by Mitchell Plitnick
With impeachment filling the air and the 2020 election season starting to rev up, it’s a natural time to start thinking of a post-Donald Trump world. While defeating Trump is no sure thing despite his many scandals, it’s also easy to fall into the “anything is better than Trump” trap. It’s just as imperative that we not merely return to the status quo ante: a world of misguided, albeit somewhat more organized and systemic, policy that set the stage for some of the most disastrous Trump policies.
Trump’s decision to remove U.S. troops from northern Syria and unleash a Turkish invasion is the most recent example of the need to thoroughly overhaul our foreign policy. One aspect that needs attention is the absence of international law in our thinking. In his Netzero Newsletter, journalist Robert Wright points out that the Turks’ flagrant violation of international law, and the Trump administration’s green light for it, has hardly been mentioned among the many criticisms Trump is enduring for his foolish decision.
The notion of adherence to international law in the face of military or geo-political interests has been so badly degraded that it’s barely even considered in mainstream foreign policy discourse these days. As Wright expressed it, “If you join the foreign policy establishment in not considering this worth much discussion, I understand. After all, precisely because of the Blob’s longstanding silence on international law, ‘violates international law’ sounds like something abstract and technical, with less emotional force than, say, ‘committed a felony.’”
That Blob he’s talking about engulfs almost the whole scope of foreign policy debate in Washington. It is bipartisan and includes conservatives and liberals and those camps are not nearly as separate as many believe. Hawks and (relative) doves, interventionists and isolationists, can be found in both parties and both camps. In many ways, the unity we see from Congress in criticizing Trump for his precipitous pullout from Syria reflects the widely held belief that foreign policy must “return to normal.” That “normalcy” has never been static. It has ranged from the cold war interventionism of the “Best And the Brightest” in the 1960s, to the various shades of “Realism” in the 1970s and 1980s, to the post-Cold War military reduction, U.S. foreign policy has shifted with global and domestic events, but remained largely within a consensus that prioritizes “the benefits of free trade, active U.S. engagement with the world, and maintaining alliances,” according to Dina Smeltz of the Chicago Council On Global Affairs. I would add that she got the order of priorities correct as well.
That consensus was shaken, but not shattered, by the adventurism of the neoconservatives who called the foreign policy shots in the George W. Bush administration. More than anything else, the Blob’s priorities require stability, and if that means propping up brutal dictatorships and excusing human rights violations by our allies, so be it. Barack Obama came in and restored much of that order, but also tried to completely change the playing field in the Middle East with the Iran nuclear deal, which, he hoped, would eventually lead to a thaw in relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia and moderate Iran’s oppositional behavior in the region, particularly regarding Israel.
Donald Trump’s approach to foreign policy is driven by unenlightened self-interest and impulse. Foreign leaders can manipulate him with flattery and potential investments. His transactional approach makes him suspicious of allies, and resentful at the idea that they might expect him to honor the agreements of other presidents. He sees the rest of the world as customers or subcontractors to be fleeced, or as strongmen worthy of his largesse. Most of all, he has disrupted the order of free trade with his protectionist policies and irresponsible use of tariffs. His impulses have led him to make gravely consequential decisions with no regard at all for the consequences. It is a recklessness that goes far beyond the neoconservative decision to enter into complicated wars with no exit plan and with often unrealistic or ephemeral goals.
But while Trump may have departed from the foreign policy consensus, that consensus still left him the opportunity to do the things he has done. The U.S. presence in Syria was geared toward combating ISIS, a task at which we found some success. The group no longer controls any significant territory, which was the American aim. Whether that aim was satisfactory has always been questionable, as a group like ISIS is, in many ways, more vulnerable when it has territory to attack than when it functions as a stealthy guerrilla operation. The continuing survival of al-Qaeda, and its many offshoots, demonstrates the futility of a military response to an ideological battle that requires a multi-faceted approach that is not centered on military operations more suited to conventional warfare. This has, of course, been the debate since the self-defeating Global War On Terror commenced after the 9/11 attacks.
