Daniel Larison

Attack of the Revisionists

President George W. Bush (of the U.S. and former Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia in Tbilisi in May 2005. (White House photo)

Walter Russell Mead engages in some revisionism of his own here:

The geopolitical consequences of a weakened Trump administration will also be significant. Revisionist powers large and small are more likely to take risks and challenge American power when they believe the U.S. is distracted and divided. Russia’s attack on Georgia came in the summer of 2008 when George W. Bush was an unpopular lame duck and the building financial crisis was beginning to distract Americans from international news [bold mine-DL].

As he often does, Mead is using bad history in the service of a weak argument. It is possible that some foreign governments will see Trump’s domestic political problems and foreign policy failures as an opening to take more aggressive actions than they normally would, but the 2008 example is a bad one to use and Mead misrepresents what happened back then in an attempt to make it fit his interpretation. Mead’s description is absurdly American-centric on one level (Russia acts aggressively when we have a lame duck president) while also completely missing the real role that the U.S. had in contributing to the outbreak of the August 2008 war (backing for Georgian membership in NATO and strong rhetorical support for Saakashvili).

What Mead inaccurately calls “Russia’s attack on Georgia” was the result of Georgian overconfidence, reckless Western encouragement of Saakashvili, and Russian hostility to the expansion of NATO. The August 2008 war happened when it did because that was when Saakashvili chose to escalate the conflict on the mistaken assumption that the U.S. would ride to the rescue when Russia retaliated. He gambled heavily on the trustworthiness of George W. Bush and predictably lost. In other words, the war happened because the Georgian government misread the extent of U.S. support for their ambitions. The problem then was not that the U.S. was perceived as being “distracted and divided,” but that the relevant actors were all convinced that the U.S. was determined to push for NATO expansion and back up Georgia’s efforts to take control of separatist territories. It is a lousy example for the point Mead wants to make, and the fact that he doesn’t understand that should make us very skeptical about the rest of his argument.

Mead sets up a test for his interpretation:

Russia, far from seeking any kind of special relationship with Mr. Trump, is likely to revel in his weakness. In the western Balkans, in Syria, and in hot spots like Venezuela, Russia must be expected to move more aggressively.

This is possible, but there doesn’t seem to be any reason to think this will happen except for a very shaky assumption that foreign governments are just waiting for a weakened American president to seize opportunities abroad. Just because Trump is weakened doesn’t mean that Russia will necessarily start behaving any more aggressively than it has been. If Russia does happen to behave more aggressively in one of these places, it doesn’t automatically follow that it is doing so because of Trump’s weakness. Since many of Russia’s most provocative actions have come in response to perceived threats, it is just as likely that their response to a “distracted and divided U.S.” will be to consolidate their position and not take any big new risks. Like a statement from a carnival fortune-teller, Mead’s prediction is just vague enough to make it sound plausible to people willing to believe what he is selling, but on closer inspection there is nothing to it.

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Reduce Regional Tensions By Ending the War on Yemen

Seyed Hossein Mousavian explains why the U.S. and Iran aren’t going to be able to negotiate anytime soon. Instead, he suggests reducing regional tensions by working towards a peace settlement for Yemen:

Given the impasse between Iran and the United States, the most immediate and realistic step toward reducing tensions in the Middle East would be to set aside the idea of negotiations between the two countries for now and instead focus on facilitating direct negotiations between Iran and Saudi Arabia to discuss, among other things, putting an end to the devastating war in Yemen.

Mousavian is right that the impasse between the U.S. and Iran cannot be resolved in the near future. The Iranian government cannot deal with Trump, who has already burned them in the past and still refuses to offer sanctions relief now. Trump is never going to rejoin the JCPOA or lift sanctions, and Iran won’t agree to the administration’s excessive demands. Finding a way to bring the war on Yemen to an end is the best thing for Yemen and the wider region. It is far more likely to succeed than any attempt to reach a comprehensive agreement on all of the outstanding issues between Washington and Tehran. It may be dawning on the Saudi government that the war on Yemen is a costly failure that makes them less secure. There are reports that the Saudis and Houthis have begun talks to deescalate the conflict. The Financial Times reports that the Houthis have proposed halting missile and drone attacks inside the kingdom in exchange for an end to the bombing of Yemen:

“It’s very fragile but I think both sides have an interest in it working,” the diplomat said. “It’s not peace in Yemen, we are possibly talking about end of daily bombardments across the country and missile and drone attacks on Saudi Arabia, while the UN tries to move on with a political agreement.”

