The barbarism of America First

As the Kurds have discovered, Trump's foreign policy is chaotic and lethal.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics USA World

US president Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw all US troops from northern Syria and abandon the Syrian Kurds has been roundly condemned.

And rightly so. Since 2014, the Syrian Kurds were America’s principal allies in the fight against ISIS. They had given their lives to push ISIS out of the villages and towns it once claimed as its caliphate, before establishing in its place a secular democracy. And yet, after a phone call between Trump and Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, all that seemingly counted for nothing. Trump effectively gave the Turkish state the thumbs up to use its tanks and missiles to carve a so-called ‘safe zone’ out of Kurdish-held territory. Even one of Trump’s biggest GOP cheerleaders, Senator Lindsey Graham, urged Trump to ‘change course while you still can’.

Graham’s concern is justified. Thanks to Trump’s recklessness, the Syrian Kurds will suffer, as they already are doing, under the Turkish assault. Jihadists from ISIS and assorted lookalike Islamist militias, some now freed from their Kurdish prisons, will revive, vengeful and invigorated. And Syria’s further destabilisation will likely impact on the already volatile situation in neighbouring Iraq. For a decision Trump took so lightly, its consequences will weigh heavily on the Middle East.

But it is a decision that also makes no sense from America’s own geopolitical perspective. In vacating the Syrian battlefield, the US has acted against its own avowed interests. This has become apparent over the past 48 hours, as the Kurds, betrayed by the US, have now understandably sought the protection of the Syrian regime and its leader Bashar al-Assad. That is, Washington’s one-time allies in Syria are now aligned with the very regime the US was seeking to overthrow when it began its intervention in Syria eight years ago. And it’s not just the Assad regime to which the US has ceded ground. It has also let Assad’s international and regional backers, namely Russia and the ‘murderous dictatorship’ of Iran, potentially expand their influence in Syria.

Trump’s decision, then, speaks of the deep chaos and incoherence at the heart of US foreign policymaking.

In part this is an ideological crisis, in which the US remains the global hegemon, but without a global purpose. A geopolitical force without a governing geopolitical interest. The Cold War, which might have once directed US foreign policy, is long gone, of course. But so, too, are the do-gooding dreams of an ethical foreign policy, which once animated US ventures in Iraq and more recently Libya and Syria, before being undone by them. But this ideological crisis, this crisis of geopolitical purpose and strategy, is now also an institutional crisis. High-profile staff are swapped in and out seemingly at will in search of an approach that sticks. Ambassadorial and diplomatic positions go unfilled. And key senior administrative and governmental posts are left vacant. The chopping and changing of individuals, combined with the slow depletion of institutional and diplomatic know-how, leaves a growing vacuum where collective decision-making and purpose might once have been.

This ideological crisis, and the unravelling of institutional authority, not to mention the shedding of staff, has now had one massively important consequence. It has left Trump free to act without the fetters of geopolitical purpose or institutional restraint. His impulses are given free rein. His whims become policy. His tweets inform negotiations. Or at least they do until he changes his mind.

The terrible decision to abandon the Kurds is a perfect example of this. According to reports, Pentagon leaders were all opposed to moving US troops in Syria out of Turkey’s way. But their concerns had no institutional force or authority. ‘We were concerned, but we didn’t think [Trump] would give in’, said a Pentagon official. ‘The entire [Department of Defense] leadership was opposed to the endorsement [of Turkey] and the withdrawal [of troops].’ And yet Trump, in his ‘great and unmatched wisdom’, decided to do it anyway.

The unravelling authority and intellectual depletion of the institutions of government have unleashed and emboldened Trump at his most damagingly impulsive and unpredictable. In an anonymous New York Times op-ed from last year, a ‘top official’ complained that ‘there is literally no telling whether [Trump] might change his mind from one minute to the next’. Fine. Trump is famously capricious. The problem is that the caprice of an individual president has been freed of institutional restraint and geopolitical context.

