The president is looking for a dangerous domestic enemy to fight.
Some presidents, when they get into trouble before an election, try to “wag the dog” by starting a war abroad. Donald Trump seems ready to wag the dog by starting a war at home. Be afraid — he just might get his wish.
How did we get here? Well, when historians summarize the Trump team’s approach to dealing with the coronavirus, it will take only a few paragraphs:
“They talked as if they were locking down like China. They acted as if they were going for herd immunity like Sweden. They prepared for neither. And they claimed to be superior to both. In the end, they got the worst of all worlds — uncontrolled viral spread and an unemployment catastrophe.
“And then the story turned really dark.
“As the virus spread, and businesses had to shut down again and schools and universities were paralyzed as to whether to open or stay closed in the fall, Trump’s poll numbers nose-dived. Joe Biden opened up a 15-point lead in a national head-to-head survey.
“So, in a desperate effort to salvage his campaign, Trump turned to the Middle East Dictator’s Official Handbook and found just what he was looking for, the chapter titled, ‘What to Do When Your People Turn Against You?’
“Answer: Turn them against each other and then present yourself as the only source of law and order.”
America blessedly is not Syria, yet, but Trump is adopting the same broad approach that Bashar al-Assad did back in 2011, when peaceful protests broke out in the southern Syrian town of Dara’a, calling for democratic reforms; the protests then spread throughout the country.
Had al-Assad responded with even the mildest offer of more participatory politics, he would have been hailed as a savior by a majority of Syrians. One of their main chants during the demonstrations was, “Silmiya, silmiya” (“Peaceful, peaceful”).
But al-Assad did not want to share power, and so he made sure that the protests were not peaceful. He had his soldiers open fire on and arrest nonviolent demonstrators, many of them Sunni Muslims. Over time, the peaceful, secular elements of the Syrian democracy movement were sidelined, as hardened Islamists began to spearhead the fight against al-Assad. In the process, the uprising was transformed into a naked, rule-or-die sectarian civil war between al-Assad’s Alawite Shiite forces and various Sunni jihadist groups.
Al-Assad got exactly what he wanted — not a war between his dictatorship and his people peacefully asking to have their voices heard, but a war with Islamic radicals in which he could play the law-and-order president, backed by Russia and Iran. In the end, his country was destroyed and hundreds of thousands of Syrians were killed or forced to flee. But al-Assad stayed in power. Today, he’s the top dog on a pile of rubble.
I have zero tolerance for any American protesters who resort to violence in any U.S. city, because it damages homes and businesses already hammered by the coronavirus — many of them minority-owned — and because violence will only turn off and repel the majority needed to drive change.
But when I heard Trump suggest, as he did in the Oval Office on Monday, that he was going to send federal forces into U.S. cities, where the local mayors have not invited him, the first word that popped into my head was “Syria.”
Listen to how Trump put it: “I’m going to do something — that, I can tell you. Because we’re not going to let New York and Chicago and Philadelphia and Detroit and Baltimore and all of these — Oakland is a mess. We’re not going to let this happen in our country.”
These cities, Trump stressed, are “all run by very liberal Democrats. All run, really, by radical left. If Biden got in, that would be true for the country. The whole country would go to hell. And we’re not going to let it go to hell.”
This is coming so straight from the Middle East Dictator’s Handbook, it’s chilling. In Syria, al-Assad used plainclothes, pro-regime thugs, known as the shabiha (“the apparitions”) to make protesters disappear. In Portland, Ore., we saw militarized federal forces wearing battle fatigues, but no identifiable markings, arresting people and putting them into unmarked vans. How can this happen in America?
Authoritarian populists — whether Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Vladimir Putin in Russia, Viktor Orban in Hungary, Jaroslaw Kaczynski in Poland, or al-Assad — “win by dividing the people and presenting themselves as the savior of the good and ordinary citizens against the undeserving agents of subversion and ‘cultural pollution,’” explained Stanford’s Larry Diamond, author of “Ill Winds: Saving Democracy From Russian Rage, Chinese Ambition, and American Complacency.”
In the face of such a threat, the left needs to be smart. Stop calling for “defunding the police” and then saying that “defunding” doesn’t mean disbanding. If it doesn’t mean that then say what it means: “reform.” Defunding the police, calling police officers “pigs,” taking over whole neighborhoods with barricades — these are terrible messages, not to mention strategies, easily exploitable by Trump.
