Those who subscribe to the notion that American influence is best preserved by withdrawing from its commitments abroad imagine that theirs is a vision for a smarter, more modest foreign policy. It’s a myth that has endured, for the most part, because those presidents foolish enough to put anti-interventionist dogma into practice reversed their courses in short order. By contrast, Donald Trump is staying the course and, in the process, busting that contemptible myth.
Without the counsel of the more cautious stewards of the America-led order that once surrounded him, Donald Trump has fully indulged his isolationist impulses. The fruits of an “America First” doctrine are chaos, paralytic indecision, and the undisciplined sacrifice of American national interests toward no greater end than fleeting domestic political advantage. The debacle in Syria is only the latest example.
Though Trump’s decision to abandon America’s allies in Northern Syria has been some time in the making—it was the policy preference that prompted former Defense Sec. Jim Mattis’s resignation last December—the results of that policy have been disastrous in ways that were not fully anticipated by even its most forceful detractors. At every turn in this affair, Donald Trump has been made to look appallingly weak.
Trump’s decision last week to execute his long-planned withdrawal of the small American troop presence in Northern Syria was not strategic but ideological. It was, he said, “time for us to get out” and to let others “figure the situation out.” All the while, he sent anyone willing to “figure the situation out” for themselves mixed signals—pledging to establish a power vacuum while threatening retaliation against any of the foreign powers willing to fill it. Trump had not even secured the pretense of “victory” in American withdrawal before Turkish forces poured over the Syrian border.
The events that followed were horrific. Thousands of Kurdish fighters who fought both alongside American advisors and in their stead against Islamist elements in Syria and the genocidal despot in Damascus have been sacrificed to Turkey. Tens of thousands of Kurdish civilians are displaced, ethnically cleansed from their homeland by Ankara, which hopes to replace them with the Syrians who sought refuge from a decade of civil war inside Turkey. Some of those civilians have been massacred by barbarous proxy militias loyal to Turkey. Those who survive have been compelled to run to the arms of the Assad regime and, by extension, their masters in Iran and Russia.
The Kurds, who had been holding captured ISIS operatives, directed their forces to the more urgent fight against Turkey and so hundreds of ISIS-affiliated detainees are now free. In response to this disaster, Trump insists that someone will probably capture them again. And, if not, it’s not our problem? “They are going to be escaping to Europe,” he said, “that’s where they want to go.” Amid Turkey’s advance into Syria, Turkish forces are believed to have deliberately targeted an American commando outpost with dangerously close artillery strikes in order to hasten America’s retreat from the region. It worked; Trump hastened the removal of U.S. soldiers and civilians from the region as the threat from its erstwhile allies—both in NATO and the proxy forces that now align themselves with Assad—increased exponentially. And how has Trump responded to these insults to American prestige and threats to the safety of its citizens? Only with the feeble promise of economic sanctions—none of which will change the behavior of the region’s belligerents and which won’t be forthcoming in time to matter even if they could.
This is the mortifying conduct of an American presidency committed to the fantasy that U.S. interests are best served by outsourcing their stewardship to foreign capitals, and it’s not a new turn of events. America’s humiliation is ongoing and truly global in scope.
Donald Trump has slavishly rewarded the North Korean regime, providing praise and prestige to its totalitarian potentate even as it continues to develop nuclear fuel and weapons. Even now, the administration clings to the notion that it can negotiate a face-saving settlement with the rogues in Pyongyang, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.
The United States briefly broke off peace talks with the Taliban when, even amid those talks, U.S. forces in Afghanistan were being targeted and killed by members of the terrorist militia. The Taliban has not abandoned its militancy, but America has sacrificed its resolve. The talks are, of course, back on.
Trump heaped scorn on his former national security adviser, John Bolton, for, among other things, taking a hard line toward the illegitimate socialist regime in Venezuela. Trump unconvincingly claimed that he preferred an even stronger line against the regime in Caracas, but officials within the administration insist that its “important to take a step back now and let the international community catch up in many ways.”
Perhaps most embarrassingly, the president bluffed his way into a confrontation with Iran and, when called, simply folded. The Trump administration has been confronted with a true crisis in the Strait of Hormuz. The Iranian navy has spent the year commandeering and sabotaging foreign-flagged vessels in international waters, to which Trump responded by contemplating the surrender of international shipping lanes to the Chinese navy. Iranian forces even went so far as to destroy a multimillion-dollar, unarmed U.S. surveillance drone. Donald Trump approved a retaliatory strike to, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, “restore deterrence” but blinked at the last minute. The Iranians remain undeterred, as the sophisticated and brazen Iran-linked attack on a Saudi oil-production facility demonstrates.
This cannot be dismissed as the result of a quirky neophyte occupying the presidency. This is what a nationalist president’s foreign policy looks like. The absence of cheering throngs in the streets celebrating the president’s actions is evidence that Americans do not, in fact, want to surrender national ambition and the global order to revisionist powers, tinpot dictators, and petty warlords. It is telling that Americans who hunger for a humbler foreign policy are struggling to defend Trump’s effort to realize their goals. After all, the nation has been thoroughly humbled.