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by John Quiggin on December 22, 2018

Donald Trump’s sudden decision to withdraw all US troops from Syria (and a large number from Afghanistan) has provoked plenty of criticism, not reduced by the enthusiastic support he has received from Vladimir Putin.

Rather than go over the arguments in detail, I’d like to make a point that seems to be missed nearly all the time. Whether acting for good or ill, the history of US involvement in the Middle East has been one of consistent failure at least for the last 40 years. The last real success was the Camp David agreement in 1978, which created the durable illusion that the US is crucial in resolving the Israel-Palestine dispute. The first Gulf War looked like a success at the time, but created both Al Qaeda and the conditions for the disastrous second war. Apart from that there has been nothing but failure: Reagan in Lebanon, 40 years of failure on Israel-Palestine, failed confrontation on Iran, incoherent attempts to influence oil supplies, and, of course, the second Iraq War including the rise of ISIS).

Whatever the motives, Trump’s decision to end military involvement on Syria is in line with Obama’s much criticised policy rule “Don’t do stupid shi*t.” Unfortunately, this move has been combined with increased support for Saudi Arabia and Israel against Iran and the Palestinians, and for an incoherent policy towards Turkey. Still, half-right is better than completely wrong.

The immediate point here is not to allocate blame or praise to Trump, but the importance of avoiding reflexive hawkishly responses of the kind emerging from the Foreign Policy Community. More generally, this event stresses the urgency of the need for a progressive foreign policy based on the presumption that military intervention in foreign disputes is almost always harmful and hardly ever preferable to civil aid. The same is mostly true of military aid, particularly when it is given to dictators who mostly use it to oppress their own people.

{ 61 comments… read them below or add one }


Neil Cotter 12.22.18 at 1:03 am

Unfortunately withdrawing now leaves their Kurdish allies who have done all the dying fighting ISIS to face Turkish attempted genocide as happened when Russia withdrew from Afrin. Rojava is the most progressive place on Earth at present wedged between Islamists of Turkey, Turkish FSA, and ISIS.


Cranky Observer 12.22.18 at 1:37 am

= = = Unfortunately withdrawing now leaves their Kurdish allies who have done all the dying fighting [evil foe] to face [nasty adjacent government] attempted genocide = = =

The United States has has 27 years to figure out what to do about the deeply unfortunate situation of the Kurds. It has not done so. One suspects this is to avoid (1) offending the Saudis (2) pissing off the Russians (3) facing up to the need to accept 3 million refugees into the USofA if we are really as concerned as we claim. But regardless, we (the US) has not. So – how many more years/US lives lost will it take to figure out the solution and implement it?


Greg Koos 12.22.18 at 1:42 am

Mr. Cotter is correct. The Guardian writes that Erdogan demanded in a phone call with Trump that the Americans withdraw. Trump folded or traded. If a trade what did he trade, if he folded, why?


Cranky Guy 12.22.18 at 1:49 am

we have abandoned the Kurds before, at least twice, once under Nixon/Kissinger and once under Bush
so maybe trusting us is on them

Syria = Vietnam
no, domino theory is wrong
no, all the experts, the best and brightest, along with the claque of journalists and thinktankers and academics, were wrong on Vietnam and they are wrong on Syria

so what if the Russians and Iranians have Syria; a giant root canal , lucky them


Orange Watch 12.22.18 at 3:24 am


Over the years, avoiding pissing off the Turks was often as important as the Kingdom and more important than Russia. The US doled out billions in military grants, loans, and direct arms transfers during the 80s and 90s.


David L. 12.22.18 at 3:58 am

I don’t know if it’s possible to have a decent middle east policy, but until everyone in the US gets their heads around who the players actually are, the stupidity will continue. The basic fact on the ground in the middle east is that Saudi exported Wahhabism is what’s driving what we see as problems, namely Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and ISIS. Until we figure out that Saudi Arabia isn’t our friend and that Iran should be (in the sense that most of its goals are aligned with ours), the stupidity will continue.

But I’d bet that the number of US politicians who could name even one Shia majority country could be counted on the fingers of one hand.

By the way, Kosovo may have been the one counterexample to the (otherwise correct) theory that the US has gotten it wrong every single time since WWII.


bruce wilder 12.22.18 at 4:46 am

Whether acting for good or ill, the history of US involvement in the Middle East has been one of consistent failure at least for the last 40 years.

Cui bono?

U.S. foreign policy has always been subject to hijack by interested parties. There are not strong institutions in the U.S. that could define and discipline the pursuit of a foreign policy focused an American public interest.

And, unfortunately, few critics are willing to come out plainly calling this what it is, deep corruption. Most Americans are simply struck dumb by the horror of recognizing that American foreign policy was conducted by and for self-interested sociopaths long before Trump came along. As a people, we are not willing to even acknowledge that Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger down to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney were war criminals. I proposed to a group of well-informed observers of foreign policy once that Colin Powell had ended his career shaming his country by lying to the Security Council about the gravest matters and ought to be shunned from polite company. They looked at me like I was insane. We were lied into Vietnam and we were lied into Iraq. I guess it is some credit to us as a people that they feel the need to tell lies that appeal to our better impulses, but why don’t our better impulses extend to punish the liars and the sociopaths?


christian h. 12.22.18 at 7:51 am

I support the troop withdrawal given that those troops didn’t do squat about the real evil in Syria, Assad, anyway. At the same time Trump’s transactional view of foreign policy is very dangerous and ought to be opposed.


bad Jim 12.22.18 at 9:09 am

It’s not entirely out of the question that, while American troops in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria aren’t doing much good, and shouldn’t have been there to begin with, their abrupt departure would be damaging. Consider them ecologically, an invasive species to which the local population may to some extent have adapted. Certainly, some harm would immediately cease with their removal, but it’s far from certain that the near-term result won’t be catastrophic.


Hidari 12.22.18 at 10:58 am

If anyone cares, here’s a link to an article by one of the few Western journalists who actually knows what he is talking about: Patrick Cockburn. Worth reading.