The scene that The Times’s Mike Baker described from Portland in the early hours of Tuesday — Day 54 of the protests there — is not good: “Some leaders in the Black community, grateful for a reckoning on race, worry that what should be a moment for racial justice could be squandered by violence. Businesses supportive of reforms have been left demoralized by the mayhem the protests have brought. … On Tuesday morning, police said another jewelry store had been looted. As federal agents appeared to try detaining one person, others in the crowd rushed to free the person.”
A new Washington Post-ABC News poll, according to The Post, found that a “majority of Americans support the Black Lives Matter movement and a record 69 percent say Black people and other minorities are not treated as equal to white people in the criminal justice system. But the public generally opposes calls to shift some police funding to social services or remove statues of Confederate generals or presidents who enslaved people.”
All of this street violence and defund-the-police rhetoric plays into the only effective Trump ad that I’ve seen on television. It goes like this: A phone rings and a recording begins: “You have reached the 911 police emergency line. Due to defunding of the police department, we’re sorry but no one is here to take your call. If you’re calling to report a rape, please press 1. To report a murder, press 2. To report a home invasion, press 3. For all other crimes, leave your name and number and someone will get back to you. Our estimated wait time is currently five days. Goodbye.”
Today’s protesters need to trump Trump by taking a page from another foreign leader — a liberal — Ekrem Imamoglu, who managed to win the 2019 election to become the mayor of Istanbul, despite the illiberal Erdogan using every dirty trick possible to steal the election. Imamoglu’s campaign strategy was called “radical love.”
Radical love meant reaching out to the more traditional and religious Erdogan supporters, listening to them, showing them respect and making clear that they were not “the enemy” — that Erdogan was the enemy, because he was the enemy of unity and mutual respect, and there could be no progress without them.
As a recent essay on Imamoglu’s strategy in The Journal of Democracy noted, he overcame Erdogan with a “message of inclusiveness, an attitude of respect toward [Erdogan] supporters, and a focus on bread-and-butter issues that could unite voters across opposing political camps. On June 23, Imamoglu was again elected mayor of Istanbul, but this time with more than 54 percent of the vote — the largest mandate obtained by an Istanbul mayor since 1984 — against 45 percent for his opponent.”
Radical love. Wow. I bet that could work in America, too. It’s the perfect answer to Trump’s politics of division — and it’s the one strategy he’ll never imitate.
Erdogan is no friend to America. He’s a dictator with strange ideas, not unlike Nicolás Maduro.
Turkish citizens are wildly optimistic about the invasion of Syria that began Oct. 9. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s decision finds broad support within Turkey, including from all the major opposition parties except the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party. The incursion is understood domestically not only as a measure to protect the country from the Kurdish forces Mr. Erdogan calls “terrorists,” but also to affirm Turkey’s status as a power; Ankara no longer must bow to the wishes of Washington, Berlin or Moscow.
Then there’s the pessimistic view, the one I share. The invasion damages Turkey internationally: Western and Arab governments have condemned the military operation, as have the Russian, Iranian, Indian and Chinese governments. Volkswagen paused a planned investment in Turkey, and other companies may follow suit. Congress is weighing economic sanctions. Italy, France and Germany have suspended arms sales. Tensions are heightening between Turks and Kurds in Germany, and will likely rise within Turkey as well.
Though northern Syria’s open terrain is favorable to regular forces, Turkey’s huge army may not do so well on the battlefield. Mr. Erdogan has purged the officer corps several times in recent years for domestic political reasons. Even if initially routed, the Syrian Kurdish forces could regroup to mount a costly insurgency against the Turkish occupation. Turkey has many regional enemies eager to trip it up. Like many prior wars begun in a flush of jubilation—recall the British youth joyfully enlisting in 1914, confident of returning victorious within weeks—this one may end ingloriously.
Should the military operation go badly, responsibility for the failure will fall squarely on Mr. Erdogan’s shoulders. A brilliant politician and Turkey’s most consequential leader since Atatürk, Mr. Erdogan has repudiated Atatürk’s legacy of socialism, secularism and avoiding foreign military adventures. Instead, for years he oversaw a capitalist economic boom, and he still rules with an Islamist sensibility and a neo-Ottoman approach to foreign policy. In the nearly 17 years since his party first took Parliament, he has transformed Turkey.
