USA Abandonment of Kurds Sends Bad Message to Allies in East Asia – commentary

Once again, Washington has left allies to face greater regional powers on their own; the implications for East Asia are stark

Grant Newsham| | Asia Times

It was always obvious James Mattis wouldn’t be US secretary of defense forever. So his resignation last week wasn’t a surprise – only the circumstances were.

The last straw was apparently US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw US forces from Syria, contrary to Mattis’ and the US military’s advice. Mattis also made clear his view on the importance of maintaining alliances and standing by allies.        

Regardless, Trump’s frustration at the huge amounts spent on defense and the apparent lack of progress with long-running wars is understandable. With or without American soldiers in Syria, or Mattis in the Pentagon, the Middle East will remain chaotic, and leaving Syria is not leaving the region, even if many Americans might prefer otherwise.

And, although US allies and US foreign policy enthusiasts may not like to hear it, Trump is essentially right when he criticizes NATO and Asian allies for taking advantage of the US defense shield at low cost.  Even if Trump is gone in two or six years, the point has been made and there will remain plenty of Americans who are unimpressed with allied support and expenditure.

The cruel irony is that the Kurds in the Middle East have been anything but free-loaders.

For them, US boots on the ground provided a degree of actual and political influence that vague assurances of interest do not. This can’t be recovered without great cost.

And very clearly, the Iranians, Russians, Syrians and Turks – none of whom are aligned with US geopolitical interests or values – will relish the prospects of operating without fear of obliteration by US airpower.

More broadly, what Trump may not have considered is that something done or not done in one part of the globe often manifests itself half a world away.

Kurds Sacrificed Again

That is where Trump’s decision on Syria matters most – and Mattis suggested as much in his resignation letter’s notable references to keeping faith with allies. In Syria, it is the Kurds who did most of the fighting and dying, while backed by US air and logistics, in the battle against ISIS.

The Kurds were also America’s staunchest allies during the Iraq War. Now, yet another USA administration is sacrificing them. Trump apparently reached an agreement of some sort with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose attitude toward the Kurds is well known and not amicable.

One thinks the Kurds would know better by now.

In 1975, the US went along with the Shah of Iran’s abandonment of the Kurds. During the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, the Reagan administration turned a blind eye when Saddam Hussein gassed Kurdish civilians, given that he was battling Iran. And after Gulf War I in 1991, President George HW Bush allowed Saddam to wade into the Iraqi Kurds once more, though he belatedly realized his mistake and established a no-fly zone protecting Iraq’s Kurdish region.

Now, Turkey and Bashir Assad’s regime in Syria will be the immediate beneficiaries of this new reality. Both parties have good reason to wade into the Kurds: Partly out of spite and revenge; partly to deal a blow to a troublesome ethnic group; and partly for the oil fields in Kurdish territory.

USA Credibility

The import of the Kurdish situation in Syria is a matter of Washington’s credibility.

Besides the issue of keeping faith with people who fought alongside and trusted the United States, it appears the Trump administration is willing to sacrifice a small group or nation – albeit, the Kurds never had a formally recognized state – for what it sees as more important interests involving the major regional power – in this case, Turkey.

The fact that the group in question controls territory that is one of the more decent and tolerant places in the region, and that they are one of the few players in the area roughly aligned with US interests and values, didn’t apparently register in Trumpian Washington.

The treatment of the Kurds is being noted worldwide. Behind closed doors, America’s friends and enemies will be drawing conclusions from Trump’s indifference to implicit promises and moral obligations.

This will be especially true in the Asia-Pacific.

Ripples Across East Asia

Doubts already exist about US commitment and staying power in the region, following the Obama administration’s supine response to China seizing Philippine maritime territory in 2012 and Beijing taking de facto control over most of the South China Sea.

Longer memories linger on how US promises to South Vietnam played out during the North Vietnamese invasion of 1975. Elders in the Vietnamese-American community remember that abandonment. So, too, do the Hmong ethnic minority who fought on the US side in Laos in the 1960s and ’70s, who are now exiled in Minnesota and other US cities.

Keeping 2,000 troops engaged in a low-casualty conflict in Syria was a reasonable price to pay for America’s global credibility. It sent a message to Beijing, Moscow and Tehran that the US protects its friends. That message has now evaporated.

While ASEAN nations and even Australia and Japan have their doubts about US spine in dealing with China, and are hedging their bets, Taiwan might feel especially exposed as “the Kurds of Asia”. Like the Kurds faced with Syrian and Turkish power, the Taiwanese are postured against a powerful and aggressive China bent on regional domination and keen to bring an aggressive, independent group to heel.

Taipei has long worried about US support, and the abandonment of Kurdish allies will reinforce these doubts. This is despite the Trump presidency being more supportive of Taiwan than any administration since Ronald Reagan’s. This is particularly so given that Trump, currently engaged in a trade war with Chinese President Xi Jinping, may resolve that war by cutting a big deal with Xi.

Beijing has learnt from the Kurds’ fate that the Americans are not staunch allies. Certainly, if tensions rise across the Taiwan Strait, Washington may express concerns, pass Congressional resolutions, move aircraft carriers around the regional chess board. But there are plentiful precedents that suggest Washington will do nothing more, and may allow a small, free nation to be manhandled – or worse.

No doubt this isn’t what the Trump administration intends by leaving Syria, but this is the message that has been sent.

