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Conning the Con Man

Donald Trump got rolled by Turkey. And he doesn't even know it.
October 15, 2019
Conning the Con Man
(Michael Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images)

Last Wednesday, the president of the United States set a new standard for America’s allies: What did you do for us at Normandy? Because Kurds did nothing, they have been given genocide in return for their help fighting the Islamic State.

It’s a nonsense standard, of course. Everyone knows that. For instance: Why are we providing Israel any support in the face of Iranian and terrorist existential threats? Where were the Jews when we needed them in the War of 1812?

By the way, both of these presumptions are incorrect. There were American Jews who fought in the War of 1812, and there were Kurdish soldiers in World War II (under British command). The problem is that during World War II, Kurds (as was the case with Jews in 1812) did not have a unified national movement, so you cannot credit the contribution to a sovereign state. But then, the American president surely knows this. Right?

Speaking about “the Kurds” can be a useful shorthand, but it obscures a lot of useful information. For instance, there is no “the Kurds,” as they do not have a country (mostly for good reasons under the current circumstances, see Michael Rubin’s Kurdistan Rising) to represent them. And Kurds are not a monolithic group. There are Iraqi, Syrian, Turkish, and Iranian Kurds. Within each group, the Kurds are divided into groups that share nothing in common but their mother-tongue. They have fought in every single regional conflict, often on opposing sides. (This includes World War II.) For example, in Syria, we have the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces, which are an American ally. And also the Kurdistan’s Workers Party, which America lists as a terrorist group. Ditto everywhere else.

Back to the Trump: There is a another problem with Trump’s decision—that is, a problem aside from the problems of genocide and the future difficulties for American interests that will be caused by the abandonment of U.S. allies.

Why did the president make this decision? Perhaps the readout (which is not a transcript, stop calling it a transcript!) from his phone call with the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is a good guide: If you sing the American president’s praise and give him something that benefits him personally (and not the United States), then he will give you what you want.

According to at least one report, President Trump went off script during his phone call with Recep Erdogan. For calls with foreign heads of state, the president’s assistants and advisers always prepare him by giving him the talking points that are in accordance with the thought-through policies and strategies that various U.S. agencies have spent a lot of time and resources to craft. It is critical for the American president to stick by the policies and strategies that have his own signature on them. (Metaphorically, and many times, literally). With this president, all bets are off.

This not a matter or norms and decorum and diplomatic niceties. It’s a matter of national security: If there is no coordination between the mouth of the president and the long tail of the American government—its diplomatic corps, its development agents, its fighting forces—then people can die.

At the level of the U.S. presidency, “improvisation” is another word for “mistake.” Consider how President Kennedy’s improvisation during his summit with Khrushchev in Vienna set in motion a chain of events that led to the Cuban Missile Crisis and almost started a nuclear war.

For 40 years, Donald Trump has repeatedly told America that dealmaking is his superpower, that he is the greatest negotiator ever existed.

So let’s take him at his word. He gave Turkey’s strongman a giant gift. What did he get in return?

Turkey is a U.S. treaty ally through its NATO membership. Since Congress has ratified the NATO treaty, it means that U.S. law binds America to protect Turkey, because of which we have supplied Turkey with American military goods. The problem is that Turkey has been increasingly aligning itself with Russia. Which is not only not a NATO signatory, but is the entity which NATO was created to protect Europe from.

For instance, Turkey recently purchased the Russian S-400 missile defense weapon system. This move angered the United States because Turkey’s military has typically relied on American technology and secrets. Integrating Russian weapons could expose American military secrets to Russia. It would have been good for America if, for instance, the greatest dealmaker in history had gotten Erdogan to cancel its S-400 purchase in return of greenlighting their operations against the Kurds in northern Syria.

It would have been a bad deal. But at least America would have gotten something in return for sacrificing its interests.

So far as we know, he got nothing of the sort. Or, more accurately: He got nothing.

Yesterday, the president released a statement suggesting that he had warned Erdogan about imposing costly sanctions if Turkey went after Syrian Kurds and that he now plans to enforce his threat. The Trump administration has been very comfortable with imposing economic penalties on other countries, which means Erdogan most likely believed him. Except that there is little economic cost that the United States could impose on Turkey that Erdogan would not see as worth the price in exchange for eliminating his Kurdish enemies.

And if he does impose sanctions, they will undoubtedly have the follow-on effect of pushing Turkey closer to Russia—thus giving Erdogan more incentive to share our military secrets with Putin. And sanctions will also incentivize Turkey to retaliate. What’s the easiest way for them to punish the United States and the West? Erdogan could release a bulk of Syrian refugees in Turkey into Europe to create a second refugee crisis, the first one having disrupted European politics with political costs that Europe is still paying today.

What I’m trying to say here is that the President of the United States, the person on whom the world order relies, the most important person on earth, is an impulsive idiot. He made a foreign policy decision about “the Kurds” without knowing anything about them. He provided a defense for his decision that is simultaneously historically inaccurate and irrelevant. He made this decision as his own Department of Defense recently warned that the Islamic State was a threat to reorganize. He made it with no plans of what to do with the thousands of Islamic State prisoners on the ground. He did it to end an “endless war” that, as of last month, has claimed the lives of seven American combatants—one, potentially, killed by Turkish forces. Every single one of them is a loss. But still. The truth is that America was accomplishing a significant foreign policy goal with only 2,500 troops committed (down to 1,000 before the recent developments), mostly special forces, and minimal losses. If you are against hegemonic interventions, then this operation was almost the definition of how to maximize the return on a small investment.

Trump did all of this against the advice of his own advisers. And he did it because an anti-American Islamist thug of a leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was nice to him on the phone.

Here’s the truth: There is no “endless war” in Syria. As far as the American involvement goes, there is in fact no war in Syria. What there is, is a U.S. president who is a catalyst for American decline.

And this decline is going to place us in real jeopardy and invite real conflict.

Decline brings weakness, and weakness is a provocation. Eventually, Americans are going to be given the bill for this president’s astonishing weakness.

Shay Khatiri

Shay Khatiri studied Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He’s an immigrant from Iran and writes the Substack newsletter The Russia-Iran File.