But like other masters of domestic politics— Saddam Hussein comes to mind—Mr. Erdogan wrongly assumes that the cunning and aggression that brought him political success internally will also work internationally. This explains his unleashing thugs on the streets of Washington, abducting Turkish citizens accused of coup plotting from multiple countries, attempting to smuggle dual-use materials to Gaza, illegally drilling for natural gas in Cypriot waters, and shooting down a Russian jet fighter, among other bellicose actions.
Mr. Erdogan’s foreign-policy ineptitude has alienated other governments.
- Europeans seethe when he threatens to send 3.6 million displaced Syrians their way.
- Israelis despise him for a vitriolic anti-Zionism that compares them to Nazis.
- Egypt’s president hates Mr. Erdogan’s backing of the Muslim Brotherhood. Mr. Erdogan’s abject apologies haven’t compensated for
- shooting down the Russian jet
- China hasn’t forgotten Mr. Erdogan’s accusing it of genocide against the Uighurs, despite his silence now.
When the candidate from Mr. Erdogan’s AKP party twice lost the Istanbul mayor’s race this year, most analysts saw this as a “political earthquake” and a “stunning blow” to Mr. Erdogan, but he remains as dominant and dangerous as ever. A ruthless ideologue, his continued rule could bring to Turkey the
- political repression,
- economic collapse,
- hunger and
- mass emigration
that plague Nicolás Maduro’s Venezuela.
I worry about this terrible outcome because Mr. Erdogan has consolidated power over Turkey’s institutions:
- the military, the
- intelligence services, the
- police, the
- judiciary, the
- banks, the
- media, the
- election board, the
- mosques and the
- educational system.
He has supported the private security company Sadat, which some analysts consider a “shadow” or “private” army. Academics who signed a 2016 petition critical of Mr. Erdogan’s policies toward the Kurds have lost their jobs, faced criminal charges and even been jailed. Mr. Erdogan’s hare-brained theory that high interest rates cause, rather than cure, high inflation has recently done great damage to the economy. The 1,150-room palace he had built symbolizes his grandiosity and ambition.
In short, Mr. Erdogan is a dictator with strange ideas, wild ambitions and no restraints. The invasion of Syria has made a domestic and regional tragedy the most likely outcome.
How can the outside world prevent catastrophe? By terminating its disgraceful indulgence of Mr. Erdogan. Donald Trump is only the latest politician to fall for his mysterious charms— George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Angela Merkel, among others, preceded him. Mr. Erdogan deserves punishment, not rewards, for his outrageous behavior. His heading a North Atlantic Treaty Organization member country should raise, not lower, the bar.
For several years, there has been a significant shift underway in U.S. strategy toward the Middle East, where Washington has consistently sought to avoid combat. The United States is now compelled to seek accommodation with Turkey, a regional power in its own right, based on terms that are geopolitically necessary for both. Their relationship has been turbulent, and while it may continue to be so for a while, it will decline. Their accommodation has nothing to do with mutual affection but rather with mutual necessity. The Turkish incursion into Syria and the U.S. response are part of this adjustment, one that has global origins and regional consequences.
Similarly, the U.S. decision to step aside as Turkey undertook an incursion in northeastern Syria has a geopolitical and strategic origin. The strategic origin is a clash between elements of the Defense Department and the president. The defense community has been shaped by a war that has been underway since 2001. During what is called the Long War, the U.S. has created an alliance structure of various national and subnational groups. Yet the region is still on uneven footing. The Iranians have extended a sphere of influence westward. Iraq is in chaos. The Yemeni civil war still rages, and the original Syrian war has ended, in a very Middle Eastern fashion, indecisively.
A generation of military and defense thinkers have matured fighting wars in the Middle East. The Long War has been their career. Several generations spent their careers expecting Soviet tanks to surge into the Fulda Gap. Cold Warriors believed a world without the Cold War was unthinkable. The same can be said for those shaped by Middle Eastern wars. For the Cold War generation, the NATO alliance was the foundation of their thinking. So too for the Sandbox generation, those whose careers were spent rotating into Iraq or Afghanistan or some other place, the alliances formed and the enemies fought seemed eternal. The idea that the world had moved on, and that Fulda and NATO were less important, was emotionally inconceivable. Any shift in focus and alliance structure was seen as a betrayal.