@3 ‘Trump folded or traded. If a trade what did he trade, if he folded, why?’

The answer, sadly, is not difficult to discover. There are 2 million Kurds. There are 80 million Turks. Turkey (under Erdogan) is increasingly an economic powerhouse. ‘Kurdistan’, insofar as it exists….isn’t. Trump is a businessman first, and a politician second. What more do you need to know?

A few other things that need to be pointed out: despite the fact that liberals have (correctly) been screaming that Trump is a liar since he became President, everyone seems to be acting as if Trump is now telling the truth and this ‘withdrawal’ will actually happen. Of course, it might. But equally it might not. What progressives need to be particularly careful of are ‘withdrawals’ that aren’t. E.g. how many American ‘special forces’ will be left in Syria? How many ‘advisers’? How many mercenaries working for American companies like Blackwater? And so on.

In any case, the idea that there will be a long term withdrawal from Syria seems unlikely. As a number of commentators above have pointed out, presumably, in the next 5 years or so, Turkey (which is still a ‘US aligned’ power, although relations have been strained recently) will invade Syria/Kurdistan. Thus bringing the area back under (de facto) American control, although of course, the Turks are unlikely to stay for prolonged periods of time. But the threat of another Turkish invasion may well work to keep the Kurds ‘on message’, put paid to their ‘revolutionary idealism’ and stop them having silly ideas about spreading their new socialist/anarchist polity to other countries.

In any case, as other commentators (not on this thread, but on Democracy Now and other, so-called ‘alternative’ media) have also pointed out, this ‘withdrawal’ may well mean ‘amping up’ the ‘drone war’ (the ‘liberal’ media has barely reported this, but Trump has significantly increased and expanded Obama’s ‘drone campaign’, especially, of course, in Arab countries).

Moreover, Syria remains a victim of Obama’s/Trump’s sanctions (sanctions by states always, of course, being a weapon of war).

So it seems unlikely that Trump will genuinely allow Syria to pursue a genuinely independent foreign or domestic policy. Of course the idea that Trump (and the West generally) should formally apologise and pay reparations to the Syrian people for the chaos they have helped to inflict in Syria remains an idea from science fiction.

This is not to argue against the position of the OP, which merely points out that the majority of intellectuals in the American (and British, and Australasian) intellectual elite (be they ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’) are intellectually and emotionally committed to the continuance of American (and Western, more generally) imperialism. But we knew that anyway.


Peter T 12.22.18 at 11:23 am

First, whatever the abstract merits of this move, it is very likely to lead directly to a lot of death and destruction if Turkey invades the area the US is vacating (as is their announced intention), among people who have borne the brunt of a vicious war against ISIS, and many of whom are refugees from either the other Turkish-occupied area (Afrin) or other parts of Syria. This should not be lost sight of.

It was stupid of the US to be there without some thought as to the longer term. It is doubly stupid to pull out at short notice. So not really half right. More like twice wrong.


eg 12.22.18 at 2:03 pm

Where the Middle East is concerned, the US may be said to have become the Bourbons — learning nothing and forgetting nothing …


John Garrett 12.22.18 at 2:19 pm

I wouldn’t count on this being game over for the Kurds, especially if the Russians leave the terrain to Assad. We’ve already seen the limits of air wars in hostile country: if the Kurds and the rest of the anti-Assad forces could be exterminated by air power, it would have been over by now. And the Turks invading isn’t game over either – they would be fighting in a foreign land, something we ought to know a little about.


Cranky Observer 12.22.18 at 2:34 pm

= = = Peter T 12.22.18 at 11:23 am: First, whatever the abstract merits of this move, it is very likely to lead directly to a lot of death and destruction if Turkey invades the area the US is vacating (as is their announced intention), among people who have borne the brunt of a vicious war against ISIS = = =

OK, so now we (the US) needs a plan to solve that problem. A plan that has not been forthcoming in 27 years since Gulf War I. But perhaps we are ready now. I have two suggestions:
1) There are plenty of serviceable 747s sitting in Victorville and other desert parking spots. Should take less than a month to get 20 of them refurbished and reconfigured for high-density seating – say 450 seats. If the population of the afflicted Kurdish area is 2,000,000 (I thought it was 3m, but haven’t seen that number for a while so we will go with 2) that is approximately 250 flights of the fleet to evacuate all the Kurds and bring them to the US. One flight every 3 days, so about 2 years. I propose the refugees be granted immediate green card status and settled in West Virginia, Mississippi, Alabama, western Washington, and western Oregon.
2) If 1. is not acceptable, then I propose universal conscription, taxation at the levels of WWII, profit controls as used in WWI, WWII, and the Korean War (but notably not the Vietnam War) along with social enforcement of the “dollar a year man” ethos to fund and man an occupation (or even aggressor) force sufficient to really do the job.

No? Hmmm….


Glenn Mercer 12.22.18 at 2:41 pm

I agree with Quiggin’s post. The following is thus not to argue with it, but to speculate on the reaction of that elusive but apparently omnipotent animal, The Base (Trump’s, that is). Some commentators feel that Republicans win Presidencies because they appeal to more emotions than do Democrats: Ds are all about fairness, fairness, fairness — while Rs add in honor, patriotism, loyalty, sanctity, etc. So I wonder how The Base, on a net basis, will feel about leaving Syria and Afghanistan (if as one person has noted, it happens): does the Isolationist Patriot side win out (“stop wasting American lives there!”) or does the Honor and Loyalty side win out (“once again we abandon our allies!”). I don’t know, I am just wondering, but I wonder of the H&L side may dominate in the long term (thus eroding some of The Base’s support for DT), given evidence such as POW/MIA flags (yes, I know, those are for Americans, not for Kurds or Hmong), Rambo movies (“do we get to win this time?”) , and the absolutely withering scorn sent Obama’s way whenever he seemed to tilt towards the “wimp” end of the spectrum. Again, I am not arguing for or against the withdrawal, just wondering about the impact on The Base: I just don’t remember too many celebratory rallies in the USA, along the lines of “Hurray! We stopped fighting some Bad Guys!”


