Donald Trump’s October decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria took his own advisors by surprise, not to mention the Kurdish military units that were U.S. partners in the war on ISIS during the past five years. Perhaps the only unsurprised party was Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who moved quickly to eliminate the Kurdish forces across his southern border. Within days Turkish bombardment began and thousands of Kurds were fleeing south.
Trump’s policy reversal was rightly condemned as a betrayal of the Kurds, but the episode is merely one piece of a larger shift that is moving like a wrecking ball through U.S. policy circles. The trend predates Trump, but his style is accelerating the dismantling of the only platforms we have for confronting the challenges the planet faces. The reversal in Syria is a good place to start in examining the Trump effect on U.S. foreign policy and on the planet.
Comrades in Arms?
The U.S. alliance with Kurdish forces began in 2014, when the Kurdish stand at Kobani delivered the first victory against ISIS expansion into Syria. The U.S. assisted with airstrikes, but it was the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) that bore the brunt of the battle. During the next months and years the U.S. increased its support to providing arms and training to the Kurdish units, all the while conscious that arming them made them more vulnerable to retaliation from ISIS and Syrian President Bashar al Assad, but especially from Turkey, which has waged a decades-long campaign to “Turkify” its own Kurdish minority. Erdoğan made it no secret that he considered the YPG’s positions unacceptable, but the presence of U.S. trainers prevented him from acting.
After 11,000 Kurdish combat deaths, victory was declared over ISIS’s land empire, and the U.S. rewarded the Kurds by making way for the Turkish invasion. The U.S. policy reversal has been catastrophic for the Kurds, who face virtual ethnic cleansing inside of Turkey’s new twenty-mile-deep “security zone” on the Syrian side; and also for the continuing campaign against ISIS, that is still heavily dependent on Kurdish prison security and intelligence. In the U.S., critics from both parties condemned the move as strategically shortsighted and shameful.
Not a Policy Shift but a Grand Strategic Trend
The hasty discarding of Kurdish allies isn’t so much a policy surprise as a predictable policy outcome of developments which began long before Trump took office.
First, America’s infatuation with the Kurds allowed us to overlook the U.S. failings that led us to need them. ISIS is, after all, a creation born of the devastating U.S. actions of the past decades. ISIS didn’t have to invent a specter of unrestrained U.S. military expansion to motivate recruits: the wreckage of Iraq was the perfect recruitment tool.
Dwelling on the flattering interpretation of the alliance between U.S. know-how and the plucky Kurds distracted Americans from thinking about the domestic or international legality of their role in Syria. Uninvited and undeclared U.S. military actions in the region are still justified with reference to the authorization granted by Congress in the wake of September 11—nearly two decades ago. A debate over the mission might also have exposed the uncomfortable resemblance between the role of the Kurds and the growing use of military contractors—a staple of the new wars. The Kurds were trusted allies only until the job was done, and then essentially cashiered. But there was no public debate over the U.S. military expansion in northern Syria at all.
Even the way the Kurdish allies were packaged and sold to the American public revealed the vulnerabilities that would make them easily disposable. News coverage of the Kurds emphasized the grassroots democracy, environmentalism and gender-equity initiatives of the Kurdish-controlled zones in ways that practically labeled the Kurds as “acceptable non-Arabs.” This isn’t to say that the Kurds were not heroic, or concerned with addressing the rights of women and building better communities, but that the implicit racism contained in singling out the Kurds as unusual in these qualities went unexamined.
“There’s a Lot of Sand They Can Play With…”
From being romanticized as the heroic anti-Arab, the Kurds were rapidly tossed back into the box of vilified Mid-East stereotypes, when Trump dismissed the significance of Turkish military strikes on the Kurds by likening it to children jostling in a sandbox over endless, nonsensical conflicts. But the Turkish-Kurdish conflict isn’t about inexplicable ethnic or sectarian antipathy, but about who will control the state and benefit from access to its resources. By ignoring the historical and contemporary context of conflicts, Trump contributes to the dismissive vision of a world without reason—and thereby undeserving of humane treatment. He also ignores the role the U.S. had in making the YPG into a target that Turkey felt needed to be eliminated. Sadly, Trump’s redefinition of the situation is an easy sell to an American audience with stereotypes of an irrational, violent world beyond the U.S. borders.
“Securing the oil,” another Trump refrain of recent weeks, is similarly revealing. The oil argument is really more about signaling Trump’s refusal to apologize for an “America First,” strategy no matter the consequences to the environment or international norms. It’s part of his popular stance that eschews any nonsense related to climate change, and, indeed, Trump has done all he can to abandon environmental protocols at home and abroad. Leaving agreements, in fact, is one of the only consistent things Trump does. Since taking office he has left the Paris Climate Agreement, the Trans Pacific partnership, U.N. Human Rights Council, and, perhaps his most popular move in America, the Iran nuclear deal. Trump hasn’t yet abandoned NATO, but his October 6 statement took that alliance by surprise as well, and clearly signaled how low on his list of priorities it was.
The Kurdish tragedy also reflects the decline of refugee norms. The Turkish invasion not only produced a new wave of refugees, but partly followed from a global failure to deal with the refugee crisis. The EU abstained from condemning Turkey because it feared Erdoğan’s threats to expel millions of Syrian refugees into Europe. That issue predates the Trump years, but Trump’s dehumanizing rhetoric that strips refugees and migrants of dignity contributes to a world where refugees can be used as pawns in global negotiations.
War and the Real Deep State
Trump’s style of undermining other voices is also hollowing out foreign policy institutions at home. It wasn’t just Defense that was taken by surprise on October 6, but Congressional leaders, the State Department, the intelligence agencies and apparently even his own national security staff. Since taking office, Trump has engaged in a chaotic process of leaving key posts unfilled, cycling through advisors, ignoring institutional channels, and surprising all with his erratic and impulsive decisions—justified as his resistance to a menacing “deep state.” In reality, he is moving power from accountable institutions to a shadowy army of military contractors and their bellicose lobbyists.
The U.S.’s pattern of flouting global norms has moved from hidden, pre-Trump, to unapologetic. Preemptive invasion, the brazen use of foreign proxies and contract forces, renditions, and drone strikes in regions loosely designated as hostile, and thereby removed from expectations of civility and legality, are the new norm. This, finally, is the “Grand Strategy” Trump watchers have been waiting for. It relegates the “shithole” countries (Trump’s phrase) to the status of shooting galleries for the U.S. It abandons all policy tools and institutions but those of military response, and sees the U.S. as a victim justified in lashing out at the pathetic restraints of international order. It posits a world of arbitrary and chaotic violence, but refuses to recognize its role in creating that anarchy. Trump didn’t create this world view, but he has become its leading advocate.
The U.S. has never been an innocent on the global stage, but there has at least been some recognition that a more secure world will require cooperation on issues like arms, trade, the environment and human rights. Trump’s legacy will not only be in the promises broken to the Kurds and others, but in contributing to a broader belief in the US that the country is a victim in a world of arbitrary and senseless violence, in which no rules or norms need apply. This policy, not the world beyond U.S. borders, is the homeland of the irrational.