The Problem with Trump: The Turks and the Kurds

Trump's error in Syria.

“#UNGA” by The White House is in the Public Domain

As I noted in my previous post, it has been obvious to me that Trump has always lacked the “character, competencies, and capacities” to be president. This was manifestly obvious to me in the context of foreign policy. I recall trying to explain to friends and acquaintances why Trump was unsuited to the important position of directing US foreign policy, but often failing to convince. His obvious ignorance of the world and the complexities of the global economy were obvious to me, but often not clear to partisan supporters.

I think that his decision vis-à-vis Turkey and the Kurds is the easiest example of this problem to date, although it is not the most serious foreign policy mistake he has made nor the most damage he has done.

Please note: the issue was not about policy differences (although, certainly I disagreed, and still disagree, with Trump on a host of policy areas). I expect not to agree with given politicians on policy. But, I have what I think is a reasonable expectation that someone aspiring to be president would either a) have a competent grasp on topics raised, or b) surround him-or-herself with competent people (or, at least, semi-competent).

There were two basic ways a Trump administration come have gone. The path not taken was a fairly conventional presidency in which Trump dialed back his personality and surrounded himself with people who knew what they were doing who could guide him during his tenure in office.

Instead, the path taken was one that has increasingly led to Trump being Trump with his Dunning-Krueger syndrome on full display.

Of course the problem with Dunning-Krueger, the notion that ignorance of a subject can make one think that one is expert instead, is that it can affect both politicians and their supporters.

It is difficult to get someone who pays little attention to these things to explain why Trumps tariffs are a problem. First, most people don’t know what a tariff is or how they work. Second, if one doesn’t understand and one is a Republican partisan one is likely to believe Trump when he lies about how China is paying them. Plus, the effects are not obvious and immediate.

Or, it would take a serious minute to explain the obligations that NATO partners have agreed to in terms of committing x% of GDP towards defense spending, This requires, at a minimum, understanding something about fiscal policy, what GDP means, as well as the role NATO plays, and has played, in US national security policy.

Both global trade and international security cooperation are complicated and easily demagogued by a crude nationalist like Trump. He can make it all sounds as if the US getting taken to the cleaners by foreigners without any acknowledgement or understanding about how these arrangement actually empower and advantage the United States (as well as how they foster a functioning and stable global order on the US’s terms).

Indeed, to try and adequately explain to most people why NATO or the G7 or the WTO are important to vital US interests would take we an hour with a white board and a host of tables in charts in a PowerPoint deck–if not multiple sessions.

The failings of the administration in foreign policy (again, in terms of sheer ignorance of how the world works, not just disagreement about policy) have been evident from the word go. But explaining the problems is, as noted above, often challenge.

And then came the Turks and the Kurds in Syria.

Now, yes, any foreign policy situation is going to have details that most people will not fully understand. Just knowing where Turkey and Syria are on a map raises problems for many, let alone questions about the Kurds and their relationship to long-term Turkish and Syrian politics. Why are they fighting in Syria? Why does Turkey not like the Kurds? Who are the PKK? I thought the Kurds were in Iraq? How does ISIS fit into all of this? And so forth.

However, the current scenario is straight-forward and happening in real time: Trump via phone and tweet essentially gave the Turk’s the green light to roll into Syria and attack Kurdish forces in that area.

And the news reports are clear: Turks are killing Kurds and ISIS prisoners are now no longer under guard by those Kurds.

Indeed, condemnation (and confirmation of the above) is coming from within Trump’s party. Just today:

Every time I read tweets or statement along these lines, I think: elections have consequences, and sometimes deadly ones.

In simple terms, Trump made a rash decision without any policy process involved about a situation that he really does not understand. And the consequences are real and deadly.

Over time, if not already, this becomes the kind of error that could erode some of his support. It shows his ignorance. It was his call, not someone else’s. The effects of the decision were public and the outcomes in real time and directly linked to his actions.

The basic story is easy: Trump withdrew US forces and Turkey rolled in. They attacked US allies, the Kurds, and released ISIS prisoners as a result. And no one is disputing these facts.

The fact that is also generate off the wall responses like the following just add to the ridiculousness of it all:

Who talks like that?

I don’t expect this to be some major turning point, but it has the chance of being a more significant event than, say, the trade war or the withdrawal from the JCPOA (both bad foreign policy decisions with long-term implications, but that are harder to understand and whose effects are not obvious and immediate).

At a minimum, this decision and its results are exactly the kind of thing I, and others, feared from a Trump administration.

It is governance based on ignorance.

It is expert-free decision-making.

It has short term negative effects.

It has potentially serious long-term effects.

And, while the context may be complex, the actual behavior on Trump’s part is not hard to understand.

Yes, he can pretend that this fulfills some campaign promise, but it was an obvious mistake.

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Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. Joe says:

    It has short term negative effects.

    And this, above all else, has the best opportunity of being his undoing. I guess I would take that, but, . . . .

  2. Gustopher says:

    Over time, if not already, this becomes the kind of error that could erode some of his support. It shows his ignorance. It was his call, not someone else’s. The effects of the decision were public and the outcomes in real time and directly linked to his actions.

    It also shows that he learned nothing when Mattis quit over this decision the first time he made it, and that no one is stopping his worst impulses now.

    And now, Kurds are dying, ISIS fighters are freed, and we have no idea how this will affect Turkey’s relationship with the EU or NATO. I expect Syria and Iraq to be further destabilized. Good news for Iran.

