From Ukraine to Syria, is America’s ‘beacon’ dimming?
Responding to the withering and bipartisan criticism he faced over his spur-of-the-moment decision to pull U.S. forces from northern Syria and leave the Kurdish fighters the U.S. had partnered with against ISIS to fend for themselves, President Donald Trump chose not to mollify, but to double down.
“Turkey, Europe, Syria, Iran, Russia and the Kurds will now have to figure the situation out” without the United States, the president tweeted defiantly.
A day earlier, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had informed Mr. Trump by phone call that his country would soon launch an offensive across its southern border into northern Syria to push the Kurds from territory formerly held by the Islamic State.
To some, the president’s tweet was a shocking if accurate reflection of an accelerated American retrenchment under Mr. Trump, an unvarnished acknowledgement that the world’s erstwhile policeman would now be leaving the kind of crises American diplomacy once excelled at resolving to others – allies and adversaries alike.
But to others it was this and more. In the abandonment of an allied fighting force and the distancing from regional partners that had for decades relied on the U.S. for support and guidance, they see a hint of a retreat of another kind.
In the Syria developments, in recent diplomatic dealings with Ukraine now coming to light through the House impeachment inquiry, and in other cases, some analysts see a retreat from the values and principles that have for decades made America a global leader and guide of a different order.
“Trump’s grand strategy is not a bolt from the blue, it is quite reminiscent in many respects of American foreign policy pre-Pearl Harbor, and it gets traction because it does tap into the older strains in U.S. foreign policy of isolationism, unilateralism, and protectionism,” says Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow specializing in security alliances at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in Washington.
“But where we are seeing something new is in President Trump’s departure from the values of liberal democracy and shared economic prosperity, and above all from the idea of America as a beacon to the rest of the world, that go back to the earliest days of the republic,” he adds. This dimension of Mr. Trump’s actions is “unprecedented,” he says, in that “it not only raises questions about American reliability and what the aims of our foreign policy are, but it removes us as an example that others around the world have aspired to follow.”
For some analysts, Mr. Trump’s decision to pull U.S. forces from northern Syria alone constitutes a retreat from principles they say have guided U.S. foreign policy since at least World War II.
“The Trump decision in Syria is disastrous not just for the immediate struggle and prospects for the Kurds and what it signals about the United States in the Middle East, but it is disastrous in terms of our alliances and the questions it raises about the principles of reliability and credibility that have been at the heart of those alliances for decades,” says Robert Lieber, a professor of government and international affairs at Georgetown University in Washington.
“We have learned that President Trump is a person of instincts rather than strategy when it comes to foreign policy,” he adds. “But when it results in the message that U.S. allies are going to be abandoned and left out to dry, it is damaging to American interests, let alone to our alliances, and frankly to human decency.”
The mounting evidence of the U.S. turning away from principles that have guided its foreign policy is not going to go unnoticed but will be acted upon by allies and adversaries alike as they seek to fill the void of what Mr. Kupchan calls the “brave new world” left by the U.S. retreat.
The U.S. pullback in Syria “is going to have a lasting impact” beyond the Kurds who feel they have been “stabbed in the back” by the power they helped in the fight against ISIS, says Steven Cook, senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at CFR.
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a political ally of the president on domestic issues but a frequent critic of his foreign policy, expressed his concern on just that issue Wednesday.
“I worry we will not have allies in the future against radical Islam, ISIS will reemerge, & Iran’s rise in Syria will become a nightmare for Israel,” he tweeted. “I fear this is a complete and utter national security disaster in the making and I hope President Trump will adjust his thinking.”
But Syria is just one episode in a string of recent actions that cement the image of a retreating power leaving the field for others to occupy, says Mr. Cook.
Pointing to how the U.S. responded “in the most limited possible fashion that it could” to what were assumed to be Iranian missile attacks on Saudi oil facilities in September, Mr. Cook says “this sent a very strong message to allies in the Gulf that the commitments that we had made about their security and … about the free flow of energy resources out of that region were not good.” He spoke before reports surfaced of a secret U.S. cyber strike against Iran following the oil fields attack.
“The message is being sent,” he says, “that the United States comes calling and asking for help and makes commitments … and doesn’t always keep them.”
“As countries believe that they’re on their own,” he adds, “we’re going to see more types of disastrous policies pursued by countries that don’t have the capacity to do the things that they believe they can.”
Parallel foreign policy
In the case of Ukraine, it was not so much a country that felt abandoned by its powerful ally but rather pressured by it to undertake certain actions of personal interest to the president of the United States.
The U.S. detour from its traditional role in promoting the values of international liberalism and democratic governance is also evident in testimony before the House impeachment inquiry focused on President Trump’s actions in relation to Ukraine. Current and former State Department and White House national security officials are set to continue testifying this week.
In closed-door testimony Monday, former Trump White House Russia expert Fiona Hill said she and former national security adviser John Bolton had worried about a parallel foreign policy the president’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and other officials close to the president were running concerning Ukraine and with the president’s personal political interests in mind.
On Tuesday George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary of state responsible for Ukraine, told lawmakers carrying out the impeachment inquiry that he was instructed to back off the Ukraine portfolio and leave matters to a group of officials close to Mr. Trump, according to post-hearing comments by some congressional Democrats.
The shadow Ukraine policy group, who called themselves the “three amigos,” consisted of Energy Secretary Rick Perry, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, and former special U.S. envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker.
Last week the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, testified that the State Department had been “hollowed out” under President Trump and that she had been removed by the president for standing in the way of his personal goals in Ukraine – which included pushing for the investigation of his personal political rivals.
The world is watching
The international impact of these and other accounts is likely to be broad and lasting, says Mr. Kupchan, who adds that the Ukraine operation “tarnishes” the sense, held both domestically and in much of the world, of American “exceptionalism” and status as an exemplar of higher ideas.
“The Ukraine saga demonstrates to the world that our diplomacy is in the service of digging up dirt on the president’s political rivals,” Mr. Kupchan says, “and it’s not the kind of example we have traditionally tried to set and that others have looked to us for, to say the least.”
It may be too early to say what long-term impact the U.S. retreat from its traditional guiding principles in foreign policy will have, but there’s no doubting that the world is already taking notice, analysts say.
“The U.S. continues to have the material power to play a leading and even indispensable role in world affairs, but that is very much dependent on leadership and commitment,” Georgetown’s Professor Lieber says, “and all that is what is sorely lacking.”
Mr. Kupchan, who served as a special assistant on European affairs in the Obama White House, notes that President Obama was already a “retrencher” when it came to the U.S. footprint in the Middle East, while factions of both the Republican and Democratic parties have soured on free trade. “So some elements of the American withdrawal are here to stay,” he says.
But at the same time, he says a retreat from “America’s core principles of statecraft,” from commitment to alliances to promoting pluralism, ethnic tolerance, and the elements of liberal democracy, need not be permanent.
“What is correctable – and urgently so – is the abandonment of republican values and practices,” Mr. Kupchan says, “and the restoration of decency and probity and steadiness.”