When Barack Obama was president, he had a foreign policy principle that aides described as “Don’t do stupid s---.” In large part a reaction to the Iraq War, it was — despite its seeming simplicity — a warning to consider the unintended consequences and long-term effects of policy initiatives based on unrealistic ideas, especially about what military action can accomplish. It was an acknowledgment that if the administration isn’t careful and thoughtful in the foreign policy decisions it makes, the result can be disaster.
If you didn’t look too closely at his desire to avoid another Middle East war, you might think President Trump shared the same view. But unfortunately — as events in northern Syria are now proving — “stupid s---” is Trump’s specialty.
The Turkish invasion of an area controlled by Kurdish forces who were once allies of the United States has demonstrated what can happen when America’s final decision-maker is someone so weak, ignorant and impulsive. It all started with a phone call between President Trump and a foreign leader, which apparently is how many of our most urgent crises now begin.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told Trump he was ready to launch the incursion Turkey had long wanted to eliminate the Kurdish forces it views as terrorists, and Trump said he’d stand aside, withdrawing the small number of U.S. forces directly in Turkey’s path. Trump’s decision to give Erdogan the green light to invade completely blindsided not just our Kurdish allies but also pretty much everyone in his own government, from the Pentagon to the State Department to Capitol Hill.
Then Trump decided to remove all American forces from the area, and began vacillating back and forth between making bizarre criticisms of the Kurds to justify his decision (“They didn’t help us in the Second World War. They didn’t help us in Normandy”) and threatening to destroy the Turkish economy to punish Erdogan for the invasion that Trump allowed him to undertake.
Reporting from The Post and other news outlets paints a picture of chaos inside the administration, with Trump being criticized vociferously even by Republican supporters and the government scrambling to deal with unfolding events on the ground. Although Trump was apparently “heartened” by the support he has gotten from Fox hosts Tucker Carlson and Lou Dobbs.
If you want to get a sense of the coherence of Trump’s thinking on this subject, see if you can unpack this tweet he sent Sunday:
.....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
It’s all a mess and I don’t really understand what’s happening, Trump seems to say, but what’s important is that it isn’t my fault.
So let’s take stock:
- The Kurds, our former ally, now feel betrayed as they are overrun by the Turkish military with potentially catastrophic humanitarian consequences.
- The idea that the United States will honor its commitments and defend its allies is now a cruel joke. “They trusted us and we broke that trust,” one Army officer who has worked with the Kurds told the New York Times. “It’s a stain on the American conscience.”
- The Kurds have now sought help from the government of Bashar al-Assad, slaughterer of hundreds of thousands, ally of Russia and enemy of the United States.
- Thousands of Islamic State prisoners held by the Kurds could now escape, raising the threat of a resurgence of the terrorist group.
Anyone familiar with this situation understands that it has always been complex, with very little in the way of paths to happy outcomes. The United States has been caught between Turkey, a NATO ally, and the Kurds, whom we have worked with and supported. But our presence there was helping to prevent a conflagration. Anyone could have told Trump — and indeed, it appears that everyone around him was telling him — that a quick withdrawal would make things much worse, both in the immediate term for the Kurds and in the long term for U.S. foreign policy.
The long term, however, is not something Trump appears capable of considering, except in his desire to avoid “Endless Wars!”
You can agree with Trump on the essential point of not starting conflicts like the Iraq War but still realize that given the depth of American involvement in the Middle East and the complexities on the ground, there are smart ways and stupid ways to extricate ourselves, if that’s what we choose to do. As usual, Trump has chosen the stupidest way.