Is U.S. Credibility Really in Danger?
On Sunday, October 6th, the Press Secretary for the United States’ White House announced that the United States would be moving its troops out on the Syrian-Turkish border out of the way of an impending Turkish incursion against Kurdish forces. The United States had partnered with, armed, and relied on the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) forces to clear out Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) forces in Northern Syria. To many in Washington and the international community at large, this was tantamount to a complete betrayal of the Kurds.
Fred Kaplan at Slate called it “irreparable damage done to America’s standing in the world.” At Foreign Policy magazine, Eric Edelman and Aykan Erdemir posit that Washington can no longer be trusted. Fawaz Gerges, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics, told Al Jazeera that “Trump’s decision delivers a blow to US credibility worldwide.” Republican senators like Lindsey Graham and Marco Rubio together lamented the move and its damage to America’s reputation. Former U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice has called it “Trump’s Saigon.” The consensus among these observers is that America will struggle to recover a bruised and damaged reputation. Yet, this is part and parcel of American history, and the United States has never suffered for allies or partners unless a common cause couldn’t be made. If anyone has lost credibility, it might be the current President of the United States, Donald Trump. And if American allies and partners have doubts about his reliability, he’s only temporary.
U.S. Presidents come and go and with them their vision of American foreign policy. Donald Trump, as Daniel Larison points out at the National Review, is just one of many American Presidents to let down, betray, or abandon the Kurds. It’s not just a vicious cycle with the Kurds. The U.S. has repeatedly abandoned many partners through many conflicts from the South Vietnamese to the Hmong to the Mujahideen, yet never fails to find another. The United States will continue to find willing partners where both parties stated interests share a similar path. Further, as in the past, when those interests are secured or the cost of continuing is greater than that of withdrawing, the U.S. will cease spending blood and treasure in pursuit of those goals.
Still, Congress has worked hard to reassure the world that contrary to President Trump’s capitulation to Turkey’s interests, the United States can be trusted. Trump was immediately under pressure to reverse course and halt Turkey’s advance. Within days of Turkey’s incursion into Syria the United States imposed sanctions on Ankara followed by negotiation of a ceasefire which lifted sanctions. This mechanism, however, doesn’t always kick in for American partners. Yet it’s never refused the United States the partners it needs in similar regional conflicts.
As Larison stated, this has less to do with any reliability on America’s part and more on when parties share similar or overlapping aims. Congress, in the case of the Kurds, tried to override President Trump’s decision not because of concerns over credibility, but because of credible fear over the re-emergence of ISIS and ceding too much influence in the area to Russia and Iran. Indeed, the Kurds immediately turned to both Russia and pro-Assad Syrian forces to protect them from Turkish forces.
In past instances such as the fall of Saigon or the refusal to support the Mujahideen after Soviet withdrawal in Afghanistan, American self-interest was the deciding factor. In the future, nations or regional actors won’t be evaluating U.S. assistance based on its past partnership record but instead on their own capabilities and willingness to pursue their own interests in line with America’s.
Where the SDF may have miscalculated, along with the American Congress, is that President Trump has occasionally used American foreign policy not as a tool for the country but rather for himself. America’s bicameral government works to prevent such a scenario from spiraling into authoritarianism, and Congress’s pressure proves some form of self-correction to preserve what the government considers its core interests abroad. The president’s constant threats to withdraw from NATO and the government’s subsequent reassurances that the United States is committed to NATO is proof of this.
Disagreements between the President and Congress on American core interests is normal and expected. Former President Barack Obama and Congress often clashed on his efforts to bring Iran into the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) resulting in a letter of dissent being sent to Ayatollah Khamenei. Despite the internal disputes, dissent, and possibility that a new American President could walk back the deal, Iran eventually committed to the deal (now unraveling in slow motion) because, despite the risks, it saw an opportunity to secure and advance its own interests.
That added layer of government can make American foreign policy more mercurial and perhaps even ephemeral in some cases in the absence of a post-Cold War grand strategy. As Republicans warned the Ayatollah in their letter, the next president could and did reverse the agreement “in the stroke of a pen.” What President Trump has done may not have succeeded in advancing American interests, but it’s unlikely to bring allies to reconsider their relationship with the United States. Perhaps instead American partners will simply wait out the Trump presidency much like Israel agonized over the Obama years. In that regard, the only credibility damaged is the President’s.