A new week and a new debate. We move now from Ukraine and charges of political corruption to the mid-East and charges of an American betrayal as the first act in an inevitable foreign policy debacle.
The crux of the debate is as old as the nation and comes down to the question of when, if ever, we become involved in wars between other nations and what were once known as “foreign entanglements,” in general.
We have a few troops – special forces types, mostly – in Syria, which is an awful nation ruled by an awful man who doesn’t mind dropping, from helicopters, barrels of poison gas on his countrymen. President Barrack Obama said that this barbarity called for his removal from power. Which, in that neighborhood, is generally followed very closely by an ugly and violent death. Muammar Gaddafi serves as a recent example.
Well, Bashar al-Assad still rules over Syria. American troops are there and they serve as a kind of buffer between the forces of Turkey and a self proclaimed nation of ethnic Kurds that considers itself an ally of the United States and an enemy of our enemies in that part of the world. Especially ISIS.
Turkey and the Kurds are enemies. Turkey is a member of NATO and thus an ally of the U.S.. So we are committed to coming to the aid of Turkey In the event of an attack by, say, Russia. Which is an ally of Turkey’s in the fight against the Kurds.
This is how things go with our interventionist foreign policy.
If one were to bring it down to good guys vs. bad guys, then we should be on the side of the Kurds and continue to stand with them and serve as tripwire between them and the Turks. But, then, if the Turks really want to get at the Kurds, a few hundred special forces troops – no matter how elite and good they are – will not be enough to stop them.
That would require troops in the thousands, tanks, air-power, and the rest. And there would be casualties and possible hostile action with Russia.
Donald Trump campaigned against our wars in the mid-East and promised that, if elected, he would being the troops home. So when he proposes getting those American troops out of Syria, he is delivering on that pledge.
Foreign policy types in Washington, the media, and elsewhere are deploring the withdrawal as an abandonment and a betrayal of the Kurds. And they have a point.
As U.S. betrayals go, it wouldn’t be the first time and it wouldn’t be the worst.
In the early days of the Cold War, we talked a good game when it came to possible uprisings in eastern European countries that had been occupied by the Soviet Union. When the Hungarians revolted we responded by doing … nothing.
It was the right decision. Bad as the Soviet suppression in Budapest was, another World War would have been worse. Much worse.
And, then, there was Vietnam. Before he lied us into that war, and when he was still vice-president, Lyndon Johnson made a visit to what was then South Vietnam and came home calling its leader, Ngo Dinh Diem, “the Churchill of Asia.” A few months later, this Churchillian figure was toppled and assassinated in an American backed coup. We we looking for better Vietnamese leadership in what was to become an American war. But there were many, many Vietnamese who were our loyal allies. Right to the end.
When we abandoned them.
Henry Kissinger had a nice, mordant phrase for it. “While it might be dangerous to be an enemy of the United States, it is absolutely fatal to be a friend.”
Pulling those American troops out of Syria will not recall images of the Marines raising the flag on Mount Suribachi. But, then, we left Iwo Jima when we’d won there and went on to finish the war at a cost of many thousands of lives. It took two atom bombs to convince Japan that it had no choice but surrender.
So if we aren’t willing to make serious sacrifices and take serious casualties and we don’t have an idea of what victory looks like and a plan for achieving it … well, then, perhaps we ought not to commit ourselves and set ourselves up to shamefully betray an ally … again.
It might be one of the great virtues of America that it doesn’t do foreign affairs and intrigue very well. America, as John Quincy Adams memorably put it, “…goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.”
Geoffrey Norman is a former editor of Esquire magazine and is a regular contributor to the Wall Street Journal, Weekly Standard and National Review. He has authored more than 15 books and remains active shaping public policy discussions. He lives in Vermont.