Sebastian H 12.22.18 at 3:47 pm

We shouldn’t have been in Syria, and once we were, an orderly withdrawal would have been good policy. This however is like the Sessions firing—he was a horrible Attorney General who should have never been out in place and should have been fired for all sorts of good reasons. But firing him because he wouldn’t corrupt the Mueller investigation is terrible for the rule of law.

Similarly, the President ultimately decides policy but he supposed to do it out of some vision of the public good. If his vision were “we need to do the Middle East a lot less” I would support that. But it appears to be “I needed a distraction from my legal woes plus I got a call from a cool quasi dictator that I want to emulate”. It’s hard to talk about because we assume so much background stuff for “the rule of law”. Going through the channels, even if “the foreign policy elite” don’t like the ultimate answer is a way to make sure you make at least semi informed decisions. Taking a phone call from Turkey and being unwilling to read two pages of briefings isn’t.


JimV 12.22.18 at 3:57 pm

“Trusting us is on them” is not the impression a nation should want to to produce in its allies. As for the Kurds, what other choices did they have, that they should be blamed for making the wrong one? Developing their own nuclear weapons? Is that the only solution left, for survival among bigger nations? (I don’t know, I’m asking.)


Barry DeCicco 12.22.18 at 4:01 pm

My guess is that Erdogan offered Trump both bribes and and end to looking into Kashoggi’s murder.

The end result will likely be worse, both from Trump’s record, and from the likelihood that Erdogan will focus on slaughtering Kurds, leaving ISIS a welcome breathing space.


Anarcissie 12.22.18 at 5:11 pm

Surely one of the keys to continued Republican electoral success in the future is alienating ‘progressives’, leftish types in general, from the leadership of the Democratic Party, not so that they will vote for Trump or other Republicans, but so they will stay home or vote for third-party candidates. They may be only 5% of the electorate, but 5% isn’t nothing. Regardless of what Trump is or does, the instant, passionately hostile response to his proposed drawdown of American military presence in Syria and Afghanistan seems likely to contribute substantially to that outcome.


Orange Watch 12.22.18 at 5:55 pm

David L.@6:
until everyone in the US gets their heads around who the players actually are, the stupidity will continue. The basic fact on the ground in the middle east is that Saudi exported Wahhabism is what’s driving what we see as problems

This can’t be overstated. Beyond directly exporting and supporting terrorists (as well as discontent that otherwise might be directed internally), SA exports huge amounts of funding (when other funding is rarely available) for mosques and madras, as well as seeding the earth with some of the nastiest Qur’an translations and commentaries extant, and seeking to use the resulting influence and indoctrination to tightly align being Muslim with adhering to Saudi political orthodoxy.


john c. halasz 12.22.18 at 8:11 pm

christian h. @8:

I find it hard to fathom how any leftist could conclude that the Assad regime is the worst evil in the Syrian civil war, let alone imply that U.S. forces should have conducted a regime change illegally. While, in fact ,the U.S. and its unsavory allies have poured $10’s bn worth of weapons into the conflict arming jihadi extremists and prolonging the agony, not to mention the vast hoard of weapons the U.S. gifted to IS due to the collapse of the Iraqi army that was supposed to defend Mosul

As to what is likely to happen if U.S. forces are really withdrawn completely, the Kurds, who have been betrayed repeatedly by the U.S. before, would have to make a deal with the Assad gov. and the Russians would then forestall any Turkish invasion. That offer was made in the case of Afrin province and the Kurds foolishly rejected it. (Putin’s aim clearly has been to get the U.S. out of Syrian, where their presence is illegal anyway and re-unify the country.) But thus far the Kurdish delegation recently sent to Damascus has stuck to their maximalist demands. Vut if they fail to make a deal and Turkey does invade, the Turks will only seek to occupy a 10 mile strip alone the border. An attempt to occupy all of Syrian Kurdish territory would take 100,000’s of troops and result in huge Turkish casualties, as the Kurds among others would resist fiercely and asymmetrically.

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novakant 12.22.18 at 8:28 pm

Trevor Timm makes good points here:


Does anyone care that many legal experts – regardless of how evil Assad or Isis was and is – think sending troops into Syria was illegal, given that Congress never debated or approved sending troops there? Should we fight in Syria forever, just because Russia also thinks we should leave? What percentage of the American public even knew to begin with over 2,000 troops have been on the ground in Syria occupying a third of the country for years?

Maybe if Congress has not used the last decade to totally abdicate its constitutional responsibility to debate and approve of wars the US is involved in, and if they were actually up front to the American people about the extreme costs of fighting yet another war, they would have a leg to stand on. But their stance seems to now be: we only get upset when troops get to come home without our approval, not when they are deployed in yet another war zone.

I agree with this, but also think there’s a responsibility to minimize the fallout.

Much more important than all this is ending the war in Yemen, though.


bak 12.22.18 at 8:35 pm

Hidari @10 But the threat of another Turkish invasion may well work to keep the Kurds ‘on message’, put paid to their ‘revolutionary idealism’ and stop them having silly ideas about spreading their new socialist/anarchist polity to other countries.”

Funny business how long (100+ years) those setting up exclusionary ethno-nationalist “homelands” (that seamlessly morph into armed to the teeth ethnostates once their imperial patron signs on to their project) have been conning ignorant Westerners with fantasies of egalitarian/anarchist utopian communities:


David Graeber, resident anarchist at BBC, seems to have fallen hard for fairy tales of formerly cult-of-personality based Marxist-Leninists (esp. comely women in fatigues brandishing AK-47s) who now spout soundbites upon request from the playbook of Murray Bookchin’s “social ecology”:



LFC 12.22.18 at 8:56 pm

1) David L. @6 says that most of Iran’s foreign-policy goals are aligned w the US’s. I don’t think so. That doesn’t mean the US shd be so close to Saudi Arabia (it definitely shouldn’t), but I don’t think either the character of the Iranian domestic system or most of Iran’s regional activities are things the US shd be aligning with. Trump shd not have withdrawn from the nuclear deal, but beyond that there is no pt having illusions about the degree to which the current Iranian govt is meeting the aspirations/needs of most of its pop. (not well, from the admittedly limited amt I follow this) or the degree to which Iran’s foreign policy is promoting anything resembling regional peace, “stability,” and “security.”

