In Syria, making America ashamed again — and weaker

In Syria, making America ashamed again — and weaker
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There are several hundred fewer Kurdish men, women and children alive today than there were on Sunday when President TrumpDonald John TrumpJustice says it will recommend Trump veto FISA bill Fauci: Nominating conventions may be able to go on as planned Poll: Biden leads Trump by 11 points nationally MORE and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had what might be called a “perfect” telephone agreement. Trump would pull out the few hundred U.S. troops supporting Kurdish forces in Northern Syria and acting as a tripwire for U.S. intervention.  Turkey would invade and crush the Kurds. The U.S. would do nothing.

There will be a lot fewer Kurds in existence 24 hours from now and in the days that follow, and exponentially more dead and maimed, as Turkey’s quasi-genocidal campaign continues. As the Kurdish forces desperately fight to protect their families, they will be distracted from their hitherto successful role in defeating ISIS and holding thousands of its fighters in captivity. President Trump minimized the consequences if they escape or are released, saying Europe would bear the burden of refugees.  The next day, Erdogan threatened to enable just that result if Europeans criticize his military actions.

From President Obama’s unenforced “red line” in Syria to Trump’s unapologetic “green light,” the world’s tyrants are learning useful lessons about America’s actual commitment to human rights and to its friends and loyal allies around the world.


It is not the first time there has been a gap between United States rhetoric and world reality:  Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Jews of Europe. Dwight D. Eisenhower and the Hungarian Revolution. John F. Kennedy and Laos, Berlin and Cuba. Lyndon Johnson and the Prague Spring. Congress's 1973 funding cutoff for South Vietnam's defense. Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Jimmy CarterJimmy CarterThe Democrats' out-party advantage in 2020 Have the courage to recognize Taiwan Respect your Elders — a call to action MORE and Taiwan. George H.W. Bush and the Kurds in Iraq, China’s Tiananmen Square and the Bosnian Muslims. Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonTrump, Biden signal how ugly the campaign will be No 'dole' for America: How to recover from COVID-19 Biden set to make risky economic argument against Trump MORE and the Bosnian Muslims and Rwanda. George W. Bush and the Russians in Georgia. Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaSpeculation swirls about next Supreme Court vacancy The 10 Senate seats most likely to flip What does Joe Biden believe about NASA, space exploration and commercial space? MORE and the Iranian Revolution, the Russians in Ukraine, 400,000 dead Syrians and Russia's return to the Middle East in a dominant new position. Donald Trump and China’s genocidal program against the Uighurs, and the concentration camps in North Korea.

Each episode taught subsequent generations of international outlaws how far they could go in pursuing their own internal oppression and external aggression without Washington acting to back up its moral outrage and devotion to international law.

Initially, President Trump took pride in breaking the foreign policy mold, in good ways. As he long had done as a private citizen, he called out China for its flagrant cheating and deceit on trade, currency and other economic issues. As president, his tough talk got Xi Jinping to at least acknowledge the need for some structural economic reform and pledge meaningful, transparent steps in that direction.

His administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign that threatened the longevity of North Korea’s totalitarian regime persuaded Kim Jong UnKim Jong UnKim Jong Un seeks to continue bolstering North Korea's nuclear capabilities, state media says Overnight Defense: State Dept. watchdog was investigating emergency Saudi arms sales before ouster | Pompeo says he requested watchdog be fired for 'undermining' department | Pensacola naval base shooter had 'significant ties' to al Qaeda, Barr says Trump says investigation into Pompeo shows 'screwed up' priorities MORE to get serious about denuclearization talks.

Even in those hopeful developments, however, there were clear indications that the president might not be totally committed to his stated long-term objectives, rather than simply claiming bragging rights and the appearance of success.


While Kim and Xi basked in the warmth of Trump’s effusive praise of their sterling leadership qualities, they pulled back on their initial, halting efforts to meet U.S. demands for fair and compliant security and economic practices.

The strong sanctions on North Korea are no longer quite so strong; China and Russia have methodically undermined them and the U.S. president has said, “That’s okay.” Trump dismissed Pyongyang’s seven recent missile tests as merely short-range, despite their being violations of United Nations sanctions resolutions. And, in Hanoi earlier this year, he effectively pardoned Kim for any involvement in the torture and murder of Otto Warmbier.

On the nexus between economic and security issues, Trump at first blocked Chinese companies ZTE and Huawei from further infiltrating and subverting America’s communications technology security, but then partially backed off at Xi’s personal request, to save Chinese jobs. It remains to be seen how firmly the president will hold to his maximalist negotiating posture on the trade talks under way. He has shown real political courage in remaining firm despite Beijing’s deliberate targeting of its reprisals against Trump’s political base in the Midwest. Yet, he gave critical strategic and moral ground on Syria when there would have been no domestic political cost for standing his ground.

Clinton and Obama loyalists have no moral basis for gloating. The reason Trump is flailing on national security is precisely that he is returning to their own administrations’ failed accommodationist policies. They can take comfort only in the recognition that he may end up proving to be no stronger in protecting America’s fundamental national security interests and moral standing than they were. 

The damage to U.S. honor and credibility has only just begun, and the most terrible consequences are yet to unfold as Moscow, Beijing, Pyongyang and Teheran perceive that Erdogan has taken Trump’s measure. Trump had threatened to “destroy Turkey’s economy” if the Kurds were attacked. Erdogan did not flinch, any more than Syrian President Bashar al-Assad did with Obama’s red-line warning. 

The accumulated bluffs and backdowns by two consecutive U.S. presidents are utterly destroying the meaning of America’s word. We can expect further missile and nuclear tests by North Korea and additional aggressive moves by China in the East and South China Seas, Taiwan, Hong Kong and East Turkestan/Xinjiang, and rigidity in the trade talks.

The administration’s superb national security team on Asia has strived mightily to carry out the critical missions set forth in the National Security Strategy, the National Defense Strategy and the Indo-Pacific Strategy Report. Their task has been made significantly more challenging because of this week’s events in Syria, short of a policy reversal there and/or a stepped-up deterrent campaign in the Indo-Pacific.

Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He is a nonresident fellow at the Institute for Corean-American Studies and the Institute for Taiwan-American Studies and is a member of the advisory board of the Global Taiwan Institute.