Just before Christmas Donald Trump took an important step towards controlling his own administration. By announcing the withdrawal of US troops in Syria he provoked the resignation of his defence secretary Jim Mattis.
Mattis immediately became a hero to Trump’s domestic opponents and the European media. This infuriated Trump, who vindictively reacted by bringing forward Mattis’s departure by two months.
Mattis and outgoing White House chief of staff John Kelly were the last of the generals with whom Trump initially stuffed his cabinet to make it seem respectable. But the outrage at Mattis’s departure shown by many liberal Democrats and European social democrats is puzzling.
As an article in Foreign Policy magazine pointed out, “It is often overlooked that Mattis oversaw a growth in the wars that he inherited from the Obama administration. There was a steady growth in airstrikes in declared warzones (such as Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan), as well as in non-battlefield settings (Somalia, Yemen, and Pakistan). There was also an expansion of the US military footprint in the Middle East, from 40,517 troops in mid-2017 to 54,180 by September.”
Perhaps worst of all, Mattis continued Barack Obama’s policy of providing in-air refuelling for Saudi warplanes carrying out their barbaric bombing campaign in Yemen. Some liberal hero. The widespread condemnation of Trump’s decision to cut down US military involvement in the Middle East is also bizarre.
The international relations academic Stephen Walt comments, “This situation reminds us how stupid it was for the United States to have invaded Iraq back in 2003. Had there been no Iraq War, there would have been no US occupation, no anti-American insurgency, no ‘Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia’, and therefore no Islamic State. Yet the strategic geniuses (including current US National Security Advisor John Bolton) who promoted this ill-fated scheme keep recycling new versions of the same policies today.”
But Walt goes too far in concluding that by pulling out of Syria, Trump “did the right thing in the wrong way”. Trump’s decision partly reflected his campaign promise to reduce US involvement in foreign wars. But it also involved a strategic bargain with Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
US forces in Syria have been operating in support of the Kurdish nationalist YPG. YPG fighters provided the ground troops to drive Isis out of its Syrian strongholds.
But the YPG is politically aligned to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has waged a long war to assert the national rights of Turkey’s Kurdish minority.
The US policy infuriated Erdogan, who has in recent years strongly backed the efforts of the Turkish military to crush the PKK. Turkish troops have been in Syria fighting the YPG for more than two years. Now Trump has given them a free hand against the YPG, who may align with Syrian government forces. In exchange Erdogan has promised, patently insincerely, to “eradicate whatever is left of Isis in Syria”.
Trump will visit Turkey this year. This is a big success for Erdogan. He has also used the murder of the Saudi opposition journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul to strengthen Turkey’s position in the region.
In his resignation letter Mattis declared, “One core belief I have always held is that our strength as a nation is inextricably linked to the strength of our unique and comprehensive system of alliances and partnerships.”
He probably prefers the alliance with the Saudi dynasty to relying on the cunning and independent Erdogan.
More fundamentally, Mattis was reaffirming the traditional strategy of US imperialism since the 1940s of enhancing its power through the web of alliances that bind all the leading capitalist states to the US.
Trump is a vocal critic of this strategy, and has targeted the Nato alliance and Germany in particular. He tweeted in response to Mattis, “Allies are very important—but not when they take advantage of US.”
Mattis’s departure removes one more restraint on Trump pursuing the policy of economic nationalism that is the core of whatever ideology he has.
Expect the ride to get bumpier still.