Of course, Trump claims there is a governing idea to his increasingly unhinged foreign policy — namely, that of America First. But in Trump’s Alice in Wonderland presidency, America First means whatever Trump wants it to mean. It is merely a way to present his impulses, his sudden changes of mind, as the products of some sort of geopolitical strategy. So Turkey is a ‘great ally’, except when Trump is imposing sanctions on it, or threatening to destroy and obliterate it economically.

In fact, Trump’s foreign policy is uniformly chaotic. He threatens to destroy North Korean president Kim Jong-un, and then grants him a photo-op with the US president. Or he takes on and demonises Iran, withdraws from the nuclear deal, and issues military threats — and then, when push comes to shove, he backs down.

For all the bluster and pyrotechnics, even in their own terms Trump’s foreign-policy achievements have been negligible. North Korea continues with its nuclear-weapons programme, and bouts of attention-seeking belligerence. Iran continues to edge towards making its own nuclear weapons. And the US is now more deeply implicated in the mess in Syria than it was under the low-key foreign-policy incoherence of Obama.

Because that is the grisly truth about Trump’s decision to leave the Kurds’ fate in the hands of the Turkish military. He has not adhered to some anti-interventionist creed or put an end to ‘these endless wars’. He has not not intervened. Rather, he has intervened on behalf of Turkey. He has allied the US with Turkey, NATO partner and foreign invading force. And in doing so, he has further implicated the US in the thoroughly internationalised conflict now being waged in Syria, between Iran, Russia and the Syrian government on one side, and Turkey and assorted Islamist militias on the other

Few would disagree that the US needs to extricate itself from Middle Eastern conflicts. So withdrawing troops makes sense. But it should have been a carefully thought-through negotiated withdrawal, drawn up according to a clear strategy. Above all, it should have been done on Syrians’ and Kurds’ terms. It is their land and lives at stake. But Trump and the US haven’t done that. They have withdrawn on Turkey’s terms, according to Turkey’s interests.

Trump can dress up the most catastrophic mistake of his foreign policy so far. But it can’t hide the truth of what is a barbaric testament to the implosion of US foreign-policymaking.

Tim Black is a spiked columnist.

Picture by: Getty.

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A Game

22nd October 2019 at 7:53 pm

Caw, the TDS is strong on this page. Trump Devotion Syndrome. Man can’t do a thing wrong. Ever. Even when he does. It doesn’t count. Its a conspiracy to portray him as wrong.
Sometimes your heroes reveal their feet of clay. That’s okay. You’re allowed to still vote for them or support them or want them to win or want them blessed with an amazing life.
Obviously the other TDSers have created a social contagion. Everyone is nuts when it comes to Trump. For or against.

Really good read. That he couldn’t find some humility to do some good, old fashioned learning about foreign affairs… and from day one, work out how to extricate the US from the middle east. Declaring leave dates, we know, doesn’t quite work…
Business relies heavily on who is in, who is out, who supports you, who is against you, particularly in the snakepit within a corporation.
But it just doesn’t work for governments on a global scale.

“High-profile staff are swapped in and out seemingly at will in search of an approach that sticks. Ambassadorial and diplomatic positions go unfilled. And key senior administrative and governmental posts are left vacant. The chopping and changing of individuals, combined with the slow depletion of institutional and diplomatic know-how, leaves a growing vacuum where collective decision-making and purpose might once have been.”

That is exactly what we have witnessed. What was his name? Scaramucci… that was one interesting week.
When do you settle on who you want to work with? Who do you have faith in and respect their opinions/knowledge/experience and sustain a working relationship? That the moment someone disagrees with him, suddenly they are an idiot and need to go. Its his deep, ravine of a flaw. The narcissism. Its the thrashing out of differing views that you can often find the best path. If he wanted the US out of Syria… why was he waiting for a phone call from Erdogan? Why wasn’t he talking up a coalition force minding the spot, or Europe picking up the tab of keeping them there.
He won’t stop talking up the US-Israeli alliance… well, he’s strengthened Israel’s enemies.
Under Trump, the US is definitely an untrustworthy ally. Happy to indirectly empower your enemies. Thanks… that’s great.