There have been many diplomatic false starts over the last four and a half years, but this effort to scale back the conflict is worth encouraging. To that end, Congress needs to keep the pressure on the Saudis and the administration to recognize that continuing the war is wrong and harmful to the interests of both the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. Continued U.S. support for the war from the administration remains one of the main obstacles to convincing the Saudi government that a diplomatic solution is the only available route out of the disaster they created. Congress needs to put the president in a bind with the amendments to the defense authorization bill in order to cut off all arms sales and military assistance to the Saudi coalition. Bringing the war on Yemen to an end is worth doing for the sake of the people of Yemen, but it could also serve as the foundation of a broader reduction in regional tensions that stands to benefit everyone involved.

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The Sanctions Addicts Look For Their Next Fix

President Trump and Turkish President Erdogan at the NATO meetings in July 2018. (NATO/public domain)

The Trump administration is preparing to wage yet another economic war. This time they intend to impose sanctions on Turkey in response to its government’s invasion of northern Syria:

After Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said on Friday that Trump had authorized “very powerful” new sanctions targeting Turkey, the administration appeared ready to start making good on Trump’s threat to obliterate Turkey’s economy.

On Sunday, Trump said he was listening to Congress, where Republicans and Democrats are pushing aggressively for sanctions action.

“Dealing with @LindseyGrahamSC and many members of Congress, including Democrats, about imposing powerful Sanctions on Turkey,” Trump said on Twitter, referring to the loyal Trump ally and U.S. senator who lambasted the president last week.

Imposing sanctions on other states has become a reflexive response for U.S. politicians and policymakers, and the U.S. increasingly sanctions the economies of entire countries when we know that the punitive measures won’t affect the targeted government’s behavior for the better. Sanctions advocates want to do it anyway to prove a point or to show that they are “doing something.” There should be consequences for the Turkish invasion, but broad economic sanctions shouldn’t be among them. The U.S. should certainly suspend arms sales to Turkey, and it should remove the nuclear weapons that our government keeps at Incirlik. Those would be appropriate responses to signal U.S. opposition to the invasion, and it would secure the nuclear weapons that should have been taken out of Turkey years ago.

Launching an economic war means resorting to collective punishment of the civilian population of Turkey. It would mainly hurt the poorest and most vulnerable people in Turkey, and it wouldn’t compel the Turkish government to halt its attack. The Turkish government isn’t going to compromise on something that it sees as being very important to its security. Sanctions will predictably inflame resentment against the U.S. and provide a convenient foil for the government.

When sanctions are imposed, they tend to become permanent. Members of Congress are quick to pull the trigger on sanctions, but they are almost never willing to lift the sanctions later on. Sanctions advocates sometimes design sanctions in such a way that they cannot be lifted short of a radical overhaul of the targeted state’s foreign policy and internal behavior, and that ensures that there is nothing the other government can do that will ever be good enough to get out from under the sanctions. Other governments have picked up on this, so they are more likely to endure the damage from sanctions and ignore U.S. demands on the assumption that the U.S. cannot be trusted to lift sanctions. The example of how easily the U.S. reimposed sanctions on Iran despite Iranian compliance would be hard to forget.

Normally, economic sanctions on an ally would stand a better chance of changing the government’s behavior, but the Turkish government hasn’t acted the part of a reliable ally for some time and Erdogan isn’t as worried now about harming relations with the U.S. as he might have been in the past. The U.S. has spent much of the last 20 years steadily alienating Turkey, and the Turkish government has done its fair share of damage to the relationship as well, and that means that our government’s influence and leverage with Turkey is not what it used to be. Hitting them with pointless, destructive sanctions just to prove that we can won’t fix anything, and it will ensure that the U.S.-Turkish relationship sinks to new lows. The sanctions addicts are just interested in getting their next fix regardless of the consequences.

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Trump Puts the Saudis First, As Usual

President Donald Trump poses for photos with ceremonial swordsmen on his arrival to Murabba Palace, as the guest of King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia, Saturday evening, May 20, 2017, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

While U.S. troops remain in Syria, the Trump administration is sending thousands more to Saudi Arabia:

The United States announced the deployment of additional American military forces to Saudi Arabia on Friday to bolster the kingdom’s defenses after the Sept. 14 attack on its oil facilities, which Washington and Riyadh have blamed on Iran.

