Donald Trump took pretty much everyone by surprise with his statement that he wanted to pull US troops out of Syria. Why did he do it? Why does he do anything? Trying to figure out what is going on that swirling confusion of rage, narcissism, insecurity, envy, vindictiveness, pettiness, and racism that constitutes his mind is a mug’s game. Not only is it difficult but before one can even start to make sense, he has moved on to yet another confounding statement or action. This time, it is his decision to reverse course and trigger a government shutdown that went into effect at midnight.
But attention has focused on the fact that he had had a conversation with Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan just before announcing his decision. There are news reports of the conversation between the two, though one has to be cautious about taking at face value such leaked news.
Accounts in the US and Turkish press of the Friday call between Trump and Erdoğan show the volatile US president complying with the Turkish leader’s demands and taking his own advisers by surprise.
According to a version of events in the Associated Press, the US position going into the call was to demand that Turkey stall a planned offensive into Syria aimed at US-backed Kurdish elements of the SDF, which Ankara sees as indistinguishable from the Kurdish insurgency inside Turkey.
“The talking points were very firm,” one of the officials quoted by the Associated Press said. “Everybody said push back and try to offer [Turkey] something that’s a small win, possibly holding territory on the border, something like that.”
Erdoğan responded by saying that Isis had been 99% defeated.
“Why are you still there?” Erdoğan demanded, according to the account.
With the Turkish leader still on the line, Trump asked the same question of his national security adviser, John Bolton, who repeated US policy until then, that the defeat of Isis had to be “enduring”, preventing the possibility of a resurgence.
To the surprise of Bolton and Erdoğan, Trump instantly sided with the Turkish president.
According to the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet, whose account is similar to the Associated Press’s, Trump declared: “OK – do it.” Not hearing an instant response from Bolton, Trump demanded to know whether his national security adviser was still on the line. When Bolton said he was, Trump ordered: “Start the work.”
It is still not clear to me why Trump would go along with what Erdogan “demands”. But what the furor over this decision reveals is how the bipartisan War Party that really runs the country is united in its commitment to all war, all the time, everywhere. There have been howls of outrage from all over the place about how bad this decision is and what a hero defense secretary Jim Mattis is for opposing this move and resigning in principle over it.
Matt Taibbi says, not so fast. He welcomes Trump’s decision because staying on in never-ending wars serves no good purpose and that the explosion of fury among politicians and talking heads is a telling sign of their commitment to war.
What’s the War on Terror death count by now, a half-million? How much have we spent, $5 trillion? Five-and-a-half?
For that cost, we’ve destabilized the region to the point of abject chaos, inspired millions of Muslims to hate us, and torn up the Geneva Convention and half the Constitution in pursuit of policies like torture, kidnapping, assassination-by-robot and warrantless detention.
Trump’s decisions on Syria and Afghanistan will lay bare the real distinctions in American politics. Political power in this country is not divided between right and left, and not even between rich and poor.
The real line is between a war party, and everyone else.
The departure of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis — a standard-issue Pentagon toady who’s never met an unending failure of a military engagement he didn’t like and whose resignation letter is now being celebrated as inspirational literature on the order of the Gettysburg Address or a lost epic by Auden or Eliot — sounded an emergency bell for all these clowns.
You’ll hear all sorts of arguments today about why the withdrawals are bad. You’ll hear Trump has no plan, which is true. He never does, at least not on policy.
But we don’t exactly have a plan for staying in the Middle East, either, beyond installing a permanent garrison in a dozen countries, spending assloads of money and making ourselves permanently despised in the region as civilian deaths pile up through drone-bombings and other “surgical” actions.
You’ll hear we’re abandoning allies and inviting massacres by the likes of Turkish dictator Recep Tayyip Erdogan. If there was any evidence that our presence there would do anything but screw up the situation even more, I might consider that a real argument. At any rate, there are other solutions beyond committing American lives. We could take in more refugees, kick Turkey out of NATO, impose sanctions, etc.
Trump is a madman, a far-right extremist and an embarrassment, but that’s not why most people in Washington hate him. It’s his foreign-policy attitudes, particularly toward NATO, that have always most offended DC burghers.
You could see the Beltway beginning to lose its mind back in the Republican primary race, when then-candidate Trump belittled America’s commitment to Middle Eastern oil states.
Trump, after sealing the nomination, upped the ante. In the summer of 2016 he said he wasn’t sure he’d send troops to defend NATO members that didn’t pay their bills. NATO members are supposed to kick in 2 percent of GDP for their own defense. At the time, only four NATO members (Estonia, Poland, the U.K. and the U.S.) were in compliance.
Trump dumped on basically every segment of the political establishment en route to Washington, running on a classic authoritarian strategy — bash the elites, pose as a populist.
However fake he was, there were portions of the political establishment that deserved abuse, the Pentagon most of all.
The Department of Defense has been a money pit for decades. It has trillions in expenditures it can’t account for, refused an audit for nearly 30 years and then failed this year (as in failed completely, zero-point-zero, not producing any coherent numbers) when one was finally funded.
NATO? That’s an organization whose mission stopped making sense the moment the Soviet Union collapsed. We should long ago have repurposed our defense plan to focus on terrorism, cyber-crime and cyber-attacks, commercial espionage, financial security, and other threats. Instead, we continued after the Soviet collapse to maintain a global military alliance fattened with increasingly useless carriers and fighter jets, designed to fight archaic forms of war.
NATO persisted mainly as a PR mechanism for a) justifying continued obscene defense spending levels and b) giving a patina of internationalism to America’s essentially unilateral military adventures.
We’d go into a place like Afghanistan with no real plan for leaving, and a few member nations like Estonia and France and Turkey would send troops to get shot at with us. But it was always basically Team America: World Police with supporting actors. No wonder so few of the member countries paid their dues.
Taibbi ends on a pessimistic note about whether this withdrawal will actually happen.
Incidentally, I doubt Trump really follows through on this withdrawal plan. But until he changes (what passes for) his mind, watch what happens in Washington.
We’re about to have a very graphic demonstration of the near-total uniformity of the political class when it comes to the military and its role. The war party is ready for a coming-out party.
As the sage advice goes, don’t pay attention to what the elites loudly disagree about. You have to pay attention to what they agree on because that is where the real danger lies.