But in terms of the Syrian civil war, Obama’s policy was always unclear, as he walked a sort of middle road, avoiding direct intervention and constantly searching for a rebel force to support that was both capable and compatible with U.S. interests. Too often, he compromised on one or both of those points, crafting a policy that surely prolonged the war to no good end. The one group that seemed to fit the criteria, the Kurdish YPG, ended up being admirable fighters who have now learned the same lesson their forebears learned to their sorrow: do not trust the United States.
But it’s worth noting, amid all the handwringing over Trump’s betrayal of the Kurds—particularly that of government officials and neoconservative think tanks—that we’ve all known for the past year that Trump intended to abandon the Kurds. He had long talked about it, and tried to do it last December, only to be thwarted by the resignation of his Defense Secretary, James Mattis.
If there was so much concern about Trump abandoning the Kurds, as there should have been, then the proper course was to come up with an alternative plan. Where were these angry congresspeople all that time? Where were the neocon think tanks? Surely Trump would have been open to executing a plan to get U.S. troops out of Syria without being seen as abandoning the Kurds to Turkey. Or, if Trump was determined, for whatever reason, to allow Erdogan to commence his slaughter, the existence of a plan that would have accomplished Trump’s stated goals without that slaughter would have made it more difficult for Trump to abandon the Kurds, and even easier to hold him to account for it.
No one would suggest that an alternative is easy to develop, but the elements for a viable option exist. NATO had an interest in preventing one of its members from committing more war crimes against a stateless people than it already has. Israel is not happy about this turn of events, knowing it strengthens the regional positions of Russia and, most importantly, Iran. Saudi Arabia is not at all eager to see Turkey expand its power and influence in the region either.
Yet despite all the U.S. allies that had an interest in avoiding a Turkish invasion of northern Syria, despite all the things being correctly stated about why this was a terrible decision for U.S. interests, and, most importantly, despite the fact that we all knew for a year that Trump intended to do this eventually, no part of the Blob even tried to come up with an alternative. The inaction was not lost on the Kurds themselves, who spent the last year ensuring they had a plan B, however distasteful they might consider it to be. Now, all these people are screaming at Trump for having done this, when it has been in their power all along to prevent it, or at least provide an alternative that might interest the president.
The betrayal of the Kurds is not the only example of why a post.-Trump foreign policy must do more than just reverse Trump’s criminal bumbling. The ease with which Trump scrapped the Iran deal, despite the massive repercussions for tensions in the Persian Gulf, the destruction of the United States’ trustworthiness on the world stage, and, at last, the dead-end we fortunately reached where Iran’s nemeses—the U.S., Israel, and Saudi Arabia—each tried and failed to get another party to do the actual work of attacking the Islamic Republic, was enabled by the bipartisan disapproval of Barack Obama’s signature foreign policy achievement. The attacks on the deal were unrelenting, and they were led, again, by many of the same neoconservative figures, in and outside of government, who brought about the disastrous invasion of Iraq. Critiques of the deal were dishonest, and transparently fallacious, holding any deal with Iran to a standard no negotiated agreement could possibly reach.
The Blob lives on in Washington despite its repeated, abject failures. The Foundation for Defense of Democracies is still disproportionately represented in mainstream discourse, while the ostensibly liberal Center for American Progress leads the way in supporting far-right leaders like Benjamin Netanyahu and partners with the right wing American Enterprise Institute. Never-Trumpers unabashedly cling to their neoconservative ideology while constantly increasing their presence in mainstream, ostensibly liberal, media. The Blob feted Mohammed bin Salman until the murder of Jamal Khashoggi turned public opinion too far against him for that ugly public relations campaign to be sustained.
As insane as Trump’s decisions on foreign policy have been they have also shown the bankruptcy of the foreign policy establishment in Washington that set up the situations he made so much worse. That rot is bipartisan. Whatever happens in Syria now was entirely avoidable. The fault lies with Trump for lighting the match but the bomb was built by the DC foreign policy bubble that is deeply rooted in both parties.
The U.S. made northeast Syria dependent on at least a token military presence. We needed to change that before we left and should have done so a long time ago. That’s just the latest example of why we must take advantage of the opportunity a post-Trump world presents to rethink our foreign policy from the ground up. American interests are best served by working with allies and promoting international law and human rights. That’s a far cry from what U.S. foreign policy has been, but those are ideals most Americans would support.