2) The OP says that the First Gulf War “created” Al Qaeda. No: Al Qaeda was created in 1988, before the first Gulf War; a formal organizational meeting was held August 1988 in Peshawar. (Source: Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower, pp. 150ff.) The aftermath(s) of the first Gulf War, notably the stationing of more US soldiers in SA, strengthened Al Qaeda by putting another significant item on its list of grievances, but the first Gulf War did not create it.


TM 12.22.18 at 9:31 pm

“There are 2 million Kurds. There are 80 million Turks.”

The question what is Kurd and how many Kurds are there is highly contentious but realistic estimates put the number at 20 to 40 million. For that reason alone, the Kurdish question isn’t likely to be going anywhere.

As to the OP, it is puzzling. Turning against one of very few progressive secular forces in the Middle East while increasing support for the anti-secular Saudi and Turkish autocracies is far from my definition of “getting it half right”. And whatever the reason, sudden and unpredictable changes in foreign policy are not to be taken lightly. That US foreign policy is a mess is easy to agree to. But it doesn’t follow that any partial change of course is a move in the right direction.


Gregory J. McKenzie 12.22.18 at 10:23 pm

Once the dogs of war are unleashed anywhere it becomes difficult to chain them up again. Poor Syria has a civil war that has been hijacked by regional powers. One less superpower dropping bombs is a good thing for such an oppressed population.


Tom Hurka 12.23.18 at 12:00 am

JQ: “The first Gulf War looked like a success at the time, but created both Al Qaeda and the conditions for the disastrous second war.”

1. Are you saying the second war was inevitable given the first, so Bush II had no choice? He had lots of choice. He could easily have avoided the second war, or managed the occupation that followed less utterly incompetently (Paul Bremer, anyone?).

2. I’d be interested to hear how the Middle East would have been all peace and harmony if Saddam had been left in occupation of Kuwait. No dangers whatever there!

Lots of failures in US Middle East policy, sure, but you’re stretching on this one. And on Israel-Palestine, how much of the ultimate failure of the Clinton Camp David effort was due to US and how much to the Israelis and Palestinians?


Raven Onthill 12.23.18 at 12:22 am

This precipitate withdrawal is likely to lead to a massacre; that alone was a reason not to do it. It also is a green light to Turkey and Russia to do what they like in the area.

This will not end well.


Peter T 12.23.18 at 1:01 am

Cranky Observer (and others)

As the largest single agglomeration of power on the planet, the US cannot hope to escape influence or manipulation – everyone wants to tap into and use US power (economic, military or cultural). Just by existing it exerts a distorting force. So the question is not whether but how it acts, and to what purposes. The US has more choices than “bomb” or “leave”. It has locked itself into a set of incoherent, contradictory policies (oppose terrorism but support Saudi Arabia, fight al-Qaeda/ISIS but replace Assad, enable Israeli expansion but deplore the results, fight the Taliban but support Pakistan and oppose Iran…). This is not a new story – the same could be said of US policy in SE Asia from the 50s through to the 80s, which saw the US end up in bed with the Khmer Rouge.

A coherent policy would decide on a small set of achievable aims and then stick to them. If defeating ISIS is the key aim, then Assad and Iran are on the US side, and Saudi an obstacle (this does not mean alliance or enmity – it means avoiding hostility on the one hand, and making clear the limits of support on the other). A deal whereby Damascus regains formal control of the north-east in return for some level of Kurdish autonomy is probably do-able, and would at least avoid another round of ethnic cleansing/guerilla war and the prospect of an ISIS revival or an Islamist pocket under Turkish protection.


oldster 12.23.18 at 2:03 am

co-signing this from Peter T:

“So not really half right. More like twice wrong.”

otherwise, agree with you, JQ.


Omega Centauri 12.23.18 at 2:50 am

As often I am conflicted. The Kurds seem deserving of a chance to try out their unique new conception of a social order, but that venture has seemed doomed from the start. And the world would be better off if it knew the outcome of such an experiment. But, given the geopolitical realities, it was always doomed to have a tragic ending. And now we will be implicated in bringing on that ending.

At the same time its true, that we have been almost completely unsuccessful in the middle east -except perhaps as Israel’s wrecking ball, who does the Likud’s business of destroying potential rival states. So leaving the place alone would also be a big good -or at least the end of a great harm.


Massilian 12.23.18 at 10:23 am

In my humble non-American opinion, it strikes me that among the comments nobody considers the gift done to the murderer Bachar and to ISIS. Under the present conditions, the only opposition to Bachar will come from ISIS. All other groups will cease fighting or perish. The Kurds can’t fight two wars at the same time. They will have to give up on fighting Isis in Syria. I believe Putin already realizes the US withdrawal leaves him with a boiling potato in his hands. Russia needs things to cool down in Syria, Putin doesn’t have the money to maintain important Russian forces in Syria.
All these wars are far too costly. Even for the Saudis in Yemen. If you can’t stand the death toll of wars anymore, you have to spend a lot of bucks !
It is the cost of wars that will help bring “peace” or rather “non-war” situations.


Monte Davis 12.23.18 at 1:25 pm

Just a reminder: we’re talking about withdrawal of 2,000 US trainers and support personnel — neither a large force nor a combatant force.

