The Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security

Trump’s Syria decision accords with previous presidential decisions and is not necessarily a disaster for Israel.

The decision by US President Donald Trump to withdraw American soldiers stationed in northeastern Syria from the Turkish border has been met across the board by a chorus of moral indignation. It has been termed “a betrayal of the Kurds” or an “abandonment of allies.”

This criticism was partly motivated by the widespread dislike and contempt in liberal circles toward the American president. Partly it was motivated by a genuine moral revulsion about leaving the Kurdish forces that fought together with America against ISIS, to face alone a Turkish powerful army.

Apart from understandable sympathy for the poor Kurds, such criticism betrays a faulty understanding of international relations; about what motivates foreign policy and the dominant currents in American society.

International politics is a self-help system, meaning that each state has to take care of its own security and independence. The existence of small states is particularly precarious. For example, the Baltic states existed for only a short time between the two World Wars because Russian power was limited at that time. In the Middle East, Kuwait and Lebanon have been targets of a politicide campaign by their stronger neighbors, Iraq and Syria, respectively. The Kurdish entity in northeastern Syria was born as the result of a temporary power vacuum, as Syria and Iraq were weakened by domestic problems. The weakness of Syria also invited several Turkish conquests.

In short, reliance on powerful allies is not enough to survive in the Hobbesian world in which we live.

The Kurds should have known better and prepared for a rainy day. After all, the US has several times allied with the Kurds and then changed sides when its perceived interests demanded it. This happened in 1975 when Gerald Ford was president, and in 1992 when George H.W. Bush was president. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter even abrogated a formal agreement approved by the US Senate, a US defense treaty with Taiwan, as a price for improving relations with Beijing.

Thus, what Trump did last week accords with previous presidential decisions. Moreover, his intention to withdraw troops from Syria was announced more than a year ago. It is part of a policy approach initiated his predecessor, President Barack Obama – namely, American withdrawal from the Middle East. This policy makes some sense as the US does not need Middle East oil and its military involvement in this region has been costly.

While Trump is not a reading man, his decision is in line with an old tradition that Thucydides, Machiavelli and Kissinger propagated, namely realpolitik. The expectation that states in the international system will act in accordance with ethical tenets is very naïve. Generally, states pursue their interests in amoral perspective. States are not Mother Theresa. The only moral imperative is survival. Survival, security and prosperity for citizens is the goal. Egoism, not altruism, is the guiding principle.

Therefore, accusations that Trump is conducting an immoral foreign policy are off base. Presidents and statesmen should be judged by the success of achieving their state’s interests at the lowest cost, not by the morality of the measures taken.

It should be further noted that state interests are defined by state leaders. In democracies, such interests usually are in sync with societal preferences. And in fact, Trump’s isolationist approach well reflects the sentiments of American society today. After several decades of sending US troops to the Middle East with little to show for the effort, America is tired of wars. American “exceptionalism” and missionary belief in the cause of democracy, that many admired over the years, seems to be in need of a break.

In any case, Trump never shared such noble instincts, and he clearly senses the negative mood in America about foreign adventures. By ordering the troops home, Trump is responding his public, and this may prove useful to him in next year’s presidential election campaign.

Trump’s decision obviously affects Israel’s interests. The withdrawal of America from the Middle East allows for greater freedom of action of regional powers such as Iran and Turkey, which is bad news. Some Gulf states may gravitate toward Iran – not a good development. Yet, Israel may also now enjoy greater latitude in pursuing its interests and in using force.

Instead of joining the chorus of indignation, Israel should adapt as quickly as possible to the new circumstances and find appropriate responses to a situation that, again, was not a real surprise.

Israel is very fortunate to have the US as an ally and to have a friendly president like Trump. But Israel has never relied on others for its national security. Israeli strategic thinking always has emphasized self-reliance. Today, as always, Israel must be prepared to act independently of Washington.

Published in The Jerusalem Post, 18.10.2019

JISS Policy Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family.

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