Trump’s decision to send even more U.S. forces to Saudi Arabia makes no sense in terms of U.S. interests. It does not serve American interests to put more American troops in potential danger from an attack from Saudi Arabia’s enemies, and the U.S. gains nothing from coming to the aid of the Saudis. Basing American troops in Saudi Arabia was a major reason for terrorist attacks against our country in the past, and it is extremely foolish to keep sending more troops to defend a client that ought to be able to defend itself. The fact that Saudi Arabia apparently can’t defend itself proves that the hundreds of billions of dollars in arms sales to their government have been worse than useless. The U.S. has managed to arm the Saudis well enough that they can terrorize and murder civilians in Yemen, but not so that it can provide for its own defense. The Saudis are a useless client and a liability to the U.S., and the sooner that Washington cuts them loose the better it will be for the U.S. and the region.

In selling this terrible decision, Trump repeated the lie that Saudi Arabia is a “great ally.” He also boasted that the kingdom would pay for the costs of the deployment, as if that somehow made the decision to put more Americans at risk on behalf of a despotic client state all right. I very much doubt that is true. The Saudi government is still stiffing the administration for the payments it owes for refueling charges from the war on Yemen, and our government will probably never see a dime from them for the costs associated with these deployments. Even if the Saudis did foot the bill, this amounts to making part of the U.S. military into the Saudi government’s mercenary force, and that ought to be unacceptable to Americans of all political stripes.

This is hardly the first time that Trump has put the Saudis first, but in light of his attempts to justify his craven Syria decision by talking about ending endless wars it is especially offensive. If Trump wanted to put American interests first and extricate the U.S. from a foreign war, he could agree to cut off all military assistance and arms sales to the Saudi coalition tomorrow. Instead, he goes out of his way to shower them with weapons and sends more troops to defend a war criminal regime.

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The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

America is complicit in war crimes in Yemen. It’s time to hold the U.S. to account. Mohamad Bazzi reviews U.S. involvement in the war on Yemen and details our government’s complicity in the Saudi coalition’s war crimes.

In an attack on Iran, misunderstanding Soleimani could be America’s downfall. Arron Merat profiles Qasim Soleimani and uses his career in the IRGC to illustrate how the U.S. misunderstands Iran and its foreign policy.

America needs dialogue with Moscow. Former U.S. ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman calls for reassessing our relationship with Russia and thinking about whether sanctions are achieving their goals.

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Yemen’s Cholera Outbreak Is About to Get Worse

Yemeni child eats ready-to-use therapeutic food bag in 2017. Credit: UNICEF/USAID/Flickr

Yemen’s cholera epidemic and humanitarian crisis threaten to get even worse:

A children’s advocacy group is warning of a spike in cholera cases in northern Yemen affecting hundreds of thousands of children and their families as a result of an increase in fuel shortages.

Save the Children said Wednesday that fuel shortages have resulted in a jump in food prices and, as a result, a deepening health crisis.

The group says fuel prices have hiked 100% over the past 40 days as the internationally recognized government imposed customs duties in the interim capital Aden. That caused a 60% decrease in the amount of fuel coming through the key port of Hodeida, the group says.

Higher fuel prices not only raise the cost of food in a country devastated by war and wracked by famine, and they also contribute to the health crisis by affecting how much fuel people can use to power generators and water pumps. Without fuel to run water pumps and water trucks to bring fresh water, Yemeni civilians cannot get clean drinking water and risk contracting cholera or other waterborne diseases. At least 18 million people in Yemen lack access to clean water, and that is a result of repeated attacks on Yemen’s infrastructure, including water systems and sewage treatment plants. As the report notes, more than 620,000 cases of cholera have already been identified so far this year. There will likely be hundreds of thousands more by the end of the year. Save the Children explained in their statement that the government’s requirement to pay the duty in Aden has caused both delays in delivering goods and an increase in their cost:

“Between August and September, there was a 60 percent1 decrease in the amount of fuel coming through Hodeidah port—this is because of a decree by the government of Yemen requiring customs duties to be paid in Aden before allowing ships to discharge in Hodeidah—of course this means double customs duty. The price of fuel has increased by 100 percent over the past 40 days, which made the transport of lifesaving goods to communities in need 30 percent more expensive. Transportation which previously took one day is now taking three days as trucks have to wait for fuel, resulting in huge delays in getting food and medicines to communities.

“We ask the international community to work with the government of Yemen to waiver this decree immediately so that this unfolding crisis can be averted. It is vital that there is free, unhindered access for humanitarian and commercial goods, including fuel, into and across the country as this is a lifeline for many families.”

