The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump may be against ‘forever wars,’ but he’s no dove

Want smart analysis of the most important news in your inbox every weekday, along with other global reads, interesting ideas and opinions? Sign up for the Today’s WorldView newsletter.

In the days since the White House essentially greenlit a Turkish invasion of northeastern Syria, President Trump has struggled to make a confusing set of decisions clear. On one hand, he decided that the American military would not stand in the way of a long-mooted Turkish incursion. On the other, Trump ventured that such an intervention against America’s Syrian Kurdish allies was a “bad idea” and threatened Ankara with economic disaster should its actions cross an as-of-yet imperceptible red line gestured at by the president.

The seeming incoherence didn’t stop there. A year ago, Trump hailed the great sacrifice and struggles of the Syrian Kurdish factions that led the advance against the Islamic State and held territory recaptured from the extremist militants. “They’re great people and we have not forgotten,” Trump said.

This week, though, he echoed the arguments of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that the Turks were taking necessary action against “terrorists” — not the Islamic State, that is, but the Syrian Kurds’ main militia itself, which Turkey views as an analogue of a Kurdish separatist group operating within its borders. For good measure, Trump went on to suggest that it was acceptable to leave the Kurds twisting in the wind because no Kurds fought with the United States on the beaches of Normandy in World War II.

The dramatic developments led to an unusual moment at the United Nations: On Thursday, the United States and Russia appeared to be on the same side thwarting a Security Council resolution that would condemn the Turkish offensive. Meanwhile, critics in Washington and observers elsewhere are still digesting this latest episode of American betrayal of the Kurds and fretting over a possible resurgence of the Islamic State. The U.N.'s refugee agency warned that hundreds of thousands of civilians are in harm’s way as the conflict in northern Syria escalates. Casualties are already mounting on both sides of the border.

Trump, though, took a different tack. This week, he repeatedly explained on Twitter and in front of media gaggles that his priority is to end America’s “endless wars” overseas, bring U.S. soldiers home and let other regional powers reckon with the Middle East’s crises. For Trump, it’s a matter of domestic politics, not foreign policy strategy: Polls show a majority of Americans share his impatience with the country’s decades-long imbroglios in Iraq and Afghanistan and want a change of course. Trump wants to claim that he’s delivering on that promise.

The president “is demonstrating that in his pursuit of ending America’s ‘endless wars,’ no American troop presence abroad is too small to escape his desire to terminate it,” wrote David Sanger of the New York Times, noting Trump’s stated willingness to not just pull U.S. forces out of the Middle East, but also consider ending major deployments in places such as Germany and South Korea.

That’s anathema to many of Trump’s Republican allies in Washington. “American interests are best served by American leadership, not by retreat or withdrawal,” declared Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), an otherwise faithful handmaiden of Trump’s agenda.

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), speaking on Fox News, warned of a “pre-9/11 mentality that the Middle East is no concern to us” and feared that Trump’s decision to stand aside as Turkey invaded could be “the biggest mistake of his presidency.”

But Trump’s actual record doesn’t mirror his rhetoric. Trump has yet to actually terminate any troop deployments. Along the Syrian-Turkish border, his administration just shifted about 50 soldiers away from the front lines. The relatively small American footprint in Syria — approximately 1,000 servicemen — is not on the cusp of leaving, as Pentagon officials reiterated this week.

“We’ve had other presidents who talked about ending endless war, and when push came to shove they weren’t willing to do it,” said Stephen Wertheim, co-founder of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a new Washington think tank that seeks to move U.S. foreign policy away from its long history of military interventions and extended overseas entanglements.

“Trump is a louder version of the same,” Wertheim told Today’s WorldView. “He has escalated the rhetoric and objection to endless war, but so far delivered virtually nothing. In fact, he has intensified most of the military engagements in which the United States is involved.”

As Vox’s Alex Ward noted, the United States launched more airstrikes this September in Afghanistan than it had in any month in the preceding six years. In the summer of 2017, Trump presided over a dramatic spike in aerial bombardments in Syria, as coalition forces — mostly the allied Syrian Kurdish militias now under attack by Turkey — advanced on the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa. Civilian casualties spiked, too. Beyond all this, Trump has also significantly increased American military spending.

None of this is the work of a dove or an “antiwar” politician, as Trump sometimes gets cast. For Wertheim, Trump espouses a blunt form of militarism. “I think he has the desire to dominate others and, if he can’t get his way, then to have nothing to do with them,” he said of Trump.

“I think that interventionists seem to be in on the Trump con,” Wertheim added, referring to his many counterparts in Washington who bemoan Trump’s desire for retreat. “They want to grant that the president is ending endless wars, so that they can extend the mission in Syria, and discredit any restraint or withdrawal.”

On Thursday, with more tweets, Trump offered his debatable version of the state of play. After taking credit for defeating “100% of the Islamic State” — without citing the heavy losses and sacrifices of the United States’ Syrian Kurdish allies — he incorrectly cast current Turkish-Kurdish battles as the product of centuries of conflict. He then suggested the way forward would require a mediated deal between Turkey and Kurdish factions.

On that last note, he’s obviously right. Little will be resolved without a political settlement between Turkey and its Kurdish insurgents, as well as some sort of meaningful resolution to the Syrian civil war. “A secure future for Syrian Kurds requires an internationally supported resolution of the Syrian civil war,” Paul Pillar, a veteran former CIA official, wrote in the National Interest. “Those wishing to criticize Trump over Syria ought to focus not on the troop withdrawal but instead on failing to participate fully in the relevant multilateral diplomacy rather than leaving that function to Iran, Russia, and Turkey.”

Instead, in Syria, Trump has set his desire to withdraw alongside an incongruous goal of pushing out Iranian influence in the country. And if there were any prospects for rapprochement between Ankara and its Kurdish foes, it looks far more unrealistic now, as the tanks roll in and the bombs fall.

Want smart analysis of the most important news in your inbox every weekday, along with other global reads, interesting ideas and opinions? Sign up for the Today’s WorldView newsletter.