The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why did Trump betray the Kurds? The rationales make no sense.

President Trump walks across the South Lawn of the White House on Thursday before boarding Marine One. (Andrew Harnik/AP)
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While both Republicans and Democrats were aghast at President Trump’s impetuous, Sunday-night decision to allow Turkish troops to invade northern Syria — thereby betraying our Kurdish allies — the usual suspects rushed forward to explain why this was another genius move by an infallible leader who plays eight-dimensional chess.

Trump’s most influential defender has been an obscure blogger named Kurt Schlichter, who has written, by his own telling, “action-packed yet hilarious novels of America torn apart by the kind of liberal fascism the Democrats promise.” One of these works imagines a future civil war between red and blue America in which liberals are slaughtered. (“San Francisco is a hotbed of treason, but the populace is largely unarmed and is trapped in a confined area.”)

Writing in Townhall, Schlichter suggested that we don’t owe the Kurds anything because they “didn’t show up for us at Normandy or Inchon or Khe Sanh or Kandahar.” No, they didn’t. But some Kurds did fight for the Allies in World War II. More significantly, they showed up a lot more recently in Manbij and Raqqa, where they suffered heavy casualties to defeat the Islamic State, thereby sparing U.S. troops from a brutal ground war.

Schlichter also argued that Turkey’s invasion was justified because it had suffered “cross-border attacks” by Kurdish terrorists based in Syria. I’m not aware of a single such attack — and if had happened, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan would have loudly said so.

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Finally, Schlichter wrote that “if the Turks are intent on invading,” the only way to stop them is by sending U.S. troops to war, and Trump rightly said “No thanks.” In reality, Turkey has shown no desire to fight U.S. troops — and for good reason. Erdogan is all too aware that Russia lost 200 to 300 mercenaries to punishing U.S. airstrikes while attacking a U.S. outpost in Syria. If Erdogan told Trump that the Turks would be willing to fight U.S. troops, he was bluffing — and Trump fell for it.

These are, to put it mildly, unconvincing arguments. Yet Trump himself parroted the Normandy line from what he called Schlichter’s “very, very powerful article,” while Secretary of State Mike Pompeo justified the U.S. withdrawal by claiming it was for the good of U.S. troops. That isn’t the view of a U.S. Special Forces soldier in Syria who told Fox News, “I am ashamed for the first time in my career.”

Other Trump sympathizers have offered equally unconvincing, if more sophisticated, justifications for the president’s decision. Two scholars of the Middle East, Michael Doran and Michael A. Reynolds, suggested in the Wall Street Journal that the fault was really President Barack Obama’s for aligning with the Kurds in 2016 — despite the success of that strategy and the lack of any realistic alternatives. Journal columnist Walter Russell Mead rationalized Trump’s move because he is giving his “Jacksonian” (i.e., isolationist) followers what they want. The Jacksonians may get more than they bargained for, however, if Trump’s move leads to a resurgence of the Islamic State.

These attempts to reverse-engineer and thereby justify Trump’s decision fail not only because of the weakness of the arguments advanced on his behalf, but also because there is no reason to imagine that Trump’s move had anything to do with these ex post facto justifications.

We still don’t know why Trump acted so solicitously toward a Turkish dictator who has been pursuing an anti-Israel, anti-American and anti-democratic agenda. Trump himself admitted in 2015 that when it came to Turkey, “I have a little conflict of interest ‘cause I have a major, major building in Istanbul. … It’s called Trump Towers — two towers, instead of one, not the usual one, it’s two.” Might the revenue that Trump derives from the Trump Towers in Istanbul influence his decision to let Erdogan have his way? Trump’s demands that Ukraine and China provide him dirt on Joe Biden indicate that he has no scruples about subordinating public interest to self-interest. Perhaps he did so in this case as well.

Or perhaps Trump acted simply because he loves dictators like Erdogan? Or because he is an ardent isolationist who wants to withdraw troops from foreign hot spots no matter the risks? (“It is time for us to get out of these ridiculous Endless Wars, many of them tribal, and bring our soldiers home,” he tweeted Monday.)

Or maybe, just maybe, Trump simply didn’t think much before acting? That would be indicated by his casual dismissal of concerns that the Turkish invasion could lead to the freeing of Islamic State prisoners. “Well, they are going to be escaping to Europe, that’s where they want to go,” Trump said. As if it doesn’t matter whether there are terrorist attacks in Europe, despite all of the Americans living and visiting there — and as if there is no way that a terrorist could get from Europe to the United States.

It would probably be necessary to read the transcripts of Trump’s calls with Erdogan to have any clue about why he acted as he did. Until those become available, there is no need to give much credence to the lame rationales offered by Trump and his amen corner.

Read more:

Jennifer Rubin: Republicans bemoaning the fate of the Kurds have no one to blame but themselves

Michael Gerson: The serious danger of politics as tribal conflict

Marc A. Thiessen: Trump’s cry that America is fighting ‘endless wars’ is a canard

Josh Rogin: How Trump just destroyed his own Syria strategy

Recep Tayyip Erdogan: Turkey will continue its efforts to shed light on the Khashoggi murder