Hugh Riminton: The United States Is No Longer A Beacon Of Freedom
Hugh Riminton is reporting from Akcakale on the Turkey-Syria border.
Donald Trump’s abandonment of the Syrian Kurds marks the end of the Kennedy school of goverment.
Not the Harvard institution -- but the bold promise of America as a moral force for freedom in the world made 58 years ago by JFK.
In his inauguration address, the 35th US President, John F Kennedy, promised America would carry the torch of freedom to a new generation.
“Let every nation know,” he intoned in that odd Bostonian cadence, “that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”
He pledged to allies and potential allies this promise and this demand: “ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.”
The Syrian Kurds asked what they could do together with the United States. It turned out, a lot. Something no-one else had been able or willing to do. With US training and weaponry and their own fighting discipline and skills, the Kurds and the Americans together defeated the deformed caliphate of the Islamic State. Their alliance drove ISIS out of its claimed “capital” in the Syrian city of Raqqa, and pursued them to their final territorial defeat.
The Kurds’ reward today is terror, death, dislocation and flight.
They have been forced to turn for help from the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, a man whose record of human rights atrocities, including the use of chemical weapons on civilians, is no improvement on ISIS.
Again, Russia emerges with enhanced influence. With the regime in Damascus as his proxy, Vladimir Putin is now the decisive player in reshaping the Syrian map. Russia is now actively presenting to the world that the US is an “unreliable ally".
America’s loss of status and prestige in the Middle East is the work of one man.
A single phone call set the scene for the Turkish invasion last week. The Kurds' fate was sealed when the US President Donald Trump got into conversation with Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It ended with Trump agreeing to withdraw US military units acting as a peace buffer between the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and Turkish forces on the border.
The American military and political establishment didn’t want it. Perhaps that’s what made him do it.
“The same people who got us into the Middle East mess are the people who most want to stay there!” he said in a tweet.
But he under-estimated the howls of anguish, especially from Republicans in Congress. A key presidential ally, Senator Lindsey Graham, said Trump was doing nothing less than “putting the nation at risk".
Trump has subsequently sought to reposition, but not on the deeper fundamentals. He appears convinced that history -- and especially American history -- will ultimately judge him right.
So will it?
JFK’s high-sounding rhetoric did affirm the United States as a beacon of freedom through the long haul of the Cold War. But his intervening instincts also led America into Vietnam. At the time if his assassination, Kennedy was trying to get the US out of that war. Tragically, he never got the chance.
His successor, Lyndon Baines Johnson, faced a nation traumatised by Kennedy’s murder. In that vulnerable time, Johnson baulked at appearing weak with a military withdrawal. Instead, he doubled down.
Trump says he is tired of “endless wars.” He believes America is too. Tacitly, he has accepted he made a tactical misjudgement. He evidently failed to understand what he was doing in waving through Erdogan’s invasion. He certainly appears to have reckoned without the reaction.
He is now boxing the ears of the Turkish president. US Vice President Mike Pence has been dispatched to speak directly to Erdogan. Trump has imposed harsh sanctions, owning a process that would have otherwise been driven by Congress.
“I am fully prepared to swiftly destroy Turkey’s economy if Turkish leaders continue down this dangerous and destructive path,” he warned.
But Trump’s truer instincts are found in his tweets, most of which are not interested in the Syrian crisis. In the last day or so, he has sprayed at Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, spruiked a coming rally in Dallas, expressed indignation at impeachment hearings and promoted favoured candidates in lower order elections.
When he addresses Syria it is chiefly to wash his hands of it.
“Anyone who wants to assist Syria in protecting the Kurds is good with me, whether it is Russia, China or Napoleon Bonaparte. I hope they do great, we are 7000 miles away.”
And next to it, a tweet with almost 150,000 likes. Simply, “America First!”
With these tweets, President Trump is not just abandoning the Syrian Kurds. He is ensuring that in a broader geopolitical sense, the US is abandoning the field. The president explicitly says it is “good with me” if the US creates a vacuum to be filled by America’s traditional enemies and rivals.
The Kennedy school of government is over. The Trump school is in session.
It may even win him re-election. The implications for everyone are enormous.