And Australia needs to man up and stop thinking the US will be there to save us. Time we got some nukes. (And we can get some nuclear power whilst we’re at it. Two birds with one stone.)

alex denn

20th October 2019 at 3:31 am

This writer is yet another loony affected with TDS. President Trump is, IMO, the least likely American President to become embroiled in foreign wars. He wants to get America out of all these useless countries in the Middle East and leave the action to the pathetic Europeans with their delusions of military grandeur. The problem for Europe, and the twittering elites, is that America is now self-sufficient (or at least able to satisfy its needs from North America itself) in oil and gas and can afford to leave the Middle East. In the meantime the elites and the European governments will whine and whine and yet not do anything about the problem.

Endtime Boogie

19th October 2019 at 5:00 am

Moral niceties almost always come last in the geopolitics race.

The Kurdistan Workers’ Party, PKK, Kurdish: Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê are commies. As a poor man’s army they do acts of terror in Turkey as the Turks have always worked to destroy the Kurds ever since Ataturk & his Young Turks in the early 20th century.

But they aren’t the moral equivalent of Obama & allies’ ISIS, who were as clearly shown in Judicial Watch FOIA litigated DIA papers (1) were fomented in Syria because it’s an Axis Of Evil™ country as was Libya before Hillary ‘We came, we saw, he died.’ & as Iran is still now. This is why the Neo-Cons still want boots on the ground even though Obama wouldn’t go boots deep when Russia called his bluff & set to destroy ISIS.

The Neo-Cons couldn’t give a G.B Jnr’s snigger for the Kurds, it’s mostly about Iran & a little less Turkey & Russia. ISIS were genocidal proxy useful idiots used to try to maintain the U.S & allies especially Israel’s regional power, they failed, Iran wins again.

The PKK would do best to cut a deal with Assad for limited independance, promise pretty please to stop doing terror in Turkey to get Turkey’s ally Russia to get Erdogan to back off, please.


nick hunt

18th October 2019 at 10:38 am

Note Tim Black’s unhinged, emotional terms and endless, unsubstantiated smears on Orange Man Bad thoughout this ‘analysis’: “Trump’s recklessness, a decision Trump took so lightly, the deep chaos and incoherence at the heart of US foreign policymaking, Trump free to act without the fetters of geopolitical purpose or institutional restraint, His whims become policy, Trump at his most damagingly impulsive and unpredictable, his increasingly unhinged foreign policy, Trump’s foreign policy is uniformly chaotic, when push comes to shove, he backs down, bluster and pyrotechnics, bouts of attention-seeking belligerence…”

This is full-blown Trump Derangement Syndrome, and it ruins the accuracy and credibility of any thinking or writing. Or maybe you should go work for the US Democrats. To get a decent, non-hysterical illuminating analysis, try this:

nick hunt

16th October 2019 at 9:55 pm

There’s no ‘deep incoherence’ in Trump’s foreign policy; he’s simply withdrawing from endless, pointless wars of intervention engineered first ny by Neocons and then Obama, and killing off the hated role of ‘global policeman’, exactly as he promised to voters. No wonder he is so popular with them. But this article oozes hate and unsubstantiated slander against Trump, condemns none of his preecessors for the mess they left him to clean up, and naively lionises the ‘angelic’ Kurds (mostly Muslim and leftist). For a better understanding of Trump’s sincerity and humanity in putting America First, Tim Black should watch him explaining ‘the hardest thing I have to do’. it only takes 5m to wake up.

Michael McHugh

15th October 2019 at 4:48 pm

This military operation by Turkey is not an assault on all Kurds. It is an assault on the PKK, which is a Marxist-Leninist separatist organisation which Turkey blames for many terrorist attacks in Turkey these past few decades. It is understandable that Turkey doesn’t want an organisation like this with a presence on its Syrian border. The West should be grateful to the PKK for its efforts against ISIS, and Trump should do more to support them, but the the PKK doesn’t represent the Kurdish people as a whole. In fact, a large minority of Turkey’s population is Kurdish. Many Kurds serve in the Turkish armed forces. Turkey also has decent relations with the Kurds in northern Iraq.