The fuel shortage further compounds the health crisis in Yemen by attacking public sanitation. A lack of fuel means that sanitation workers can’t remove trash, and so it piles up in the streets of the capital and contributes to the spread of disease:

In Yemen’s capital Sanaa health officials warn that enormous piles of uncollected rubbish littering its streets could lead to another cholera outbreak.

But rubbish trucks have not been able to do their rounds because of a severe fuel shortage, despite last year’s Sweden deal which promised the delivery of goods and other services if the Houthis gave up control of the port of Hodeidah.

Once again, a decision by the Hadi government has imposed greater hardship on the people of Yemen when they are already in the midst of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. This is the same government that the U.S. supports and has been trying to force back into power. The longer the war drags on, the worse Yemen’s humanitarian crisis gets. The administration’s continued support for the Saudi coalition and the Hadi government makes the U.S. complicit in this unfolding catastrophe.

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The U.S. Has Too Many ‘Allies’

There are a lot of questionable assumptions informing this New York Times piece about Syria and U.S. support for the YPG. This quote from Stavridis sets the tone for the entire article:

“In the course of American history, when we have stuck with our allies in troubling circumstances, from the U.K. and Australia under attack in WWII to South Korea in the Korean War, things tend to work out to our benefit,” said James G. Stavridis, a retired admiral and former supreme allied commander for Europe. “When we walk away from loyal allies, as we did in Vietnam and are now threatening to do in Afghanistan and Syria, the wheels come off.”

Why does the U.S. have allies and partners? Are these relationships meant to advance U.S. interests, or are they ends in themselves that must be sustained no matter what? To listen to Stavridis and quite a few others, they seem to think it is the latter or they are incapable of making the distinction between the two. In all of the examples he cites, he is referring to local partners in wars that the U.S. either should never have fought (Vietnam, Syria) or should have stopped fighting long ago (Afghanistan). This problem keeps coming up because the U.S. chooses to take part in conflicts in which the U.S. has no vital interests. If the U.S. has no vital interests in a conflict, it will sooner or later “walk away” from the conflict and the partners that it had. The policy failure happens when the U.S. commits to unnecessary and unwinnable wars and gives local partners unreasonable expectations of the amount of support and protection they can expect. Our government tends to go to war recklessly and without thinking through the implications of our involvement, and it throws its support to local groups too easily and makes promises that it can’t or won’t keep. The solution is not to keep U.S. forces in these places in perpetuity, but to refrain from sending them there to begin with.

The U.S. makes too many commitments to too many mutually opposed states and groups. That creates absurd scenarios where the U.S. either has to defend a proxy from an ally or stand aside while the ally attacks the proxy. No matter which side the U.S. chooses, it will be betraying someone in the name of supporting one of its partners. That is an argument for reducing the number of partners and commitments that the U.S. has. That shouldn’t be done in an arbitrary, irresponsible way, but it does need to be done if we are to avoid more of these dilemmas in the future. As Ben Friedman observed earlier today, reducing commitments is not even considered as a real alternative:

Having too many contradictory commitments is what comes from trying to “shape” political outcomes in other countries and police foreign conflicts. As long as the U.S. aspires to exercise global “leadership,” it is going to make more promises than it can realistically keep, and it will end up “allying” with mutually hostile forces again and again. The more “allies” that the U.S. accumulates, the more likely it is that Washington will leave one or more in the lurch on a regular basis. That should tell us that the U.S. needs to be more selective and discerning in the extent and nature of the support that it offers, and that requires pursuing a very different strategy of restraint that minimizes the need to acquire so many “allies” in the first place.

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Bolton Is Gone, But His Garbage Ideas Aren’t

John Bolton spoke at the National Conservatism Conference this week.(By Christopher Halloran /Shutterstock)

Fred Kaplan explains how Bolton’s desire to destroy yet another important treaty is being fulfilled even after he departed the administration:

President Donald Trump has signed a document expressing an intent to withdraw from what must be the least controversial arms-control treaty on the books without consulting the military, the State Department, or the intelligence community—all of which oppose him on this issue.

The accord is the Open Skies Treaty, signed in 1992 by the United States, Russia, and 32 other countries, including 27 of the 29 NATO nations. (The two that haven’t signed are Albania and Montenegro.) It allows member-nations to fly unarmed reconnaissance planes over one another’s territory in order to collect data on military activities.

