Why America can’t escape the Middle East

Trump may be responding to a genuine desire to evade endless wars, but partisan excuses for his Syria blunder don’t help Israel.

A convoy of U.S. soldiers in Syria in December 2018. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
A convoy of U.S. soldiers in Syria in December 2018. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Jonathan S. Tobin. Photo by Tzipora Lifchitz.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

The excuses President Donald Trump and his loyal fans continue to put forward for his disastrous decision to give Turkey a green light to invade Syria continue to be as foolish as they are disingenuous. Pretending that it’s not really a betrayal to leave loyal Kurdish allies in the fight against ISIS to the tender mercies of an authoritarian and murderous Turkish regime determined to destroy them doesn’t pass the smell test.

The same is true of efforts to argue that the Kurds aren’t worth our sympathy because they weren’t with us “at Normandy,” as the president preposterously claimed last week. Trashing that brave people because they’re not “all angels” or because they are politically divided is unworthy of a superpower who not long ago was arming and training the same people to do the dirty work in a war against an enemy of America that Americans didn’t want to fight anymore.

But these terrible arguments were just a smokescreen for something that has little to do with the Kurds, whom most Americans couldn’t care less about, or the admittedly complicated politics of Syria and the Middle East. Americans are tired of foreign conflicts.

That’s why, no matter how absurd Trump’s self-justifications for his policy blunder might be or how comically inept his letter to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was as he vainly sought to mitigate the damage he had already done, there’s no sign that his moves there is doing him any political damage.

Trump’s instinctive neo-isolationism and talk about opposing endless wars may be wrongheaded, but it’s not unpopular—and there are good reasons for that.

Americans paid a high price in dealing with the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. The war in Afghanistan was an unavoidable response to Al-Qaeda’s assault on America, yet after 18 years of inconclusive fighting, the reason why that was necessary has been largely forgotten. The decision to invade Iraq turned out to be a mistake, not least because it had the unintended effect of strengthening neighboring Iran.

As Trump’s predecessor learned, escaping that conflict wound up being a lot more complicated than ordering troop pullouts and a president claiming that he had “ended” the war. That’s what President Barack Obama did in Iraq, and the American people cheered. Many of the same people are cheering Trump’s decision to get out of Syria and leave the Kurds to fend for themselves.

Trump’s crude rhetoric about the Kurds is indefensible, but it’s easy to see why his comments about avoiding spilling another drop of American blood in the Middle East resonates with the public.

Even many supporters of Israel are backing him on this decision, though the consensus in the Jewish state is that the American retreat from Syria and its encouragement of Turkish depredations are a blow to the security of Israel and the region, as well as a humanitarian disaster for the Kurds.

Part of this is a matter of blind partisanship. In our current bifurcated political culture, most of the public takes their cue as to how to think about the issues from the president and his opponents, rather than contemplating current events for themselves. If Trump is for it—even if it is something they would have lauded had it come from a Democratic president—most Democrats will still oppose it, as Trump’s stand on Jerusalem illustrated.

The same was true with respect to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Pro-Israel Democrats would have called it appeasement and a disgrace had GOP president made such a deal. But since it was Obama doing the appeasing, they fell into line and supported it without batting an eye. The same people who applauded Obama’s bug out from Iraq are condemning Trump for similar conduct.

Still, there is more to this problem than partisan hypocrisy.

As Obama discovered after his withdrawal from Iraq and humiliating “red line” fiasco in Syria, the price of dishonor can be quite high. Having washed his hands of those countries and punted their fate to Iran and Russia, it wasn’t long before a new threat arose. The establishment of ISIS and its so-called caliphate in large portions of Syria and Iraq was the logical consequence of Obama’s policies. As that terror group expanded the territory under its control (and videos of the hideous atrocities it was committing went viral), Obama had little choice but to reverse course on commit to fighting ISIS.

Trump made an issue of the failure of Obama’s half-hearted campaign against ISIS and vowed that he would defeat the group. And that’s exactly what he did after winning the 2016 election. But with ISIS largely but not completely defeated, he has now reverted to his instinctual isolationism, vowing to escape any more involvement in Syria and leaving the Kurds to their own devices after years of promises by America that they would not be abandoned.

Some Americans outside the Beltway including some supporters of Israel have no problem with what he’s done in Syria because they are blind supporters of the president. Others share his ignorance of a complex conflict and see no reason why Americans should be part of it.

As Obama found out after ISIS atrocities aroused the anger of the public, Trump or his successor will have to respond to Turkish atrocities or those of the next Islamist terror group that will fill the vacuum he is creating by withdrawing U.S. forces.

Islamist terror is an international problem, and not just something Israelis and Arabs have to worry about. Israel can defend itself, but actions that make its neighborhood even more dangerous undermine its security. More than that, allowing Turkey and Iran to do as they like in the region ultimately harms everyone, including Americans who have yet to absorb the fact that their safety is no longer ensured by the oceans that separate them from other continents. Unfortunately, Republicans and Democrats who still imagine that Americans can simply go home and avoid further involvement in the wars of the Middle East are engaging in magical thinking rather than supporting a coherent strategy.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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