Not the impeachment investigation. Nor Ukraine. Syrian Kurds.
Last week, Turkey invaded the bit of Syria controlled by America’s Kurdish hitherto-allies, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan says he only wants to occupy a border strip to resettle Syrian refugees and create a buffer zone between Turkey’s and Syria’s Kurds to prevent “terrorism”. He may even be telling the truth.
Trump didn’t stop him. Indeed, he pulled American forces out of the way to let the Turks through.
He seems to be banking on Americans’ (and particularly many of his voters’) understandable wariness (and weariness) of more foreign military intervention.
But voters might have a little more geopolitical savvy. America has worked with, and made at least implicit commitments to, the Syrian Kurds. If a democratic state is thinking of abandoning an ally, it’s customary to have a good reason and let your former friend try to fix the problem.
The argument that Trump is keeping America’s soldiers out of a pointless Middle East scrap is unconvincing. Superpowers tell allies like Turkey what lines are not to be crossed. If they disobey, either they’re not an ally or you’re not a superpower.
So without a better reason, Trump risks falling foul of Talleyrand’s maxim “It was worse than a crime, it was a blunder”. That could be dangerous for him.
So far his diplomatic policy has skated on thin ice without going through. He can claim credit for calling out China, make a passable case that he is putting pressure on Iran and a less convincing one that he is successfully wooing North Korea. Even insulting NATO allies for not pulling their weight is plausible and may be popular. But the Syrian policy is so far lacking in justification that it risks a widespread loss of confidence by the America’s military – and if that becomes public currency, it could be fatal to his re-election chances.
Ironies abound. Hardly anyone seems likely to profit from this move. Turkey may be risking its own stability by poking a hornet’s nest; Russia is venturing further into the Middle Eastern snakepit (with Saudi Arabia showing signs of wanting to cosy up to it). True, the Syrian government seems to have increased its short-term chances of survival by doing a deal with the abandoned SDF, but it still looks like it’s stuck on foreign life support.
And who knows, it’s even possible that a step back now might give the US the opportunity to re-establish itself by helping pick up the pieces. That would be hailed as a stroke of genius.
But in the meantime, watch how America reacts. And see if the chances of President Pence continue to improve.