Halfway into his term, let us dispense with the familiar epithets about Donald Trump such as “crass,” “mendacious,” “brutal,” and “bizarre.” On the global stage, he has acted like the proverbial bull in the china shop, not out of sheer obliviousness, but because he wants to demolish the set. Yet consider how well he has actually done so far, at least by his own lights.
“Obsolete” and “free-riding” NATO, which, according to Trump, has played Uncle Sam for a sucker, is rearming. North Korea’s boy dictator has been all smiles. ISIS is largely decimated, though not dead. Across the Middle East, Trump has harnessed Israel and the Sunni states in a de facto coalition against Iran. He might yet gouge a better nuclear deal out of Tehran.
In trade, Trump’s nasty tactics have gotten the attention of Europe and China. The EU has responded gingerly to America’s punitive tariffs. China advertises its willingness to talk about age-old conflicts over intellectual property and access to its markets. On Trump’s watch, the U.S. has become the largest producer of oil, reducing its dependency on OPEC.
So crude is the new cool? Look again. China’s president Xi has just threatened Taiwan with reunification by force while one of his admirals, Lou Yuan, mused about sinking a couple of U.S. aircraft carriers to make a point, adding that the “conflict over economics and trade” was in fact “a prime strategic issue.” In his New Year’s address, Kim Jong Un has warned that he might have to seek a “new path” if the U.S. does not drop its sanctions.
Nor is Russia being cowed. Though a failing economy, Putinland is patiently expanding its sway over the Middle East, one step at a time. And why not? Trump has just delivered a prize the new tsars from Khrushchev to Putin could not imagine in their wildest dreams. Trump intends to withdraw from one of the world’s most critical strategic arenas.
Under this dispensation, the U.S. would pull out of Syria and cut its forces in Afghanistan, which will leave its European allies there high and dry. Hence, they, too, will leave. Say “hello” again to the Taliban. The strategic chessboard will now belong to Russia plus Iran and its surrogate Hezbollah. Get ready for a major war between Israel and Hezbollah, which will make the last round of 2006 look like a skirmish.
Syria “belongs to you,” Trump has reportedly told Turkey’s strongman Erdogan. The would-be sultan has threatened to massacre those very Kurds, America’s best allies, who have borne the brunt of the fighting against ISIS. If Trump actually betrays them, their abandonment will serve as a bloody warning to all allies of the United States: Once you do our bidding, we will ditch you.
So much for the ugly daily news that do not make the 45th President shine as a master strategist like Henry Kissinger, who managed to extrude the Soviet Union from the Middle East in the early 1970s. Now go back into history to unearth a nasty pattern that has emerged again and again ever since the United States bestrode the world first as dominant, then mightiest player at the turn of the 20th century. Call it “retraction” in the way of Donald Trump.
Too bad, the astronomical bills followed soon thereafter.
Let us count the ways. The U.S. stayed out of World War I until the last minute. The price was million-fold death in Europe, then the dispatch of 2 million soldiers and 320,000 casualties.
After the Great War, the U.S. turned its back on Europe, leaving the field wide open for the Fascist powers. (“America first,” by the way, was the slogan of U.S. isolationism in the interwar period.) Again the United States stayed out, until December 1941, until Britain was sinking and the Nazis were on a roll from France to Soviet Russia. The price of inaction was gigantic. 130,000 American soldiers were killed in action in Europe alone.
Back home again. At the Yalta Conference in February 1945, Franklin D. Roosevelt told Joseph Stalin that all U.S. troops would be out two years hence. In effect, he also conceded Eastern Europe to the Soviet Union, which lost no time “communizing” Poland, Czechoslovakia, and the rest. By 1946, the U.S. had a new war on its hands: the Cold War. By the 1960s, 300,000 U.S. troops were back in Western Europe, alongside thousands of tactical nuclear weapons. Luckily, the war never turned hot, but the cost of containing Soviet Russia with men and materiel were gargantuan. Though the bulk of U.S. forces were withdrawn in 1994, three years after the suicide of the Soviet Union, an American garrison of some 30,000 is still in place.
In 1950, Secretary of State Dean Acheson pointedly excluded South Korea from the American “perimeter.” Six months later, North Korea invaded the South, and the U.S. intervened. The price was 35,000 dead.
The moral of this tale is as simple as can be. Just like nature, international politics abhors a vacuum. No balance of power, no stability, let alone peace. With his strategy of retraction, Donald Trump has been in good company, so to speak, since World War I.
Indeed, Trump is merely completing what Barack Obama started when he vacated his “red line” against Assad’s chemical weapons. The dictator used them again and again, safely ensconced behind the Russian military in Syria. It is a moot point now. But do imagine what humanitarian and strategic disaster could have been averted by judicious American action before Moscow inserted its might for good. To deter is always more economical and less dangerous than to dislodge your opponent once he is in place.
To be sure, Clio, the goddess of history, likes to issue ambiguous advice. But in the case of the United States, retraction has not proven a winner. Leaving a power vacuum today means raising the ante a hundredfold tomorrow. To recall this lesson is not a pitch for throwing the country’s weight around just because it can.
Vietnam and Iraq II (2003) were the two most foolish wars in American history. Yet in the case of Iraq, the logic of stability and the injunction against withdrawal would have told George W. Bush not to destroy a state that had served as potent bulwark against Iranian hegemonism. So the current strategic disaster in Syria began with “mission accomplished” in 2003. Today, Iran has bought itself a border with Israel while extending its reach all the way to the Mediterranean.
“Fortress America,” which inspires Trump’s not-so-grand strategy, is an illusion that defies history and the well-considered American interest, just like trade wars diminish the welfare of nations by reducing the real incomes of their consumers.
Alas, since the departure of Secretary Jim Mattis, there are no more “adults in the room.” And the Democratic House of Representatives shares many of Trump’s isolationist reflexes; remember that populism is always found on both the Left and the Right.
America is turning into a wobbly pillar of world order. You might want to drag out your old LPs and listen to Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through the Night.”