Since Vietnam, the Munich Analogy—stop the bad guys while you still can—has fallen on hard times, starting with America’s hapless war against the NVA. Munich provided the rationale for Lyndon Johnson’s massive escalation. He wrote: “Everything I knew about history told me that if I got out of Vietnam. . . .then I’d be doing exactly what Chamberlain did in World War II. I’d be giving a big fat reward to aggression.”
As we know, Asia’s dominoes did not fall, and communism did not triumph. But the sacrifice of blood and treasure ended up as America’s most foolish war. So “let’s retire Munich as a handy one-size-fits-all catchphrase used to galvanize support for any action against any dictator at any time,” runs the counsel. Yet Donald Trump’s Kurdish catastrophe should make us rethink the wisdom of passivity when a small effort in time can preempt a large disaster down the road.
Let’s start with Winston Churchill’s bitter verdict on the Munich Agreement of September 1938. This is when the British and French prime ministers, Neville Chamberlain and Edouard Daladier, bought “peace in our time” by throwing Czechoslovakia under Adolf Hitler’s bus. The price of an illusionary peace was the cession of the Czech Sudetenland to the Third Reich. Whereupon Churchill famously orated: “The government had to choose between war and shame. They chose shame. They will get war, too.” And so London and Paris did one year later when Der Fuhrer unleashed World War II.
Trump has improved dramatically on the two appeasement artists. At least Chamberlain and Daladier had bought a one-year reprieve before Hitler attacked Poland, forcing Britain and France to declare war a few days later. Also, Hitler had sworn a holy oath that the Sudetenland was the end of his road to expansion. The duo could at least pretend to have acted with good conscience.
When Donald Trump green-lighted Recep Tayyib Erdogan’s move against the Kurds in Eastern Syria, Ankara’s strongman had not even deigned to lie. Nor did he grant Trump a decent interval. His bombers took off almost immediately while his tanks began to roll. This time, the Kurdish enclave was not a “far-away country of which we know little,” to recall Chamberlain’s infamous line about Czechoslovakia. This time, betrayal hit America’s best allies in the war against ISIS.
Hard-boiled realists will always argue that in the affairs of nations Realpolitik must trump Moralpolitik. The national interest must come first—damn the country’s obligations. History abounds with examples where nations betrayed and abandoned their comrades-in-arms. The Kurds in particular have been the born victims of America’s hauteur. The Nixon Administration armed them against Saddam Hussein in the 1970s, then left them to the mercy of a killer who took bloody revenge. In the Gulf War of 1991, Bush encouraged Iraq’s Kurds to rise against Saddam, then looked on as they were massacred. Treachery took its course. Under Bill Clinton, Ankara deployed massive U.S. arms shipments against its own Kurdish population. Tens of thousands are said to have perished during Ankara’s war against its own citizens.
This author has since formulated an iron law: “If you are a Kurd, you shall be f***ed.” Unlike the Palestinians whose national ambitions threaten only one small country—Israel—the Kurds are spread across four large states: Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. When the chips are down, extra-regional powers like the United States will invariably come down on the side of any of the Big Four. “Thank you for services rendered,” is the unspoken message, “but now we have bigger fish to fry”—be they Saddam or Erdogan. Moral delinquency has been built into the relationship between the United States and its quondam protégés.
But let’s not dwell on decency that has been betrayed over and over again. The Trump case is so egregious because, for once, there is no conflict between goodness and callousness. In Turkey’s war against the Kurds, moral obligation and hard-nosed national interest point in the same direction—which is rare in the annals of international politics. Trump’s collusion with Erdogan is not just a moral crime, but also a body blow to America’s well-considered interests.
One: In desperation, the Kurds in Eastern Syria went for immediate counter-betrayal by throwing themselves into the arms of the Damascene dictator Bashar Assad. Previously, Trump had marked him as “war criminal.” So what? With Kurdish forces in Assad’s pocket, there goes America’s trustiest ally in the region.
Two: This “reversal of alliances,” to invoke a standby of diplomatic history, has strengthened America’s worst foes in the area, namely Russia, Syria, and Iran. The United States has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to train and equip the Kurds; now watch them being incorporated into Assad’s army, allowing him to subdue the rest of his tormented people. Once the retraction of U.S. troops is complete, Trump will have no chips on the table. In Moscow, Damascus, and Tehran, it must be high-fives these days.
Three: ISIS, imprisoned by the thousands in the Kurdish enclave, will be back, exploiting the chaos by breaking out of the internment camps and regrouping elsewhere. Recall Barack Obama’s extraction of combat troops from Iraq in 2011. It was an act of folly. ISIS went to the gates of Baghdad while spreading its terror tentacles around the world. Thus U.S. fighting forces had to come back to slug it out in years of new warfare. American troops are still on the ground.
Four: Nuclear horror is brewing. The United States has some 50 nuclear weapons in its sprawling Turkish base at Incirlik. Placed there to protect Turkey, they are now hostages to Erdogan, so to speak, and plans are afoot to evacuate them. By force? If so, this is the end of the U.S.-Turkish alliance and a powerful incentive for Erdogan to go nuclear. He has already muttered that it is “unacceptable” for his country to have to renounce nuclear weapons.
Trump keeps tweeting that all these calamities are “7000 miles away,” hence of no concern to the United States. He is falling prey to the illusion of distance in an age of international terror and intercontinental missiles. The Royal Navy no longer patrols the Atlantic. Nor can Trump count on the Europeans even though they are directly threatened by turmoil in the Middle East. The EU has not imposed an arms cut-off on Turkey; it has only decided to “limit” the flow. According to Germany’s mass-circulation Bild, the country’s Foreign Office has instructed its emissaries to the European Council to nix an embargo and to accept only a “collective re-examination” of arms exports. Do not look forward to serious sanctions against Turkey.
Trump has not ended America’s “endless wars” in the Middle East. He has merely enlarged the war zone in one of the world’s most critical strategic arenas. Forget the moral tragedy if you can. Think instead about the betrayal of America’s (and the West’s) critical interests. It took Chamberlain and Daladier a whole year to comprehend the foolhardiness of their credulity—first shame, then war. In Trump’s case, the disaster was predictable, and it is unfolding in real time. History will judge him as harshly as it has the apostles of “peace in our time.”