No Friend to the Kurds

Trump and Erdogan. Brussels, July 2018.

A lifetime ago, I wrote a paper on the semantics of threatening for a course I took at the small liberal arts college where I was an undergrad. I don’t remember what my line of argument was. I do remember being complimented by the professor for my thoroughness. I am sure, however, that it was only later that I grasped a fundamental fact about my topic: the need to utter a threat is inversely related to its power.

A case in point is Mr. Trump’s recent threat directed toward Turkey. Mr. Trump averred that, should Turkey use the opportunity presented by the impending withdrawal of US forces from Syria to liquidate the troublesome Kurdish enclaves huddled along the Syrian side of the border, the result would be that he would “devastate” Turkey’s economy. The YPG, stalwarts in the fight against ISIS, have been put in a bad spot by Mr. Trump’s intemperate decision to disengage from this particular catastrophe. There is something grimly impressive in the fact that Mr. Trump, in his inimitable fashion, has managed to find one of the very small numbers of ways to make their situation even worse than it was.

US foreign policy has been in a state of severe convulsion almost since the moment of inception of the current administration. Foreign policy, so the incoming president seemed to believe, was a pantomime in which cagey foreigners took out lunch money and then cocked a collective snook at our soft-hearted efforts at fixing the world’s problems. In the future, under the rubric of “America first” people would pay their share and do as we said, or we would take our toys and go home, our interests to be promoted at the point of a bayonet (or an ICBM).

Conducting policy in this way had a corrosive effect on America’s standing in the world, confusing and irritating our allies without unduly discomfiting our enemies. Indeed, some of the latter learned that achieving advantage was simply a matter of securing a one on one meeting with the great man, who was liable to give away the store with the appropriate massaging. Kim Jong Un, hardly the likeliest candidates managed to finesse the president from “we’re going to burn your house down” to “hold on while I cancel these joint manoeuvres with the ROK” with some vague promises and a bit of glad-handing.

There is every reason to suspect that Mr. Putin has made this his stock in trade. Even if one doesn’t believe the stories of Russian kompromat, the efforts of the Russian leader to get confidential facetime with Mr. Trump (and the willingness of the latter’s entourage to facilitate this) are the sort of thing that out to give one pause.

Having sold himself as a hard-headed realist and a savvy negotiator, Mr. Trump spent the first fifteen months demonstrating the vanity of these claims. With the nation’s international reputation in tatters, Mr. Trump decided it was time for bold action. With H. R. McMaster departing the position of National Security Advisor, the president wanted a replacement whose views were consonant with his own, both in direction and stridency. His pick for the position, former UN Ambassador John Bolton, amounted to serving leftovers from a meal that nobody liked the first time around.

Bolton, who resembles nothing so much as an exceptionally grumpy Mark Twain impersonator, has spent the bulk of his professional life bouncing back and forth between government service and what one might call the right-wing policy intelligentsia (the American Enterprise Institute being one important port of call). Coupled with Mike Pompeo, Mr. Trump’s replacement at State for the insufficiently truculent Rex Tillerson, the United States now had the most unstintingly aggressive foreign policy team in its history. And what it meant stood ready to be loose, with all the power that having few scruples and little understanding can give.

Mr. Bolton is a man of policy obsessions, not the least of which being limiting the power of Iran. This is particularly ironic given his service in the administration of Bush the Younger, whose ill-conceived and ill-executed policy in Iraq and Afghanistan did more than any other US administration to augment Iran’s power in the region.

To be clear, the US involvement in Syria has been notable for neither clarity nor unqualified success. The conflict is dynamic and multilateral, lacking identifiable white hats, and involving the sort of nuance that the current administration has shown little capacity for coping with. Although ISIS has been beaten back (for the time being), the Assad regime remains in power, seemingly unchastened in its tendencies toward violence and cronyism. The restabilisation of the Syrian government, which the withdrawal of US troops seems to concede, is also a concession to Iranian regional power.

Practically the only group that one could really pull for were the Kurds. Backed by the US government, they had struck out from their enclaves in Rojava against ISIS, proving time and again to be effective. Their approach to social and gender politics was also rather more consonant with those of the European and American leftists than anyone else in the region (although there is some debate about how it actually shakes out in practice).

In any case, the fact that the YPG and PYD are allies of the United States, having expended blood and treasure in a common cause is one issue in Syria on which there is real clarity. Their prospects in the current situation are poor. The Turks view the YPG as a terrorist organisation due to its links with the PKK and want nothing to do with Kurdish nationalist aspirations either in Turkey or Syria. Most Syrian factions have a similarly jaundiced view of the prospect of the Kurds carving out a national entity in Northern Syria. A report by the International Crisis Group in September warned that a precipitous US pullout would result in a “mad scramble for dominance” in northern Syria. This seems prospect now looms large, and Mr. Trump’s desire to extricate himself from a situation which he finds distasteful and/or boring seems likely to have grim consequences for the Kurds however things shake out.

Faced with this prospect, Mr. Trump turned to the one mode of action that he knows best: bullying. But this approach, which often works in the world of real estate speculation, has limited applications in international politics. As anyone who has ever dealt with gang wars or small children will know, one should never, ever, make a threat on which one ultimately cannot make good. On the face of it, Mr. Trump does have the power to wreak negative consequences on the Turkish economy. In the wake of his announcement, the Turkish lira nosedived and there is little doubt that American disfavour can cause the country and its citizens a lot of pain. But Mr. Trump has signally failed to recognise exactly what degree of power he holds over Mr. Erdogan’s government.

By way of comparison, one could look at the case of Greece and its attempts to fight off the malign attentions of the EU money men. In that case, Greek attempts to fight their way out from crushing debt were met with threats by the EU of measures that really could cause the Greek economy to collapse. But the Greeks are currently a semi-sovereign member of the EU, using a currency over which they have no control whatsoever. This is a relatively closed system, one in which those making the threats hold practically all the cards.

In the case of Turkey, by contrast, the lack of institutional links with the United States gives Mr. Erdogan’s government much greater latitude in how to conduct itself. Ultimately, the Turks do far more business with China, Russia, and Germany than they do with the United States. Moreover, Mr. Erdogan is perhaps the leading light in Islamist populism. Actions by the United States that harm Turkish interests are likely to make him more popular, not less. It is hard to imagine how, in current circumstances, Mr. Trump’s administration could get sufficient purchase to prevent the Turks from pursuing what they view as a clear policy interest against the Kurds.

Most importantly, in expressing himself in this manner Mr. Trump boxed himself in, and not for the first time. One might have thought that the current impasse over funding for the border wall might have impressed upon him the inadvisability of intemperate gestures. Unfortunately for Mr. Trump, a threat whose consequences cannot be fully realised indicates the weakness of the threatener. This is not to say that a threat communicated to the Turkish government in the appropriate manner might not have had the desired effect. The most effective threats are often those that are implied, not articulated. But shouting it in the public sphere will often motivate the target of the threat not to seem like the sort of person (or government) that can be effectively threatened.

The myth of Trump as an effective negotiator has been definitively debunked. Surrounded by abettors who judgment is no less questionable than his own, Mr. Trump has managed to create a situation in which the Turkish government has more, not less, in terms of motivation to drop the hammer on the Kurds on both sides of the border. Perhaps the Turks will stay in NATO, but being treated in this way is corrosive for their connections with Europe, and destructive for the long term interests of the United States, and for those of the better angels of human nature that have hung around like epigones in the Syrian conflict.

Photograph courtesy of NATO. Published under a Creative Commons license.