American Empire or America First?

The Trump Doctrine

Since biblical times, the Middle East has been the crossroads of history for empires.  Now what might be called the “Trump Doctrine” or “America First Doctrine”—that entails recalling U.S. troops from an overextended military empire in over 150 nations—is at risk in Syria.


President Trump and the majority of Americans who support his foreign policy are not isolationists but realists.  Realists understand U.S. military and economic power cannot sustain “forever wars”; would rely more heavily on allies to carry the burden of global security, fight local conflicts, and do peacekeeping; and instead of giving highest priority to the Global War on Terrorism would rebuild and conserve U.S. strength to deter Russia and China from starting World War III.


However, Washington’s bipartisan foreign policy establishment vociferously opposes withdrawing merely 1,000 troops from Syria.  They would block the road toward President Trump’s more realistic foreign policy.


Ironically, many who still criticize President Trump for “abandoning the Kurds”, falsely accuse him of “isolationism”, and fancy themselves intellectually superior “internationalists”, appear to have forgotten that Turkey is a vitally important NATO ally, with legitimate security interests on its chaotic border with Syria.      


President Trump understands that the dangerous complexities of the Syrian quagmire are in microcosm why most Americans want to “bring the boys home” and shift more of the burden of being “global policeman” to U.S. allies, like Turkey.


Expel Turkey from NATO?

Some Washington “experts” would even kick Turkey out of NATO for aggression against the Kurds, and make the latter America’s new Mideast ally.  Such wrongheaded statesmanship proves Washington elites are incompetent to serve as global policeman, let alone run a world empire.


Turkey is vital to NATO and far more important to U.S. national security interests than the Kurds.


Decades ago, Samuel Huntington in “The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order” (1996) warned that Turkey would eventually go Islamist and leave NATO.  Turkey’s President Erdogan is an Islamist strongman who has been pulling away from NATO and leaning toward Russia.


Turkey’s departure from NATO may be historically inevitable—but it is extremely irresponsible for Washington elites to accelerate a process that could begin the unraveling of NATO.  Turkey is not the only discontented NATO member.


President Trump is right to try accommodating Turkey’s legitimate security interests on the Syrian border, while protecting the Kurds, in order to keep Turkey in NATO.


Turk Military Power

After the United States, Turkey has the second largest standing armed forces in NATO, with more soldiers (639,000 military, paramilitary and civilian personnel) , tanks (3,200), armored fighting vehicles (9,500), artillery (2,400),  and military aircraft (1,067 fighter jets, attack helicopters, and transports) than Germany, France, or the United Kingdom.  Turkey’s Navy comprises 194 ships, mostly frigates, corvettes, and coastal gunships, including 12 submarines.


Turkey, in addition to having the second largest armed forces in NATO, is also evaluated by some analysts as being among the most militarily powerful nations, ranking 9th among the world’s 137 military powers.


Do we really want to kick Turkey out of NATO and have its military power and strategic geography aligned with Russia?


Location, Location, Location

Geographically, Turkey occupies some of the most strategically important territory in the world.


Turkey is the only NATO member state in the Mideast, bordering Syria and Iraq, near Lebanon and Israel, a region that has been, and continues to be, the crucial crossroads of empire and history since the ancient Hittites.


Turkey controls the Bosporus Straits, Marmara Sea, and Dardanelles Straits between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, giving them the capability to contain Russia’s powerful Black Sea Fleet.  Turkey’s geographic location and strong military makes them the anchor of NATO’s southern flank against Russian aggression.


Turkey is an unsinkable aircraft carrier with 98 airports capable of supporting NATO air operations over the Middle East, Black Sea, and Balkans.


Turkey is one of only 5 NATO states (the others being Germany, Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands) storing U.S. tactical nuclear weapons on its territory.  Some 50 B-61 nuclear bombs are bunkered at Incirlik AFB, controlled by U.S. personnel stationed there.


Record As An Ally

Washington foreign policy elites are so fixated on recent Kurdish contributions to defeating ISIS, they seem to have forgotten Turkey’s much longer record as an ally of the U.S. and NATO.


Historically, for decades, Turkey has been a staunch ally.  For example:


--Turkey fought alongside the U.S. during the Korean War (1950-1953).

--During the early Cold War, Turkey agreed to basing U.S. nuclear bombers and IRBMs on their territory, making Turkey a nuclear target for the USSR.

--President Kennedy was able to avoid nuclear war with the USSR and resolve the October 1962 Cuban missile crisis peacefully by secretly promising to Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to remove U.S. IRBMs based in Turkey.

--Turkey joined the U.S. and NATO in bombing Bosnia during Operation Deliberate Force (1995).

--Turkey joined the U.S. and NATO in bombing Serbia during Operation Allied Force (1999).

--Turkey participated in Baltic Sea air patrols demonstrating support for the NATO Baltic states (2006).

--For years continuing today, Turkish forces participate in NATO peacekeeping in Bosnia and Kosovo.

--Recently, Turkey provided military and intelligence support to U.S. operations that destroyed the ISIS terrorist “caliphate”.


