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.
Oct. 12, 2019 – 3:53 – President Trump defends his decision to pulling U.S. troops out of Syria because of the ultimate sacrifice those troops are making in the Middle East.
You needn’t believe the hype about President Donald Trump being a 21st-century media wizard to concede he has a special talent for powershifting through the gears of the news cycle to blow past whatever current event might threaten his presidency. Whether it’s a function of Trump’s volatility or a measure of his craft, he has a knack for freezing out damaging news by creating his own news storms that transfix the press. He fires members of his Cabinet and staff, over-reaches with executive orders, picks fights with a Gold Star mother and football players, engages in ad hominem, and insults entire friendly countries.
In recent days as bad news has swelled around him, Trump has taken to screaming “treason” and “coup” at full volume to divert the news flow. But this time Trump’s hydraulics don’t seem to be working. Instead of Trump flooding the news cycle, the news cycle has begun to flood Trump. His special talents—if they really exist—have begun to fail him, and he seems to know it. In two recent press sprays, with the Finnish president and on the White House lawn, Trump’s peach complexion has gone scarlet with rage as he dodged and parried all the bad publicity.
You’d go scarlet, too, if you were Trump. Democratic members of the House of Representatives have begun marshaling evidence to prove Trump committed high crimes and misdemeanors as part of the House’s formal impeachment inquiry against the president. Two whistleblowers have come forward to allege abuse of power by Trump in his dealings with Ukraine’s president. An IRS whistleblower has filed a complaint alleging that a political appointee at the Treasury Department attempted to interfere with the annual audit of the president or vice president’s tax returns. A federal judge has ordered Trump to turn over his tax returns to the Manhattan district attorney. In recent days, three Republican senators (Susan Collins of Maine, Mitt Romney of Utah and Ben Sasse of Nebraska) have broken ranks with their cowardly colleagues to directly criticize Trump for urging China to investigate Joe Biden and Hunter Biden.
Even the president’s closest ally, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has turned on him. On Monday, Graham phoned into “Fox & Friends” to denounce Trump’s decision to dump the Kurds and embrace the Turks. The move is “shortsighted and irresponsible” as well as “unnerving,” Graham said, and his anger was shared by other Republican legislators. Inside the Pentagon, the brass also appeared to favor Graham’s position over Trump’s.
At the rate all this bad news is surging, Trump must be pining for the good old days when a new development in special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation was his greatest source of grief, and a nasty blast from his Twitter feed was potent enough to repel bad tidings. But suddenly Trump’s best-defense-is-a-good-offense talents are no longer sufficient to fend off the damage. In recent days, Trump has sought and failed to stall the impeachment express with tweets attacking Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., but the press has largely ignored these pathetic lines of defense. In the old days, journalists would have rushed to their keyboards to dissect the Pelosi and Schiff tweets and placed under their magnifying glass Trump’s Monday tweet about the Kurds and Turks in which he referred to his own “great and unmatched wisdom.”
But as the Smiths once sang, that joke isn’t funny anymore. These days, the press seems more interested in charting the course of impeachment and the accumulating evidence than playing “go fetch” with Trump’s tweets. Not even Pat Robertson, a Trump stalwart if ever there was one, wants to follow the president on this one. Trump “is in great danger of losing the mandate of Heaven” if he spurns the Kurds, Robertson said.
Trump’s old techniques are failing—and not just due to the volume of the bad news. What’s unique about this phase of his presidency is that he’s being attacked with so much damning information from so many directions and so many different power centers that he can’t keep up. Not even a street fighter with Bruce Lee’s skills could repulse this sort of pile-on.
As somebody who has never counted Trump out, I believe he could restore his good fortune with some self-discipline. Midway through the first year of Trump’s presidency, columnist (and doctor of psychiatry) Charles Krauthammer took to calling the “general hysteria” the press and the political classes expressed for the president “Trump Derangement Syndrome.” According to Krauthammer and others, this reflexive, partisan hatred for Trump crippled people’s judgment of the man. Krauthammer urged us to stop listening to Trump’s id and pay more attention to what Trump was doing and what he had done. Finally, it appears, the press and Democrats have independently taken Krauthammer’s advice. As we enter impeachment autumn, the only principal still acting deranged is Trump himself.
It falls to the national security adviser to defend the incomprehensible.
It’s tempting to pity John Bolton, President Trump’s national security adviser.
Tempting because it falls to the irascible but experienced Mr. Bolton to try to explain, or even undo, the president’s more impulsive and erratic foreign policy decisions. Pity because of the mortifying contortions required.
This past week Mr. Bolton journeyed to Ankara to discuss the American role in the Syrian civil war with Turkish government officials, only to run smack into another autocrat with a short fuse, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The Turkish leader canceled a planned meeting with Mr. Bolton and then publicly excoriated him.
