Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.
At the point of writing this column, the AFP tweeted out some news: #BREAKING Presidents Putin, Erdoğan start talks on Syria in Russia.
In many respects, that tells you all you need to know about Donald Trump’s latest major foreign policy decision – it has shifted the center of political gravity on Middle East politics away from Washington. Meanwhile, as American troops were pulled out of Syria, Putin arrived to a royal welcome full of pomp, ceremony and pageantry in Saudi Arabia. That centre of gravity has now pivoted towards Moscow, Ankara and Riyadh.
To many foreign policy experts and commentators, this looked a major strategic misstep. The term “misstep” is of course debatable, depending on your foreign policy philosophy and world outlook. If your guiding principle is to withdraw from the world stage and allow regional politics to play out locally, the President’s decision is quite sensible.
However, a neoconservative would argue that vacating a hotbed of geopolitical struggle allows less trusted actors to impose themselves on a dangerous part of the world. Having campaigned on a strict ‘America First’ agenda, it is clear on which side of the divide the Trump administration falls. At a campaign rally in Texas, that became self-evident.
“Sometimes you gotta let them fight, like two kids in a [parking] lot and then you pull them apart” said President Trump, comparing the discarding of America’s Kurdish partners in the region who had fought assiduously side by side for five years to two schoolboys scrapping in between Maths and double Science. The Syrian Democratic Forces helped eliminate Islamic State by March and lost approximately 11,000 soldiers in the process. It wasn’t an obvious comparison to some pushing and shoving which only ended in Brad and Chad getting after-school detention and a strongly worded letter home.
Assessing the political impact
The decision sent shockwaves through Washington. A US withdrawal, following a phone call with Erdoğan, led to a stinging rebuke from Congress and a rare instance of pushback from within the President’s party. The House of Representatives voted 354–60 to condemn the military withdrawal. Mitt Romney, whom the president has always held in deep contempt, described “a bloodstain on the annals of American history.”
The Romney intervention is a helpful case study as the November 2020 election nears. The Utah Senator and one-time presidential hopeful stuck his head above the Republican parapet to criticise a President who is still revered by the GOP at large.
The response? Blistering criticism from Trump, who offered perhaps his worse insult: “They [Democrats] are vicious. And they stick together. They don’t have Mitt Romney in their midst. They don’t have people like that, they stick together.” You get the feeling that suggesting a sitting Republican Senator is worse than a Democrat is the most offensive comparison Trump has in his political lexicon.
Will it scare other Republicans who disapprove of the President’s actions at home or abroad into silence? Thirty-three seats in the Senate are up for election in 2020 (plus two special elections in Arizona and Georgia). Republicans will be defending 23 of those seats; seven of the ten most competitive races on the ballot this year are in states that Trump won.
Ordinarily, the support of a President who is fiercely popular amongst registered Republicans would be a major boost for those Republican candidates. But we do not live in ordinary times. A new CNN/SSRS poll revealed that 50 per of Americans now say Trump should be impeached and removed from office. Should that number continue to tick up, Republicans in marginal states might consider an occasional gentle and polite rebuttal of the president to be politically advantageous.
On foreign affairs, the same poll shows the president’s approval rating has fluctuated between a nadir of 35 per cent and an apex of 43 per cent. The American public might well view the president’s decision to take US troops out of danger favourably.
Crushing ISIS is quite rightly a vote winner, but experts question the extent to which this decision will aid that goal. Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, reflected: “It’s a question of when, not if, American forces will have to return to the region to deal with a reconstituted ISIS.” More lasting damage could be done to the strength and integrity of US allegiances around the world, which appear to be straining under the pressure of this unapologetically ‘America First’ administration.