  3. Kathy says:

    I wonder if Erdogan offered Dennison something in exchange.

  4. Liberal Capitalist says:

    It has short term negative effects.

    Engraved on hundred of Kurdish tombstones.

  5. Slugger says:

    I was opposed to the US entry into the Syrian conflict and called it Obama’s greatest mistake. I favored getting out, but withdrawal from a battle zone requires great delicacy. What we are seeing here is a panicked rush to the exit. I wanted our country to end its involvement in the Vietnam war, but I was dismayed by the scenes of our soldiers beating back refugees in Saigon and leaving many who fought for us to sink or swim. The Cubans fighting at the Bay of Pigs didn’t deserve being abandoned. True, the Kurds did not fight on the beaches of Normandy, but the next time Americans find themselves on a battlefield who will fight at their side?

  6. gVOR08 says:

    I read a piece at TAC today defending Trump’s policy toward the Kurds. The author mentioned Trump’s rapport with Erdogan. I didn’t bother commenting there that “rapport” seemed an odd euphemism for a business relationship.

    I forget the issue, but IIRC Obama once fired a general for “not respecting the process” after they had had gone through a planned protocol to decide on a policy and the general continued to pursue his own divergent, preference. That was rare, as they generally followed procedures and when policy was decided, all the key players had been involved and understood the policy, even if they had advocated for something else. Leaks and public dissents were rare. Particularly conscience based dissents, as everyone saw that the interests of the nation guided the process.

    Trump can’t do this. His decisions are based on whims, at best, and his personal financial and political interests at worst. It’s inevitable that there will be confusion in executing his policies, if not outright rebellion.

  7. Andre Kenji de Sousa says:

    The problem is that Turkey is a pretty complicated issue, in part because of the strategic location of the country(Bosporus, closeness to Russia and Middle East). A really good president with good advisers would find really difficult to deal with Turkey, there are no good solutions there, and both in Washington, Paris, Berlin and Brussels people don’t understand or know how the importance of Turkey.

    That’s why the White House is no place for amateurs.

  8. President Comacho says:

    Abandoning the Kurds…A Republican tradition since 91’. Way to abandon our allies.

  9. Pylon says:

    Another example of Trump’s “barstool” foreign policy, by which I mean it is just like some schmoe mouthing off at the local pub.

    Turkey will act badly? “We’ll just crush them – easy”.
    ISIS fighters will escape? “Just to Europe and we don’t care about them anyway – they hate us”.
    No thought goes into it at all.

  10. Gustopher says:

    @Andre Kenji de Sousa: Turkey is complicated, but the key issue here isn’t — a Turkey in good standing with NATO and the EU is a Turkey that doesn’t commit war crimes against the Kurds. Keeping American forces in northern Syria to prevent that is in everyone’s best interest, even if it’s not what anyone (other than the Kurds) wants.

    The Kurds are a harder problem that is a whole lot more complicated.

  11. Jay L Gischer says:

    The story is that this is a whim, and I find that a very credible story. And…

    He’s tried to do this before. Mattis quit over it, as you say. It seems important to him. I don’t see him trying to crush Turkey. WTH? Maybe we don’t understand what this is about? Maybe this is something MBS wants? Maybe it’s good for oil interests? I really don’t know…

  12. Andre Kenji de Sousa says:

    @Gustopher: The problem of this whole debate is that because of geography NATO needs Turkey more than Turkey needs NATO. A lot of people are talking about expelling Turkey from NATO and don’t know what the Bosporus is.

  13. Lounsbury says:

    @Pylon: Yes exactly -it is indeed the policy of the drunkard on the barstool. The loud mouth at the far end of the corner pub.

  14. OzarkHillbilly says:

    “It is governance based on ignorance.”
    No. It is governance based on what is best for Putin.
    “It is expert-free decision-making.”
    Pretty sure Putin has more than a few experts telling him how to get what he wants out of trump.
    “It has short term negative effects.”
    Things are looking pretty good for Putin right now.
    “It has potentially serious long-term effects.”
    Putin disagrees.
    “And, while the context may be complex, the actual behavior on Trump’s part is not hard to understand.”
    And boy does Putin understand it.
    “Yes, he can pretend that this fulfills some campaign promise, but it was an obvious mistake.”
    Trump made a lot of campaign promises, and this definitely fulfills one of the ones he made… to Putin.

    Syrian troops have begun sweeping into Kurdish-held territory on a collision course with Turkish forces and their allies, a day after the beleaguered Kurds agreed to hand over key cities to Damascus in exchange for protection.

    The deal, which Kurdish leaders emphasised they had made reluctantly after five days of relentless bombardment by Turkish artillery and jets, threatens to open a new front in Syria’s nearly nine-year civil war, and signals the likely end of US and European military deployments in the country’s north-east.

    There were multiple reports overnight and on Monday morning that Syrian soldiers had entered the Kurdish-held cities of Manbij and Kobane. The Syrian army said in a statement on Monday its troops had reached Tel Tamr, a city about 12 miles from the Turkish border.

    There were unconfirmed reports that Syrian troops had clashed overnight with Kurdish fighters in the city of Qamishli, which was not surrendered to Damascus in Sunday’s Russian-brokered agreement.

    Quid? Meet Quo.

  15. Barry says:

    @Kathy: “I wonder if Erdogan offered Dennison something in exchange.”

    I don’t.