The abandonment of Kurdish forces in northern Syria has reinforced already existing doubts in the region and around the world that the United States remains a reliable ally. Those doubts are well-founded, because the isolationism underlying the move is widely shared by the American public.
NEW YORK – There are several reasons why US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw American forces from northern Syria, and leave the region’s Kurds vulnerable to neighboring Turkey’s military incursion, was a terrible one. The Kurdish forces in control of the region had been the principal US partner in the struggle against the Islamic State (ISIS). Trump’s abandonment of them reinforced already existing doubts in the region and around the world that the United States remains a reliable ally.
The decision also created conditions enabling hundreds, and potentially thousands, of ISIS terrorists in Kurdish-run prisons to go free – and presumably resume terrorist activities as soon as they are given the opportunity. It is more a question of when, not if, US forces will need to return to Syria to contend with a reconstituted ISIS (most likely without a local partner to bear the brunt of the fighting). In the meantime, the Kurds have turned to the Syrian government for protection against Turkish forces, a move that has allowed President Bashar al-Assad’s brutal regime (backed by Russia and Iran) to reassert its control over much of the country. For its part, the US has lost most of what leverage it had to influence a political outcome in Syria.
Trump’s flawed decision seems to stem from his desire to make good on the promise he made during the 2016 election campaign to withdraw the US military from Syria and the Middle East more broadly. But this raises a larger question: given the negative impact of the move, why would he believe that it would prove to be popular at home?
One explanation is that Trump is confusing “endless wars” with an open-ended military presence. This confusion is costly. What the US was doing in northern Syria was smart and efficient. Kurdish forces assumed the bulk of the combat role against ISIS; the US contribution was modest and largely confined to advising and providing intelligence support. Moreover, the US presence restrained the actions of the Turks, Syrians, Russians, and Iranians. With the withdrawal of US troops, that restraint disappeared overnight.
More fundamentally, Trump’s decision taps into an old American tradition of isolationism, which has a lineage traceable to America’s Founding Fathers. It was in remission during the Cold War, but it has recently reemerged, fueled by the “intervention fatigue” triggered by the long and expensive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It gains additional traction from the widespread view in the country that many domestic needs – from infrastructure to health care and education – are going unmet. A lack of emphasis on foreign policy and the world in US schools and media is also contributing to this inward turn.
Trump’s “America First” slogan is premised on the idea that the costs of US world leadership far outweigh any benefits. The resources spent on activism abroad, according to this view, would be better spent at home.
However appealing such arguments may sound, the notion that the US can safely turn its back on the world and still thrive even as global order declines is seriously misguided. Trump has repeatedly claimed that Syria is not critical to America’s security, noting that it is thousands of miles away. But Americans learned the hard way on September 11, 2001, that distance is no guarantee of safety. Similarly, infectious disease, the effects of climate change, and efforts to subvert elections do not stop at national borders.
The costs of America’s global role are considerable by any measure. The defense budget alone now totals $700 billion annually, and intelligence, foreign aid, diplomacy, and maintaining a nuclear arsenal bring overall national security spending to over $800 billion. But as a percentage of GDP, this is well below the Cold War average. And history shows that the US economy nonetheless flourished even with this high level of spending.
To be sure, the US has many domestic shortcomings, from public education to health care, but for the most part these problems are not the result of a lack of spending. The country spends over twice the OECD average on health care, but Americans do not lead longer or healthier lives. Similarly, high spending on education does not yield better results than in countries that spend less. How money is spent is always more important than how much is spent.
But such facts are nearly irrelevant when it comes to the political debate. Many of the candidates seeking the Democratic nomination to challenge Trump for the presidency in 2020 share at least some of his isolationist views, and opinion polls reveal that many Americans do, too. Trump is as much a reflection of America’s mood as its driver, and a certain degree of Trumpism – a desire to pull back from global commitments in general and military ones in particular – is likely to outlast the man.
At some point, things will change. History suggests that periods of retrenchment often end owing to some great geopolitical shock, followed by periods of exertion. The problem is that such shocks tend to be costly in terms of human lives and resources. But for now and the foreseeable future, the US is unlikely to conduct a foreign policy commensurate with its interests and strength.
As usual, the president makes his predecessors look better.
Suppose you’re the type of smart conservative reluctantly inclined to give Donald Trump a pass for his boorish behavior and ideological heresies because you like the way the economy is going and appreciate the tough tone of his foreign policy, especially when it comes to Islamic fundamentalism.
These last few weeks haven’t exactly validated your faith in the man, have they?