Many Americans may be inclined to say good-riddance to Syria and the rest of the Middle East to boot. But in terms of its standing and credibility, the United States could pay for its Syrian decision in East Asia.

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  • Clyde Duncan  On December 31, 2018 at 3:01 am

    How Would the United States Cope If It Lost the Next War?

    Steven Metz | World Politics Review

    Last week, I argued that while the U.S. military, the Pentagon and most national security experts expect that the United States will always win the wars it is forced to fight, America could in fact lose one if an astute enemy capitalizes on the nation’s weaknesses and vulnerabilities.

    I sketched out three ways that might happen:

    If an enemy found a way to drag out a war past the limits of American patience;

    If a nuclear-armed enemy invaded another nation and then dug in;

    Or, If an adversary used what security experts call “gray zone” aggression to present the United States with a fait accompli.

    But there are three other ways America could lose its next war, all of which expose how the country has become weaker politically despite its military dominance.

    The first scenario might be if an adversary found a way to exploit geopolitics to its advantage.

    In today’s security environment, the United States is likely to fight a war far from home via long-range force projection — think the mostly air war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or the 2003 invasion of Iraq. America is more adroit at this kind of mobilization than any nation in history and constantly getting better. The U.S. military can strike targets anywhere on earth.

    But being able to strike enemy targets may not always be enough to win a war.

    To project decisive power to the far reaches of the globe and roll back military aggression, the United States needs local partners to provide bases, staging areas or at least transit and overflight rights.

    The 1991 Gulf War, for instance, would have been impossible without support from Saudi Arabia. The 2003 invasion of Iraq depended on bases in Kuwait. And the 2001 intervention in Afghanistan required the movement of personnel and supplies through Pakistan.

    Imagine a future conflict in which an adversary has compelled or convinced nations in a particular region — either through force or other incentives — to deny the United States those bases, staging areas or transit rights.

    Under such conditions, the American military might not be vanquished on the battlefield, but it could not bring its full power to bear, thus leaving the United States strategically defeated.

    If the current degradation of America’s security partnerships and alliances under the Trump administration is not reversed, some underlying assumptions about longstanding allies in the Middle East or Asia, for example, would be severely tested.

    A second scenario might be one where an adversary forestalls a unified and effective U.S. response to its aggression by exploiting America’s domestic political rifts.

    Russia is clearly running a strategic information campaign to expand pro-Russia sentiment among American ethno-nationalists and segments of the religious right, to intensify America’s hyper-partisanship, and to stoke isolationism within the Unites States.

    Given the current state of American politics, this could reach a point where the United States no longer had the political unity and will to counter armed aggression abroad, whether by Russia or another nation.

    This is exactly what the Soviet Union tried to do, in the past. It failed, of course, but the United States was a very different nation then. It is now significantly more vulnerable to external manipulation, today.

    The current commander-in-chief has already provided opportunities that an adversary like Russia could exploit.

    President Donald Trump recently questioned whether the U.S. should defend NATO’s newest member, Montenegro, despite the alliance’s commitment to collective defense.

    During the height of the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump would not even commit to defending NATO members in the Baltics from a hypothetical Russian attack, saying his response as president would instead depend on whether they had “fulfilled their obligations to us”.

    A third plausible scenario in which America could lose its next war would be if some adversary — whether another nation or even a non-state actor — develops and deploys some sort of militarily decisive technology that the United States lacks.

    While no opponent will have across-the-board technological superiority over the United States, one might develop a strategically decisive niche technology that America doesn’t possess, whether for ethical or legal reasons.

    This could be some variant of artificial intelligence, a particularly devastating type of cyber capability, weapons based on biotechnology or genetic engineering — or potentially something else entirely, perhaps borrowed from the private sector or developed in conjunction with organized crime. Such an adversary might actually win on the battlefield or deter the United States from engaging it altogether.

    All six of these potential scenarios share one characteristic: They do not have a purely military solution.

    No matter how much more lethal and effective the U.S. military becomes, THE ROOTS of a POTENTIAL MILITARY DEFEAT are POLITICAL, particularly the inherent weakness of a bitterly divided, hyper-partisan United States that is unwilling to tend to its alliance network, unable to resist using national security as a partisan cudgel, and incapable of sustaining a working domestic consensus.

    In the past, when the United States faced external enemies, the nation came together. In today’s political climate, it might not.

    If the United States or one of its key allies were attacked, the party out of power might use that to discredit the party in power, rather than joining with it to confront the threat.

    Consider how Republicans in Congress seized on the 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi to try and discredit the Obama administration, and especially then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, rather than seriously tackle the growing security threats in Libya.

    Defeat in this scenario would come from within, not on the battlefield.

    If there is a glimmer of hope, it is that none of these potential war-losing scenarios would pose an existential threat to the United States.

    But all would be psychologically traumatic. It is not clear how Americans would react.

    Is the nation still resilient and unified enough to regain its bearing after losing a war, adjust and move forward — or is it so badly divided and brittle that defeat would cause a complete collapse of national will?

    Past defeats, such as Vietnam, led to major adjustments in American national security strategy and eventual rejuvenation. Future ones, however, may signal global disengagement, internal fracture and even a dire threat to democracy.

  • Clyde Duncan  On December 31, 2018 at 11:31 am

    And then there is NAFTA …. the Kurds of North America:

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