Unfortunately, Turkey under President Erdogan is abandoning secularism and democratic norms, becoming an Islamist authoritarian state, pulling away from the U.S. and NATO.  Indeed, Erdogan is beginning to align Turkey with Russia, investing heavily in Russian military equipment, over the objections of the United States.


Erdogan has even threatened to develop nuclear weapons, which alone could justify withdrawing U.S. tactical nuclear weapons from Turkey.  Yet Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel and other Mideast allies all have legitimate fear of Iran developing nuclear missiles.  So threatened nuclear proliferation by Turkey and others may be a sign of U.S. failure to uphold its alliance obligations through credible extended nuclear deterrence and other means.


Turkey’s withdrawal from NATO may, or may not, be historically inevitable.  The U.S. should do everything possible to keep such a valuable ally in NATO, and prevent Turkey from becoming a dangerous foe.


Refugees, Greece and Israel

Turkey controls the flow of Middle Eastern refugees into European NATO, a crucial role whereby a friendly Turkey can help stabilize its neighbors, or an unfriendly Turkey could unleash a human flood into Europe.


Just as NATO membership for Germany, France, Britain, and the Benelux countries finally stopped the seemingly endless cycle of European wars, so Turkey’s membership in NATO quelled the long cycle of conflicts and wars with Greece, also a NATO member.


Significantly, even Turkey’s controversial invasion of Cyprus (1974) did not trigger a war with Greece, due in no small part because both are NATO members.


Israel too will be better served if Turkey remains moored in NATO, a moderating influence on the Islamist Erdogan, who may eventually be replaced by a secular leader.  Imagine the threat to U.S. and Israeli interests if Turkey leaves NATO and becomes another Islamist rogue state, like Iran.


What of the Kurds?

The Kurds played an important role, and suffered heavily, partnering with the United States to stop and destroy the genocidal “caliphate” of ISIS terrorists under the fanatical leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (now dead by suicide during a U.S. special forces operation on October 26, 2019).  Kurdish losses in the war against ISIS are estimated at over 25,000 killed and 100,000 refugees fled to Turkey.  These losses are staggering, out of a population of Syrian Kurds numbering about 2 million.


Washington elites and the press have romanticized the Kurds, who are not U.S. allies by treaty (like Turkey) or by shared long-term interests, and whose sacrifice was not selfless.  The Kurds served their own interest in survival by helping the U.S. defeat a common enemy—ISIS terrorists who were slaughtering everyone who would not submit.


Kurdish dreams of becoming an independent nation are contrary to U.S. interests in Middle East stability, yet were unrealistically encouraged by Kurd partnership with U.S. troops in Syria.  Turkey, Syria, Iraq and other nations are troubled by the separatist aspirations of their Kurdish minorities.


The withdrawal of U.S. troops from the Syrian border may better serve Kurdish interests by making them seek more realistic aspirations, perhaps an autonomous Kurdish homeland within Syria.  U.S. occupation of Syrian oilfields can help finance Kurdish recovery and in negotiating a peace in Syria that protects Kurd interests, as suggested by President Trump in his press conference on the death of al-Baghdadi on October 27, 2019.         


Kurdish separatism, their struggle for an independent tribal homeland, is symptomatic of a wider problem throughout the Middle East.


Most Mideast states are not truly modern nations as in Europe, with a shared history, culture, and language that eclipses localized loyalties and melds the whole into a stronger national identity.


The map of the Middle East was drawn in the aftermath of World War I by victorious British and French bureaucrats, who literally invented the national boundaries, national names and even national flags, and imposed these on disparate tribal groups that were often rivals and enemies.


That is why states like Syria, Libya, Iraq, Yemen, and Iran are so unstable and often torn by civil wars, or launch wars of aggression to bind their populations together with fear and hate of a common enemy.


Kurdish independence, if achieved, could encourage rebellion by other ethnic and tribal groups throughout the Middle East, disintegrating nations into zones of chaos, like Libya, Syria, and Lebanon today.


U.S. Credibility

Some so-called foreign policy experts claim that by “abandoning the Kurds” President Trump has destroyed U.S. credibility.  Their argument is absurd and disproportionate.

These same hypocritical philosophers generally approve of, and in some cases helped author:  abandoning South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia during the Vietnam War (1975); abandoning the Shah of Iran’s westernizing society to the Islamic Revolution (1979); abandoning President Hosni Mubarak and Egypt to the so-called “Arab Spring” (2011); supporting the Libyan civil war (2011) and then abandoning the Libyan people to chaos; abandoning Iraq to ISIS (2014).   

President Trump has negotiated a ceasefire with Turkey that serves Ankara’s interests and protects the Kurds.  But even if the temporary peace fails, surely the U.S. has poured enough blood and treasure into the Middle East to prove our credibility for the next generation.

Today, the Washington foreign policy establishment is united against President Trump and Turkey, infatuated with the Kurds.  Tomorrow, if their unrealistic policies prevail, they will blame everybody but themselves for the disintegration of NATO and the Middle East.

Dr. Peter Vincent Pry is Executive Director of the Task Force on National and Homeland Security and served on the staffs of the U.S. congressional EMP Commission, Strategic Posture Commission, House Armed Services Committee, and Central Intelligence Agency.   


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