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The ‘Credibility’ Worshiper’s Lament

The credibility worshipers are at it again [1]:

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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