This time it is different.
The United States has a long history of debacles, mistakes, and catastrophes in the Middle East. But Donald Trump’s betrayal of the Kurds manages the near impossible. It incorporates all our past failures and then goes a step further by actually placing us on the side of our enemies while embracing their worst characteristics.
This time, we have joined the Axis of Evil.
Americans tend to be a bit smug and jingoistic about our overseas involvements. We typically describe them in heroic terms. We are defending ourselves, standing by our allies, promoting democracy, or preserving the international order. But of course, our motives have not always been so pure. We have traded lives for oil. We have stepped in to support allies who themselves were oppressors, autocrats, or corrupt—sometimes all three. Further, we have often made the situation in the region worse thanks to our manifold, diverse, and sometimes egregious errors.
Even casual observers can recite a litany of such calamities. We supported the corrupt shah in Iran until the result was Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamist revolution. That resulted in the Iran hostage crisis, to which our response was the failed rescue effort that ended bloodily at Desert One. A few years later came Iran-Contra. After that, an often overlooked low point came as the Reagan administration provided intelligence support that enabled Saddam Hussein to launch nerve and mustard gas attacks on Iran—and on an Iraqi Kurdish town called Halabja that had recently been captured by Iran. When reports of the atrocities involved came out, we chose not to sanction Saddam, whom we were supporting as a counter-balance to Iran.
That changed when Saddam invaded Kuwait and we quickly shifted from ignoring his crimes to making up ones that did not take place as our goal became vilifying rather than supporting him (much as we supported the mujahedeen in Afghanistan before they, and those from their ranks like Osama bin Laden, became our enemies).
Perhaps our greatest fiasco, indeed the greatest foreign policy error in modern U.S. history, was the invasion of Iraq—predicated on fabricated stories, ill-conceived and both a military and a humanitarian catastrophe that cost hundreds of thousands of lives and more than $2 trillion. Since then, we have seen errors of inaction, or been too little, too late as we were during the Obama years in Syria and Libya.
In the Trump era, we have seen, prior to this most recent horror show, blind support for an Israeli government that has brutally mistreated the Palestinian people along with the U.S.’s senseless unilateral withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement.
This litany of the shameful and inept includes bungled, costly military interventions, violation of sovereignty via drone attacks, and other examples of support for the very worst kind of people (yes, I mean you, Mohammed bin Salman, murderer of Jamal Khashoggi).
List the reasons for this steady diet of disasters and you find they reveal a wide range of foreign policy sins. Bad judgment by presidents and their advisers, missed calls by the intelligence community, bad military planning, mismanagement of the national security process, a lack of a strategic vision for the region, a failure to understand the region, greed, habit, inertia, the amorality of realpolitik, political pandering, and an over-abundance of caution each played a role in ensuring our track record would be as bad as it has been.
We are still in the early days of Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria. But we can already see that that invasion, given the green light by Trump in a conversation with Turkey’s President Erdogan and enabled by the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the region, is a new kind of low point—one that combines every single type of error noted above and some new ones.
Its toll, already ghastly, may never be as bad as the war in Iraq, the consequences of our inertia during the Syrian civil war or covert support for Saddam’s war crimes Or it may. Only time will tell whether the worst fears of genocide against the Kurds or the grim consequences of a revitalized ISIS will be realized.
But we can draw several clear conclusions that set it apart from all of our past Middle East fiascos. First, it doesn’t involve just some of the errors we’ve seen in the past. It involves all of them. For example, as noted before, in the past, some have been what might be called policy or process errors, mistakes resulting from the way the decisions were made or executed. Whether that meant bad judgment by officials, bad planning, bad or misread intelligence, or mismanagement of the national security apparatus, what we have here is worse.
There is no national security process in this administration. It has collapsed. Or rather it has been gutted and torn down by the president. During Iran-Contra the failures of the process were so great that the entire NSC was scrutinized by the Tower Commission and reconstituted. The current situation makes it seem as though the inner workings of the Reagan NSC ran like a Swiss watch.
Following a felony plea from Trump’s first national security adviser, the president’s discomfort with taking advice from his second, the marginalization and turfing out of his third, John Bolton, and the simultaneous evisceration of the normal schedule of NSC principals and deputies meetings, the council is a shadow of its former self, led by the least qualified and consequential national security adviser in history, Robert C. O’Brien.