James Knight

15th October 2019 at 6:01 pm

It is the Kurds in Syria who are under attack. Wasn’t the 1st gulf war over respecting international borders?

jessica christon

22nd October 2019 at 2:41 pm

Maybe. But in GW2 we learned that respecting international borders didn’t really matter after all.

A Game

22nd October 2019 at 7:37 pm

Its about strategic withdrawal. Wanting to get his country out of a never ending nightmare makes total sense. But to leave and allow chaos to reign… what was the point of ever being there, spending money, using manpower, if this is how you wrap it up?
This trend for ripping into the PKK… oh, well, its all justified then. No.. its not, for the above reason. He had to sit and wait… what happened in Syria might have started to take shape… this has just created carnage… and empowered the US’s… non-allies. So US servicemen have taken a hit… for what?

Adamsson 66

15th October 2019 at 4:11 pm

Do you want to know the dirty little secret, the thing Trump couldn’t say? The thing no of his American critics dare say.
He had to withdraw the troops because they could only be there with Turkish help. American power has limits and they couldn’t stop the Turks and they couldn’t afford to make an enemy of Turkey. Trump withdrew the troops rather than have the Turks take them into protective custody

nick hunt

16th October 2019 at 9:58 pm

I wonder if you’d still think like that after watching Trump explain in 5m why he’s ending endless wars of intervention

jessica christon

15th October 2019 at 3:26 pm

I don’t remember President Assad inviting the US into his country, do you? They had no right to be there in the first place, and without the West’s deliberate attempts to weaken the legitimate Syrian government by supporting “moderate rebels” (hah!) ISIS would have never got a foothold there to begin with. It is for Assad to protect the Kurds now, and perhaps Russia will offer help to (if only for the opportunity to embarrass the US).

The lesson is if a foreign ruler decides it’s time to put down a violent revolution in his country then ffs let him do it and keep our noses out – because whats absolutely clear is that we NEVER have any better ideas.

A Game

22nd October 2019 at 7:31 pm

Assad was begging for help from anyone who could give it to him.

brent mckeon

15th October 2019 at 2:20 pm

From another g”Geo political site, says it better than ever I can:

The United States was always going to leave Syria. If the Americans were unwilling to commit 100,000 troops to the overthrow of Syria’s Assad government and its subsequent forcible reconstruction, then there was little reason to become involved in a decades-long, grinding multi-sided civil war.
The primary reason American forces remain in Syria at this point is to limit Iranian penetration. That battle was lost six years ago when then-President Obama allowed the Syrian government to cross Obama’s own red line on the use of chemical weapons against Syrian civilians. Obama made it crystal clear that any U.S. military action would be small scale, focused on Special Operations Forces, and largely dedicated to backing up the Syrian Kurds. Whether under Obama or Trump, an American withdrawal has always been inevitable. It’s just taken seven years of Syrian-Russian-Iranian victories on the battlefield and the large-scale dismemberment of the ISIS Caliphate to make it imminent. Aside from the Iranian vector, American national and strategic interests in Syria are utterly nonexistent.

Amelia Cantor

15th October 2019 at 11:45 am

Of course, Trump claims there is a governing idea to his increasingly unhinged foreign policy

So it’s “unhinged” to try to end the decades of neo-con slaughter and nation-wrecking in the Middle East? Let’s hope the Orange Narcissist never adopts a sane foreign policy, then.

Ed Turnbull

15th October 2019 at 12:24 pm

Amelia, you just defended Donald Trump! How could you?! Didn’t you get the memo? #OrangeManBad! I thought everyone knew that. Now, all over the world, vibrant communities of colour will be wailing, and gnashing their shiny white teeth of colour, because their guiding light has jumped the shark. A sad day Amelia. A sad day indeed.

Winston Stanley

15th October 2019 at 11:23 am

Support national independence, get on the Sinn Fein and SNP websites and make donations today. Independence, sovereignty and self-determination are coming for Scotland and Ireland. A majority in Scotland want an independence referendum within the next few years. Join SNP and find out how you can help.

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The 50% figure backing independence marks a five point increase on the 45% Panelbase registered on average in its polls last year, which mirrored the 45% yes 55% no result of the 2014 independence referendum.