After the Cold War ended, George H.W. Bush made the decision to stand down the 24-hour B-52 air deployments in the north that were waiting for a Soviet attack. The reality had changed, and Bush made the decision a year after the Eastern European collapse began. He made it early on Sept. 21, 1991, after the Wall came down but before the Soviet Union collapsed. It was a controversial decision. I knew some serious people who thought that we should be open to the possibility that the collapse in Eastern Europe was merely a cover for a Soviet attack and were extremely agitated over the B-52 stand-down.
It is difficult to accept that an era has passed into history. Those who were shaped by that era, cling, through a combination of alarm and nostalgia, to the things that reverberate through their minds. Some (though not Europeans) spoke of a betrayal of Europe, and others deeply regretted that the weapons they had worked so hard to perfect and the strategy and tactics that had emerged over decades would never be tried.
The same has happened in different ways in the Middle East. The almost 20-year deployment has forged patterns of behavior, expectations and obligations not only among individuals but more institutionally throughout the armed forces. But the mission has changed. For now, the Islamic State is vastly diminished, as is al-Qaida. The Sunni rising in Iraq has ended, and even the Syrian civil war is not what it once was. A war against Iran has not begun, may not happen at all, and would not resemble the wars that have been fought in the region hitherto.
This inevitably generates a strategic re-evaluation, which begins by accepting that the prior era is gone. It was wrenching to shift from World War II to the Cold War and from the Cold War to a world that many believed had transcended war, and then to discover that war was suspended and has now resumed. War and strategy pretend to be coolly disengaged, but they are passionate undertakings that don’t readily take to fundamental change. But after the 18 years of war, two things have become clear. The first is that
- the modest objective of disrupting terrorism has been achieved, and the second is that
- the ultimate goal of creating something approaching liberal democracies was never really possible.
The world has changed greatly since 2001. China has emerged as a major power, and Russia has become more active. Iran, not Sunni jihadists, has become the main challenge in the Middle East and the structure of alliances needed to deal with this has changed radically since Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom. In addition, the alliances have changed in terms of capability. The massive deployments in the Middle East have ended, but some troops remain there, and to a section of the American military, the jihadist war remains at the center of their thinking. To them, the alliances created over the past 18 years remain as critical as Belgium’s air force had been during the Cold War.
There is another, increasingly powerful faction in the United States that sees the Middle East as a secondary interest. In many instances, they include Iran in this. This faction sees China or Russia (or both) as the fundamental challenger to the U.S. Its members see the Middle East as a pointless diversion and a drain of American resources.
For them, bringing the conflict to a conclusion was critical. Those who made their careers in this war and in its alliances were appalled. The view of President Donald Trump has been consistent. In general, he thought that the use of military force anywhere must be the exception rather than the rule. He declined to begin combat in North Korea. He did not attack Iran after it shot down an American drone or after it seized oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz. After the attack on the Saudi oil facility, he increased Saudi air defenses but refused offensive actions against the Iranians.
Given the shift in American strategy, three missions emerge. The first is the
- containment of China. The second is the
- containment of Russia. The third is the
- containment of Iran. In the case of China, the alliance structure required by the United States is primarily the archipelago stretching from Japan to Indonesia and Singapore – and including South Korea. In dealing with Russia, there are two interests. One is the North European Plain; the other is the Black Sea. Poland is the American ally in the north, Romania in the south. But the inclusion of Turkey in this framework would strengthen the anti-Russia framework. In addition, it would provide a significant counter to Iranian expansion.
Turkey’s importance is clear. It is courted by both Russia and Iran. Turkey is not the country it was a decade ago. Its economy surged and then went into crisis. It has passed through an attempted coup, and internal stress has been massive. But such crises are common in emerging powers. The U.S. had a civil war in the 1860s but by 1900 was producing half of the manufactured goods in the world while boasting a navy second only to the British. Internal crises do not necessarily mean national decline. They can mean strategic emergence.
Turkey’s alignment with Iran and Russia is always tense. Iran and Russia have at various times waged war with Turkey and have consistently seen Iraq as a threat. For the moment, both have other interests and Turkey is prepared to work with them. But Turkey is well aware of history. It is also aware that the U.S. guaranteed Turkish sovereignty in the face of Soviet threats in the Cold War, and that the U.S., unlike Russia and Iran, has no territorial ambitions or needs in Turkey. Already allied through NATO and historical bilateral ties, a relationship with Turkey is in the American interest because it creates a structure that threatens Iran’s line to the Mediterranean and compliments the Romanian-U.S. Black Sea alliance. The U.S. and Turkey are also hostile to the Syrian government. For Turkey, in the long term, Russia and Iran are unpredictable, and they can threaten Turkey when they work together. The American interest in an independent Turkey that blocks Russia and Iran coincides with long-term Turkish interests.