.. The president has abruptly undermined Israel’s security following a phone call with an Islamist strongman in Turkey. So much for the idea, common on the right, that this is the most pro-Israel administration ever.
.. Contrary to the invidious myth that neoconservatives always put Israel first, the reasons for staying in Syria have everything to do with core U.S. interests. Among them: Keeping ISIS beaten, keeping faith with the Kurds, maintaining leverage in Syria and preventing Russia and Iran from consolidating their grip on the Levant.
.. Powers that maintain a reputation as reliable allies and formidable foes tend to enhance their power. Powers that behave as Trump’s America has squander it.
.. But leave that aside and consider the Trump presidency from a purely Israeli standpoint. Are Israelis better off now that the U.S. Embassy is in Jerusalem? Not materially. The move was mostly a matter of symbolism, albeit of an overdue and useful sort. Are Israelis safer from Iran now that the U.S. is no longer in the Iran deal and sanctions are back in force? Only marginally. Sanctions are a tool of strategy, not a strategy unto themselves.
.. What Israel most needs from the U.S. today is what it needed at its birth in 1948: an America committed to defending the liberal-international order against totalitarian enemies, as opposed to one that conducts a purely transactional foreign policy based on the needs of the moment or the whims of a president.
.. From that, everything follows. It means that the U.S. should not
- sell out small nations — whether it was Israel in 1973 or Kuwait in 1990 — for the sake of currying favor with larger ones. It means we should
- resist interloping foreign aggressors, whether it was the
- Soviets in Egypt in the 1960s, or the
- Russians and Iranians in Syria in this decade. It means we should
- oppose militant religious fundamentalism, whether it is
- Wahhabis in Riyadh or Khomeinists in Tehran or Muslim Brothers in Cairo and Ankara. It means we should
- human rights,
- civil liberties, and
- democratic institutions, in that order.
Trump has stood all of this on its head.
He shows no interest in pushing Russia out of Syria. He has neither articulated nor pursued any coherent strategy for pushing Iran out of Syria. He has all but invited Turkey to interfere in Syria. He has done nothing to prevent Iran from continuing to arm Hezbollah. He shows no regard for the Kurds. His fatuous response to Saudi Arabia’s murder of Jamal Khashoggi is that we’re getting a lot of money from the Saudis.
He speaks with no authority on subjects like press freedom or religious liberty because he assails both at home. His still-secret peace plan for Israel and the Palestinians will have the rare effect of uniting Israelis and Palestinians in their rejection of it
.. If you think the gravest immediate threat to Israel is jihadist Hezbollah backed by fundamentalist Iran backed by cynical Russia, the answer is no.
.. If you think the gravest middle-term threat is the continued Islamization of Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdogan — gradually transforming the country into a technologically competent Sunni version of Iran — the answer is no.
.. If you think that another grave threat to Israel is the inability to preserve at least a vision of a future Palestinian state — one that pursues good governance and peace with its neighbors while rejecting kleptocracy and terrorism — the answer is no.
And if you think that the ultimate long-term threat to Israel is the resurgence of isolationism in the U.S. and a return to the geopolitics of every nation for itself, the answer is more emphatically no.
Republican leaders need to mount an intervention.
Up to now I have not favored removing President Trump from office. I felt strongly that it would be best for the country that he leave the way he came in, through the ballot box. But last week was a watershed moment for me, and I think for many Americans, including some Republicans.
It was the moment when you had to ask whether we really can survive two more years of Trump as president, whether this man and his demented behavior — which will get only worse as the Mueller investigation concludes — are going to destabilize our country, our markets, our key institutions and, by extension, the world. And therefore his removal from office now has to be on the table.
I believe that the only responsible choice for the Republican Party today is an intervention with the president that makes clear that if there is not a radical change in how he conducts himself — and I think that is unlikely — the party’s leadership will have no choice but to press for his resignation or join calls for his impeachment.
It has to start with Republicans, given both the numbers needed in the Senate and political reality. Removing this president has to be an act of national unity as much as possible — otherwise it will tear the country apart even more. I know that such an action is very difficult for today’s G.O.P., but the time is long past for it to rise to confront this crisis of American leadership.
Trump’s behavior has become so erratic, his lying so persistent, his willingness to fulfill the basic functions of the presidency — like
- reading briefing books,
- consulting government experts before making major changes and
- appointing a competent staff — so absent,
his readiness to accommodate Russia and spurn allies so disturbing and his obsession with himself and his ego over all other considerations so consistent, two more years of him in office could pose a real threat to our nation. Vice President Mike Pence could not possibly be worse.
