Saturday, October 19, 2019

Musings on the Meltdown of Military Legitimacy in the Middle East

   By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

To divert public attention from an impeachment crisis at home, Trump has created a crisis overseas by withdrawing all U.S. military forces fighting alongside the Kurds against ISIS.  He has claimed that he is tired of the “endless wars” in the Middle East, but has just deployed thousands of additional U.S. forces to support Saudi Arabia in its sectarian war with Iran.

Like Trump, I’m tired of the endless wars in the Middle East.   But Trump’s precipitous withdrawal of military forces has sacrificed U.S. national security objectives in a strategically vital region.  The Kurds have been America’s staunchest ally in the war against terrorism in the Middle East, and Trump has now abandoned them to their arch enemy, Turkey’s Erdogan.  

Abandoning the Kurds while providing additional military support to Saudi Arabia has undermined U.S. military legitimacy in the Middle East.  Saudi Wahabbism is an oppressive form of Islam that produced Osama bin Laden and promotes radical Islam in madrassas funded by the Saudis around the world.  Does Trump think Americans don’t notice his political duplicity?

The Kurds led the U.S. supported Syrian Defense Forces (SDF) to deny ISIS a caliphate in Syria.  That liberated territory should have become a homeland for the Kurds, even if it meant opposing Turkey, Iraq and Syria.  Whether a Kurdistan or a protected homeland, it would have provided the U.S. with a reliable ally in a volatile but strategically important region.

It is well known that loyalties in Middle East politics can change overnight; but the U.S. should not have sacrificed its military legitimacy by imitating sordid Middle East politics.  Trump’s abandonment of the Kurds in the face of Erdogan’s attacks against them will cost America dearly in our foreign policy and jeopardize our national security interests in the region.

Russia has already moved in to fill the vacuum left by the withdrawal of U.S. forces, and the Kurds have been forced to seek protection from Syria’s Assad against against Turkey’s aggression.  Erdogan has made it clear that he will not agree to a cease fire until Turkey has achieved its strategic objectives, and that he’s not concerned about U.S. economic sanctions.
President Trump is both America’s chief executive and commander in chief.  He may be captain of America’s diplomatic and military team, but he can’t win strategic victories overseas alone.  He must coordinate with other members of the team and with U.S. allies, and respect conflicting standards of military legitimacy overseas to achieve strategic political objectives.

Trump has been notorious in his failure to coordinate with military and diplomatic leaders in U.S. foreign policy, choosing to act impulsively.  The result has been a meltdown of military legitimacy in the Middle East. His predecessors may have made mistakes in the region, but Trump’s impulsive decisions have created “total chaos” according to his own administration.        

The U.S. needs a containment strategy for the Middle East that subordinates the hard power of military intervention to the softer power of economic sanctions and military advice and assistance.  Loyal allies are essential to an effective containment policy; but Trump has made the most loyal U.S. allies in the Middle East, the Kurds, a casualty of his irresponsible actions.

It’s too bad that irresponsible presidential actions that endanger national security are not impeachable offenses.  But maybe they are. The two Trump towers in Istanbul could represent a conflict of interest and a quid pro quo for selling out the Kurds to Turkey’s Erdogan.  That just might be a high crime or misdemeanor that is even more impeachable than the Ukranian fiasco. 


Trump’s precipitous withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria after giving Turkey’s Erdogan the green light to invade Syria and exterminate the Kurds has left U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East in “total chaos.”  

Trump’s capitulation to Erdogan and his abandonment of the Kurds, who have been America’s most loyal ally in its fight against ISIS in the Middle East, has destroyed U.S. credibility in the region.  

Trump’s rationale for withdrawing U.S. military forces from Syria was to escape the ”endless wars” of the Middle East, but that explanation was obviously duplicitous based on Trump’s deployment of thousands of U.S. forces to Saudi Arabia to support it in its on-going sectarian conflict with Iran.

Trump’s precipitous and disastrous moves in the Middle East came without coordination with top military strategists at the Department of Defense.  Such impulsive and free-wheeling military commitments and withdrawals have become the norm for Trump, causing generals to doubt his competence as America’s commander in chief:“He disdains expertise, he trusts only his own instincts, he resists coherent strategy, he is reflexively contrary, and he has a simplistic and antiquated notion of soldiering.” 

Max Boot has observed that “The president appears to be unstable--and also unstoppable” in his foreign policy fiasco in the Middle East,  Boot has concluded that Trump has lost Syria--and his mind

The Kurds are an ethnic non-Arab minority who have been fighting for a protected homeland in the Middle East for many years, much as Zionist Jews fought for an independent Jewish state in the Middle East until Israel was created by the U.N. with U.S. support in 1948.  The Kurds were the main part of the Syrian Defense Forces that fought ISIS alongside U.S. military forces, and they occupied an area of northeast Syria that ISIS had previously claimed as its caliphate. The U.S. should have backed the Kurdish claim for a protected homeland.  The concept had been supported by the U.N. in the 1990s and would have given the U.S. a reliable ally in a volatile and strategically important area; but opposition from Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran had so far prevented it from happening, and Trump’s withdrawal has ended the Kurdish dream.  On changing concepts of sovereignty that related to the Kurds and political self-determination in the 1990s, see Barnes, Military Legitimacy: Might and Right in the New Millennium, Frank Cass, London, 1996, at page 88.  The book is out of print, but the author’s manuscript is posted in the Resources at (reference to Kurds is at page 74). 

Related commentary on military legitimacy:
(12/29/14): Religion, Violence and Military Legitimacy
(11/1/15): A Containment Strategy to Defeat Islamist Terrorism
(11/8/15): Tough Love and the Duty to Protect Life and Liberty
(11/15/15): American Exceptionalism: The Power of Persuasion or Coercion?
(8/27/16): A Containment Strategy and Military Legitimacy (see also #49, 11/1/15)
(9/3/16): The Diplomat-Warrior: A Military Capability for Reconciliation and Peace
(11/5/16): Religion, Liberty and Justice at Home and Abroad
(3/25/17): National Security and Military Legitimacy: When Might must Be Right
(4/1/17): Human Rights, Freedom and National Security
(9/2/17): The Legitimacy of Engagement and Containment National Security Strategies  
(4/14/18): Musings of a Maverick on Military Legitimacy
(4/21/18): The Legitimacy of an Authoritarian Military in a Libertarian Democracy
(6/1/19): Musings on Military Legitimacy and Murder in Wartime

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