Lost: American foreign policy in the Trump era

A trip to Washington reveals a breakdown

KURDISH PESHMERGA troops overlooking ISIS-held territory in September. (photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
KURDISH PESHMERGA troops overlooking ISIS-held territory in September.
(photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
When I was younger I used to like to buy books about almost everything, particularly politics and war. Through that compulsion I gobbled up Henry Kissinger’s White House Years, Years of Upheaval and Years of Renewal which tell the tale of US policy from 1969 to 1976. In the imagination of US foreign policy there is some sort of strategy. It is marked by policy statements, State of the Union addresses by presidents, and momentous moments such as the bombing of Pearl Harbor or the Bay of Pigs invasion.
Rarely has US foreign policy seemed to become as chaotic as under the current US administration. This was made clear by US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from part of Syria on October 6, and then by his decision to withdraw completely from the country on October 13, except for a small region near the Jordanian border. But then that decision was reversed again and again, until on October 27, when US military vehicles that had left Syria, headed back, now driving through checkpoints of the Syrian regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who must have wondered, “I thought you were leaving?” Little did the regime know that just hours later eight US helicopters would fly over Syria to raid a hideout of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, killing the ISIS leader. The Trump administration had been planning the raid for weeks, even as it said it was withdrawing.
Through this chaos have come depressing scenes of Kurdish civilians pelting US vehicles with tomatoes, angry that the US opened Syrian airspace – which it had controlled – to Turkey, resulting in their bombing Kurds with whom the US had been working. The general feeling in major US media is that Trump “betrayed” the Kurds. The US Congress feels the same way and it has excoriated the administration and held hearings on October 21-22 to try to figure out what the US has been doing wrong.
In some ways, the chaos of the recent months under Trump was inevitable because Donald Trump came into office with no real experience in government or foreign policy. But, he wasn’t the first person to assume the office without a major background in these issues. Usually, when presidents have felt hobbled by the challenges abroad they have had powerful advisers. Trump did not bring those into office either. His first Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, was an oil man who also lacked experience. His first National Security Adviser was Michael Flynn, who had to resign almost immediately due to a controversy involving Russia. He was replaced by H. R. McMaster as National Security Adviser in February 2017, who served until former CIA director Mike Pompeo took over in March 2018. Tillerson was fired in a tweet in March as well.
Trump’s Team II on foreign policy was made up of Pompeo and John Bolton, the national security adviser brought in after McMaster. Bolton, a hawk on Iran and an American nationalist, was not keen on Russia and his policies ostensibly dovetailed with Trump’s own concepts of Americanism. Bolton was not an isolationist and he appeared too eager for war with Iran. He was fired in September 2019.
Setting the stage for the October crisis in Syria was another problem the administration had. Trump initially surrounded himself with generals and military people, including James Mattis as Secretary of Defense and Chief of Staff John Kelly who served from July 2017 to January 2019. This should have been a good team, bolstered by Marine General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs from 2015 to September 2019.
But, Trump’s generals went away one by one until his second string was composed of Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, confirmed in July 2019, and Robert O’Brien, who came to the National Security Adviser position on September 18.
One gets a sense that Trump was alone and isolated in September on the eve of making his momentous Syria decision. He was facing an impeachment inquiry over a controversy in Ukraine, another stumble that was made possible by bad advice and bad instincts. Trump lashed out at the intelligence community, the media and others, appearing surrounded by enemies.
In that context, a phone call with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan caught Trump on his back foot. He agreed to let Turkey launch an operation into northern Syria. The White House put out a statement without consulting its own Syria envoy James Jeffrey. Trump didn’t discuss the decision with France or the UK, which have troops in Syria, or with his commanders running the Syrian war and the war on ISIS.
From Trump’s vantage point, the Syrian decision was a Road to Damascus moment. He could alter history by withdrawing troops. In his view, it was only a few dozen troops along the Syrian border with Turkey. The Kurdish and Arab residents, threatened for months by rising rhetoric in Turkey saying that Ankara would invade their lands, were left defenseless. Within two weeks of Trump’s decision more than 200,000 people would flee, 12,000 of them crossing into Iraq seeking safety.
I WAS ALREADY going to Washington on October 15 in the midst of the crisis to talk about my new book about the war on ISIS. Oddly, I had written that Turkey was likely to launch an invasion and that Washington, forced to choose between Turkey’s demands and defending its partners in Syria, would accept Turkey’s demands. It’s important to remember the US sent forces into Syria in order to defeat ISIS, but the US was also involved in supporting the Syrian rebels under the Obama administration. Trump ended that in 2017, to focus on the ISIS war.
