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Trump’s aversion to alliances is making the world a more dangerous place

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Donald Trump does not like alliances. Inevitably, they require obligation and commitments and don’t fit his idea of narrow transactions that serve our interests temporarily. Like Sen. William Borah (R-Idaho) and the “belligerent isolationists” of the 1920s and 1930s, President Trump sees no need for allies and does not want the burden of having to fulfill commitments.

In his worldview, others should take care of themselves. And that applies even to those like the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces who served our interests by bearing the brunt of fighting and dying in combating the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria. For Trump, that’s done, ISIS has been defeated, and Turkey and the Kurds are “natural enemies,” so getting out of their way and letting them fight is just fine. Leaving aside the reality that ISIS prisoners are now escaping from Kurdish prisons, and their sleeper cells will exploit the chaos and re-emerge as a threat, the deeper reality is that the Trump approach is making the world more dangerous.

By not caring if vacuums form, Trump fails to understand that the worst forces, especially in the Middle East, fill those vacuums. Small wonder that Russia, Iran and Erdogan’s Turkey are now doing so. In the case of Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Iran’s Ali Khamenei, they share the objective of driving the U.S. out of the region.

The danger, however, is not just that our adversaries will take advantage of the openings that our withdrawal creates. There is something more insidious at play, as they become emboldened and our friends feel they must accommodate them. It can be no surprise that Putin visited Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates this past week. Even as he denied there is any evidence that the Iranians are responsible for attacking Abqaiq, the most important Saudi oil processing facility, he arrived almost like a mafia don, offering to sell Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missiles to the Saudis — no doubt with the message that, if they buy them, Russia, unlike the Americans, can get the Iranians to limit their threats.

Russia’s military intervention in Syria and its ability to make life difficult for the Iranians there may lend credence to Putin’s message, even if there are few signs that he actually wants to limit the Islamic Republic. As for the Trump administration, the record at this point speaks for itself: Iranian or Iranian proxy attacks on oil tankers, Saudi air fields, bases in Iraq where U.S. forces are located, a U.S. drone, and even a Saudi oil facility that accounts for 5.5 percent of the world’s oil (and 50 percent of the Saudis’ daily output) have drawn no meaningful U.S. response. On the contrary, President Trump declared that we don’t get our oil from the Gulf, so others should bear the primary responsibility for keeping the Straits of Hormuz open — reversing the policy of his Democratic and Republican predecessors. Moreover, he justified a non-response to the Abqaiq attack by saying “that was an attack on Saudi Arabia, and that wasn’t an attack on us.”

When coupled with his walk-away from the Kurds, who is going to rely on the Trump administration to be there for them?

An Arab friend of mine told me that many in the region are now saying “if you are counting on American cover, you are naked.” Yes, we are sending 2,000 missile-defense personnel to Saudi Arabia to help protect obviously vulnerable infrastructure. The Trump explanation: The Saudis are paying for it. Of course, they are seeking to make their important facilities less vulnerable — just as they could try to make themselves less vulnerable in general by hedging their bets with the Russians.

Putin’s coercion, including on the Saudis, can work; ours vis-à-vis the Iranians has not. The Trump administration has conducted a policy of maximum economic pressure on Iran, believing its leaders would simply cave; they have not. Instead, they adopted a policy of maximum pressure against our friends in the area, and we have had no answer for it.

For now, the Iranians are likely to up the ante in the region. They see little cost in doing so and believe it may yet force Trump to ease the sanctions.

Regrettably, Iranians upping the ante in the region, with the potential for miscalculation and escalation, may not be the only result of the Trump belligerent isolation policy. In a world where the Iranians can directly attack a critical Saudi oil facility, and Turkey can decide to use force against the Kurds in Syria — with the former drawing no response from us, and the latter essentially green-lighted by the president — there are no rules. The significance of the Iranian attack on Abqaiq should be seen not just in terms of Iran crossing a threshold and drawing no response; while important, the real lesson is that, internationally, there are no norms, no limits, and anything goes. Have a problem with your neighbor? Don’t fix it diplomatically, use force — and you can get away with it.

That cannot be the world we want to live it. Re-establishing limits and norms is essential. The Turkish-Kurdish ceasefire that Vice President Pence declared — and that Turkish leaders contradicted by calling it a “pause” — will soon be defined by what Erdogan and Putin agree to when they meet, a meeting timed to coincide with the end of the 120-hour “pause.” No one knows where the tens of thousands of Kurds who are in the zone that Turkey is now carving out will go — or whether they will have left the zone by the time the pause ends.

The Trump administration might have had some leverage and been able to offer some protection for Kurdish civilians, had it been willing to declare a no-fly zone over northeast Syria. But that was not in the cards, as President Trump wants out and is quite willing to leave it up to Turkey, Russia, Iran and Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad to work out things or have an ongoing conflict.

Notwithstanding the president’s claim that the “ceasefire” deal was good for “civilization,” more refugees will be the result, and the fighting may or may not end. The deal does, however, punctuate that the U.S. has opted out — and anything goes.

In the midst of this gloomy prospect, there is one hopeful sign: Bipartisan criticism of the administration’s betrayal of the Kurds may offer a potential opportunity to begin to forge a new consensus on foreign policy and our role in the world. Perhaps this is the moment when Democrats and Republicans in Congress could come together and mandate an assessment of critical foreign policy needs.

The starting point could be emphasizing that America has a stake in preventing vacuums from forming internationally and, since we cannot do that alone, we need allies and local partners. Obviously, that cannot come from just declaring it, especially at a time when our lack of reliability will make others leery of joining us. But having a congressionally mandated study emphasize this need will send a signal that there is a consensus in this country that rejects belligerent isolationism and understands that the U.S. cannot withdraw from its responsibilities in the world.

The great irony is that if we are not to play the role of the world’s policeman — and yet prevent vacuums from forming — we must find ways of enlisting allies and regional partners who will share the burden. As the Kurds have shown, that burden is measured in lives and not just dollars. We will be far less likely to be drawn into the conflicts that Trump wants to end if we have friends who believe they can join with us and not be betrayed if they do so.

Dennis Ross is counselor and the William Davidson Distinguished Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He served as special assistant to President Obama, as Special Middle East Coordinator under President Clinton, and as director of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff in the first Bush administration. He is the author, with David Makovsky, of “Be Strong and of Good Courage: How Israel’s Most Important Leaders Shaped Its Destiny.” Follow him on Twitter @AmbDennisRoss.

Tags Dennis Ross Donald Trump Foreign policy of the Donald Trump administration Iran Kurdish allies Recep Tayyip Erdoğan Russia Saudi Arabia Saudi oil attacks Syria Vladimir Putin

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