It is up on the 49% recorded in the paper’s last poll in June and is a record high for its regular Panelbase polls on the issue. (The Scotsman, October 13)

nick hunt

16th October 2019 at 10:01 pm

Do you think the seperatists will enjoy their independence under Brussels’ rule?

H McLean

15th October 2019 at 10:33 am

Bashar al-Assad is the legitimate leader of Syria. The American regime should never have become involved in the first place. I like Trump because in political terms he’s a bee in the establishment’s bonnet but like every other US president who has come before him he can’t help making a complete mess when it comes to foreign policy. If you want to criticise US foreign policy in the region, start with Obama and work your way back through Clinton – Syria is widely recognised as Hillary’s war – then George Bush Jr, Slick Willie Clinton and his Secretary of State Madeleine Albright glibly claiming the deaths of 500k Iraqi children was “worth it”, and lastly not forgetting George Bush Sr who abandoned the Marsh Arabs after the first Gulf War in 1991 to God knows what fate.

The point is, when it comes to foreign policy in the Middle East the USA is always toxic and cavalier. Party politics don’t even come into it. The tone of this article is a disgrace. Sure, blame Trump but it’s fair to say he inherited this mess, however there’s more than enough blame to go around.

Ian Davies

15th October 2019 at 1:07 pm

Yes, I do not know enough of the details to opine on outcome here. However, at least he does what it says on the tin, America first. Whether it is ultimately a good move or not, he is withdrawing from where they should never have been and that is what he said he would do. I do not like Erdogan and I feel sorry for the Kurds but a politician that sticks to his rhetoric is a rare commodity.

A Game

22nd October 2019 at 6:08 pm

You’re correct in that American Foreign policy has been as destructive, pointless, self serving as any of its Presidents at any given time have wanted it to be.
The article touches on a faint directionless since the end of the cold war. They haven’t done a very good job of being ethical about any given bogeyman in any given Presidency.
But the problem with Trump is the, as the article says, is foreign policy on a whim. You don’t say, Go for it! and then four days later change your mind… and do so with so much wa nk ery.
And the line about breaking kids up fighting in the car park… or whatever it was. He’s a child with toys at his disposal that are out of his safe age range.
He said yes to Erdagon for one reason… then backtracked. That backs up the confusion T Black illustrates. And the examples of Kim Jong… the North Koreans are still living in the dark… where’s their freedom? Puty… does he love or hate him? Very mixed message, there. It literally is directionless. All the other bumblers at least had some bad idea guiding them.

Perverted Lesbian

15th October 2019 at 10:31 am

Trump is such a prick. The sad thing is, what is going to replace him will be yet more incompetence, in fact, when did ‘compentence’ become unfashionable or an undesirable attribute?

Willie Penwright

15th October 2019 at 10:11 am

It is so refreshing in the wasteland of comment from the ‘media’ to read Tim Black’s clear assessment of events in Syria – no on-the-ground coverage from reporters ‘on the front line’ in Istambul, Washington or Tel Aviv, no bandaged children or analysis from studio guests but just an explanation of what is happening. Thanks.

nick hunt

16th October 2019 at 10:03 pm

How can you call a long list of unsubstantiated slanders against Trump a ‘clear analysis’?

A Game

22nd October 2019 at 7:26 pm

Unsubstantiated? Well… where are we at with Nth Korea and their nuclear missiles? And Little Kim is still in… He did unleash the Turks on the Kurds… then backtracked. What does that tell you?
He has sacked an extraordinarily high number of officials and bureaucrats. He isn’t replacing diplomats, etc. He does faff about with foreign policy. Where are we at with Putin and him? What has he done to counter the Belt and Road Imperialism? Has he managed to wrap Iraq or Afghanistan up? And he has successfully, on a whim… the tweets show that… created another warzone.
I don’t understand why liking him, voting for him, believing in him means he has to be canonised, that his sh*t doesn’t stink, one iota. Perfection in an orange wrapper. Why is it all black and white? America First isn’t a bad idea. American workers are struggling as much as any country. Some real attention does need to be paid to the domestic situation, the micro economy. He promised massive building projects… I’ve never read a headline about a single big project – oh, except the wall. And that’s disappeared from the agenda.
It is always a relief when someone stands up to the woke, PC, progressive dictators. But to do so, doesn’t make one perfection.

