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The cynical rationale behind Trump’s decision to pull out of northern Syria

What might most distinguish Trump’s decision is not the withdrawal itself, but the typically shambolic way the president went about it.

Tel Abyad
Smoke rises above the Syrian border town of Tel Abyad, as seen from Akcakale, Turkey, on Sunday.
REUTERS/Stoyan Nenov

Even in the midst of an impeachment inquiry, President Trump’s decision to pull U.S. troops from northern Syria, enabling a Turkish offensive against Kurdish fighters, has prompted howls of protest — including from prominent Republicans who otherwise can barely bring themselves to utter a critical word.

The critics have a point. There are good reasons to wring one’s hands, but there is also a cogent “America First” argument to be made in favor of withdrawal — even if declaring policy with a surprise tweet isn’t the way to go about it. There is a third way to look at it, as well: The cynic’s view of how America often conducts foreign policy.

So overall, which viewpoint has the most merit? Let’s go with the cynical one. 

The hand-wringers’ list of worries is well documented, and it was summed up by conservative columnist Bret Stephens in the New York Times. The first concern is the moral cost of abandoning an ally: Allowing Turkey to invade leaves the Kurds, who did America’s dirty work fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, to face a vastly superior force alone.

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But the move also damages Washington’s reputation as an ally; gives the Islamic State a chance to regroup; encourages Iran and Russia (which, a New York Times investigation shows, is bombing hospitals in Syria); and it gives Turkey’s increasingly authoritarian president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a chance to strengthen his hand domestically. Also: It may increase the possibility of a conflict between Iran and Israel. 

Evangelical Christian leaders, who normally are big Trump backers, also are upset. Pat Robertson declared that Trump risks “losing the mandate of heaven” by abandoning the Kurds. Wow.

(For an explanation of the long-running conflict between the Turkish government and Kurdish groups, check out this Council on Foreign Relations primer.) 

A lot of the criticism is accurate, and it is likely to be reflected in an overwhelming, bipartisan effort in Congress to impose sanctions on Turkey for its military action. It comes at a time of political peril for Trump. Even if the Lindsey Grahams of this world won’t criticize him over the Ukraine scandal, this will fuel their private doubts about Trump’s temperament and leadership.

Trump doesn’t appear to care. Pulling back in Syria is popular with the part of his base that loves the “America First” message, and it allows Trump to portray himself as someone willing to make tough decisions.

U.S. policy on Syria has been a muddle throughout the eight-year civil war. The United States either didn’t have much of a chance to influence events there, or didn’t care enough to try. In addition to hunting Islamic State figures, U.S. forces have been making a difference around the margins — balancing the Iranians and Russians and keeping the Turks and Kurds apart — not pushing events toward a solution. Without a solution, it’s easy to see American troops doing much the same thing in Syria for a long time to come — precisely the kind of deployment Trump wants to end. You could cast Trump’s pullback as what happens when a superpower gets tired. It reduces commitments. People get hurt. This time, it’s the Kurds.

But if America is rethinking its role, it would best move slowly and only after making sure everyone knew where Washington’s new boundaries were. That didn’t happen.

Plus, if the president truly believes that “going into the Middle East is one of the worst decisions ever made in the history of our country,” why, exactly, are more troops heading to the region? The Pentagon announced Friday it is sending additional forces to Saudi Arabia, bringing to 3,000 the number dispatched since an attack on Saudi oil facilities last month. Overall, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said 14,000 U.S. troops had been added to the region since May, according to Politico.

Policy toward both Syria and Saudi Arabia is in part about confronting Iran. But let’s give the cynics their due. The United States cares more about Saudi Arabia, which has a lot of oil, than Syria, which has much less. That calculation is even more true for Trump. The Saudis know how to flatter him, and — despite the objections of Congress — they’ve made him complicit in their humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen. In turn, Trump has shielded them from fallout in the death and dismemberment of dissident Jamal Khashoggi. 

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Everyone knows this isn’t the first time the United States encouraged the Kurds, and then stood by and watched them die. It happened at the end of the first Gulf War in 1991, as well. So why did they trust the Americans this time? Because, says Steven A. Cook, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, the Kurds have little choice: “The United States is powerful and can afford to be duplicitous, whereas the Kurds are weak and are thus forced to be credulous.”

Trump’s decision could — probably will — harm U.S. interests. On Sunday, the Kurds cut a deal with the Syrian government, which is propped up by Iran and Russia.

This may also prove to be one more example of the kind of calculation the United States often makes. And what might most distinguish it is not the withdrawal itself, but the typically shambolic way a president impressed by his own “great and unmatched wisdom” went about it.