The strategic incoherence of Trump's Syria critics
It's always foolish to put your faith in Donald Trump. He's incapable of thinking strategically about anything besides advancing his own material interests.
So it makes perfect sense to presume that Trump's apparent decision to permit Turkey to conduct military operations against (until now) American-backed Kurdish forces near the Turkish border in Syria has nothing to do with geopolitical strategy or any process of foreign policymaking beyond his personal and business relationship with Turkey's quasi-authoritarian president Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
But that doesn't mean that the bipartisan freak-out against Trump's policy shift is founded in a coherent strategic vision. It isn't. Instead it grows out of a combination of inertia, hubris, pusillanimity, and moralism — all of them traits that have been on the ascent since the end of the Cold War, and especially since the September 11 attacks.
The one positive thing to come out of Trump's flailing foreign policy is that it has exposed the incapacity of the country's leading thinkers in international affairs to offer a compelling reason to resist the president's mischief-making and revert to the status quo. That doesn't give us much to work with now. But it just might set America up for an eventual reckoning with our foolishness and mistakes over the past few decades.
The most common response to Trump's announced change of course in Syria has been a cry of lament for the fate of Kurds, who may well find themselves the target of Turkish attacks. How can we abandon allies who fought by our side against the Islamic State and allow them to be crushed by a dictator like Erdogan?
There's just one problem — or rather, several. For one thing, the Kurds aren't our allies. Allies are defined by mutuality: We promise to defend a given state if attacked, that state promises to defend us if we are attacked. The Kurds, a stateless ethnic group found in Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran, has zero capacity to come to America's defense. They are American clients: We have provided them with aid and protection in return for help in fighting ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Precisely how long should the United States be obligated to provide that protection in a dangerous part of the world 6,000 miles from our borders? None of Trump's critics in and out of Congress will tell us. Instead, they'd rather posture earnestly and avoid having to answer.
If the U.S. has an ally in the region, it is … Turkey, a member of NATO, an explicit defense alliance. Do those denouncing Erdogan favor ejecting Turkey from NATO, thereby revoking the country's status as an American ally? Maybe that makes sense. But deciding whether it does would require engaging in clear-sighted strategic thinking about NATO, its purpose, and American interests in the Middle East, which is something no one wants to do. They'd rather keep Turkey in NATO — because no one ever leaves NATO, and because keeping Turkey in the organization helps to antagonize Vladimir Putin — and then bash the government in Ankara when it's convenient to do so.
When critics of Trump's policy shift want to sound harder-nosed, they move beyond Turkey and the Kurds and talk instead about how irresponsible it would be to give up the fight against ISIS: If we don't stay in Syria, terrorists will grow powerful again, threatening the U.S. homeland like they did on 9/11!
The first thing to be asked in response to those making such claims is whether they think it's possible for the U.S. to win any war anywhere in the world. Because if the battle against ISIS, which began in earnest five years ago, is measured against the goals enunciated at the start — the elimination of ISIS's territorial caliphate — it has been a smashing success. We won. The caliphate is gone. Yet now the goalposts have been shifted. Now "victory" has been redefined to mean … I'm not really sure. Sometimes it sounds like the goal is to make sure ISIS or a successor Islamist organization doesn't arise. At other times it appears to mean something even more amorphous, like the complete elimination of any person who might aspire to revive the caliphate at some time in the future.
But is that a sensible foreign policy goal? Keeping an American military footprint in the desert of Syria and Iraq in order to exert control over what happens there for fear that it may possibly cause eventual harm to the United States, a continent and an ocean away? Even assuming this makes sense, for how long should it continue? Five more years? Ten? Twenty? More? And what metrics should we use to evaluate whether it's really benefiting the country, or is working, or has worked?
No one wants to say because no one has an answer that makes sense. It's enough, they think, to speak gravely and vaguely about dire threats and keep us doing the same thing — always expanding American commitments abroad, never pulling them back, and never even prioritizing among them. Anywhere.
The U.S. is committed, all at once, to defending Europe, including serving as a check on Russia's ambitions in Eastern Europe, and to defending Israel. It also wants to micromanage regional rivalries across the Middle East in perpetuity. And keep a lid on terrorist activity across North Africa. And win an 18-year-old game of Whack-a-Mole against the Taliban in Afghanistan. And contain North Korea. And stand toe to toe with a rising China. And determine the outcome of a political transition in Venezuela.
That's a lot for any country to handle intelligently or wisely — because having such control-freak ambitions in the world isn't intelligent or wise in the first place. That doesn't mean that Donald Trump's acting out in defiance of Washington's foreign policy consensus makes sense. But it does mean that those who oppose the president need to do more than run screaming back into the arms of that consensus without reflection on its many unacknowledged problems and confusions.
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