Have at discussion of the withdrawal as a symbol — e.g.. that Trump doesn’t care what Trkey does about its extra-territorial “Kurdish problem,” or that he believes the remaining Syrian Defense Force grouplets will lose no matter what, or that he just likes flipping off State and Defense. But major, direct military consequences? From 2,000 noncombatants leaving a war zone with several hundred thousand combatants? Really?


novakant 12.23.18 at 2:58 pm

there is no pt having illusions about the degree to which the current Iranian govt is meeting the aspirations/needs of most of its pop. (not well, from the admittedly limited amt I follow this) or the degree to which Iran’s foreign policy is promoting anything resembling regional peace, “stability,” and “security.”

If you’re really concerned about the needs and aspirations of the Iranian population you should lift all sanctions immediately and bring the country back into the international community. Iran has been under sanctions and ostracized for nearly 30 years for no good reason except US spitefulness and the people have suffered greatly as a result (and I’m leaving out the Iran-Iraq war for reasons of brevity).

The regime is a bit shit, but they’re rational actors and the Iranian people can very well figure out the way ahead themselves without hypocritical Westerners shedding crocodile tears over human rights abuses.

And it takes some chutzpah for an American (or a Brit) to accuse Iran of insufficiently promoting regional peace, “stability,” and “security”, after all the havoc the US/UK has wrought in the Middle East over the past century – are fucking serious?


steven t johnson 12.23.18 at 3:07 pm

Trump may be withdrawing from Syria in the same way he made peace with North Korea.

Al-Qaeda was a product of the war against the socialist government in Kabul. US support for their sectarian war provoked Soviet intervention, just as Brzezinsky hoped.

Saddam Hussein’s seizure of Kuwait was a consequence of his defeat in the war with Iran, which left his finances in shambles. It’s not clear the continued existence of another “oil company with a flag” is a blessing to humanity.

Islamic State began as ISIL or ISIS in the aftermath of the US invasion of Iraq. This is not an accident. The US deliberately divvied up Iraq on sectarian lines.

Bashar Assad is terrible, just like his father. But Bashar Assad does stand for a secular national state. The Louis Proyect-type socialists who want sectarian ethnic cleansing and possibly genocide of the Alawite base they say is Assad’s only support seem hell-bent on demonstrating there *can* be social-fascism. Bourgeois nationalism may be outmoded but replacing it with Islamic State is simply obscene. That’s why the sometime tacit US support for IS is criminal. Yes, it is quite likely that the US will covertly assist a revival of ISIS. This is why it is premature to claim Trump is half-right I think.

Erdogan has been engaged in the Zia-fication of Turkey. Like Pakistan, the end result will be a nightmare society. The US simply withdrawing is not making peace with Damascus. Therefore this is giving Erdogan a greenlight. Partition of Syria and/or endless war has been an acceptable goal for the US at all times. Perhaps in retrospect Clinton’s desire to replace Assad was a goal of peace by conquest, instead of leaving the nation in a Libyan anarchy.

Murray Bookchin was further left than most anarchists, who are left only in their imaginations. But he is not some great advance, but a deliberate step backward. That’s why the Kurds hoped to establish a permanent alliance with the US.


Cranky Observer 12.23.18 at 8:28 pm

Peter T,
At the risk of seeming repetitive:
1) the northern Iraq/Syria/Turkey Kurd situation has existed for 27 years with the US not being able to develop a plan that is (a) workable (b) acceptable to the US population. And since you are steadfastly ignoring my suggestion that the US immediately accept 2 or 3 million Kurds as refugees/immigrants I assume you agree that (b) is necessary
2) “the US has more choices than “bomb” or “leave”.” – hasn’t been able to figure out what those are, realistically, for 25-50 years. Seems that the past may be prologue.
3) However, if the choice is “stay-ish”, then the US needs to immediately institute universal conscription and taxes to support that choice. Since you are also steadfastly ignoring this suggestion I assume you are aware it is unacceptable to the US public. Hmmm….
4) ” If defeating ISIS is the key aim, then Assad and Iran are on the US side, and Saudi an obstacle (this does not mean alliance or enmity – it means avoiding hostility on the one hand, and making clear the limits of support on the other)” – I dunno about Assad personally; I agree with Barack Obama that the US is better to follow the German Army’s recommendation to avoid death kettles. Iran’s interests would certainly be better aligned with the US’ than other regional players, and SA’s are not, but… unacceptable to the US public

and (5): I note that you are now sliding the discussion from ‘the US cannot abandon its Kurdish allies’ to ‘the US has global hegemon responsibilities no matter what it does or doesn’t do’ – I believe that questioning the latter theory is the point of the original post. The US had decent success with post-WWII Alliance occupation and transition in Europe and Japan, however in the case of Europe it had at the time a lot of cultural similarity to the occupied and in Japan it had a population sick of war and its ruling class and ready for change. Since that time the US has been colossally unsuccessful in its attempt to go the Roman Empire one better and the theory opposed to yours is that perhaps it would be best to just stop and go home. You can certainly back a different theory however so far you aren’t providing much besides warmed over realpolitik to justify such.

In any case I suspect China has been quietly assuming the role of global hegemon since November 2016.

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JakeB 12.23.18 at 11:03 pm

The argument that the United States has been doing nothing in the Middle East but making things worse for the last 40 years is made very well and at length in Andrew Bacevich’s America’s War for the Greater Middle East.

Tangentially, one of the funny (in the laugh while weeping sense) things about reading that book early in 2017 was seeing references to both James Mattis and H.R. McMaster’s able field commands during certain battles.


abd 12.23.18 at 11:05 pm

@23. Good links. There are lots of self-proclaimed leftists (e.g. in comments section of following) who seem gutted at “betrayal” of Syrian Kurds and the ensuing “ethnic cleansing” likely to follow.


The angst caused in some by “abandonment” of Kurdish women guarded communities founded on Murray Bookchin’s writings on “social ecology” reminds one of Tom Segev’s description of the tremendous feelings Zionist kibbutzim aroused in millions of Westerners 70 years ago: it was “a hyperintense adolescent fantasy come true”.

