If there is one certainty about always-volatile Middle East diplomacy, it is that even the most carefully thought-out policies and best of intentions can have devastating and hard to predict repercussions. Only the most steadfast of President Trump’s partisan supporters argue that his abandonment of the Kurds last week was well thought-out, and his intentions — the abrupt U-turn in U.S. policy surprised even his close advisers — are impossible to gauge.
The Kurds, loyal allies in the grueling and ongoing fight against ISIS, will almost certainly pay a terrible price for the impulsive decision to pull 1,000 U.S. troops out of northern Syria.
For Israel, which has celebrated the president’s strong statements of support and his symbolic gifts to the Jewish state, including his decision to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, there is a new and palpable undercurrent of unease. If American policy can turn on a dime and abandon the Kurds, might not the same thing happen to Israel if its leaders ever defy the wishes of an impulsive, unpredictable president?
Words and symbols are not insignificant, but alliances are built on a foundation of trust and consistency. The foundation of U.S. diplomacy suffered deep fissures in the wake of last week’s diplomatic upheaval.
But there are more immediate geopolitical consequences.
According to analysts across the political spectrum, the two biggest winners were Vladimir Putin’s Russia, striving mightily to expand its role in the region in the wake of rapidly diminishing U.S. influence, and an Iran that has sworn to obliterate the Jewish state. Turkey, a growing menace to Israel, and Syria, a longstanding one, will also be immediate beneficiaries.
The surprise betrayal of the Kurds — which dismayed a U.S. military establishment that sacrificed much in the battle against ISIS — is troubling for another reason. As he gears up for a fierce re-election battle next year, does this signal a revival of President Trump’s “America First” political strategy, along with the concomitant subtheme of isolationism?
American involvement in the region’s myriad conflicts has been far from perfect over the decades, under the stewardship of presidents of both political parties, but few Israelis would argue that a retreat by Washington serves their nation’s interests.
America’s Middle East policy is never easy; as we said, even well-thought-out strategies can — and often do — blow up in our faces. But foreign policy by impulse and diplomacy by tweet add new layers of risk and volatility to U.S. policy. That’s bad news for a Middle East that still needs a strong and steady U.S. hand in the region and terrible news for Israel, which relies on consistent and smart support from its most important friend and ally.