Past American presidents often wished they could ignore the Middle East.
But Donald Trump is going beyond wishing, on the apparent belief that voters will reward him for his to-hell-with-this approach to the turbulent region.
It’s a risky stance that could come back to haunt him in the November 2020 election. Yet even as he faces mounting bipartisan criticism over his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from northeast Syria, the president is projecting nonchalance.
“Others may want to come in and fight for one side or the other. Let them!” Trump mused on Twitter this weekend as Turkish and Syrian troops carved up formerly Kurdish-held territory. “We are monitoring the situation closely. Endless Wars!”
…..The Kurds and Turkey have been fighting for many years. Turkey considers the PKK the worst terrorists of all. Others may want to come in and fight for one side or the other. Let them! We are monitoring the situation closely. Endless Wars!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 13, 2019
Over the weekend, Kurdish forces previously aligned with the United States teamed up with the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, a sworn enemy of the United States, for support amid a Turkish onslaught that Trump apparently greenlit in an Oct. 6 call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Hundreds of Islamic State prisoners are reported to have escaped, with thousands more tenuously held by embattled Kurdish militias. Irregular forces aligned with Turkey have been filmed summarily executing Kurdish prisoners.
Republicans in particular have been scathing in their assessment of the sudden lurch in U.S. policy, calling the move everything from “sickening” to a “disaster in the making.” Even stalwart Trump allies, such as GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, have warned him that he’s caved to the Turks, betrayed the Kurds, and left a power vacuum that Assad, his allies the Iranians and the Russians, not to mention remnants of the Islamic State, will rush to fill.
Under GOP and Democratic pressure, Trump on Monday imposed sweeping sanctions on Turkey to deter it from further destabilizing Syria and undermining gains made against the Islamic State. The sanctions’ targets include the Turkish defense and energy ministries, as well as the defense, energy and interior ministers. Trump also said he would be raising tariffs on Turkey and halting trade negotiations. Vice President Mike Pence and national security adviser Robert O’Brien, meanwhile, will travel to Turkey for talks.
Even stalwart Trump allies have warned him that he’s caved to the Turks, betrayed the Kurds, and left a power vacuum that Assad and his allies will rush to fill.
It’s not clear whether Turkey, a NATO ally, will accede to Trump’s demands. But, in a statement announcing his approval of sanctions, the president nonetheless held firm to his decision to withdraw roughly 1,000 U.S. troops from Syria’s northeast, throwing U.S. commitments in doubt.
Beyond Syria, Trump faces a Middle East on edge. Iran and Saudi Arabia are circling each other in the wake of attacks on each other’s oil tankers. Yemen remains a humanitarian disaster amid ongoing conflict between Saudi-led forces and Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. Even Israel, a staunch U.S. ally whose prime minister openly flaunts his close ties to Trump, is reportedly growing queasy with the president’s policies.
Further afield, Trump has struggled to achieve his goal of a political settlement in Afghanistan, following widespread blowback over his offer to meet with Taliban leaders at Camp David days before the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.
As foreign policy philosophies go, “Let them!” is unusually laissez-faire, bordering on wishful thinking when it comes to the Middle East. It’s also a strikingly carefree tone for Trump, given that he faces an impeachment inquiry that could threaten his presidency. But Trump has never felt shackled by precedent or norms.
His predecessors, even when reluctant, bowed to necessity, obligation or a grandiose sense of destiny in staying engaged in the Middle East – the region is, after all, a major source of the oil that lubricates the global economy as well as the terrorists that have attacked America. Barack Obama, for one, made withdrawing American troops from Iraq and Afghanistan a pillar of his pitch to voters in 2008, only to surge or return forces to those countries on the recommendation of his military advisers.
Trump appears less focused on the global repercussions of his actions than on pleasing his Republican base. And as with his past breaks with GOP orthodoxy on issues like entitlements and trade, he seems largely unconcerned by the opprobrium of Republican elites.
His tweets have expressed as much, with attacks like the one he leveled on Monday amid a high-volume day of tweeting: “Anyone who wants to assist Syria in protecting the Kurds is good with me, whether it is Russia, China, or Napoleon Bonaparte. I hope they all do great, we are 7,000 miles away!”
Trump may be onto something. A POLITICO-Morning Consult poll covering Oct. 11-13 found that 56 percent of Republicans support Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from northeast Syria, compared with 60 percent of Democrats who oppose it.
“There is, deep down, a logic to his message,” said Vali Nasr, a prominent Middle East and South Asia analyst. “But his execution is horrible. And he’s doing too many things all at once.”
Trump appears less focused on the global repercussions of his actions than on pleasing his Republican base.
Trump’s decision to leave northeast Syria is sure to come up in a Democratic primary debate on Tuesday. In the vast Democratic field, though, Trump’s calls to stop “endless wars” have found some resonance, including from candidates such as Tulsi Gabbard, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. And there’s little appetite among Democratic voters for fresh wars in the Middle East.
Still, Trump is nothing if not inconsistent. For every promise he’s made to disentangle the United States from the Middle East, he’s done something at odds with that pledge. Even as U.S. forces were abandoning their positions in northeast Syria, for instance, the Pentagon was sending several thousand new troops to protect Saudi Arabia and its vulnerable oil fields from Iran.
And like Obama and other presidents before him, Trump may find that it’s far easier to say you’re getting American troops out of the Middle East than to actually do it. If the Islamic State regains significant territory or launches terrorist attacks traced back to Syria, Trump may have no choice but to intervene.