Enter the Kurds
This is where the Kurds come into the equation. Eastern Turkey is Kurdish, and maintaining stability there is a geopolitical imperative for Ankara. Elements of Turkey’s Kurds, grouped around the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, have carried out militant attacks. Therefore it is in Turkey’s interest to clear its immediate frontiers from a Kurdish threat. The United States has no overriding interest in doing so and, indeed, has worked together with the Kurds in Iraq and Syria. But for the Turks, having Kurds on their border is an unpredictable threat. American dependency on the Kurds declines as U.S. involvement in the Middle East declines. Turkey becomes much more important to the United States in relation to Iran than the Kurds.
Trump clearly feels that the wars in the Middle East must be wound down and that a relationship with Turkey is critical. The faction that is still focused on the Middle East sees this as a fundamental betrayal of the Kurds. Foreign policy is a ruthless and unsentimental process. The Kurds want to establish a Kurdish nation. The U.S. can’t and doesn’t back that. On occasion, the U.S. will join in a mutually advantageous alliance with the Kurds to achieve certain common goals. But feelings aside, the U.S. has geopolitical interests that sometimes include the Kurds and sometimes don’t – and the same can be said of the Kurds.
At the moment, the issue is not al-Qaida but China and Russia, and Turkey is critical to the U.S. for Russia. The U.S. is critical for Turkey as well, but it cannot simply fall into American arms. It has grown too powerful in the region for that, and it has time to do it right. So Trump’s actions on the Syrian border will result in President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to Washington and, in due course, a realignment in the region between the global power and the regional power.
Many people have compared Donald Trump to a mob boss. But I’m starting to think that the comparison is unfair — to mob bosses.
After all, you can’t build an empire, even a criminal empire, unless people believe that your word is worth something. They have to believe both that you’ll honor your promises and that you’ll make good on your threats. The first few times you renege on agreements it may look as if you’re being smart and other people are being suckers; but soon they’ll take your measure, and realize that you’re actually the guy who can be rolled.
I’ve been thinking about this reality over the past few days, as we’ve watched two separate Trump administration debacles unfold.
The biggest debacle, the one that has many of us feeling a bit ashamed to be Americans, is, of course, the betrayal of the Kurds. We don’t really know why Trump so casually abandoned allies who have fought and died on our behalf, but one thing is clear: Turkey’s President Recep Erdogan took Trump’s measure, decided that his threats to retaliate against Turkey’s effective invasion of Kurdish territory were empty, and seized the moment.
But there was another, lower-key debacle involving China. Trump has, of course, made a trade war with China the centerpiece of his economic policy, inflicting substantial harm on both economies along the way. Last week, however — perhaps realizing the weakness of his domestic position as the march to impeachment gathers momentum — he seemingly decided to declare victory and retreat, proclaiming that he had a deal with China that, even by his own officials’ description, sounded like getting nothing China hasn’t been offering all along.
But it was actually worse than that. Acute observers quickly pointed out that all we had was a unilateral announcement by U.S. officials that there was a deal, which should be treated with skepticism until and unless we got an explicit joint statement of what had been agreed.
And sure enough, yesterday the Chinese basically said, “Oh, that deal? Well, we’re thinking about it. Let’s talk some more.”
In other words, like Turkey’s Erdogan — and, actually, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un a while back — they’ve taken Trump’s measure and decided that he can be rolled.
The point is that Trump’s actual art of the deal, which involves making promises you intend to break whenever it seems convenient, only works if you can keep finding fresh suckers to cheat. If there are people you have to deal with repeatedly, like the leaders of other nations, they eventually figure out both that you can’t be trusted and that you needn’t be feared: your promises are empty, but so are your threats.
All of this has vastly weakened America. We used to be a country of great power but even greater influence, because we had principles other nations could count on us to follow. Now we have a leader whom other leaders see as malleable — an unprincipled and ill-informed guy who can be flattered, bribed or simply fooled into giving them what they want.
Making America great again, indeed.