If the Turks crush Syrian Kurdish forces, how should we react? You can say that Kurds risked and gave their lives confronting Daesh not so long ago. When Sir John Major’s government in the UK decided to defend the Iraqi Kurds with a no-fly zone in 1991 — in effect, protecting them from Saddam — it led to stability. The UK ended up with good relations, trade, even Land Rover dealerships in Irbil. But Donald Trump is redefining alliances now.
The Kurds didn’t fight in Normandy, he bizarrely said, so why should America shield them from the Turks? Or shield anyone in the region from anyone? “The worst mistake the United States has ever made, in my opinion, is going into the Middle East,” he said.
He puts the cost of deployments in Afghanistan, Libya and Iraq at anything from $4 trillion to $8 trillion (Dh29.3 trillion), depending on his mood and his audience. His upshot: he’s fed up with America being the world’s policeman. He’s walking away from the role, and his allies will have to get used to it.
For US allies this is all rather serious. “Before, the Americans would at least consult us,” says one UK minister. “Now, we have no idea what they’ll do. This lowers our credibility with our own allies.” Britain’s great boast has been a “special relationship” that can influence America. But what good is that when even the Pentagon is blindsided by the White House?
When Trump said he’d pull troops out of Syria earlier this year, there was panic in London and talk about whether Britain should stay and continue the fight. It was a brief discussion. Without America, no one else had the power to do anything.
Most of the 20-odd Democrats running for the presidential nomination offer their own versions of Trump’s arguments: that too much blood and money has been spent trying (and failing) to solve problems in the wider world. Bernie Sanders and Trump both talk about American interventions over the years as “endless war.”
Polls show Americans have come to regard the George W. Bush missions as a miserable failure. Given that the Taliban now control more of Afghanistan than at any point since 2001, no wonder.
You’ll find plenty of politicians in Washington who also describe Nato as a scam that allows freeloading Europeans to enjoy US military protection without paying for it. Or asking why Britain (and many other countries) have not taken care of their home-grown extremists caught in Syria, especially the 2,000 jailed by the Syrian Kurds.
Two British extremists, members of the so-called Beatles, were spirited away by the Americans recently. To Trump, this sums up the tiresome way in which his country always ends up doing the mopping up.
The new Turkish drama at least offers us a glimpse of what the world looks like without America. Vladimir Putin can now present himself as the dominant force in the region. Without America, the 77-member international coalition against Daesh might not have got very far. Of the 22,000 air strikes carried out, more than 17,500 were from the US Air Force.
You’ll find plenty of politicians in Washington who also describe Nato as a scam that allows freeloading Europeans to enjoy US military protection without paying for it. Or asking why Britain (and many other countries) have not taken care of their home-grown extremists caught in Syria, especially the 2,000 jailed by the Syrian Kurds
David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy led the charge in Libya, but when it came to discharging the pounds 1 million-a-piece Tomahawk missiles, the US Navy was pretty much on its own. Without Uncle Sam, no end of sharp words would have been fired off from European capitals. But not much more.
Now and again, we hear reports about the readiness of Europe’s various armies. They’re invariably terrifying. The Dutch admitted recently that half of their army vehicles won’t start. Two months ago, all 53 of the Bundeswehr’s attack helicopters were declared unfit to fly.
France does a bit better: at the last count 160 of its 460 military helicopters work. Military readiness costs money, and not many European nations pay. If Turkey were to lead a surprise attack against Europe, rather than the Syrian Kurds, it’s by no means clear what opposition it might meet.
A recent study for the RAND Corporation looked at what might happen if someone invaded Latvia. The Germans, it found, would need a month to mobilise a brigade in response: the Brits, it turns out, could need three months. For bigger missions, the degree of reliance on America is stunning. And it’s looking like a more dangerous bet every year.
Karen Pierce, the UK Ambassador to the United Nations, puts it well: the world we face now involves an aggressive Russia, a more assertive China and an inward-looking America — and it’s the latter point that’s the most worrying.
Jeremy Hunt had a point when, in the Tory leadership campaign, he said that a post-Brexit Britain should double defence spending. Not because the world is a more dangerous place, but Britain needs to show it can act independently. If Uncle Sam vanishes from the picture, everything changes — as the Kurds are now finding out.
Trump has asked Recep Erdogan to behave himself in pursuit of his Kurdish enemies, saying he’ll “totally destroy and obliterate” Turkey’s economy if anything untoward happens.
Given his opinion of foreign entanglements, it’s unlikely. The world is learning to expect plenty of words from Washington, but ever-less action: Trump has become a president who speaks loudly while carrying a small stick. For America’s allies, it’s the worst possible combination.
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2019
Fraser Nelson is a Scottish political journalist and columnist