The damage an out-of-control Trump can do goes well beyond our borders. America is the keystone of global stability. Our world is the way it is today — a place that, despite all its problems, still enjoys more peace and prosperity than at any time in history — because America is the way it is (or at least was). And that is a nation that at its best has always stood up for the universal values of freedom and human rights, has always paid extra to stabilize the global system from which we were the biggest beneficiary and has always nurtured and protected alliances with like-minded nations.
Donald Trump has proved time and again that he knows nothing of the history or importance of this America. That was made starkly clear in Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis’s resignation letter.
Trump is in the grip of a mad notion that the entire web of global institutions and alliances built after World War II — which, with all their imperfections, have provided the connective tissues that have created this unprecedented era of peace and prosperity — threatens American sovereignty and prosperity and that we are better off without them.
So Trump gloats at the troubles facing the European Union, urges Britain to exit and leaks that he’d consider quitting NATO. These are institutions that all need to be improved, but not scrapped. If America becomes a predator on all the treaties, multilateral institutions and alliances holding the world together; if America goes from being the world’s anchor of stability to an engine of instability; if America goes from a democracy built on the twin pillars of truth and trust to a country where it is acceptable for the president to attack truth and trust on a daily basis, watch out: Your kids won’t just grow up in a different America. They will grow up in a different world.
The last time America disengaged from the world remotely in this manner was in the 1930s, and you remember what followed: World War II.
You have no idea how quickly institutions like NATO and the E.U. and the World Trade Organization and just basic global norms — like thou shalt not kill and dismember a journalist in your own consulate — can unravel when America goes AWOL or haywire under a shameless isolated president.
But this is not just about the world, it’s about the minimum decorum and stability we expect from our president. If the C.E.O. of any public company in America behaved like Trump has over the past two years —
- constantly lying,
- tossing out aides like they were Kleenex,
- tweeting endlessly like a teenager,
- ignoring the advice of experts —
he or she would have been fired by the board of directors long ago. Should we expect less for our president?
That’s what the financial markets are now asking. For the first two years of the Trump presidency the markets treated his dishonesty and craziness as background noise to all the soaring corporate profits and stocks. But that is no longer the case. Trump has markets worried.
.. The instability Trump is generating — including his attacks on the chairman of the Federal Reserve — is causing investors to wonder where the economic and geopolitical management will come from as the economy slows down.
- What if we’re plunged into an economic crisis and we have a president whose first instinct is always to blame others and
- who’s already purged from his side the most sober adults willing to tell him that his vaunted “gut instincts” have no grounding in economics or in law or in common sense. Mattis was the last one.
We are now left with the B team — all the people who were ready to take the jobs that Trump’s first team either resigned from — because they could not countenance his lying, chaos and ignorance — or were fired from for the same reasons.
I seriously doubt that any of these B-players would have been hired by any other administration. Not only do they not inspire confidence in a crisis, but they are all walking around knowing that Trump would stab every one of them in the back with his Twitter knife, at any moment, if it served him. This makes them even less effective.
Indeed, Trump’s biggest disruption has been to undermine the norms and values we associate with a U.S. president and U.S. leadership. And now that Trump has freed himself of all restraints from within his White House staff, his cabinet and his party — so that “Trump can be Trump,” we are told — he is freer than ever to remake America in his image.
And what is that image? According to The Washington Post’s latest tally, Trump has made 7,546 false or misleading claims, an average of five a day, through Dec. 20, the 700th day of his term in office. And all that was supposedly before “we let Trump be Trump.”
If America starts to behave as a selfish, shameless, lying grifter like Trump, you simply cannot imagine how unstable — how disruptive —world markets and geopolitics may become.
We cannot afford to find out.
because we are so powerfully rooted to the notion of individuality, in some ways race affronts that. But the real affront is the whole notion of individuality. Individuality, as we think of it, is actually extremely problematic.
MS. TIPPETT: Well, see — yeah, and you make this really fascinating point that — you say that there are two parents to the way we are now; the way we grapple with race, among other things. And one is slavery. Get that. And the other is the Enlightenment and that, in fact, it’s from the Enlightenment that we inherited this idea that the conscious mind could know everything; that we could be reasonable.
MR. POWELL: That’s the American exceptionalism. So the United States became extremely, extremely attached to the notion of individuality and independence. Now think about the groups who were not independent. They were the Africans. They were the Indians. They were women. They were anyone who was not a white male. So the notion, the Enlightenment project, which had this hubris that we could control everything, including the world, when we can’t even really control ourselves.
MS. TIPPETT: And yet, this condition of each of us in isolation, which you associate with whiteness, which is this culture of domination, is not sustainable, and it’s not desirable.
