At least with Eisenhower, Kennedy and Ford, there was a good reason they failed to come to the aid of freedom fighters: Doing so would have embroiled the United States in costly conflicts. Trump and his apologists would like to pretend that’s also the case today — that Trump pulled U.S. troops out of northern Syria to avoid a war with Turkey. But there is scant chance that Turkish troops would have invaded northern Syria if U.S. troops were standing in the way. That is why President Recep Tayyip Erdogan asked Trump to move the U.S. forces — and Trump, for reasons that remain mysterious, obliged. (Trump himself admitted in 2015 that “I have a little conflict of interest” because of two Trump Towers in Istanbul.)
The consequences of the American pullout are proving to be every bit as catastrophic as most observers — and Trump’s own aides — had feared. On “Face the Nation” on Sunday, Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper said that ever since coming to office about two months ago, he had been urging the Turks not to invade Syria. “We cited all the reasons that are now playing out,” he said. “The biggest being the likely release of ISIS fighters from these camps and prisons, not just that we see a humanitarian crisis emerging.”
If Esper cited those reasons to the Turks, he surely cited them to Trump as well. But the president wasn’t listening, as usual. Now Kurds are being slaughtered, and Islamic State detainees are escaping. With chaos all around, Trump had no choice on Sunday but to order most U.S. troops to scuttle out of Syria in a humiliating defeat. Our forces are leaving so fast they could not take with them, as planned, some 60 “high value” Islamic State detainees — i.e., some of the worst terrorists on the planet.
The Kurds, in turn, had no choice but to invite Syrian regime forces to come to their rescue, thereby handing a massive win not only to Bashar al-Assad but also to his backers in Moscow and Tehran. The one part of Syria that had been under the control of secular moderates — the Kurds are more progressive on women’s rights than anyone in the region aside from the Israelis — is now being divided between the brutal forces of Assad and Erdogan.
After the Hungarian uprising of 1956, the Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961 and the fall of South Vietnam in 1975, the presidents at the time made somber statements to explain why they did not intervene militarily and to remonstrate over the losses suffered by freedom fighters. Eisenhower, for example, said that “the United States deplores the intervention of Soviet military forces” and that “the heart of America goes out to the people of Hungary.”
Trump did not express any such concern for the Kurds who have been fighting at America’s side against the Islamic State. Instead he took a break from golf to tweet: “Do you remember two years ago when Iraq was going to fight the Kurds in a different part of Syria. Many people wanted us to fight with the Kurds against Iraq, who we just fought for. I said no, and the Kurds left the fight, twice. Now the same thing is happening with Turkey...... 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!”
That Trump thinks that Iraqi troops fought Kurds in Syria — rather than around the Iraqi city of Kirkuk — shows how little he knows about this region. That he is inviting one and all to fight the Kurds (“Let them!”) shows how little he cares about American security, American honor or American allies. That he is now maligning his victims by claiming with no evidence that the Kurds are deliberately releasing Islamic State prisoners to force U.S. intervention shows how cruel and dishonest he is.
The Republican members of Congress who are apoplectic (“Shameful disaster unfolding in Syria,” tweeted Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming) have no one to blame but themselves. They are the ones who continue to support a president who has been unabashed in his love of dictators, his disdain for human rights and his willingness to betray anyone or anything to advance his own interests.
Most of the time, the costs of the Trump presidency are inchoate — laws are broken, norms transgressed. But when it came to immigrant children in cages or Kurds in the line of fire, the costs are all too human and horrifying. Are you happy now, Trump supporters? Is all this worth a corporate tax cut?