Republicans reacted with outrage last week when Donald Trump announced on Twitter that he was pulling U.S. troops away from the Syria-Turkey border. Speaking with a pedigree of birth that belies her junior status in Congress, Wyoming Representative Liz Cheney spoke for her father’s Republican Party when she rebuked President Trump on Twitter: “News from Syria is sickening. Turkish troops preparing to invade Syria from the north, Russian-backed forces from the south, ISIS fighters attacking Raqqa. Impossible to understand why @realDonaldTrump is leaving America’s allies to be slaughtered and enabling the return of ISIS.” For his part, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham told anyone who would listen that he found Trump’s action “unnerving to its core.”
Lindsey Graham exemplifies Congressional Republicans who mistakenly believed from early on that if they just pandered to Trump, they would ultimately be able to dictate the direction of a Trump presidency. For his part, Graham had come to believe that because he plays golf with Trump and has risen to his defense in even the most egregious moments, Trump would defer to him on key foreign policy matters. When Trump walked back the Syria pull-out he announced this past December, Graham seemed to believe that Trump reversed course because of his intervention.
In fact, Trump’s policy reversal in December had little to do with outcry from Congressional Republicans, but rather was on account of opposition from his Secretary of Defense, Jim Mattis. Trump has little but distain for most Congressional Republicans, who he views in large measure as weak and scared. In contrast, Mad Dog Mattis was known to be the only person in Washington, D.C. who intimidated Trump; the only person Trump was loath to cross. So when Mattis put it all on the line to oppose Trump’s proposed withdrawal from Syria, Trump acquiesced.
But that was a one-time deal, and it cost Mattis his job. Now he’s gone, and no one is left in Trump’s inner circle to temper his nationalist instincts in the foreign policy realm. Trump learned from the firestorm that erupted when he announced his Syria withdrawal plan in December; this time around, he gave his pullout order in the middle of the night, during a Congressional recess. By the time Graham and others began to howl about Trump’s betrayal of the Kurds, U.S. troops had already abandoned their positions, and Turkey had begun its assault across the Syrian border. This time, instead of reversing course, Trump doubled down, lashing out at Republicans like Graham and Cheney as war-mongers and the war-profiteers.
For all the outrage and dismay across GOP ranks, there is no reason that Republicans on Capitol Hill — or anyone else for that matter — should have been surprised by Trump’s action last week. After all, he made no bones about his view of America’s wars when he secured the Republican Party nomination in 2016, and in the intervening three years he has done nothing to mute his attacks on America’s allies. Republicans may have found it unnerving that the leader of their party was willing to betray the Kurds, but they should not have been surprised. It is the deal the GOP signed up for.
America First — Trump’s anti-globalist calling card from the day he announced his candidacy — meant nothing if not keeping U.S. troops out of conflicts that, on the surface at least, don’t involve us. For the Kurds who fought our battles in Syria, America First means that they are now on their own. If Turkey feels threatened by the Kurds, and Turkey is more powerful than the Kurds, that is something that the Kurds alone need to deal with.
The emergence of a Trump Doctrine that reflects his America First rhetoric led to the departure of Jim Mattis from the administration. In his resignation letter, Mattis asserted his belief in the central proposition that has guided American leadership in the world since World War II, which left him at odds with the President he was sworn to serve: “The U.S. remains the indispensable nation in the free world, we cannot protect our interests or serve that role effectively without maintaining strong alliances and showing respect to those allies… My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors are strongly held and informed by over four decades of immersion in these issues. We must do everything possible to advance an international order that is most conducive to our security, prosperity and values, and we are strengthened in this effort by the solidarity of our alliances.”
In contrast, the Trump Doctrine — as articulated best by once and future Trump advisor Steve Bannon — suggests that the liberal, rule-based international order that the U.S. helped to create has imposed American cultural and political values on sovereign nations and suppressed their own unique ethnic identities and aspirations. Bannon — who has established himself as the eminence gris of growing, illiberal nationalist movements across the globe — shares with Vladimir Putin an admiration of the “great powers” era of the 19th century when countries defended their economic interests and cultural identities.
For Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, as well as Russian President Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jngping, Trump’s shift in U.S. policy presents possibilities beyond their wildest dreams just a few years ago. It offers the prospect of a return to a global order that accords each of those countries dominion over their regions of the world.
For Putin, the Trump Doctrine suggests that if Russia feels that Ukraine was historically part of its dominion, and Russia is more powerful than Ukraine and has used its superior force to occupy and annex Ukrainian territory, that is something that the Ukrainians alone must deal with. Lost in quid pro quo controversy and the whistleblower reports regarding Ukraine over the past two weeks was Trump’s clear message to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky: the era of the United States as the defender of a rule-based international law is over; the only resolution to Russia’s occupation of Ukraine is for Zelensky to call Vladimir Putin and make a deal acceptable to him.
As another weaker state embroiled in a long-standing conflict with a stronger state, one has to imagine that is the message that Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen is receiving as well, if she is reading the tea leaves. Taiwan has relied on the umbrella of its alliance with the United States for protection against China for more than a half-century. It now appears that those days may be over, and Chinese President Xi-Jingping has to be considering whether this isn’t the moment to finally bring China’s decades-long civil war to an end and reunite Taiwan with the mainland.
It is unnerving to its core — to use Lindsey Graham’s phrase — to imagine that we are watching in real time the demise of American leadership in the world, and the devolution of the rule-based international order it did so much to help create. Donald Trump’s action with respect to Syria last week was about far more than just the Kurds. While the bombardment of the Kurds by Turkish artillery and tanks, the reemergence of ISIS as a fighting force, and the tragedy of over 130,000 Kurdish refugees already on the move, are likely to capture the attention of the media for weeks to come, the deeper story should be understood as well. That story is about the prospective transformation of United States foreign policy and the rise of the Trump Doctrine. For all the howls of protest that we heard from Republicans in the wake of Trump’s Syria action last week, this is a shift in America’s stance in the world that Graham and Cheney and their GOP brethren unleashed by aiding and abetting the rise of Trumpism.
Follow David Paul on Twitter @dpaul. He is working on a book, with a working title of “FedExit! To Save Our Democracy, It’s Time to Let Alabama Be Alabama and Set California Free.”
Artwork by Joe Dworetzky. Check out Joe’s political cartooning at www.jayduret.com. Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.