In August, 1939, with World War II looming, Russian Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov and German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop reached a nonaggression pact to partition Poland into two parts. One week later, Germany invaded Poland with their blitzkrieg and conquered the country in 19 days. Over the next 20 months, this pact resulted in massive land gains by both countries. Finally, in June, 1941, the Germans attacked Russia, ending the pact. After years of appeasement by Neville Chamberlain, Poland constituted the red line for the British, and when Germany rolled into Poland, World War II started.
Over the past several years, and particularly the past 3 years, we have seen a rise in illiberal populist government unseen since the 1930s. Autocratic leaders such as Vladimir Putin, Recep Erdogan, Andrej Duda, Kim Jong Un, Mohammed bin Salman, and Viktor Orban have emerged over the last 20 years who favor strong and repressive central governments. In France, the Netherlands, Austria, Italy, and Germany. the far right has been on the rise, as well. Fortunately, in those countries, cooler heads have prevailed — so far.
One of the worst consequences of the election of Donald Trump is the rise of the “alt-right” in the US. Extremists who had been staying under their rocks have crawled out since the launch of his campaign in June, 2015. Trump has no experience in foreign policy and is singularly unwilling to take any kind of advice. Worse yet, his authoritarian personality seeks kinship with autocrats around the world, egged on by the alt-right at home.
Starting with the overly comfortable relationship between Trump and Putin, Trump has increasingly reached out to leaders such as Duda, Orban, Kim, and Erdogan. The result has been the retreat of American leadership around the world. Nature loves a vacuum, and in many of these cases, strongmen such as Putin and Erdogan have rushed in.
Although in many cases our involvement was ill-advised, Trump lacks the intelligence, attention, and patience to lead a disciplined withdrawal, and his impulsive style has repeatedly compromised our interests. There is overwhelming evidence that the intentions of these other strongmen are not good.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in Syria. The bloody and grisly rise of ISIS was stanched, albeit belatedly, by the Obama administration’s alliance between the US and the Kurds. The result was that a fomenting bloodbath by ISIS was brought to heel. The situation was relatively stable, but at a cost of 11,000 Kurdish lives and 6 US lives. But earlier this month, in a monumentally stupid move, Donald Trump agreed (without consultation of any military or diplomatic personnel) to withdraw US troops from northern Syria. Immediately thereafter the Turks invaded the Kurdish part of Syria, allegedly committing atrocities along the way.
A feckless 5-day pause engineered by the Trump administration was instituted after a week of this chaos, with the understanding that Turkey would be able to resume their aggression when it expired. The pause ended today, coincident with a trip by Erdogan to meet with Putin. What has emerged from that trip is a latter-day Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, wherein Erdogan and Putin partitioned the part of Syria occupied by Kurds. The betrayal of the Kurds is complete.
The consequences of Trump’s tragedy of errors are not immediately clear, but several seem likely. First, is the immediate threat against the Kurds. 180,000 of them have already fled deeper into Syria, but in the fog of the pause, many remained. Turkey plans to repopulate their 20 mile “safe zone” with Arab refugees. Given Turkey’s prior behavior toward the Kurds, it is scary to anticipate consider what they might do now.
Second, the move harms US prestige. The Kurds suffered large losses in prior fighting and now the US has abandoned them. Worse yet, Trump has leveled unremitting criticism toward them. Apart from the moral depravity of such a move, how can any other country fight beside us and trust us? With a President who is completely transactional, and seemingly devoid of character, it seems hard to imagine anyone will be rushing to sign on with us. Moreover, we have now been shut out of Syria, and given the lack of human rights concerns from both Moscow and Ankara, our role in protecting the Kurds has been neutered.
Third, the move harms NATO. Turkey is a NATO ally. If they are attacked, would other NATO countries fight alongside them? It is hard to see why, given their new alliance with Putin. Trump has lied repeatedly about NATO since taking office, and it is hard to see how the Turkey move can do anything other than damage to the organization that has provided stability over the past 70 years.
Fourth, and relatedly, the move strengthens Putin, Erdogan, and ISIS for the reasons stated above. But more than that, Putin emerges as a leader in the middle East, with the accompanying reduction of US influence. The US role under Obama was uneven, but in the end, at least they had pushed back on ISIS, and in fairness, until earlier this month, the Trump administration had maintained the Obama policy. But never one to let things rest, particularly where Putin’s interests are concerned, Trump started making noise about withdrawing our 2000 troops. James Mattis, one of the few grownups in the administration, resigned in protest. In the ensuing months, Trump continued to talk about leaving, and when he and Erdogan spoke on the phone, he took his opportunity.
Finally, it throws the entire region into chaos. The order in Syria is completely unclear. There is great uncertainty as to why Trump made the move when he did, but it is another in a long line of moves helping anti-democratic interests. What did Putin and Erdogan say to him to get him to make such a destabilizing move? The next few months will tell, but the path we’re on is not reassuring.