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:
The article quotes no one taking the more conventional view that our errors in Vietnam and Iraq had more to do with giving false hope to people we were not fully prepared to defend. Having fewer allies/ dependents isn’t on the menu here.
— Ben Friedman (@BH_Friedman) October 10, 2019
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.