President Donald Trump has a consistent record of contempt for human life. He has endorsed violence against journalists, executions for nonlethal offenses, the use of poison gas, and the deliberate targeting of family members of suspected terrorists. Now Trump is offering a new argument for atrocities: Death and suffering in war are good for peace.
On Oct. 6, after a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Trump announced that he was withdrawing American troops from Syria’s border with Turkey. This cleared the way for a Turkish invasion of land previously held by the Kurds—who, until Trump’s betrayal, were American allies in Syria. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the invasion has killed scores of civilians and hundreds of combatants. It has produced a wave of arson, looting, kidnapping, and roadside executions. It has driven 300,000 people from their homes.
Trump admits that he could have prevented this carnage. Instead, he’s welcoming it.
On Oct. 17, the United States announced an agreement to halt the invasion. The agreement essentially accepted Turkish control of the seized territory. But Trump said the deal—really, a surrender—couldn’t have been accomplished without the violence he had unleashed. “Without that gunfire going back and forth, without those rockets going in both directions, without other countries moving in and potentially moving in and creating virtually a world war—without all of that happening, you would’ve never been able to make this deal,” he declared.
Trump credited his fake breakthrough not just to the violence but to the bloodshed it inflicted. “If they didn’t go through two and a half days of hell, I don’t think they would’ve done it,” he said of the Kurds and Turks. On Wednesday, he boasted, “The pain and suffering of the three-day fight that occurred was directly responsible for our ability to make an agreement with Turkey and the Kurds that could never have been made without this short-term outburst.”
The president claimed that this pain was part of a brilliant strategy. “It was unconventional, what I did,” he told the audience at a political rally in Dallas on Oct. 17. He explained that in anticipation of the invasion, “I said, ‘They’re going to have to fight a little while.’ Sometimes you have to let ’em fight. … Like two kids in a lot, you got to let ’em fight, and then you pull ’em apart.” Four days later, in a Fox News interview with Sean Hannity, Trump used the same metaphor. Three times, he described this policy as “tough love.”
The Turks didn’t need much persuasion to accept a deal that gave them control of Kurdish land. But the Kurds needed persuasion to flee. That’s what Trump accomplished by getting out of Erdogan’s way. “The Kurds are tending to leave, and that’s good,” Trump said on Oct. 12. On Monday, he boasted that if the “shooting didn’t start … I don’t think the Kurds would have moved.” On Thursday, he tweeted that they should keep running: “Perhaps it is time for the Kurds to start heading to the Oil Region!”
Supporters of the Kurds point out that they fought bravely with us against ISIS, that they’ve helped us by guarding captured ISIS fighters, and that Trump is repaying their loyalty by inviting Turkey to kill them. But Trump says the Kurds deserve what they’re getting. Five times since the invasion began, he scoffed that they’re “no angels.” He accused them of releasing ISIS prisoners “just for effect,” to embarrass and scare the United States. The Turks had every right to invade Kurdish land along their border, said Trump: “They had to have it cleaned out.”
What about all the people driven from their homes? “It’s a lot of sand,” the president shrugged, referring to Syria and the countries fighting over it. “They’ve got a lot of sand over there. So there’s a lot of sand that they can play with.” The only thing Trump cares about is what’s under the ground: oil. On Monday, he recalled that in the Iraq war, “I always said, If you’re going in, keep the oil. Same thing here: Keep the oil. We want to keep the oil.” He proposed a “cash flow” deal between the Kurds and an American oil conglomerate of his choosing. “We’ll work something out with the Kurds so that they have some money,” he said. “Maybe we’ll get one of our big oil companies to go in and do it properly.” On Friday, he lied, “We just did a great thing in Syria. … We took over oil. A lot of great things are happening.”
While celebrating the Kurds’ pain and proposing to exploit them financially, Trump also suggested that European countries deserved whatever terrorism they might suffer at the hands of ISIS prisoners liberated by the invasion. He said he had given France, Germany, and other countries many chances to accept these prisoners. At the Values Voter Summit on Oct. 12, the president joked that he had threatened to sic ISIS terrorists on Europe. He said that he had told European leaders in phone calls, “You have to take them back, or I’m going to let them go right on your damn border.” The audience of professed moralists laughed. But Trump’s indifference was no joke. When reporters warned of terrorism by ISIS escapees, he said it wasn’t his problem. “They’re going to be escaping to Europe,” he replied. “That’s where they want to go.”
Trump isn’t the first president to withdraw troops in the face of a threat. He isn’t the first to rationalize civilian deaths, tolerate ethnic cleansing, or sit on his hands as one country pummeled another. But he’s the only president in modern history to say that the pain and suffering of war are good. He defends theft, murder, terror, and ethnic cleansing not just as tragic consequences but as instruments of foreign policy. The danger to America under Trump isn’t that the bad guys won’t fear us anymore. It’s that we’ll be the bad guys.