The Syrian conflict divided American policy makers. Some viewed it through the lens of Iran’s role in the region. For those who supported the Iran deal, they thought the US should dial back its opposition to the Assad regime and focus on fighting ISIS. For others the rising of Iran’s influence in Syria was a direct threat to Israel. Pompeo and Bolton believed in the latter. Others, such as former anti-ISIS envoy Brett McGurk, appeared to be less concerned about Iran’s role. Instead, McGurk and his team had been concerned about Turkey’s role in Syria.
Although Turkey is historically a US ally – a Cold War legacy – it has since grown closer to Russia and Iran. Turkey helped Iran evade sanctions and it has purchased Russian air defense systems. It will likely buy Russian warplanes. Turkey worked closely with Russia and Iran to create ceasefires in Syria since 2017. Although Turkey has backed the Syrian rebels, it has sought increasingly to use them to fight Kurds.
In Ankara’s view, the Kurdish groups in Syria, led by the People’s Protection Units (YPG), are part of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The US partnered with the YPG, creating a group called the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in 2015 to fight ISIS. The YPG were successful ISIS fighters, they helped save Yazidis from ISIS genocide and defended Kurdish areas in eastern Syria in 2014. With US air cover, they liberated large areas and with US Special Forces they pushed ISIS out of Raqqa and defeated most of the “caliphate” by March 2019.
Turkey didn’t accept the US role in Syria. It preferred Russia or Iran. It wanted the SDF defeated. To that end, it prepared a military offensive, pressuring the US to allow it to take over a “safe zone” along the border extending 30km. deep into Syria. That would mean Turkey would run almost all the Kurdish areas of Syria.
Kurds feared ethnic cleansing. They had good reason to fear. In January 2018, Turkey invaded a Kurdish area called Afrin in northwest Syria and 160,000 Kurds fled. Turkish-backed Arab rebel groups, many of them extremists, looted Kurdish areas and destroyed holy sites of minority Yazidi communities. In many ways, the Syrian rebel groups Turkey helped form into the Syrian National Army looked a lot like ISIS in its vows to “behead the infidels.” This put the US in a quandary. The US wanted to defeat ISIS but didn’t want a war with Turkey. When push came to shove, Trump opted to leave.
I arrived in DC on October 15 at the height of this crisis and went directly to the Kurdistan Regional Government’s local office. The KRG is an autonomous region in northern Iraq. I’ve reported from there many times during the war on ISIS. Although the leading parties in the KRG do not get along well with the SDF, they are both allies of the US and both oppose ISIS. They also fear instability. The KRG was concerned that if Turkey’s offensive continued it would cause refugees to flood into the Kurdistan region in northern Iraq. In addition, Turkey might try to expand its presence along the border.
Turkey is already involved in military operations in northern Iraq against the PKK. An expanded Turkish role could include Turkey seeking influence in Mosul and Sinjar, key areas near the KRG. Turkey historically considers those areas as part of a sphere of influence dating back to the Ottoman Empire. It also wants to defend the Turkmen minority in areas such as Tal Afar and Kirkuk.
THE PROBLEM for the KRG was that it was watching US influence erode to its northwest. The US was supposed to stay in eastern Syria for years. In fact, Bolton and Pompeo had indicated that the US would stay until Iran left. That was part of the US “maximum pressure” campaign rolled out in the summer of 2018. The US, Mattis had said, would also stabilize Syria.
This could take a decade. Suddenly the US was leaving, opening the door to Iran, Turkey and other powers. For the KRG this was concerning. The US should have been investing more in stability in northern Iraq and eastern Syria, not walking away. For Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan region, the concern was made worse by the two-year anniversary of the Kirkuk crises when Baghdad took the city of Kirkuk from the Kurdistan region in a military campaign backed by the US. Baghdad was punishing the Kurds for having a referendum.
Many Kurds felt betrayed in October 2017. They had hoped Trump would stand with them, but he had shrugged his shoulders. Now he was shrugging again, comparing the Kurds and Turks to kids on a playground.
Washington in October was wrapped in pleasant weather. The second night in town, while Vice-President Mike Pence and Pompeo were heading to Ankara to try to push for a ceasefire, I went out to a bar called the Green Zone. It seemed appropriate because it was named after the center of US power in Baghdad after the 2003 invasion to topple Saddam.
What a different time 2003 had been when the US was at the height of its power in the Middle East. In those years, after George H.W Bush’s Gulf War and the Clinton years, George W. Bush wanted to wade into Iraq to preempt its use of weapons of mass destruction. That may have been mostly nonsense, but the administration believed it could re-shape Iraq into an American ally and democracy.
Bush spoke about an axis of evil, involving Iraq and Iran. The idea was that the US would use its military force to topple regimes like Saddam. Other countries, like Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and Syria’s Bashar al Assad were concerned. The Bush years were a hybrid transition from the years of America playing “global policeman” and conducting humanitarian interventions, to trying to reshape the world through campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Green Zone was a symbol of that power.