Although, someone whose ideas need to be taken with a great deal of salt, I do think Frank Furedi was on to something in his take on the distorted, guilt-trip laden way many Westerners related to political crises in the non-white World over the last 2-3 decades:

One reason why the current debate about Kenya is so ill-informed is because it is not really about Kenya. In recent times, many Western experts and commentators have lost the capacity to analyze and interpret events in Africa and Asia by using conventional political concepts. Instead, conflicts tend to be interpreted through a new political model that was constructed during the post-Cold War upheavals in the Balkans and Rwanda.

This new view of conflicts in the South and the East is based on a disoriented Western imagination, which discusses political violence through dramatic and sensationalist metaphors, such as ‘Holocausts’, ‘Genocides’, ‘Ethnic Cleansing’ and ‘Mass Rape Camps’. Consequently, when it comes to violence in Africa or Asia, genocide has become the default diagnosis of events. From the Congo to Darfur to Kenya, bloody conflicts are recast as harbingers of holocaust.

Through today’s promiscuous use of the term ‘genocide’, conflicts become transformed into morality plays about human destruction, and tend to be seen as being both incomprehensible and inevitable. Western reporters see only a sudden, inexplicable outburst of violence—a kind of murderous descent into hell—and overlook the structural causes of crises in the Third World.



Patrick 12.24.18 at 3:54 am

When conservatives were all fired up for invading Iraq, I cautioned them that the Iraq invasion wasn’t going to be the beautiful, pure one in their minds. It was going to be the one that Bush wanted, because he was President and they weren’t, and would by definition be using his planning, judgment, and understanding of the situation. All of which was garbage.

I guess now I get to remind liberals that the draw down of US power that they’re considering cheering for isn’t going to be the beautiful, pure one in their minds. It is going to be the one that Donald Trump wants, because Donald Trump is President and they aren’t. And by definition he will be using his planning, judgment, and understanding of the world. All of which are garbage.

I think this message will go unheeded by a lot of people. The right has this thing they do where they insist that government does everything wrong, automatically and by definition, so anything sort of social safety net or infrastructure program or whatever will definitely fail and there’s no reason to even consider how to do it well. Anyone who thinks about it for a few seconds invariably notices that this rule is applied inconsistently- if its a subject conservatives like government action on, suddenly they remember that governments can accomplish things. The reverse image of this is the left’s tendency to insist that all US foreign policy is automatically evil and blood soaked. Its typically justified by a MASSIVE reliance on a dichotomy between action and inaction, where action makes the US responsible for all downstream effects no matter how removed from the action, but inaction creates no responsibility for any otherwise preventable negatives. And of course this, also, is a rule applied with deep inconsistency- good luck finding someone on the left who praises the wisdom of total abstention from dealing with racism or sexism, on the ground that if you’re not involved its not your fault.

My takes are simple. Action and inaction both bear moral consequences, and we have to do our best. I don’t know what the best move is in Syria. Blaming the US for everything that happens post intervention, or absolving it for every consequence of inaction, is facile. I don’t know if Barack Obama did the right thing but I do trust that he actually gave a damn about doing the right thing and probably did his best. I don’t think either of those things about Trump.

So this will probably go terribly.


Hidari 12.24.18 at 8:39 am


Yes thank God we still have the brave truth-tellers of Spiked magazine to keep us all straight.


John Quiggin 12.24.18 at 1:22 pm

patrick @39 Almost certainly it will go terribly because (a) it’s Trump; and (b) nearly everything the US does in the Middle East goes terribly (that was the core point of the OP). A complete withdrawal done by a progressive Democratic administration will probably also go badly in the short run, but it will at least put an end to the series of disasters caused by US policy over the past 40 years.


Colin R 12.24.18 at 3:07 pm

It doesn’t seem like there is much reason to assume that we’re on a path to fewer U.S. foreign policy disasters, though. That only works if you look at a Syria withdrawal in isolation. It looks to me like we’re just shifting the confused priorities mentioned in previous posts, where the U.S. is trying to balance incompatible goals and conflicting alliances, with a more straightforward foreign policy of ‘What will better enrich Donald Trump and his family?’ Even the disastrous Bush II foreign policies aren’t improved upon by naked kleptocracy.

Twice wrong seems correct here.


Hidari 12.24.18 at 4:49 pm

To all those who have (‘dialectically’, one might say) decided, on the basis of very little evidence, that a drawback of US power will somehow make a situation (any situation) worse….

one should always remember that there are very few, if any, geopolitical situations on planet Earth which would not be radically improved by following the simple injunction ‘Yankee Go Home’ (as well as following the order of its, so to speak, semantic cousin, ‘Brits out’).

The problem is that Trump’s ramblings are unlikely to presage anything of the sort happening. The Americans arrive, but they rarely leave. Ask the Japanese about that.

But in the highly unlikely event that Trump is telling the truth, this would be a wholly and unarguably positive development in the region. Which, I think, was the point of the OP.


David L. 12.25.18 at 7:41 am

“Ask the Japanese about that.”

Hmm. I get the impression that the Japanese overall are not unhappy about the US presence and are generally pretty pro-American. The Okinawans would like less of the burden falling on them, but between the LDP being heavy-handed, insensitive, and in complete power, and NIMBY-ism being strong everywhere in Japan, this problem isn’t getting fixed any time soon. For a while, a lot of the Japanese were of the opinion that Obama was to blame for North Korea’s nuclear craziness (or for not doing anything about said craziness), and thought The Orange Monster was fixing the problem. They seem to have figured out that hoping for good work from said monster isn’t a good idea, though.

Anyway, US policy in Syria was dizzy from the start. We don’t like Assad, but failed to notice that the opposition quickly became Salafi jihadists friendly to ISIS, al Qaida and the like. When we finally figured that latter bit out, we (including lots of lefty commentators, sigh) were still committed to being anti-Assad. Stupid. Beyond. Words.


abd 12.26.18 at 4:53 am

Hidari @23. But in the highly unlikely event that Trump is telling the truth, this would be a wholly and unarguably positive development in the region.