Further, the president is at war with the intelligence community, has alienated his “generals,” all of whom have left him, and in Mike Pompeo has a secretary of state who himself has proven to be more of a sycophant and a political fixer than a diplomat, and has come to be widely distrusted within the department he is supposed to be running. The result is that the participants in the nearly nonexistent process are themselves marginalized or weakened.
That might matter if the president took anyone’s advice. But he does not. He has an allergy to advice that is almost as acute as his ignorance of history or geopolitics. Worse though, he doesn’t just have the bad judgment or the amorality that would allow presidents to be drawn close to bad guys like the Shah or Saddam in the past. Trump has a proven, active affinity for autocrats, despots, and kleptocrats that doesn’t just make bad judgments possible, it makes them almost inevitable. Further, that judgment is often colored by something that has impacted no other president in U.S. history, Trump’s own personal financial interests, which have drawn him closer to a variety of bad actors including, in this instance, both Turkey’s Erdogan and Russia’s Putin.
This is where Trump’s decision regarding Syria takes an especially ugly turn. While we have made mistakes in the past, there was always a prevailing national interest that could at least arguably be used to justify our decisions. Often we could also align it with an ideal like supporting democracy or defending an ally or fighting terrorism or defeating aggression or combatting the influence of geopolitical rivals like Russia. But look at this case: We are supporting an enemy of democracy, Erdogan, to help him defeat a heroic ally of ours, the Kurds, which will help reinvigorate our No. 1 terrorist foe, ISIS, reward bad actors like Iran and the Assad regime, and help Russia gain influence as we lose it.
In short, Trump has for the first time in our history, actually aligned the U.S. with our enemies and against everything we should be standing for and that is in our interest. Turkey, though ostensibly a NATO ally, has not acted like one for years. (It is time that they were removed from NATO and the nuclear weapons we store there were removed from that country.) Erdogan’s goal is clear—destroy the Kurds, who played a central and valiant role helping the U.S. role back the ISIS influence.
Assad is a despot with the blood of hundreds of thousands on his hands. Iran is even cited by Trump as an enemy. And Russia is one of our top geopolitical rivals. Yet, they are the team we have joined. They are the ones supported by our troop pullback and Trump’s arguments that we should stand back and let the Turks drive ever deeper into Syria.
Whether Trump has been influenced by his family’s more than two dozen interests in Turkey is unclear, though we can’t help but notice that he is moving troops out of Turkey’s way and decrying endless wars even as he deploys 1,800 more troops to Saudi Arabia, another country in which his family has economic interests.
Certainly, neither of these decisions make sense from a national security perspective which Trump might know if he had listened to advisers. It is also worth noting that our other allies in the region, from Israel to those elsewhere in the Gulf, have chosen to be inert in the face of Erdogan’s aggression, despite the benefits that will accrue to ISIS and Iran. This is no doubt in part to stay in Trump’s good graces, maintaining a closeness to him they later may well regret. (Note: My company provides some advisory services to the UAE. These are in the form of offering my views on issues pertaining to the region. As you can see from my comments here, that includes frequently offering views that may not align with theirs. But I mention it in the interest of full disclosure.)
What all this means is that we are going from bad to worse in the Middle East thanks to a president who is compromised by his personal interests, limited and made gullible by his ignorance, constrained by his resistance to professional advice and twisted due to his attraction to the worse of the world’s leaders. Further, few in his own party will challenge his decision no matter how reprehensible it is. Those that do have embraced the idea of advancing a series of sanctions on Turkey that are not only too little, too late, but are unlikely to be implemented in a meaningful way.
The sanctions also let the president pretend he is “protecting” the Kurds when in actuality the opposite is true. The consequence will be the deaths of hundreds or thousands or more, the resurgence of our worst enemies in the region and the loss not only of a vital ally but of any faith on the part of other allies that we stand for what we once stood for or can be depended upon in the future.
This is at once not just a four-fold regional policy failure for the U.S.—betraying the Kurds, throwing ISIS a lifeline, strengthening Russia and Iran and validating the authoritarian regime of Erdogan—it is also something much worse. It represents a new kind of collapse of moral leadership from a U.S. that has done grave damage before. It represents a new kind of breakdown of our system for harnessing the best minds and resources of the U.S. when making national security decisions. And it represents a low point in presidential leadership from a president who at this point can only be counted on to act in the interest of himself, his family or his apparent sponsors in the Kremlin.