President Donald Trump didn’t make a “mistake” in pulling troops out of northeastern Syria last week, as many have charged. It’s what he has long wanted to do. The mistake was not understanding—and, more to the point, not caring about—the consequences.
Trump’s fateful phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Oct. 6, giving him the green light to cross the Syrian border and crush the Kurds without U.S. resistance, did more than any single act has ever done to demolish the post-WWII global order and isolate America from the rest of the world. This, again, has been Trump’s goal since he entered the White House.
Until recently, one or more of his advisers—Jim Mattis, H.R.
McMaster, John Bolton, or Gen. Joseph Dunford—obstructed or dissuaded him from withdrawing. Now all of those advisers are gone, and their replacements lack either the clout or the gumption to push back.
Trump may believe that he’s doing the right thing, that abandoning the rest of the world’s problems will “make America great again.” He doesn’t realize that America’s might and wealth depend, in large measure, on the cooperation it receives from others—either offered or coerced—in pursuing its interests around the world.
He is also blind to the fact—or loath to admit—that he, in fact, is not getting out of the world. On Friday, days after abandoning the Kurdish allies to the Turks (and consequently, all of Syria to President Bashar al-Assad and the Russians), Trump announced that he was sending 1,800 troops to Saudi Arabia. But to Trump’s mind, there was a big difference in this deployment. “Saudi Arabia, at my request, has agreed to pay us for everything we are doing to help them,” he told reporters. “That’s a first. … We appreciate that.”
It was as if sending American troops abroad doesn’t count as a commitment if taxpayers don’t have to pay for it. It was as if Trump was telling the world that the U.S. military is now a mercenary force. It was a message to any country currently hosting American troops at least in part at our largesse—because, say, previous presidents have considered it in U.S.
interests to keep troops there—that they should start rethinking their options for how to stay secure.
Trump has made a practice of abrogating treaties, filching on commitments, and alienating allies, but, more than any single act, the betrayal of the Kurds should tell everyone that—as long as Trump is president and, who knows, perhaps beyond—there is no reason to trust the United States on anything.
Western powers, including the United States, have abandoned the Kurds several times over the decades, but Trump’s act was astonishing even by that dismal standard. For the past five years, the main U.S. mission in Syria has been to destroy the ISIS caliphate. The Kurds provided the most potent fighters in that battle and lost 11,000 people; the United States lost a mere eight. And then, with that mission (sort of) completed, Trump allowed the Turks to mow down the Syrian Democratic Forces, the Kurdish-led militia that did the bulk of the fighting and dying.
It’s worth emphasizing, over and over, that the Turkish invasion wasn’t an unforeseen side effect of Trump’s withdrawal; it was an explicit part of the decision. The official statement that the White House released on Oct. 6 made this clear:
Turkey will soon be moving forward with its long-planned operation into Northern Syria. The United States Armed Forces will not support or be involved in the operation, and United States forces, having defeated the ISIS territorial “Caliphate,” will no longer be in the immediate area.
By even the most purely self-interested criteria, this was a senseless move. SDF fighters had been guarding four detention centers holding more than 10,000 ISIS jihadis or sympathizers. They can’t keep guarding the centers while defending themselves from Turks—and, in fact, more than 500 of the prisoners have escaped amid the turmoil.
Trump was aware of this too. Asked by a reporter where the terrorists will go, he replied, with an eerie casualness: “Well, they’re going to be escaping to Europe. That’s where they want to go,. They want to go back to their homes.”
So much for the trans-Atlantic alliance. It was nice while it lasted.
Now, surprised that even the most loyal Republicans are lambasting him for the withdrawal, Trump is saying that he never intended for Turkey to send in troops and that he is working valiantly with Sen. Lindsey Graham—his most heartbroken sycophant—to impose sanctions on Erdogan’s government.
The sanctions will have little if any effect, and certainly not a quick-enough effect to matter—except to show even authoritarian leaders who make detestable deals with Trump that they can’t trust him to keep his word with them either.
Meanwhile, the big winner of this transaction, besides Erdogan, is Russian President Vladimir Putin. As recently as last year, Russia seemed not triumphant but trapped inside Syria. Its troops were coming under fire from militias, its planes were getting shot down, and its one armed confrontation with U.S. forces proved disastrous; Iran seemed to be emerging as Assad’s main ally. But now Russia is the major outside power, not just in Syria but increasingly in the region. When the Kurds came under fire from Turkey and realized the United States would not respond, they did the only thing they could do to avoid annihilation—turn to the Russians, who engineered a deal that let Assad’s army take control of northern Syria for the first time in years, while (at least for now) providing a protection zone for the remaining Kurds.
As a nifty follow-up, on Monday, Putin arrived in Saudi Arabia for his first visit in more than a decade—his itinerary also includes a stop in the UAE—to discuss investment opportunities and the role Moscow might play in mediating tensions between the Sunni Arab countries and Iran.
In one sense (and Trump is probably thinking along these lines), this might be for the best: The Middle East is a mess; if Putin and Assad can solve it, fine—and if they can’t, that’s fine too, as long as we’re out of there.
But in another sense, this sort of thinking is delusional. First, we’re not getting out of it. Second, the rest of the world is watching. Especially with all the other troubled aspects of its relationship with Trump just now, Ukraine must be rethinking the wisdom of relying on the United States for assistance. The eastern nations of NATO, especially the Baltics, would have good reason to look elsewhere for security guarantees. Already, traditional U.S. allies in Europe and Asia are exploring agreements, on security and trade, outside of Washington’s orbit.
One big question emerges from this vacuum: What is U.S. foreign policy, and what are American interests—not as some idealized or historical concept but as they actually exist right now? I don’t know. Nobody knows. Certainly our allies and adversaries don’t know. “Strategic ambiguity” is one thing; what we’re now seeing is a deep black hole.
To the extent Trump has foreign policies, they seem to be driven by one of three desires: to enrich his family’s financial holdings, to appease authoritarians who push his buttons by praising his wisdom, and to demolish the diplomatic triumphs of his predecessors, especially Barack Obama’s. Everything else—strengthening alliances, preserving democracy or human rights, even the realpolitik gamesmanship of international politics—is secondary, if not irrelevant.
A question that allies might be asking themselves right now: Has Trump accomplished anything in the realm of foreign policy that has objectively served the security interests of the United States? It’s a stumper, and that’s disturbing.