The Open Skies Treaty is one of the least controversial treaties that the U.S. is a party to, but for someone like Bolton any multilateral treaty that requires anything of the U.S. is anathema. The treaty is a useful mechanism for stabilizing relations between the U.S., Russia, and our European allies. There is absolutely no good reason for the U.S. to abandon this treaty, and the U.S. stands to lose if Trump follows through on his willingness to withdraw from it. This is the sort of arms control agreement demolition that should have stopped when Bolton left, but it has carried on, zombie-like, inside the National Security Council anyway:

According to three knowledgeable sources, Trump’s move stems from the persistent influence of John Bolton, even one month after he was fired as national security adviser. Bolton had been advocating the pullout for some time. After his dismissal, one of his aides, Tim Morrison, who continues to work on the National Security Council staff, kept pushing it. Finally, sometime last week, Trump signed the document expressing his intent to withdraw from the accord.

Scrapping the Open Skies Treaty is vandalism for its own sake. Bolton loathes international treaties. He especially hates the treaties that actually work and provide some real benefits to the U.S. Successful treaties are a rebuke to his entire worldview, and so he wants them destroyed. Quitting this treaty makes absolutely no sense on any level, and it would be detrimental to U.S. and allied interests:

Defense officials and consultants, some of whom are skeptical of other arms-control accords, agree that a withdrawal from Open Skies would hurt the U.S. and its allies much more than it would hurt Russia.

The treaty is the definition of a mutually beneficial, stabilizing international agreement. Only someone with a view of international relations as simplistic and zero-sum as the president would think to get rid of it. Bolton may be gone, but the brain-dead unilateralism and hatred of arms control that he championed live on in the Trump White House.

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Weld’s Underwhelming Foreign Policy Alternative

Former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld intends to mount a primary challenge against Trump. To that end, he spelled out his foreign policy views in a new article for Foreign Affairs. Unfortunately, Weld makes a number of bad mistakes that undermine his effort to offer a credible alternative on foreign policy. He begins by lambasting Trump for “isolationism,” which misunderstands what Trump’s foreign policy is and why it is so awful. He then explains that he is running on a platform of nostalgia:

I am running against Trump for the Republican nomination for president in part to return the United States to the stable, bipartisan foreign policy that brought the United States through the Cold War. This means restoring deep connections with our European and Asian allies and with Israel.

I’m not sure what the constituency is for such a “return.” It’s not clear that it would be desirable even if it were possible. For one thing, the “stable, bipartisan foreign policy” to which Weld refers was a function of the Cold War rivalry with the USSR. It is not possible to “return” to such a foreign policy without having a major rivalry like that. The U.S. needs a foreign policy that addresses the realities of the present, and running back to an old bipartisan consensus won’t provide that. There is an unthinking dogmatism about Weld’s formula that treats “deep connections” with these other states almost as if they are ends in themselves instead of a means of advancing U.S. security. Why in particular does the U.S. need “deep connections” with Israel as it extends and intensifies its illegal occupation of Palestinian territories? Circumstances and U.S. interests would suggest that the connection should be reduced rather than deepened, but Weld isn’t interested in talking about that.

Weld bangs the drum about “isolationism” several times, and it is as tiresome as it is wrong:

Yet the United States cannot afford to retreat into isolationism, as the Trump administration has done.

The problem here isn’t just that Trump hasn’t “retreated into isolationism,” but that Weld is so determined to shoehorn Trump into this category because his own foreign policy worldview is boilerplate hawkishness and “isolationism” is the only thing he knows to attack. Weld gets Trump’s foreign policy wrong, and his analysis of foreign threats seems to be similarly blinkered. He says this about Russia: “Russia appears determined to redraw its borders to match those of the former Soviet Union—using military force if necessary.” This is false and alarmist.

Weld claims to eschew a “full-blown neoconservative approach,” but it’s not clear where he actually disagrees with that approach. Like them, he insists that the U.S. is a “guarantor of world order,” which implies a similarly aggressive foreign policy of maintaining hegemony and punishing challengers. He says that we should use force “only when it is necessary,” but necessary for what? If he means necessary only for U.S. and allied security, that’s one thing. If he means necessary for preserving “world order,” that is something very different.

His comments on North Korea and Iran are mostly just puzzling:

Every U.S. administration since the Cold War has been determined to prevent North Korea and Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. As president, I would be no less determined. If North Korea and Iran obtain or build nuclear weapons, then it will be the fault of the United States and its partners.

