President Trump’s indifference to the world beyond U.S. borders is not new. His mantra of “America First” is often more accurately articulated as America alone. He’s frequently hostile to or frustrated with U.S. allies in Europe — and they’re the lucky ones. He has railed against immigration, including a push to shut down migration from several predominantly Muslim countries. He has disparaged parts of the world, including Africa and Caribbean nations, as “shithole countries.” There are poles of acceptability in Trump’s worldview, and certain countries — and certain parts of the United States — are unacceptable.
In that light, his decision to move the United States to the side in Syria and allow Turkey to target Kurds in the northeastern part of the country makes more sense. Trump was faced with three complementary impulses: the political utility of opposing military conflicts, the ambitions of his “friend” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and his explicit indifference to the fate of the Kurds and the region.
Last month, about a week before the White House announced that it would allow Turkey free rein in the region, Trump praised the Kurds who’d fought alongside the United States in the struggle against the Islamic State militant group (which is also known as ISIS).
“They fought with us. They died with us. They died,” Trump said after being asked how the United States would support the Kurds. “We lost — tens of thousands of Kurds died fighting ISIS. They died for us and with us. And for themselves. They died for themselves. But they’re great people. And we have not forget — we don’t forget — I don’t forget. What happens someday later — but I can tell you that I don’t forget.”
Since the call with Erdogan that kicked off the brutal new fighting in the region last week, Trump’s view of the Kurds has been less generous. Speaking to reporters Wednesday, he waved away concerns about the fate of the Kurds by embracing their new alliance with the Syrian government — which was itself allied with Russia in tension with U.S. interests as the Syrian civil war unfolded.
“Syria’s friendly with the Kurds. The Kurds are very well protected,” Trump insisted. “Plus, they know how to fight. And by the way, they’re no angels, but they were with us. They are no angels, but they are fighting.”
The “no angels” formulation is a classic form of victim-blaming. The Kurds being targeted by Turkey were our allies at the end of September, a “great people” — but now that they are being killed by Turkey, Trump wants us to know that they were perhaps morally impure.
The last time he publicly described a group using that term was in 2013, when he tweeted that the young black and Hispanic men who had been arrested for the rape of a jogger in Central Park in the 1980s were, in fact, “no angels.” On the campaign trail, he continued to insist on the guilt of the five men, despite their having been subsequently exonerated. At the time of their arrest, Trump responded by buying a full-page ad in New York tabloids calling for a reinstatement of the death penalty.
The Washington Post’s Dan Lamothe spoke with U.S. forces who’d fought with the Kurds in the region.
“It feels like we’re abandoning our closest ally in the fight against ISIS, and we’re abandoning them to a fate that is going to end very poorly for them,” one told Lamothe. Another said he “[couldn’t] even look at the atrocities” being committed against the Kurds.
Trump also shrugged at an expansion of hostilities pitting Turkey against Syria directly.
“If Syria wants to fight for their land, that’s up to Turkey and Syria, as it has been for hundreds of years, they’ve been fighting,” Trump said. “And the Kurds have been fighting for hundreds of years. That whole mess, it’s been going along for a long time. Syria may have some help with Russia, and that’s fine.”
“It’s a lot of sand,” he added. “They’ve got a lot of sand over there. So there’s a lot of sand there that they can play with.”
This is an unusually revealing comment from Trump. He likes to proclaim that he speaks with directness, though that’s often just a term he uses to describe saying disrespectful things that aren’t true. In this case, though, Trump’s comments seem direct: Who cares. It’s just sand. Let Syria and Turkey fight over it.
Is there any doubt that this is sincerely how Trump feels? That, facing blowback over his acquiescence to Erdogan, he wants to reinforce that the Kurds bore some culpability for their fate and that the area’s not worth defending anyway?
“We’re not a policing agent, and it’s time for us to come home,” Trump said Wednesday by way of rationalizing the abandonment of the Kurds.
About a minute later, his comments turned to another country in the region.
“You read where we’re sending some troops to Saudi Arabia. That’s true, because we want to help Saudi Arabia. They have been a very good ally,” Trump said.
One difference between these allies and the Kurds? Saudi Arabia was paying the United States for the troops. The negotiation over sending troops to Saudi Arabia, Trump added, “took a very short time. Like maybe about 35 seconds.”
Lots of sand to play with there, too, but Trump didn’t bring that up.