The minimum requirements for an effective foreign policy can be summed up in two points: (1) it must be guided by and serve the national interest and (2) it must be informed, i.e. based on knowledge and expertise. Grounding in the national interest should be almost second nature for any policymaker. As for knowledge, the United States has built up a body of foreign policy and security expertise unmatched in the world. It resides in the career diplomats of the State Department, the uniformed and civilian personnel in the Department of Defense and the professionals at the CIA and other intelligence agencies. These are impressive capabilities: smart, experienced, experts drawing upon vast and diverse sources of information. In today’s America, a president has to be almost willfully stupid to produce bad policy with all these resources at the ready.
With this in mind, the recent sequence of events in northern Syria involving the United States, Turkey and the Kurds is an implausible nightmare. The story begins in 2011, when an elected government in Baghdad insisted U.S. forces leave Iraq. The Obama administration acquiesced. However, it quickly became obvious that Iraq’s Shia-led government did not command the loyalty of Iraq’s large Sunni Arab minority. By 2014, a new organization, the Islamic State (ISIS), rapidly filled the vacuum, conquering territory and establishing a new “caliphate” in western Iraq and northeastern Syria. The leader of ISIS was an acolyte of Osama bin Laden. Like Bin Laden, he was determined to create a new Islamist empire across the Middle East — one that saw the infidel West as an enemy that must be destroyed. Years earlier, he had actually been held in a U.S. military detention facility. Upon his release, he turned to the U.S. soldier at the entrance and said, “See you in New York.” Very quickly, ISIS established itself as a terrorist organization of a particularly brutal kind — with truck bombs, beheadings and sexual slavery as its signature methods.
The Obama administration faced a dilemma. The White House correctly concluded that the United States had one overriding national interest in the Middle East — counterterrorism. We had already experienced the 9/11 attacks and now ISIS was on a similar course and spreading like wildfire. The administration did not want to reintroduce large numbers of U.S. troops back into the region. That left only one option: find a local ally in the area that a relatively small number of U.S. personnel could support and equip. There was only one plausible candidate for that role — the Kurds living in northern Syria, who viewed ISIS as a mortal threat. The Kurds are non-Arabs with a natural affinity for the United States. They are Muslims but not jihadists; they have created democratic political institutions in areas they control and they have embraced many modern Western values, including equal rights for women. Many of the unit commanders that partnered with U.S. forces were women.
The Pentagon sent Special Forces into the field to work with the Kurds. In addition, U.S. airpower and intelligence capabilities were brought to bear against ISIS. The Kurds proved capable and courageous fighters; U.S. commandos loved them. After months of heavy fighting and thousands of Kurdish casualties all the territory conquered by ISIS was recovered and tens of thousands of ISIS fighters and their families were captured.
However, there had always been one fly in the ointment. Turkey’s autocratic leader, R.T. Erdogan, viewed the Syrian Kurds as a “terrorist” threat due to their close ties to Kurds in Turkey who had long agitated for greater autonomy and minority rights. Turkey is a member of NATO and hosts important U.S. military assets. Erdogan demanded that the United States abandon the Kurds and allow Turkey to invade and occupy Kurdish lands in Syria.
The Obama administration resisted Erdogan’s pressure and stood by the Kurds. The current President has changed all that. Mr. Trump has repeatedly referred to himself as a “stable genius” who does not need advice or expertise from anybody. Besides, Erdogan is an autocrat and Trump likes autocrats. Consequently, when Trump spoke with Erdogan last Sunday by phone, he ignored his talking points and agreed totally with Erdogan’s demand that the U.S. military abandon the Kurds and leave northern Syria. Trump’s order to U.S. soldiers to withdraw was made without consultation with the Pentagon, not to mention intelligence agencies. When it was suggested to Trump that Turkey might use the opening he had provided to invade Syria and massacre the Kurds, Trump declared Turkey would not dare because with his “great and unmatched wisdom” he would destroy the Turkish economy. [If you or I encountered someone who repeatedly referred to their own “genius” and “unmatched wisdom” we would reasonably conclude we were dealing with a nutcase.] As with previous Trump threats to rain “fire and fury” on North Korea and to militarily “destroy” Iran, it was all bluff and bluster and the Turks knew it.
So what have been the consequences of Trump’s action?
- US forces have hastily withdrawn and the Kurds are being massacred and displaced.
- American commandos that were working with the Kurds are using words like “betrayal” and “shameful” and “embarrassed” — words that are almost never uttered by American soldiers.
- The prisons holding ISIS terrorists are now unguarded and ISIS has already begun a resurgence — with two recent truck bombings as a harbinger of the future.
- President Trump falsely asserted that the most high-value ISIS prisoners were in U.S. custody.
- Besides ISIS, the big winners are Syria’s Assad (an avowed enemy of the United States), Russia and Iran, which are also moving forces into the areas vacated by the United States.
There was a time when America’s word meant something in the world. However, with a deranged and ignorant U.S. President, that era is over.