By 2019, the Green Zone was a symbol of US failure. Iranian-backed militias had moved into Iraq and pro-Iranian parties ran the government. Protesters who took to the streets in early October were shot down by snipers, 150 of them were killed. Iraq was becoming a more thuggish and chaotic state, not a success story.
Politicians wanted the Americans out again, they told the US that Trump could not use Iraq to monitor Iran. Iraq even told Trump not to reposition troops from Syria to Iraq. How embarrassing for the US, going from remaking Iraq to begging to move a few troops there. It is appropriate that Washington has a Green Zone bar evoking Iraq with Arabic music and arak flowing. It is symbolic of the reversal of fortune for the US.
The long-arc of US power in the Middle East has gone from being all powerful to having to face challenges from Iran, Russia, Turkey, and ISIS. US allies are dwindling. US politics has made Middle Eastern foreign policy into an intensely partisan issue. That was clear from wandering the halls of the US Senate.
There are three Senate office buildings, Russel, Dirksen and Hart. They seem to embody three ages of America as well. Russel conjures up feelings of Greece and antiquity. That must have been what the American Republic believed it was in 1908 when the building was completed. The Dirksen building feels more like the America of the baby boom age, the roaring 1950s, and it was completed then. A tunnel leads under the building to connect to other buildings. It reminds one of the nuclear era, when people hid in bomb shelters fearful of the Soviets.
The Hart building, the most recently constructed, has modern art in it, and has all the hallmarks of an office building at a large America university. It’s light and modern, but with no feeling to it. That, more than anything, embodies US policy today. Gone are the ideals of the early 20th century. Gone is the notion of American power of the 1950s. Today’s America is more cynical and that pessimism can be tangibly felt in Washington.
In a series of meetings on “the hill” in Washington, it was clear that US policy has become aimless and there is skepticism about what the US role globally should be in this century. There are feelings that the US decision in Syria is a bit of a turning point, part of a longer decline, but a kind of denouement. The US has lost Kurdish allies and given up strategic real estate to its adversaries.
US allies get little love in Washington. Although there is a lot of interest in Israel, many others, such as Saudi Arabia or Turkey are seen as fading allies. The Gulf, wealthy and pro-America, is seen as unable to accomplish much. It needs the US, and the US sees some of its leaders as effective, particularly in the UAE. Areas like the Kurdistan region are taken for granted.
This is quite different than the era of John F. Kennedy’s “support any friend,” and it’s not even the era of Kissinger’s realpolitik. Domestic politics inform US foreign policy today. Trump’s “America first” is an example of that. This isn’t the first time that this has happened in US history. In the 1920s, domestic politics dominated and the US retreated from Woodrow Wilson’s ideas of the US playing a role in global peace. FDR had to spend a decade changing that.
Another concern in the US is that the US has a problem in its national defense strategy. Some policy makers want to get back to big power politics, away from the counter-terrorism strategy of the post-9/11 era. That means halting putting the focus on special operations that dominate US strategy in dozens of countries across Africa and the Middle East where the US operates.
It means getting back to confronting China and Russia. That means jettisoning small wars in places like Syria and even reducing the “long war” that has been the war on terror since 2001. After all, as some US Democratic candidates have noted, the US has been in Afghanistan so long someone born on 9/11 is old enough to serve. Almost all the leading Democrats appear to agree that the US should leave Kabul.
This leaves a Janus-faced policy in US strategy. Some want to confront Iran. Others want to confront China and Russia. Some think that the counter-terror strategy has alienated Sunni Muslim countries and potential or historic allies like Turkey.
UNLIKE IN THE era of Kissinger, or even under Obama and Bush or Clinton, there is no interest in major high level meetings or summits with Russia or other large countries. There is no stomach for the kind of summits Teddy Roosevelt once did to end the Russo-Japanese war. Instead, the US seems incapable of even ending fighting in Syria between its own ally and Kurdish partners. The US trained 100,000 members of the SDF, but then couldn’t stop airstrikes on them. The US doesn’t appear to be leading when it comes to coalition building or consensus.
The Trump administration openly admits that and even if it wanted to lead, it doesn’t have the footprint to do so, lacking key ambassadors and not even consulting its own envoys. It badly bungles policies such as working with Ukraine, and sacrifices them for domestic gain. What seemed like a “Trump doctrine” of trying to get transactional deals with places like North Korea through unorthodox threats and carrots, has not made much progress. The US also telegraphs its bluffs, such as with Iran. After threats in May, Iran attacked oil tankers in Saudi Arabia and likely fired mortars at US bases in Iraq. It downed a drone. And there was no retaliation. Between that and the US being threatened into leaving Syria by Turkey, the US looks weak.