.. MS. TIPPETT: And we’re running into the limits of our ability to convince ourselves that it is desirable.
MR. POWELL: No, there are so many expressions that help us see it. And sometimes people talk about “We need to do things to connect.” And on one hand, that’s right, but on the other hand, it understates what it is. We are connected. What we need to do is become aware of it, to live it, to express it.
So think about segregation. Segregation is a formal way of saying, “How do I deny my connection with you?” in the physical space. Think about the notion of whiteness. So whiteness in the United States, as it came, as it took form, believed that one drop of “black blood” — whatever that is — would destroy “whiteness.” Turns out, whatever that means, most white Americans actually do have black blood. The reason that most African Americans look like me or like Gary is because white blood and black blood’s been mixing up for a long time. And so I think that as we deny the other, we deny ourselves, because there is no other. We are connected.
.. that that movement was as much for the sake of his soul as it was for the sake of people of color.
And it’s worth saying that. To me, that’s one way of talking about your point that we have to talk about whiteness.
.. I was teaching a class at the University of Minnesota, and I was talking about the taking of Native American land. And most of my students were white students, and one student objected; it’s like, “This is a such-and-such class. Why are we studying the history of Native Americans?” And I said, “We’re not. We’re studying the history of America. So, when we talk about the appropriation of Native American land, or when we talk about slavery, we’re not talking about the history of black people, we’re talking about the history of this country.”
.. I don’t care if you came here last week or ten days ago, you can’t understand this country without understanding the institution of slavery. It was pivotal.
.. MR. POWELL: The human condition is one about belonging. We simply cannot thrive unless we are in relationship. I just gave a lecture on health, and if you’re isolated, the negative health condition is worse than smoking, obesity, high blood pressure — just being isolated.
.. How do we make it infectious; how do we — people are longing for this. People are looking for community. Right now, though, we don’t have confidence in love. You mentioned love earlier. We have much more confidence in anger and hate. We believe anger is powerful. We believe hate is powerful. And we believe love is wimpy. And so, if we’re engaged in the world, we believe it’s much better to organize around anger and hate.
And yet, we see two of the most powerful expressions — certainly Gandhi, certainly the Rev. Dr. King
.. And there was a period of time when I was feeling really overwhelmed with a lot of this stuff. And I was talking to my dad, and I said, “Dad, this is just too much. I can’t do it all. I’m trying to do all of this stuff by myself.” And he looked at me; he said, “Well, john, you know you’re not alone.” And I said, “Well, what do you mean, Dad?” He said, “Well, you got God with you.” And I realized, although I don’t organize around God in the way that he does, my mistake was, I thought I had to do it; that “I” was defining it, instead of “we.” So…
MS. TIPPETT: …you were in that white mode.
MR. POWELL: Exactly, exactly.
So I think we should both get out of that white mode and do it together. [laughs]
.. today, the majority of whites today say they’d prefer to live in an integrated neighborhood and send their kids to integrated schools. What they mean by that is a different question, but also the world and demographics of the country are changing. And to live in a white enclave is not to live in the world. And I think it has” — I think you were — this is an interview — “it has a certain deadness to it. It has a certain spiritual corruption to it.”
And you said, “I think most people, white, black, Latino, and otherwise, would like to see something different. We just don’t know how to do it. And we’ve been so entrenched in the way things are. It’s hard to imagine the world being different.” You speak for me, you speak for so many people. This is what we’re up against. I feel like this is what we have to attack first — this inability to see differently.
You told one story about Oak Park, near Chicago. It was just really helpful to me. You said, when we tell stories about, “You integrate neighborhoods, and housing values go down,” and the way we always tell the story is, “Blacks moved in, African-American — people of color moved in.” And the way we could tell the story is, “Whites moved out.” But you talked about how — just this very practical measure that was taken so that the housing values didn’t change. Would you just tell that story? I feel like these little stories are really crucial, as well.
MR. POWELL: And there are really a lot of them. They’re little, and they’re big. So Oak Park is in Chicago. Chicago’s one of the most segregated areas in the country. Cook County has the largest black population of any county in the United States, and a lot of studying of segregation takes place in Chicago. So here you have Oak Park, this precious little community. And there were liberal whites there. And blacks started moving in. And they were saying, “Look, we actually don’t mind blacks moving in, but we’re concerned that we’re going to lose the value of our home. That’s the only wealth we have. And if we don’t sell now, we’re going to lose.”
And it basically said: If that’s the real concern — not that blacks are moving in, that you’re going to lose the value of your home — what if we were to ensure that you would not lose the value of your home? We’ll literally create an insurance policy that we will compensate you if the value of your home goes down.
