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Don't let 'America first' become 'America last'

Don't let 'America first' become 'America last'
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President TrumpDonald John TrumpFederal watchdog accuses VOA parent company of wrongdoing under Trump appointee Lawsuit alleges 200K Georgia voters were wrongly purged from registration list Ivanka Trump gives deposition in lawsuit alleging misuse of inauguration funds MORE always emphasizes putting America first, especially regarding U.S. foreign policy. His Oct. 6 decision to withdraw troops from northern Syria should have come as no surprise, given that he talked about it for months. However, its hasty implementation now appears erratic and has led to concerns about the U.S. role in the world today. The administration says it will reposition its forces, letting the Syrian regime, Russia and Turkey fight it out for eastern Syria, which Trump notes is 7,000 miles away and not a key to U.S. strategy.

The question now is whether “America first” as a policy essentially has become “America last,” because the U.S. is putting itself last in the list of countries that play leading roles in places such as Syria. For example, every step back that the U.S. takes leaves a vacuum that will be filled by someone, such as Russia. It is symbolic that after the U.S. left a base in northern Syria, a Russian-speaking man filmed himself wandering around a U.S. base on Oct. 15.

Turkey’s invasion of Syria will have ramifications for the U.S. in the Middle East, and perhaps globally. First, Iran sees the U.S. withdrawal as evidence that the U.S. can be browbeaten to leave places. Iran already has challenged U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia through drone and cruise missile attacks. Iranian-allied political parties in Iraq want the U.S. to leave Iraq, despite the fact that the U.S. may want to reposition forces from Syria into Iraq. 

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If the U.S. faces a setback in Syria and Iraq, it will have suffered a reversal in the two countries that were key to the anti-ISIS campaign and enabled Iranian gains in both places. This would appear to contrast with the Trump administration’s official policy of maximum pressure against Iran.

The concept of putting U.S. interests first likely means the U.S. economy. Trade tends to follow the flag, so where the U.S. has a large diplomatic presence and key allies also is where it has large amounts of trade. Trade is supposed to open up markets to politics more amenable to the U.S. A key part of the concept of a liberal world order, established at the end of the Cold War, is that the world will transition toward democracy and capitalism. That now appears to be in retreat, with more authoritarian regimes reducing democracy. 

These regimes like to work together — such as Iran, Russia and Turkey in Syria. When countries work together to solve a conflict such as Syria’s civil war, they tend to flood those countries with their products as well. Who will rebuild Syria? Surely Turkey, Iran and Russia will play a central role. It appears the U.S. won’t. So leaving Syria isn’t just about reducing U.S. troops from 1,000 to zero; it is also about giving up real estate that, in theory, could be an American market as well. 

The Trump administration talks about “America first” but doesn’t seem to see it holistically. For example, the U.S. is in a trade war with China and has imposed sanctions against Iran. But what happens if, because of the U.S. withdrawal from Syria, a country such as China believes it can do the same thing with U.S. trade that Turkey has done with the Syria policy? This is important to recognize because coming in last in terms of influence in Syria means the U.S. has eroded the American global brand. Brands are a mix of things, including reputation. When the U.S. has a reputation of making policies choices “from the gut,” and betraying partners such as the Kurdish fighters in eastern Syria, the brand is affected.

From the early 20th century to 2019, America was perceived as the “most powerful nation on earth” and “leader of the free world.” Those were qualities bestowed by victory in World War II and the Cold War. Victory in war led to global power and economic power. But today the U.S. is being challenged on all fronts, whether it is Chinese investment in Africa, Russia’s presence in eastern Europe, Iran in Iraq, or the Turkish incursion in Syria.

Washington must be careful not to squander its brand with short-term choices about costs of its role in places such as Syria — choices that will have long-term ramifications when countries turn to Russia or China, rather than the U.S. More than a century ago, the U.S. also eschewed international commitments in favor of isolationism; the business of America is business, not globalism, said its presidents in the 1920s. But that “America first” movement, too, often put U.S. interests abroad in last place.

Seth J. Frantzman is executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis. A former assistant professor of American studies at Al-Quds University, he covers the Middle East for The Jerusalem Post and is a writing fellow at the Middle East Forum. He is the author of “After ISIS: How Defeating the Caliphate Changed the Middle East Forever.” Follow him on Twitter @sfrantzman.