Trump Chooses to Fight at Home

The Kurds are not the first foreign ally to be sacrificed to America’s domestic battles.

by Holman W. Jenkins, Jr.    October 19, 2019

The United States abandoned half of Europe to the Soviets, which included abandoning the Free Poles who fought by our side in World War II. We let South Vietnam go down the drain in a fit of Watergate pique. George H.W. Bush called on the Iraqi people to remove Saddam Hussein and then allowed them to be massacred without U.S. assistance. The U.S. set matters right with the 2007 surge in Iraq whereupon President Obama withdrew the troops and let the place fall apart again. Mr. Obama also assured Syrian oppositionists that the U.S. would respond militarily if Bashar Assad used chemical weapons and then didn’t.

It would be nice if the U.S. could provide steady, wise and endlessly resourceful leadership. It would be nice if each of us, in our own lives, could be everywhere and do everything. That’s not life.

Lots of people think they know everything they need to know about Donald Trump’s withdrawal of U.S. forces from a corner of Syria by who made the decision. It was impulsive, shameful, self-serving and wrong, because it was made by Mr. Trump. But even a man who pays little attention to his briefings would have heard by now that the U.S. position presented an untenable dilemma.

Turkey is an Article 5 NATO ally.We have obliged Ankara for two decades by designating its Kurdish separatists as terrorists. The U.S. has never advocated breaking up Syria (or Iraq, Iran or Turkey) to allow a Kurdish state. U.S. support for an autonomous Kurdish enclave in Iraq was dependent on the Kurds’ recognizing Baghdad’s sovereignty and not using Iraqi Kurdistan as a base to subvert neighboring states.

We talk loosely about U.S. troops being a tripwire, but we don’t actually leave soldiers vulnerable to being run over by a hostile force. If Turkey threatens to invade northern Syria, the U.S either has to remove its troops or back them up with enough force to protect them from the Turks.

Remind yourself, too, that our president is President Trump. His strong suit is domestic guerilla political warfare in a situation where large numbers of voters and institutional enemies deny his legitimacy. You might give him some credit for recognizing his limitations here.

The Kurds aren’t stupid and neither should we be. They have rapidly formed a new marriage of convenience, with the Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian sponsors. This is nothing new in the Middle East merry-go-round of factional and religious strife, among people who have known and lived with each other much longer than they have lived with the U.S.

Yes, the U.S. bug-out could have been better prepared. Kurdish militiamen were sitting on 10,000 Islamic State prisoners. But this was never going to be a stable solution once the Turks or other regional powers, all of whom have previously played footsie with Islamic State, decided to start doing so again.

President Trump is good at creating a narrative about himself that he is a wild man, tweeting about buying Greenland, denouncing the press as an enemy of the people.

In the inner sanctum, however, the choices he faces, like the choices of any president, are constrained and usually come in several different flavors of non-ideal. His Syria decision was certainly politically unwise (witness the consternation on cable TV). This is why presidents usually opt, in the famous phrase, to “kick the can down the road”—i.e., to make non-decisions that don’t reverberate on TV. But arguably the low-risk choice here was to pull out. A liberating factor (also enjoyed by Mr. Obama) is deliverance from having to worry about the price of oil (actually down since the U.S. bug-out). Mr. Trump is freer to fry other fish.

And the Mueller fiasco will echo through our politics for a generation. It won’t go away.

Vindication settles nothing. Mr. Trump’s ill-advised words with the Ukrainian president are one upshot; there will be a fight. His institutional enemies are only more desperate having damaged their own credibility with the American people to a degree they are loath to admit. An unsettling constitutional possibility is coming into view: a president re-elected by the Electoral College after being impeached by the House. “See you at the polls,” Mr. Trump said to Nancy Pelosi in some of the most pregnant words uttered by a U.S. leader.

Not for the first time in American history a foreign ally of the moment finds itself jilted because the American people have matters to hash out at home. That’s life.




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