Such humiliations pale, however, when one considers the Gordian knot that Mr. Bolton went to Ankara to untangle. That is, how to stop Mr. Erdogan from slaughtering Syrian Kurdish forces, who have been essential in fighting the Islamic State, after the Americans leave northern Syria. Mr. Erdogan considers the Syrian Kurds to be terrorists aligned with those in Turkey who have been in a separatist battle with the state for about 40 years.
Mr. Bolton’s diplomatic mission was unusually tough because both Turkey and the Kurds are partners of the United States. The Syrian Kurds are formidable fighters, and the progress against ISIS that Mr. Trump touts would have been impossible without them.
The Turks, meanwhile, are NATO allies, bound to Washington in a formal defense pact. Incirlik Air Base, a major staging point for American military operations throughout the Middle East, is in southern Turkey.
Mr. Bolton, a conservative hard-liner with considerable self-regard, can be a hard person to feel sympathy toward. He has made his own serious errors, not least his aggressive support for the 2003 Iraq War, which destabilized the Middle East, and, more recently, his creation of a White House decision-making system that limits robust discussion.
He certainly knew before taking the position as Mr. Trump’s national security adviser that he would be serving a chaos-driven and temperamental master. Still, Mr. Bolton faces the unenviable challenge of regularly having to defend the indefensible or make corrections after the fact. In October, he flew to Moscow to explain to President Vladimir Putin Mr. Trump’s sudden and ill-advised decision to begin pulling out of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, negotiated by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev.
Mr. Bolton’s latest Middle East visit was intended to reassure anxious regional leaders that the American withdrawal from Syria would be orderly. But the mission ran aground after Mr. Bolton demanded that Turkey protect Washington’s Kurdish allies and pledged that American forces would remain in Syria until the Islamic State was defeated, which could take months or years. That seemed to contradict Mr. Trump’s pronouncement in December that the Islamic State had been defeated and all 2,000 American troops would be out of Syria within 30 days.
Cue Mr. Erdogan, who dismissed Mr. Bolton’s remarks as a “grave mistake” and said, “It is not possible for us to swallow the message Bolton gave from Israel.” A pro-government newspaper went so far as to accuse Mr. Bolton of being part of a “soft coup against Trump.”
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.
The men were part of a group of four Islamic State militants known as the “Beatles” because of their British accents. Officials identified the two men captured as Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh.
.. The British extremists were known for their brutality. They repeatedly beat the hostages they kept imprisoned in Raqqa, Syria, formerly the Islamic State’s self-declared capital, and subjected them to waterboarding and mock executions.
.. Mr. Kotey “likely engaged in the group’s executions and exceptionally cruel torture methods, including electronic shock and waterboarding
If Donald Trump leaves office before four years are up, history will likely show the middle weeks of May 2017 as the turning point.
.. If Trump has nothing to hide, he is certainly jumpy whenever the subject comes up and his evident worry about it has caused him to make some big mistakes.
.. Though younger and more composed, Kushner is a lot more like Trump than is generally understood.
- Both of them moved their father’s businesses from the New York periphery to Manhattan.
- Like his father-in-law, Kushner came to Washington knowing a lot about real estate deals but almost nothing about government.
- Both entered the campaign and the White House unfamiliar with the rules and laws and evidently disinclined to check them before acting.
.. Thus, Kushner has reinforced some of Trump’s critical weaknesses.
.. Kushner, who has a high self-regard, has taken on a preposterous list of assignments.
.. He was able somehow (likely through his own leaks) to gain a reputation—along with his wife, Ivanka Trump—as someone who could keep the president calm and prevent him from acting impulsively or unwisely.
.. Richard Nixon, who was a lot smarter than Trump is, similarly misread the way the public would react when he arranged for the firing of his special prosecutor, Archibald Cox
.. Mueller’s investigation is limited to considering criminal acts.
.. His purview doesn’t include determining whether Trump should be held to account for serious noncriminal misdeeds he or his associates may have committed with regard to his election
.. of the three articles of impeachment adopted by the Judiciary Committee against Richard Nixon in 1974, the most important was for “abuse of power.”
