WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. must escape the “Endless Wars” in the Middle East, President Donald Trump repeatedly declares. Mission accomplished, at least in the shortest of short terms. When on Wednesday Turkey attacked the Kurds, America’s longtime battlefield allies, U.S. troops had evacuated from harm’s way.
But hardly anyone was cheering the latest result of Trump’s unpredictable foreign policy.
From Iran to North Korea, China, Iraq, Afghanistan and Venezuela, nearly all of Trump’s foreign policy priorities remain works in progress nearly three years into his presidency. All have been punctuated by abrupt shifts that have frustrated and alienated friends and allies, confused foes and rivals and left the impression that “America First” really does, as critics say, mean America alone.
But none has produced such speedy or potentially damaging consequences.
High-profile summits with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un followed threats of “fire and fury.” Offers to open a dialogue with Iran followed the imposition of harsh sanctions. Both efforts have yet to produce definitive outcomes.
Negotiations with the Taliban aimed at withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan have been hit with fits and starts. The trade war with China continues apace. Venezuela remains a morass with Nicolas Maduro still in power despite attempts to dislodge him.
No such delay with Turkey, Syria and the Kurds.
Trump’s determination to pull American troops out of the Middle East opened the door to the Turkish incursion just 72 hours after the White House announced the U.S. would pull back from the Turkey-Syria border and not stand in the way.
“This clearly has an immediate, sequential consequence that very few of the other decisions he has made have had,” said Aaron David Miller, former U.S. diplomat and senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “It has had a direct and negative impact, although how catastrophic remains to be seen.”
On Wednesday, Trump himself called Turkey’s military assault a “bad idea” that the U.S. did not “endorse.” U.S. officials held out hope that the attacks could be limited. But the start of combat along the border marked what may be the failure of a high-risk, complex strategy supposedly designed to prevent just such an outcome.
Officials familiar with the administration’s strategy say it was drawn up to try to reconcile the harsh realities of Trump’s insistence on withdrawal and Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s insistence on attacking. One official described the choice the administration faced as either getting into a shooting war with Turkey, a NATO ally, or standing down and pressing Turkey hard to limit its operation with threats to punish it economically if Erdogan should go too far.
Trump’s abrupt decision a few days ago to remove the American shield — just a few dozen soldiers but, crucially wearing U.S. uniforms — that was keeping the Turks away has been met with widespread condemnation from supporters as well as the usual critics. Condemnation from normally reliable Republican Trump allies on Capitol Hill has been notably fierce.
The Kurds have accused Trump of a gross betrayal. U.S. officials acknowledge that but also say it was unavoidable in the face of Erdogan’s determination to go after the Kurds, whom Turkey accuses of being terrorists and a severe threat.
Republicans as well as Democrats in Congress, and many national defense experts, say the move has placed U.S. credibility as well as the Kurds and regional stability at great risk. By all accounts, the Kurds were the most effective force in fighting the Islamic State in the region.
“I think it makes it less likely that others will want to work with the United States in the future,” said Bradley Bowman, senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington think tank with hawkish views on the Mideast.
“The foreign policy is not clear,” said Rahim Rashidi, a Kurdish journalist based in Washington. “It is difficult to tell who is a friend, who is an enemy.”
The argument that the unpredictable and volatile Trump was following through on a plan put to him by experts is implausible to many, particularly his critics, who see the president as impulsive and concerned more about his own image than in U.S. national security. Democrats and Republicans alike denounced Trump’s first announcement as reckless and self-defeating, and the administration’s attempts to clean it up put Trump into the role of both good cop and bad cop with the Turks.
Mindful of Trump’s pledges to eventually withdraw all American forces from Syria and Erdogan’s increasingly vocal threats to fight the Kurds, the U.S. plan was to present Erdogan with a stark choice: either cooperate with its NATO ally at minimal cost to ensure Turkey’s security from legitimate threats it faces from the Kurds or go it alone with an invasion and bear all the consequences.
After initially opting for cooperation — which meant the U.S. persuading the Kurds to move away from the border and withdraw emplacements and heavy weapons, and bringing the Turks into joint air and ground patrols and intelligence sharing — Erdogan became insistent on going ahead with an incursion. According to the officials, Trump called his bluff in their Sunday phone call.
Faced with almost universal criticism, the administration scrambled on Monday to regain the upper hand. Trump threatened in a tweet to “obliterate” Turkey’s economy if it hit the Kurds hard and twice repeated the threat in person at White House appearances.
At the same time, U.S. officials were telling the Turks through military, diplomatic and intelligence channels that any major operation against the Kurds would cause major damage to U.S.-Turkey relations.
On Tuesday, Trump shifted tack. After consultations between the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon, he tweeted a friendly message to Erdogan, praising the two nations’ relationship and confirming that he had invited the Turkish leader to visit Washington in November.
What some saw as scattershot incoherence was, in fact, the next stage of the plan: an offer to reward Erdogan for holding back on the Kurdish operation.
Critics don’t buy it.
“Now, goody goody, we’re going to invite you to come visit the White House, and whatever domestic value that has for Erdogan in Turkey, this is really dangerous,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Tuesday.