Does Weld not know that North Korea has had nuclear weapons for more than a decade? Does he not realize that North Korea isn’t ever giving them up? Does he understand that Iran has repeatedly committed to never build or acquire nuclear weapons? His determination to prevent something that already happened and stop something that isn’t likely to occur is odd. It suggests that Weld doesn’t really understand either of these issues well enough to comment on them.

The one bright spot in Weld’s article is his criticism of Trump’s decision to renege on the JCPOA and his acknowledgment that the crisis with Iran is “of Trump’s making.” He’s right on both counts, but then his proposed solution is so vague as to be almost worthless:

Solving the Iran problem will require a new diplomatic strategy that does not undermine our credibility—as Trump’s decision to tear up the deal did—or appear desperate for a new deal. We cannot ignore Iran’s latest acts of aggression against Saudi Arabia and others, even if Saudi Arabia poses its own set of problems for us with its support for Sunni extremists. But if a new deal can be negotiated—perhaps after we make clear to Iran that naked aggression is a nonstarter—it should be. This is a situation that calls for finesse and attention to events, not ham-fisted actions driven by delusions.

On North Korea, Weld says that the U.S. needs a “flexible approach.” That sounds promising, but he never explains what he means by flexible, and it is hard to square that with his insistence that North Korea can’t have nuclear weapons. At the end, Weld says “to govern is to choose,” but in his article the former governor doesn’t want to make clear choices and would prefer to have things both ways. Weld’s primary challenge is a long shot, and there doesn’t seem to be much of a constituency for his kind of Republicanism. He isn’t doing himself any favors with so many tired and inadequate foreign policy arguments.

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The ‘Credibility’ Worshiper’s Lament

US soldiers in a market in the town of Ras al-Ain in Syria’s Hasakeh province near the Turkish border on July 28, 2019. (Photo by AFP/Getty Images)

The credibility worshipers are at it again:

Trump’s Syria tactics have hurt the United States as much as its partners. The latest abandoning of U.S. allies has solidified an already widespread belief in the Middle East and beyond that the United States is not a reliable ally.

We can all agree that Trump’s indulgence of the Turkish government in clearing the way for their assault on northern Syria has been handled as badly as it possibly could have been. The president consulted with no one, gave no warning to the people that would be directly affected by the decision, and typically gave no thought to the consequences of his decision. To make things worse, U.S. forces aren’t even leaving Syria, but are simply moving to a different part of it. Trump has managed to find a position that is the worst of both worlds: clearing the way for a Turkish invasion without even exiting Syria.

I hope we can also agree that warnings about damaged credibility are nonsense. The U.S. has used and then discarded proxies many times over the decades. It is always ugly and reflects poorly on our government, but it will keep happening every time that the U.S. enters a conflict where it has few or no interests at stake. The right answer is to stop getting involved in these conflicts. Every time the U.S. gets involved in a conflict like this, we create false expectations of how long we will stay and how much support we will provide to our local partners.

Despite this long record of exploiting and then abandoning proxies, somehow the U.S. is never lacking for armed groups that are willing to accept U.S. support in the future. Somehow our treaty allies don’t assume that the way the U.S. treats a militia in a foreign civil war has any bearing on how it will treat them. Incredibly, armed Kurdish groups keep siding with the U.S. again and again despite having overwhelming proof that our government will hang them out to dry every time. That should tell us that proxies and allies don’t side with the U.S. because of some magical credibility based on our past record, but because they see it as being in their immediate interests to do so. Promises and threats are made credible by the interests and capabilities of the government that makes them. The U.S. has scarcely any interests in Syria, and so whatever the U.S. does or doesn’t do in Syria it doesn’t tell us anything about the credibility of U.S. commitments in places where our interests are much greater.

The credibility argument here makes no sense at all. By siding with Turkey, a treaty ally, against a proxy militia, the U.S. is supposed to be proving itself to be an unreliable ally? The ugly reality here is that the Trump administration has sided with the allied government against the group that has been fighting alongside our forces. This is the result of an absurd Syria policy in which the U.S. has tried to be on the “side” of mutually antagonistic forces at the same time. If the U.S. had “sided” with the YPG, our government would be effectively turning against an ally, and by getting out of the Turkish government’s way the Trump administration turned against the proxy. If the credibility worshipers were right, there would be no way for the U.S. to avoid losing “credibility,” and that should tell us that they don’t understand how any of this works.

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