And they put that in place.
.. Think about Katrina. So these examples are all around us, and yet, we don’t tell stories about them. Katrina — the face of Katrina, when you remember it, it was blacks stuck on roofs as the water was rising. What’s not told is that Americans, all Americans, gave to those people. It was the largest civilian giving of one population to another in the history of the United States. So here you had white Americans, Latino Americans, Asian Americans, trying to reach out to what they saw as black Americans. They were actually saying — they were claiming: We have a shared humanity. And they actually did a poll asking people if they were willing to raise taxes to rebuild: 70 percent of Americans said, “Yes, we would tax ourselves to help those people.” The pundits and the politicians ignored it, and so that story simply didn’t get told.
.. I put something I call “targeted universalism,” and where we want to get to is not simply what whites have. We actually need to state what is our goal. And then our way of getting there will vary, based on how we’re situated. And different groups are situated differently. So if we just say, “Let’s have our proportionate share of what whites have,” that’s an improvement over where we are now, but it’s not far enough.
we’re talking about what I call a “circle of human concern” — a circle of concern for all life, human life and, I would say, non-human life as well. And in that effort, it’s important to make sure that people of color are really valued and situated and have resources and political and other power that other groups have. But it’s also important to actually continue to be in relationship to whites. I think, ultimately, a healthy world really requires not just a restructuring of what people of color have, but a restructuring of white identity.
.. in the 1960s, Bundy wrote about the “negro problem” at the Ford Foundation, but today, I would write about the white problem. We really need to come to terms with the white problem — not in a negative way, not in terms of white guilt, not in terms of beating up on whites, but really trying to help whites, because we are deeply related, give birth to a different identity.
.. one of the best school systems in the United States was the Wake County school system. That’s the Research Triangle, which has more Ph.D.’s than any other area of the country. It was actually quite interesting, because they took it to the voters, and they said, “Do you want to have this school system which is educationally and economically integrated?” And the voters said, “No.” So then they took it to the politicians, and they said, “This makes sense, which — the voters said no, but would you vote for it as a politician?” And the politicians said, “No.” And then the business community said, “Unless you do something about the school system in Wake County, we’re leaving.” It was actually the business community that pushed it through.
.. “So Dad, why do you think” — because he’s very Christian, I said, “What do you think God is keeping you here for?” And he said, “I guess my last lesson to teach the kids is, how to care for me.” So instead of seeing it as a burden, because he needs care, it’s like, “That’s my last gift to you, is to teach you how to care.” And it really is wonderful.
I went to Stanford. I was one of the co-founders of the Black Student Union at Stanford. And we had a meeting, and in that meeting, we decided that there were definitely some good white people, but not that many.
And it took a lot of energy to find them. The transaction cost of finding good white people was way too high. So we decided, “OK, let’s just stop trying to find these — let’s not relate to white people.” Actually, I didn’t support that position, but that’s where the group went. And I left the meeting. It was about noon, and I was walking across Stanford. And I don’t know if you’ve actually been to Stanford, but the center part of Stanford is very busy, especially at noon, and there’s always people teeming about. And I’m walking back across campus in this area, and there’s nobody there. It’s empty. And all the time I was at Stanford, I’ve never seen that part of the campus like that. And then, there’s this one woman walking toward me.
Again, the physical space where students hang out is actually quite small, so you see students all the time. I’d never seen this woman before, and I never saw her again. And as she’s walking toward me, I notice she’s blind. And she has a cane. And she walks into a maze of bicycles. And I said, “Oh, that’s too bad.” And as she turns, knocks down bicycles, she starts panicking. And I’m thinking, “That’s really sad, but we just made this agreement. It’s not my problem.” I keep walking. She turns again, and she knocks down more bicycles. And finally, I can’t walk past her. And I go over, and I take her out of the maze of bicycles, and then she goes on her way. And I go back to the meeting, and I say, “I can’t do it. I can’t adhere to that agreement.”
And to me, that was one of the defining moments. And I sort of — I’m not a theist, but I wonder, how did the universe send that woman to me, that she helped me to engage and claim my humanity, that took me on a different path? And I think being human is about being in the right kind of relationships. I think being human is a process. It’s not something that we just are born with. We actually learn to celebrate our connection, learn to celebrate our love. And the thing about it — if you suffer, it does not imply love. But if you love, it does imply suffering.
So part of the thing that I think what being human means — to love and to suffer; to suffer with, though, compassion, not to suffer against. So, to have a space big enough to suffer with, and if we can hold that space big enough, we also will have joy and fun, even as we suffer. And suffering will no longer divide us. And to me, that’s sort of the human journey.