I’m reminded of a book that didn’t receive much attention when it came out 10 years ago, but which was written by a man who had a penchant for unsentimental analysis (of the Soviet Union, but then to the consternation of some he turned those analytic tools upon his country of birth after the former disappeared):

In general, Hough argues, Republican Administrations during the Cold War were more open to the détente policies favored by the German-American component of their constituency, while Democratic presidents were more aggressively anti-Communist: Truman in Korea, Kennedy planting missiles in Turkey, invading Cuba and sending US troops to Vietnam, while Nixon negotiated with Mao and Reagan with Gorbachev. He admits that the picture is blurred, however, by the fact that each side compensates by proclaiming an ideological stance that is the opposite of its actions.

A former British diplomat concurs that what Trump just announced would have been inconceivable under a Hillary (or for that matter, almost any postwar Democratic) administration:

I have written before that Trump may be a rotten President for Americans, but at least he has not initiated a major war; and I am quite sure Hillary would have done by now. For a non-American, the choice between Hillary and Trump ended up in balancing on one side of the scale the evil of millions more killed and maimed in the Middle East and the launching of a full on, unreserved new Cold War, against on the other side of the scale poorer Americans having very bad healthcare and social provision and America adopting racist immigration policies. I do hope that the neo-con barrage today arguing for more American troops in the Middle East, will help people remember just how very unattractive also is the Hillary side of the equation.


Peter T 12.26.18 at 7:15 am

The US had at least two policies in Syria. One was conducted by the CIA in alliance with the Gulf State, using ex-East European arms stocks, which aimed to overthrow Assad. This worked with various Islamist groups, including some explicitly tied to al-qaeda. The other was run by Defense, and worked with the PKK against ISIS. State ran around providing diplomatic cover, and also fostered talking shops for the miniscule and ineffectual “moderate opposition”.

The first was quietly wound down under Obama. While Hillary’s job at State was to provide the talking points, there is no reason to believe that she opposed Obama’s policy of withdrawal. Trump has, if anything, stepped up the rhetoric against Assad and also loosened the restrictions on Defense, resulting in more civilian casualties. The Defense effort was always on borrowed time, in that the rationale disappeared with victory over ISIS, and it had to operate against Turkish pressure.

On my point about others seeking to use US power – the US’ system of dispersed governance provides multiple entry points for outside influence (foreign relations committees and staff, different arms of the administration, influential outsiders – see China Lobby, the career of Ahmad Chalabi, the MEK, the Israeli grip, the Saudi nexus…). So foreign entanglements are a fact of life, short of wholesale reform of the US state. Isolation was possible when the US was a bit player; it’s not now.


Dipper 12.26.18 at 1:56 pm

All these nations and groupings intervening, what are their tag-lines?

By which I mean the British Empire stated it brought for “Christianity, Commerce, and Civilisation”, and the American post-war hegemony brought “Freedom and Democracy”. We can argue lots about how much they stood by their slogans, but nevertheless these slogans gave the nations that were being brought under control a sense of what, nominally, they were entitled to. But what of other participants? What is Russia’s tag-line when it intervenes in the middle east? For that matter, what is China’s tag-line when it buys up influence all over the world? What is Saudi Arabia’s tag line? What do these nations stand for?


Hidari 12.26.18 at 3:12 pm

My only point is to remind everyone of the Americans’ long tradition of withdrawals that aren’t. Remember, it was Obama who first ‘withdrew’ from Iraq, in December 2011 (December being a popular time for ‘withdrawals’ apparently) before ‘unwithdrawing’ in 2014 because of the ‘threat’ of ISIS, which ‘required’ American troops to fight it….and American troops continue to fight (and die) in Iraq to this day.

Stephen Gowans has written a book entitled ‘Washington’s Long War on Syria’. Whatever one might think of Gowans, the title is surely accurate. The Americans have been interfering in Syrian internal affairs since the CIA backed coup of 1949 (and of course ‘Western’ imperialistic control of Syria goes back to 1918). The idea that the Americans are simply going to back up and go home (as they have never done before) is simply science fictional: the Americans never give up or go home.

Let’s not forget that American Imperial Troops are currently deployed in more than 150 countries worldwide (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_military_deployments). The ‘withdrawal’ of 2,000 troops here or there is not going to fundamentally alter an imperialist foreign policy.

@46 ‘ So foreign entanglements are a fact of life.’ Why?

‘short of wholesale reform of the US state.’ Let’s do that then.

‘Isolation was possible when the US was a bit player; it’s not now.’

And yet other countries seem to manage it just fine.

I continue to be amazed by well educated historically aware people who consider American imperialism an objective and unalterable fact of life, like the laws of physics. The US has only been a global world dominating hegemon since about 1948, and it already looks highly unstable (the Roman Empire for contrast lasted roughly from 700BC to the 15th century AD. The various Egyptian Empires lasted much longer). It is by no means unalterable or unstoppable.

A ‘progressivism’ that doesn’t take a simple, elementary, moral stand against American imperialism in general, and Western imperialism more generally, isn’t really worth much, at the end of the day, and will inevitably founder on its own contradictions.


Patrick 12.26.18 at 6:09 pm

Hidari no doubt has excellent evidence of both of the following:

1. That the Russian sphere of influence is more beneficial than the American one, and

2. That leaving the Middle East today will somehow inhibit the next militarily adventuristic US President with bad ideas from just going back.

Because without the former you’ve no reason to expect any immediate benefit, and without the latter you’ve no reason to think that we can avoid greater future harms by allowing present ones.


erica23 12.26.18 at 11:27 pm

@45. Dennis Perrin is also good on the Democrats’ weakness for bombing brown peoples:

Not surprised by the countless liberals opposed to #SyriaWithdrawal. Liberals love war and imperialism, and it’s extra exciting to see warmongering covered in rainbow flags and peace signs. Again: I wrote SAVAGE MULES far too soon.



roger gathmann 12.27.18 at 3:13 am

The argument that Trump has proven to be crazy and incompetent for withdrawing those troops, and that instead, we should have the crazy and incompetent president directing those troops, is an argument of considerable madness. It reminds me of the liberal interventionist argument about invading Iraq, which conceded that Bush and his people were total incompetents and then turned about and urged a fantasy war for fantasy reasons. It makes me think that there is an intellectual deficit in the foreign policy establishment that requires wholesale de-legitimation.


