‘They didn’t help us with Normandy’

(Credit: Steve Breen, San Diego Tribune)

That’s how President Trump yesterday justified his shameless betrayal of Syria’s Kurds, who for years have been the sharp end of the spear in our fight against the Islamic State.

“The Kurds are fighting for their land,” Trump told reporters at the White House during an event in the Roosevelt Room.

“And as somebody wrote in a very, very powerful article today, they didn’t help us in the second World War, they didn’t help us with Normandy as an example. They mentioned names of different battles. But they’re there to help us with their land and that’s a different thing.”

There’s a lot of stupid that we could unpack here. I mean, how many Turkish battalions landed alongside American GIs at Omaha or Utah Beach? (And as an aside, Kurds did in fact fight on the side of the Allies in World War II, helping to stymie a pro-Nazi coup in Iraq then serving under British command in other theaters.) But then, the historical accuracy or inaccuracy of Trump’s justification is really beside the point.

What his comment shines a bright spotlight upon is his overarching tendency to view all relationships in purely transactional terms. The question isn’t what have you done for us before, or even lately, but what are you doing for us right now? The idea of loyalty to an ally is completely irrelevant in this calculus.

By Trump’s entirely self-serving logic, stabbing the Kurds in the back is the perfectly natural thing to do. When they were fighting for us on the frontlines in the war against ISIS, losing nearly 11,000 of their own people in the process, keeping Turkey at bay was the smart play. But now that Trump has declared the caliphate “100% defeated” we don’t need them anymore. So the Kurds are on their own.

As Elliot Hanlon explains at Slate:

The Kurds were an ally worth defending when we had a common strategic interest in defeating ISIS, the argument goes, but now that the U.S. feels it has accomplished that, there’s not much use for the Kurds anymore.

Meanwhile, heavy fighting continues on this second day of the Turkish offensive against the Kurds in northern Syria. But it’s not that Trump bears the our one-time allies any ill will. Far from it:

“With all of that being said, we like the Kurds.”

In Syria, our betrayal is complete

American armored vehicles in Syrian Kurdistan. (Credit: AFP)

Last night, to the surprise of both the Department of Defense and State Department, President Trump announced that the United States would withdraw its military forces from northern Syria, opening the door for neighboring Turkey to stage the invasion of the region it has yearned for.

Turkey’s target: The Kurdish militias that have been our staunchest allies in the fight against ISIS in Syria. This completes the American betrayal of our allies there.

First, in June 2017, Trump killed the program to train and arm moderate Syrian rebels who had been battling both ISIS and the brutal government of Bashar Assad. This was an outcome long desired by Russian president and Trump patron Vladimir Putin, who is deeply invested in seeing his client Assad retain power. I wrote then:

For their part, Syria’s moderate rebels were understandably taken by surprise. Even if the effectiveness of US support had been swamped by the efforts of Russia (and Iran) to militarily prop up the Assad regime, the rebels still didn’t expect to be so unceremoniously hung out to dry:

“The program played an important role in organizing and supporting the rebels,” said Lt. Col. Ahmed al-Saud, who commands the Division 13 rebel group in Idlib province.

He said that “this won’t affect our fight against the regime, the Islamic State or Nusra,” which is the former name of Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate. But he also expressed disbelief that the United States would end its support.

“I don’t think this is going to happen,” he said. “America is a superpower. It won’t just retreat like that.”

And now the Kurds get to experience what happens when America abandons its proxies. Perhaps they should ask the Montagnards or Brigade 2506 how things turn out.

This is a very dangerous moment

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javid Zarif (Credit: Washington Post)

Which one of these statements sends a clear message?

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javid Zarif:

“I’m making a very serious statement that we don’t want war; we don’t want to engage in a military confrontation,” Mr. Zarif told CNN in an interview. “But we won’t blink to defend our territory.

President Donald J. Trump:

“There are many options. There’s the ultimate option, and there are options a lot less than that,” the president told reporters in Los Angeles, while announcing a move to increase sanctions on Iran.

I feel pretty confident that the Iranians are not bluffing. But how confident can anyone be about American intentions?

You tell me how all this is going to play out.

Here’s why ‘Sharpiegate’ matters

The Abqaiq oil facility burns Saturday night. (Credit: Reuters)

Because when this administration claims it has evidence that Iran was responsible for a devastating attack on a Saudi oil production facility over the weekend, the world, and the American public, is right to be skeptical.

President Trump, enabled by craven and opportunistic aides and advisors, lies the way the rest of us breathe. As my friend and colleague Steve Saideman writes at his blog:

[W]e know that the Trump Administration has no credibility–it has lied about a great many things, so even if they come out with some evidence of either Iranian complicity (and Iran is almost certainly at least complicit) or Iran guilt, it will be easy for folks to dismiss these claims.

Let’s be honest. Can a president who would take a Sharpie to alter a weather forecast map in a childishly obvious attempt to cover for an inconsequential mistake, and then mobilize his Commerce Secretary to threaten to fire some of the nation’s top weather officials unless they also lied to support the president’s lie, be trusted to tell the truth on a matter of real consequence?

Even now, while the Trump administration claims photographic evidence proves the attacks came from Iranian territory, the Saudi government has so far declined to back that conclusion, according to Beirut-based reporter Dion Nissenbaum of the Wall Street Journal:

This all has real consequences, because Trump has again turned to Twitter threatening American military retaliation, raising the specter of triggering what virtually all observers realize would be an absolutely catastrophic war.

Of course this is not the first time that Trump has made a threat like this against Iran, as I’ve commented on here and here. Threats that this president, who seemingly believes tough talk is as good as tough action, has in every case failed to follow through on. I put it this way back in the good old days of “fire and fury”:

The problem is that Trump simply has no credibility. His words are not believable and therefore his threats likely carry no weight with North Korea or anyone else for that matter. Not even the American public believes what they hear coming out of the White House. So why should our adversaries?

Trump routinely lards his rhetoric with threats, violence, and aggression. Such language was part and parcel of his stump speeches as a candidate, reared its head in his inaugural address, and comes out when he talks to or about his political opponents and adversaries.

And he routinely fails to follow through on the threats he makes. He threatens to force Mexico to fund his border wall, but Congress is scrounging for the money. He threatened to withdraw from NAFTA but hasn’t. He threatened a trade war with China but was talked out of it. He threatened Germany over what he believes to be unfair terms of trade. He threatened to lock Hillary Clinton up and sue James Comey. Neither seems to be sweating over it.

Couple all of this with Trump’s penchant for lying and his administrations overall lack of credibility when it comes to the threats it so easily tosses off, and the danger is clear.

The key to successful application of coercive diplomacy – in short using threats of force to either deter an opponent from action, or to compel him to act – relies on more than the capability to inflict an unacceptable level of punishment if your opponent fails to comply. It also requires credibility. The opponent must believe that you will follow through on the threats you’ve made. Without that belief, coercion fails.

And then you’re stuck.

Fail to follow through and you create an impression of weakness, the perception that you are either unable or unwilling to deliver on your threats, a blowhard whose blustering can be safely ignored in the future. Or use the force you’ve threatened and risk dragging yourself into a military conflict no one wanted and which could easily spiral out of control.

The perception of weakness has dire consequences in international politics, which is why most responsible foreign policymakers are very cautious when it comes to the threats they make. Sadly, responsible policymakers are in short supply in this White House.

We’re going to have to wait to find out what the fallout from this particular episode is going to be. I’m not optimistic.