The Turk and the President

By : The WSJ Editorial Board

Outlet: The Wall Street Journal

Oct. 12, 2019

President Trump prides himself on one-on-one diplomacy, but too often it results in rash and damaging decisions like his abrupt order Sunday for U.S. troops to retreat from northern Syria. Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan is now dictating terms to the American President, and the consequences are likely to be felt far beyond Syria and Turkey.

Mr. Trump made his decision after a phone call with Mr. Erdogan in which we now know the Turk said he wanted to follow through on his threat to invade. U.S. officials had been negotiating for months with Turkey to establish a safe zone in the region that would protect Kurdish and Turkish interests while maintaining the gains against Islamic State.

Jennifer Griffin of Fox News reports that Mr. Trump was supposed to tell Mr. Erdogan to stay north of the border. When the Turkish bully made his threats, Mr. Trump could have said that the U.S. military controls the air above the region and would respond to protect the Kurds and U.S. soldiers. Ms. Griffin reports that Mr. Trump instead “went off script” during the call and agreed to stay out of Turkey’s way.

Turkey’s invasion has now begun, and State Department officials are left to plead on background that it is a “very big mistake.” Mr. Erdogan can be forgiven if he pays more attention to Mr. Trump’s comments this week that he acceded to Turkey’s invasion because he wants to end America’s “endless wars.” The Turk called the President’s bluff.

How this will play out isn’t clear, but the early signs are troubling. Mr. Trump claimed Mr. Erdogan would take control of the more than 10,000 Islamic State prisoners under Kurdish control, but a senior adviser to Mr. Erdogan told CNN this week that Turkey “never said” it would “shoulder the burden” of holding the prisoners.

Watch out if the Kurds stop holding the prisoners as they flee the invading Turks. The ISIS fighters could break free to rejoin the estimated 15,000 jihadists who haven’t been killed or captured. They could hoist their flag again over territory in Syria or Iraq.

Kurds and Syrians took nearly all of the ground casualties in the previous fight against the caliphate. Why would they do so again after Mr. Trump abandoned them against the Turks? And especially after Mr. Trump said this week that the Kurds might have helped against ISIS but they were well paid and hadn’t helped us at “Normandy”—as in D-Day.

Mr. Trump’s retreat is also a thumb in the eye to our friends in Europe. The State Department spent months seeking Europe’s help to share the burden of maintaining a safe zone in northern Syria, and with some success. Mr. Trump’s decision undercuts that effort, and now Mr. Erdogan is threatening Europe with a new refugee wave if its leaders criticize his invasion. “We will open the gates and send 3.6 million refugees your way,” he said this week.

Some sages claim Mr. Trump made this concession to Turkey as part of a strategy to win Mr. Erdogan’s support against Iran. But Mr. Erdogan has undermined America’s Iran sanctions in the past. And on Friday Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Mr. Trump had given him “very significant new sanctions authorities” against individuals in the Turkish government if their invasion goes too far.

The hope is that this sanctions threat will deter Mr. Erdogan, but it also contradicts the win-over-Turkey strategy. This looks like one more tactical U.S. gambit to offset the tactical mistake of bowing to Turkey’s invasion.

Tell us again what the benefit of this retreat is beyond appeasing the isolationist wing of the GOP? With the departure of John Bolton as national security adviser, Mr. Trump’s most significant security counselor is Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, who would withdraw to a Fortress America if he had the chance.

As Commander in Chief, Mr. Trump has been mostly tactical and rarely strategic. He shifts positions from week to week, even day to day, for the sake of a summit or short-term appearances. Allies are informed about his reversals after the fact and left to wonder if they can still rely on the United States of America.

As Mr. Trump runs for re-election, this habit of impulsive judgment will be front-and-center. As an incumbent he should be the safer presidential choice. But Mr. Trump’s judgment can be so reckless that many voters who took a risk on him the first time will ask if he’s worth a second gamble when he would no longer be disciplined by having to face the voters again. Impeachment won’t defeat Donald Trump in 2020, but Donald Trump might.