William Berry 12.27.18 at 4:48 am

I have written before that Trump may be a rotten President for Americans, but at least he has not initiated a major war; and I am quite sure Hillary would have done by now.

This is perfect (as epitome of “leftist” commentary on Trump/ Clinton). Shrill, angry bitch might not be a Nazi like our boy, but she would have started a war, and don’t you doubt it, because, somehow or other, we just know she would have.


Hidari 12.27.18 at 2:24 pm

‘(Trump) said he had no plans to withdraw American forces from Iraq, which he said the United States could use as a staging ground in the heart of the Middle East from which to combat Iran, or someday reenter Syria’.


Despite what some people are projecting onto him, Trump is just as much of a warmonger and an imperialist as Clinton, Obama, Bush and the rest. It’s just that he has a (slightly) clearer view of the limits of American power and (slightly) more insight into how much ordinary working class Americans hate the forever wars.

But the basic lineaments of his worldview are imperial. That this in no way distinguishes him from the majority of American intellectuals, be they ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’, is not an excuse.


nastywoman 12.27.18 at 4:35 pm

For any self described ”liberal progressive” who wholeheartedly agrees with:
”military intervention in foreign disputes is almost always harmful and hardly ever preferable to civil aid” @50 is really… ”annoying”?

As it is highly doubtful that the ”countless liberals opposed to #SyriaWithdrawal” are really ”liberals” – as it is highly doubtful that the ”Shrill, angry bitch would have started a war – as she for sure is NOT ”like our boy” – Baron von Clownstick – who never ever will get anything ”even half right” – as ”random” never can be ”right” or ”wrong” – it’s just as random as naming ”Paradise” – ”Pleasure” and not ”Papperlapapp”!


abd 12.27.18 at 4:43 pm

@45. Hillary–“We Came, We Saw, He Died”–asks for more War on Syria:


[William Appleman] Williams’ most important contribution was to identify foreign relations as the arena where competing moral ideas concerning how best to organize society got worked out. Over the long course of US history, Williams argued, liberalism’s prime contradictions–between, for instance, the general good and self-interest, or society and private property–were harmonized through constant expansion, first territorially, then economically. Empire, he wrote, “was the only way to honor avarice and morality. The only way to be good and wealthy.” (Williams was well ahead of his time: it has only been in the last decade that intellectual historians have begun to look at liberalism’s relationship to empire.)…

Williams taught that domestic reform in America has always been paid for with imperial expansion. In the mid-1800s, the federal fight against slavery went hand in hand with the fight against Native Americans and the final drive west. Progressives and New Dealers could use the government to distribute wealth a bit more equitably only if they also used it to open the world’s markets to American corporations. And in the 1960s, Lyndon Johnson couldn’t get the congressional votes for the Great Society unless he stood “firm on the frontier” in Vietnam.



Orange Watch 12.27.18 at 6:48 pm


So what are we to do, propose zero counterfactuals even when there exists evidence that they might have come to pass? So the Serious Centetists will not, forex, claim that a President Clinton wouldn’t currently be overseeing a gov’t shutdown because her border wall isn’t being built? Because that’s the standard you seem to be proposing: ignore what a candidate said they wanted to do (e.g. impose a no-fly zone in Syria and reverse Obama’s hands-off approach that she opposed at State), and instead assume that we just can’t know anything.

If we’re being petty – and it looks like we are – I’d add that your response is almost perfect “centrist liberal punching left”. I say almost because while you do dismiss the possibility of substantive disagreement about policy as crypto-misogyny, you fail to reframe the argument entirely as one of essentialist identity politics by neglecting to insinuate leftists are closet white supremacists.


Raven Onthill 12.27.18 at 8:19 pm

Dec 22: “Spoke to a professor with deep connections into Kurdish leadership in Syria. I asked him about the mood there after Trump announcement, his answer sent chills: Hurt, betrayed, and angry. They’ll all be dead soon…” – https://twitter.com/RichardEngel/status/1076616483529216000

Dec 23: Turkey masses troops near Kurdish-held town in northern Syria – https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/dec/23/turkey-masses-troops-near-kurdish-held-town-in-northern-syria

Dec 25: Erdogan may or may not have plans to meet with Putin – https://twitter.com/olgaNYC1211/status/1077646262760062977

“Sorrow be damned and all your plans. Fuck the faithful, fuck the committed, the dedicated, the true believers; fuck all the sure and certain people prepared to maim and kill whoever got in their way; fuck every cause that ended in murder and a child screaming. ” – Iain M. Banks

I am so out of this discussion.


J-D 12.27.18 at 8:34 pm


By which I mean the British Empire stated it brought for “Christianity, Commerce, and Civilisation”

Who first uttered that slogan, and when?


J-D 12.27.18 at 9:19 pm

It’s been a while since the most recent contribution from ph, the commenter formerly known as kidneystones. Is it possible that there’s been another change of screen-name?


Dipper 12.28.18 at 9:46 am

@ J-D “Who first uttered that slogan, and when?”

As Google appears to be unavailable to you in Australia I have once again taken on the role of your personal Google slave. A candidate for the first utterance is David Livingstone in Cambridge in 1857. Another candidate is Sir Thomas Buxton

We can argue for a long time whether Livingstone was an integral part of colonialism or an exception, but I’m left asking who the Chinese, Russian, or Saudi, equivalent of David Livingstone is.


novakant 12.28.18 at 11:54 am

Raven, here is Richard Engel 4 years earlier:

“Bush tore open iraq. Obama encouraged revolts in syria, but never backed them. Now both nations in chaos”


Maybe both could be right – just a thought.

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