Abandoning our allies IS American foreign policy
That Donald Trump’s presidency is unorthodox is beyond question. That his bombastic style has served to alienate long-standing allies in western Europe is provable by his rhetoric, that of his EU counterparts, and of public opinion surveys throughout the EU. He has been accused of coddling dictators and undermining American standing throughout the world, most recently by abandoning our long-time Kurdish allies in Syria. Unfortunately, his betrayal of the Kurdish fighters who have been fighting alongside US forces in northern Syria for years – and it is a betrayal – should have come as no surprise to anyone familiar with American foreign policy, especially as regards the Kurds. Sadly, they should have seen this coming.
The 45th president on the United States is merely the populist perfection of our nation’s continuing untrustworthiness when it comes to keeping our word. America is a fickle ally, not quite a fair-weather friend, a perpetually divided nation – inconsistent and unpredictable. The problem isn’t Trump, it’s that we’ve shown time and again that we cannot be trusted to be there when you need us.
The Kurds should know this. They’ve been screwed over by every president since George H.W. Bush. We’ve promised them over and over again that we’ll stand by their side. Only to leave them to slaughter. Leading into the Operation Desert Storm, also known as the First Gulf War, we leaned on their assistance heavily. They hated Saddam and were happy to help us. (Let’s just ignore the fact that the US and Germany sold Saddam the weapons he used on the Kurds in the first place.) Many decades and betrayals later, another US president turns the knife once again. This time adding crass indifference and incompetence to the already crass act of repeated betrayal.
But Trump is not an outlier in choosing to break our word, leave people behind, and ignore friends. President Trump, being a man of little nuance, just does it with less tact and courtesy than many may argue that the situation demands. Ask the Ukrainians how much our word is worth, the value that President Obama placed on their friendship. We had an obligation, strategically as well as diplomatically, to help preserve Ukraine’s territorial integrity against illegal Russian aggression.
Being unreliable isn’t merely an undesirable character trait; it risks current and future diplomatic, military, intelligence, law enforcement, and commercial relationships. More than that, you can bet that plenty of other countries now know that the penalty for giving up your weapons of mass destruction is invasion. Either by the nations you gave them up to, as in Libya, or by the nation who gave them to you in the first place, as in Ukraine. Our failure to follow our promises to Ukraine has made it more difficult to combat nuclear proliferation and contain dictators.
Ask our Cold War allies what our word was worth. Broken American promises litter presidential palaces in Nicaragua, Chile, and El Salvador. The dead men at the Bay of Pigs found out uncharacteristically quickly how untrustworthy we are. Ask the British and French, or basically most of the world, when did World Wars One and Two start? Because they started three years earlier for everyone else. Forget about pulling out of the Paris climate deal, ask Native Americans about broken treaties. Late to the party at the best of times, ‘fingers crossed’ at the worst. American foreign policy has always been a wild and contradictory seesaw with the single defining attribute of chaos, times of stability are comparatively rare.
This is not because Americans are uniquely or unusually untrustworthy. Indeed, we rank as some of the most honest people around the world and there has never been a nation as generous with money. No, it’s mostly because of our democracy.
American politics is, at my most polite, contentious and bipolar. Our government dominated by just two-parties, guaranteeing that no-matter-what every few years a new vision will guide policy. Every so often, the political atmosphere will fill with such partisan rancor that new policy will regularly be at complete loggerheads with, if not irrationally and stubbornly antagonistic to, previous policy. Thus a cascade of programs defunded, allies forgotten, support withdrawn, agencies closed, passports revoked, and missions terminated results in a trail of bodies formerly reliant on American protection. Relying on American politicians is fraught with uncertainty.
Our democracy isn’t filled with policy experts. Most voters aren’t very well-informed about most issues. Only half of them vote regularly. The results have been mixed. Perhaps the most charitable description of the American electorate is stricken with short-term memory. We get distracted by so many important issues that keeping our word to people involved in a matter we don’t really care about anymore is difficult to keep as a priority. There are too many veterans who need help and health care is too expensive to care about Kurdish fighters and Ukrainian coups. It is not advisable to depend on American voters for help.
Our system of government is designed to work slowly and it’s overtaxed. Americans can boast of one of the longest continuously functioning governments in the world today. Many nations are older than us, few have a constitution almost 250 years old. Thus we have two and a half centuries of competing agencies, redundant departments, and hundreds of thousands of self-contradicting statutes and regulations.
America was set up as a battleground. Senate vs. the House, Congress vs the White House, White House vs. the Supreme Court, Supreme Court vs. Congress, the states vs. the feds. Within the Executive branch alone there are many opportunities for corruption, cronyism, capture, and political competition ultimately leading to dysfunction. As every state much duplicates this system, we multiple this problem down to that level as well. State departments, agencies, and commissions have the same problems as federal ones too. State politics is no less craven and opportunistic than national politics is and we end up moving like molasses. Don’t trust the American system for fast and/or long term assistance.
We overspend, that should stop. We commit ourselves, our money, our military, and our honor too frequently and to too many places; that should stop too. America shouldn’t be isolationist or even abstain from foreign interventions entirely but we should stop pretending that we have long-term plans that our partners can believe in. When an American president gives other peoples our word in friendship, we should honor it. Limiting our liability for such is the only way to do it. Not that we should stop helping people, stop making promises, rather that we should make sober promises that at least stand a chance of being kept by subsequent administrations and congresses.
Thomas Brown is a recovering political consultant hiding out in the American South. He is managing editor of The Swamp and has been published in The Bipartisan Press, Alaska Native News, GEN, Human Events, Times of Israel, Dialogue & Discourse. Follow him at his Medium page and argue with him on Twitter: @reallythistoo.
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