While many in Congress talked tough on sanctioning Turkey over its attack on the SDF in Syria on October 9, by October 17 the threats had lost their wind. A ceasefire paused Turkey’s attacks and Russia and Turkey agreed to work together towards stability on October 22.
This would see the US sidelined. Trump, reversing course again, said the US would stay in Syria to guard oil wells. He even appeared to invite the SDF general commander Mazloum Abdi to Washington. This was a major change from days before when he seemed to be abandoning the Kurds. A Kurdish official linked to the SDF, Ilham Ahmed, was also in Washington pressing for support and expressing disappointment in the US policy changes.
As I wandered one of the brick-lined underground passageways between the Senate office buildings, a gaggle of reporters surrounded a man. It was Sen. James Risch ( R- Idaho), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He was speaking about condemning Turkey for its operation.
If there is one saving grace from the chaos impacting US policy, it is that many senators take their work seriously and wanted answers from the administration. This included voices on the right and left, from Senators Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) to Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Marco Rubio (R.-Florida), Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-New Hampshire).
The problem for a democracy is that its parliament or in this case Congress can’t run foreign policy or the military. Someone has to be what George W. Bush called “the decider.” In an ideal system of Clausewitzian policy the decider not only has good advisers but the team all works together to achieve a goal. But hearings by the Senate revealed that Jeffrey, the US Syria envoy and anti-ISIS envoy, didn’t speak sufficiently to the Pentagon about what it was doing in Syria, and was not consulted by the President.
It appeared that in Syria the Pentagon was conducting one war and the State Department another. State wanted to work with Turkey and sideline the SDF at peace talks in Geneva. The Pentagon wanted to help the SDF and fight ISIS. The President wanted to leave. When Trump had decided to leave it appears that some Pentagon officials were able to convince him to stay and defend the oil from the Russians and Syrians. This put the US in the awkward position of re-entering parts of Syria it had abandoned, driving past Syrian regime and Russia vehicles to get to Deir al-Zor on the Euphrates River to defend the Omar oil field and Conoco gas plant.
Trump’s Syria decision motivated concern among the Trump base. This included Evangelicals and others who felt that the US was abandoning allies who fought ISIS and that the US was empowering jihadists who threaten Christians in Syria. Some likely sent the President videos of the abuses that Turkish-backed groups were doing. This included the murder of Hevrin Khalaf, an unarmed female politician, murdered by Turkish-backed Syrian rebels. Turkey’s press praised the murder as a “successful operation.” Trump was changing his tone by October 20, praising his own ceasefire, which Turkey didn’t even call a ceasefire, and seeing himself as a historic figure working to protect the Kurds from Turkey. It was a far cry from comments after October 6 when he positioned Syria as a waste of US energy.
But in the larger game for Middle East influence the US was still playing checkers while its adversaries play chess. Iranian, Russian and Turkish policy are more consistent. The US policy is ad-hoc and chaotic. Ramifications could be felt in Iraq where Iran was weighing its next move.
THERE WAS A realization that the US does not have a strategy. On October 26, Iraq’s Hadi al-Amiri, head of the powerful Badr paramilitary groups and head of the Fatah Alliance in parliament blamed the US and Israel for protests in Iraq. He was joined by other voices from the Shi’ite militias in Iraq, loosely called the Popular Mobilization Units. These groups want the US to leave and they want to carve out a road of influence through Syria to the Golan and Lebanon to threaten Israel and dominate the region. In the absence of strategy, they sensed they might be able to push Washington some more. But they were reticent about direct attacks that might anger an erratic Trump administration and cause the US to stay.
Five days in Washington meeting with voices from across the spectrum, in Senate offices and think tanks, made clear that the search for a policy is taking place. A balkanized and partisan foreign policy, dominated by those who are either for working with Iran or view it as a menace, those who want reconciliation with Turkey or not, is clear. It is also clear that in the end the 1990s era of the notion of the US as a global power making things right, supporting democracy and humanitarian agendas, is over.
The long hangover from the brief US experiment with being a kind of global empire, or colossus, means that there is reticence to using US power. The Trump agenda and that of his opponents generally agree US power is declining, they just don’t know how to reduce the US footprint. Even if the US pivots to a big power-focused strategy of confronting China and Russia or other countries, such as Turkey and Iran, it’s apparent that US adversaries think the US can be easily outplayed in places like Syria.
In the end, the loss of prestige is more important than losing any battles. The US has not lost a battle, but strategists from Sun Tzu to Clausewitz, or even Kissinger, tell us that war is won not just on the battlefield, but through strategy and policy.