While Trump has shown willingness to punish Turkey over any gains by the Islamic State, he’s also gloated about how the terrorist group – including thousands of its imprisoned members – are now Turkey and Europe’s problem.
“We are not going into another war between people who have been fighting with each other for 200 years,” Trump tweeted Monday. “Europe had a chance to get their ISIS prisoners, but didn’t want the cost. ‘Let the USA pay,’ they said.”
Trump even alleged that the Kurdish forces would try to trick the U.S. into staying: “Kurds may be releasing some to get us involved. Easily recaptured by Turkey or European Nations from where many came, but they should move quickly.”
“There is, deep down, a logic to his message. But his execution is horrible. And he’s doing too many things all at once.” — prominent Middle East analyst Vali Nasr
Trump is not known to be a student of history, but his gut instincts are well grounded: All of his modern predecessors found themselves sucked into the Middle East vortex, and few found it helpful politically.
For Jimmy Carter, who achieved a historic peace agreement between Egypt and Israel, it was the Iran hostage crisis and a failed U.S. military rescue attempt.
For Ronald Reagan there was the Beirut barracks bombings and the Iran-Contra scandal. (Reagan’s support of the “mujahideen” in nearby Afghanistan, while at the time credited for weakening the Soviet Union, paved the way for the rise of the Taliban and al Qaeda.)
George H.W. Bush was lauded for his leadership in pushing Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. Even that, however, didn’t help him win reelection, and the stationing of U.S. troops on the Muslim holy land of Saudi Arabia angered al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who masterminded the 9/11 attacks.
Bill Clinton pushed hard for peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. He failed on that front; he also failed to capture or kill bin Laden.
George W. Bush’s entire presidency was consumed by America’s struggle with the Arab and Islamic worlds. The 9/11 attacks happened on his watch, prompting the invasion of Afghanistan and later Iraq. The latter nearly cost him reelection and has largely defined his legacy.
But the closest analogue to Trump’s fear of the Middle East quicksand may be Barack Obama, for all their differences in style.
As a candidate, Obama slammed “dumb wars” like Iraq and promised to bring U.S. troops home. He vowed to rebalance America’s foreign policy more toward countering emerging rivals such as China. By the time Obama left office, the U.S. still had thousands of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention hundreds in Syria battling the Islamic State. His much-vaunted “pivot to Asia” made limited progress.
Obama also was inconsistent: He was willing to militarily intervene in Libya amid the Arab Spring uprisings, but resisted calls to do so against the Assad regime, even after the brutal Syrian dictator crossed Obama’s “red line” and used chemical weapons. Obama later told The Atlantic that he was proud of his restraint.
Trump’s defenders say the criticism of his decision to pull U.S. forces back from northeast Syria has been hysterical and overblown, and that, given Turkey’s determination to launch its incursion, he had little choice but to remove U.S. troops from harm’s way.
The closest analogue to Trump’s fear of the Middle East quicksand may be Barack Obama, for all their differences in style.
“The fate of Syria has never been a vital interest for the U.S. It’s always been in the orbit of Iran and Russia,” James Carafano, an analyst with the conservative Heritage Foundation, wrote in an email. While he acknowledged the Turkish operation could spark chaos that could strengthen the Islamic State, Russia, Assad and Iran, he said it’s “ too soon to tell” how things would play out.
Trump supporters, noting the recent troop deployments to Saudi Arabia, say that he has shown no serious signs of backing off on his “maximum pressure campaign” against Iran. Trump aides view Iran as the main threat to U.S. allies and interests in the Middle East given its history of anti-Americanism and use of proxy forces throughout the region.
Yet even on Iran, Trump has wavered from hostility to conciliation. He abandoned the Iran nuclear deal negotiated by Obama and re-imposed sanctions on Tehran, to the delight of the Saudis, Israelis and other partners. But he’s repeatedly sought to talk directly to Iran’s president and has even shown interest in striking a deal similar to the one he quit. After Iran downed a U.S drone earlier this year, Trump nearly approved a military strike on the country — only to back off at the last moment.
Trump’s zigging and zagging has confused America’s traditional partners in the Persian Gulf.
“In the past, regional leaders may have been at odds with the U.S. on policy grounds, but they were fairly confident that U.S. actions in the region were guided by an explicit policy framework and not presidential caprice,” said Maura Connelly, a former U.S. ambassador to Lebanon. Now, “there no longer seems to be a point at which the U.S. will hold firm.”
For now, there are few signs that Trump’s Syria gambit will weaken his support among Republicans who wish to shield him from impeachment. For the most part, Republican senators have avoided attacking him by name, and his most vocal critic on the issue — Lindsey Graham — remains one of his closest Senate allies.
For Democrats hoping to unseat Trump, the Syria pullback offers an opportunity to distinguish themselves. But the only major candidate with much foreign policy experience to speak of, former vice president Joe Biden, has a tricky balancing act to pull off, given his intimate involvement in Obama-era decisions that haunt U.S. Middle East policy today.
For now, Biden and some of the other candidates are accusing Trump of betraying the Kurds, but saying little about how they might approach Syria differently.
“Our troops are left in the middle of a war with no plan other than retreat,” Biden tweeted. “[Trump] has failed as Commander-in-Chief to safeguard our country & protect our troops.”
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