in the end only exclamation points to a remarkable statement that lends itself neither to numbers nor to words. You have to see it.
• George W. Bush and Ellen DeGeneres sat next to each other — he to her right, of course — at a Dallas Cowboys game in Arlington, Texas, in October. The TV cameras caught them sharing a laugh at one point. The family of the Cowboys’ owner, Jerry Jones, had invited them to a gathering of the rich or famous (or both) at a prestige suite at the 50-yard line at AT&T Stadium. The sight of the former Republican president and “a gay Hollywood liberal” (DeGeneres’s words) elicited strong public reaction, most of it directed against DeGeneres for fraternizing with a perceived enemy. The film director Josh Fox called Bush “a mass murdering genocidal war criminal.” Others described DeGeneres as a traitor who abandoned social justice when presented with an opportunity to indulge her class privilege. On her syndicated TV talk show a couple of days later, she commented on the outrage and quoted a tweet that read “Ellen and George Bush together makes me have faith in America again.” It’s a laudable sentiment, but note the asymmetry: Nobody on the right is angry at Bush.
• Did anyone have a more remarkable academic career than Harold Bloom? In his forties he belonged to a cohort of Yale English profs who wrecked the reigning high-modernist paradigm (Bloom’s masterpiece, The Anxiety of Influence, about poets’ dealings with their predecessors, had a great title; the book, however, was gibberish). Over time, it became clear that Bloom was different from his deconstructionist pals: He actually cared about the texts he explicated. In his fifties, he made the crossover to pop celebrity in the wake of his pupil, Camille Paglia, through his Book of J, which argued that Genesis was written by a woman. Then, in the ripeness of years, he became Dr. Johnson, defending the canon of great works against postmodern belittlers and fragmenters. His students testified to his passion in the classroom. Harold Bloom was unique, more than a little maniacal, but ultimately humble. Dead at 89. Who would not sing for Lycidas? R.I.P.
An Ignominious Retreat
Turkey and Russia carved up northeastern Syria with the U.S. standing on the sidelines.
This was the inevitable result of President Trump’s decision to pull our troops from the Turkish–Syrian border to make way for a Turkish incursion. The Turks long had wanted to clear Kurdish fighters — the so-called Syria Defense Force, which had allied with us against ISIS — from their border, in keeping with their general enmity toward the Kurds and opposition to any sort of Kurdish autonomous region.
We had held the Turks back, until Trump agreed on-the-fly in a phone call with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to make way for the invasion.
The process was atrocious. Trump didn’t consult with the military and foreign-policy professionals around him or those on the ground, leading to a chaotic U.S. response as events unfolded. More important, cutting loose the Kurds who had recently sacrificed so much to be our front-line fighters in the successful campaign against the ISIS caliphate was dishonorable. Turkish and Turkish-allied forces immediately pushed civilians from border areas and engaged in atrocities, most notably the assassination of the Kurdish politician and activist Hevrin Khalaf.
The defenses made of Trump’s pullback don’t hold up very well. One is that we had only about 100 troops on the Turkish border, not enough to stop an invasion. True, but such minimal trip-wire forces have stayed the hand of much more formidable adversaries, namely the Eastern Bloc at the Berlin Wall and North Korea on the DMZ. Another is that Turkey is a NATO ally that we didn’t want to skirmish with on the ground. Yes, but this logic would have acted even more powerfully on Turkey, which would have had much more to lose if it killed any of our troops. The fact is that Trump could have held the Turks back if he hadn’t been motivated by a long-standing desire to begin liquidating our commitments in the Middle East — even the smallest, safest, and most useful commitments.
He wants to bring a conclusion to “endless wars.” This may be an understandable reaction to the long American interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the Syria operation wasn’t anything like those wars at their height, when we had 150,000 or more troops engaged. We leveraged a very small force to help muster the Kurds for a fight that even Trump thought necessary, smashing the caliphate. It’s true that our situational alliance with the Kurds didn’t commit us to defending them forevermore or creating and protecting an autonomous region for them. But other potential proxy forces in the future will remember how quickly we tossed the Kurds aside.
The move weakens our position across the board. The Kurds have thrown in with Bashar al-Assad, who is allied with the Russians and Iranians. Meanwhile, there is no countervailing benefit to us with Turkey. We extracted no concessions in exchange for opening up Syria to them, and the harsh congressional reaction to the Turkish move will alienate Ankara from us further. The chief victor is Russia — along with Assad and Iran — which will solidify its position in Syria and gain more influence with all players. It is telling that Erdogan decided the immediate dispensation of northeastern Syria with Vladimir Putin at a meeting in Sochi.
The biggest downside is that, in the wake of our victory against the caliphate, we are essentially depending on Russia to keep up the pressure on ISIS, and there is no guarantee of that. Trump may want to be done with Syria, but Syria may not be done with him.