Jim Lawrie

15th October 2019 at 9:54 am

It was the advice of the professionals that took the USA into these situations. They have made clear their utter hostility to Donald Trump and he does not trust them. He has taken the attitude that he will do exactly what they tell him not to do, and see what happens. And now Spіkеd come over all interventionist, and big power politics. The Pentagon and diplomatic establishment see themselves disappearing down the plughole as Trump continues with the drainage project, and the experts at Spіkеd come to the defence of the experts across the Atlantic.

The withdrawal of US troop is consistent with his demand that the EU take responsibility in NATO. The EU project will be more difficult to sell if the empire has to be built the hard way. Let’s see all the feminists, SJW’s and liberal elites queue up for their, and their children’s, equal right to serve.

Turkey created a similar buffer zone in Iraq during the Gulf War with US approval. Again, this was due to Kurdish in fighting in the form of PKK hostile action against the newly established Kurdish Regional Government in Northern Iraq, and against Turkey itself. During this period, Iran was concerned not with expanding its role in Syria or Iraq, but with PKK ambitions in Iran’s own Kurdish region. It still is. Iran’s coveted route to the Mediterranean is not through Kurdistan, but through the south, from where they can grandstand to the Muslim world against Israel. That is why the allies first action after Saddam was toppled was to secure the Southern, Shia border between Iran and Iraq.

Trump’s decision will improve his chances in the upcoming election. Erdogan is tapping into Turkish irredentism, which is never far from the surface.

A Game

22nd October 2019 at 7:14 pm

He’s not actually draining the swamp. He’s hacked of anyone who isn’t a ‘yes’ man, but the rest of US politicians… I’m not seeing any changes. He’s just set himself up against the swamp and having fun making it bubble… and they are happily handing him a probable 2nd term.
And these sort of mistakes… that makes him kind of swampish. Just like the Bushes… Obama’s selected hot messes… He’s proving on this front to be no different… Certainly not more effective.

Andrew Leonard

15th October 2019 at 9:34 am

The barbarism of America First must be juxtaposed with the stupidity of long-term American involvement in regional conflicts that cannot be resolved by one-off military interventions.

A Game

22nd October 2019 at 7:17 pm

Yeah… but that means the juxtaposition should be between silly, ignorant, hawkish warmongers with no idea of the geopolitical nature of a region and success via one off military interventions. Iraq… total ignorance of what they were doing in setting their sights on Saddam. (Who’d been their mate.)

Anna Bolick

15th October 2019 at 8:38 am

Our Mutti, which art in Berlin.
Hallowed be Thy shakes.
Thy EU comes, Thy will be done,
on earth, as it is in Brussels.
Give us this day our daily propaganda
And forgive us our lack of pragmatism,
As we forgive those who seek self-determination.
Lead us not into democracy
And deliver us from “the people”.
For Thine is the Reich, the power and the commission
For ever and ever closer union,

Pedro Dias

15th October 2019 at 9:12 am

I totally subscribe, and will take it into consideration next Sunday morning. Worst can happen is to be kicked out of the church…

Pedro Dias

15th October 2019 at 1:29 am

I am ecstatically delighted and disproportionately bewildered with enormous gratification and appreciation for the dispensation of such a tendering and mesmerising information in which the prestidigitation of the concurrent and subsequent matter is thoroughly demonstrated through the nuances alluding to literal and metaphorical context. It is highly imperative to note that, such is the significance of the aforementioned, distortion in any shape or form will result in catastrophic ramifications to which will be the outcome of epic proportions. Thanks for your perusal and God save us from Brexit.

H McLean

15th October 2019 at 10:17 am

In the words of Captain Mainwaring, ‘You stupid boy’.

cliff resnick

15th October 2019 at 11:56 am

I endorse this message!

Pedro Dias

15th October 2019 at 5:18 pm

Too much to take in for you…

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