.. Unless a single act is itself sufficiently grave to warrant impeachment—for example, treason—a pattern of behavior needs to be found. That could involve, for example, emoluments or obstruction of justice... Many of what seemed disparate acts—well beyond the famous break-in in the Watergate complex and the cover-up—were carried out in order to assure Nixon’s reelection in 1972, and they amounted to the party in power interfering with the nominating process of the opposition party. That way lay fascism... By definition, impeachable offenses would appear to concern conduct only during a presidency. But a number of constitutional law scholars, including the Harvard Law professor Laurence Tribe, who was dubious at first, believe that if a president or his associates working on his behalf acted corruptly and secretly to rig the election, then the preinaugural period should be included... Trump asked for Flynn’s resignation only on February 13, after stories about Yates’s warning appeared in the press—and then, two days after he fired him, the president called Flynn “a wonderful man.”.. weirdly, recently told aides that he’d like to have Flynn back in the White House... Flynn, in conversations with outgoing national security adviser Susan Rice during the transition, asked that the Obama administration hold off on its plan to arm Kurdish forces to help the effort to retake Raqqa, the ISIS capital in Syria. Since Flynn was a paid lobbyist for the Turkish government, which strongly opposed the plan, this action could possibly lead to a charge of treason... Flynn was leading the Russians to believe that they’d receive much better treatment under a President Trump and the Russians went along... A big question is whether Flynn discussed such important policy matters with the Russians without the knowledge of the president-elect... Trump tweeted: “Great move on delay (by V. Putin)—I always knew he was very smart!”.. Brennan testified he was worried that the Russians may even have recruited some Americans to cooperate with their effort to tilt the election... Intelligence analysts picked up conversations by Russians in which they bragged that they’d cultivated Flynn and Manafort and believed they would be useful for influencing Trump. (This doesn’t prove guilt on the part of either man.).. Laurence Tribe is gathering what he believes are impeachable offenses committed by Trump.2.. Tribe sees Trump flouting the constitutional ban on accepting “emoluments”—.. Trump’s firing of Comey for, as he ultimately admitted, “this Russia thing.”.. Trump’s saying to Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov and to Ambassador Kislyak, of firing Comey: “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”.. There were also Trump’s efforts very early in the administration to get Comey to pledge “loyalty” to him.. In another form of pressure, Trump asked Comey when the FBI would announce that he wasn’t under investigation. Comey didn’t respond... Before it was revealed that Comey had taken notes of their conversations, Trump made a not-very-veiled threat that Comey “better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations.”.. Where are all the leaks coming from? Many Republicans want to make this the issue rather than what the leaks reveal, but the fact that they keep coming is a sign of the state of near collapse of the White House staff... It’s not an exaggeration to say that Trump has the most unhappy staff ever, with some feeling a higher duty to warn the public about what they see as a danger to the country... Trump is a nearly impossible person to work for:
- he screams at his staff when they tell him something he doesn’t want to hear;
- he screams at them as he watches television news for hours on end and sees stories about himself that he doesn’t like, which is most of them.
.. Leaks are also being made by the intelligence community, many of whom see Trump as a national menace.
.. McMaster has yet to recover his reputation from having emphatically refuted things the Post story didn’t say.
.. Trump’s reckless act is believed to have endangered the life of an Israeli intelligence asset who had been planted among ISIS forces, something extremely hard to pull off.
.. Rosenstein found himself in a meeting with Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions (who had supposedly recused himself from any dealings on the campaign and the Russia matter) and under pressure to write a memo expressing his own strong negative views of how Comey had handled Hillary Clinton’s e-mail case. The choices before Rosenstein were to write the report, knowing that Comey was going to be fired anyway, or refuse to and resign or be fired. Then what use could he be?
.. he spoke melodramatically of his anguish in having to decide between two choices: to “speak” or to “conceal.” But many observers believed that he had a third choice: quietly to get a warrant and check out some of the e-mails that had traveled from Clinton’s laptop to her close aide Huma Abedin’s to that of Abedin’s then-husband Anthony Weiner before reopening an investigation, much less announcing one and perhaps affect the outcome of the election.
.. Comey’s testimony also angered Democrats by wildly exaggerating the number of Clinton’s e-mails that had landed on Weiner’s laptop—“hundreds and thousands,” he said, when actually there had been just a handful.
.. Comey’s comment that the thought that his actions may have affected the election made him “mildly nauseous” enraged Trump.
.. Everyone who hewed to the White House line that the firing had been based on Rosenstein’s memo, including Pence, was now embarrassed and lost credibility with the press and the public.
.. the respected Cook Report anticipates substantial Republican losses in the House. Republicans are starting to panic.
..Their challenge is how to overcome the twin blights of
- Trump’s chaotic governing and
- his lack of achievements on Capitol Hill
.. unlike Nixon, he can also make use of social media, Fox News, and friendly talk shows to keep them loyal.
.. Trump is, for all his deep flaws, in some ways a cannier politician than Nixon; he knows how to lie to his people to keep them behind him.
.. The critical question is: When, or will, Trump’s voters realize that he isn’t delivering on his promises,
- that his health care and tax proposals will help the wealthy at their expense,
- that he isn’t producing the jobs he claims?
- His proposed budget would slash numerous domestic programs, such as food stamps, that his supporters have relied on heavily. (One wonders if he’s aware of this part of his constituency.)