“The United States has no other option but to, as Niall Ferguson phrases it, cease to be an empire-in-denial, and come to terms with the fact that, for now, the world needs a global policeman, and the United States is the one country that can play that role.”
The Kurds have been betrayed—once again. In 1923, Turkey signed the Treaty of Lausanne with Britain, France, Germany, and other less-powerful countries. During World War I, Britain had approached Arabs and other ethnic minorities in the Ottoman Empire. The British promised these groups that if they joined the British side, once the Ottoman Empire was defeated, they would get independence and would be allowed to form their own countries. That promise was infamously disregarded in the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, when Britain and France kept control of Arab territories. The Arabs felt betrayed, and that particular incident still has consequences in contemporary Middle Eastern turmoil.
In that treaty, the Kurds were given autonomy, but Turkey (now dispossessed of its former Ottoman territories) was not willing to lose more territory. So, after a new round of hostilities, the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne allotted part of Kurdish territory to Turkey, while the rest of Kurdish lands remained in what later would be Iran, Iraq, and Syria.
Very much like the Arabs, the Kurds felt betrayed. For decades, Kurds have engaged in military (and sometimes terrorist) campaigns to get their own nation-state, but to no avail. They have been savagely persecuted by despots in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. The greatest opportunity for autonomy came with the Syrian Civil War, when Kurds managed to get de facto autonomous regions in Syria and Iraq. In the process, they were a force to be reckoned with, especially with their notable contribution in the defeat of ISIS.
President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw American troops from their autonomous region in Northeastern Syria is now seen as a major betrayal of Kurds, as it leaves the road open for Turkey to attack their territory. Although Kurds have been known to be extremely fierce, courageous, and effective warriors, it seems that—at least for now—they do not have the capacity to survive on their own.
Trump’s decision has been met with strong condemnation, even from prominent Republicans and some of his own supporters. This should not come as a surprise. The GOP is the party of the neocons. These are the people who believe—just as the empires of previous centuries did—that the United States has a mission to civilize the rest of the world (admittedly, hardly anyone today uses the language of a “civilizing mission”; it now comes under the name of “exporting democracy” or “protecting Human Rights”).
What does come as a surprise is that, on this particular occasion, the Left has been far more vocal in its criticism of Trump’s decision. One prominent aspect of leftist ideology is anti-colonialism. Those on the Left are fond of saying that colonialism is responsible for most problems in the world today (as the title of Walter Rodney’s famous 1972 book, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa suggests). And, as part of this anti-colonialist ideology, the Left usually claims that the United States is today the great bully in the global scene. By self-righteously assuming the role of global policeman, the United States pushes everyone around. So, if the United States truly wants to make the world a better place, it should just pull back, mind its own business, and leave everyone else alone. Yankee, go home! Trump is doing exactly that: he is sending yankees home.
If leftists are consistent in their beliefs, Donald Trump should be getting unqualified praise from them, at least in this regard.
Donald Trump is probably the most isolationist post-World War II President, and his decision regarding the Kurds is part of this policy, which was very clear even from his campaign days. Leftists hate NATO and would like some rapprochement with North Korea; Trump has delivered exactly what they have asked for—for so many decades. If leftists are consistent in their beliefs, Donald Trump should be getting unqualified praise from them, at least in this regard.
But, of course, he isn’t. This fact reveals that, in this day and age, identity seems to be more important than anything else. Trump boasts about his sexual indiscretions and is not even able to get Biblical quotations right, but evangelicals still support him. Evangelicals are rightly castigated for their hypocrisy. They do not seem to care much about doctrinal issues; they are more fascinated with identity: no matter what Trump may do, he still represents them. But the Left has exactly the same problem: even if Trump’s decisions come very close to what the anti-colonialist Left has begged for, they still refuse to give the devil his due because he is, oh, so white, so patriarchal, so rich, or whatever other politically incorrect identity.
If those on the Left were so concerned about Kurds, then perhaps they should not have been so adamant about opposing the toppling of Saddam in 2003. Yes, that particular invasion was based on a lie. But weapons of mass destruction were not the only issue at stake. Some supporters of the invasion made the case for a military intervention in order to protect Kurds from Saddam’s brutal regime. Christopher Hitchens made that case multiple times, but he still received no love from the Left (in fact, even though he always considered himself a leftist, he was basically excommunicated because of his support for the war).
Trump’s decision to abandon allies is not the first in its kind. Much has been made of the terrible fate that awaits Kurds after the American betrayal. This has yet to happen, but in 1975, the North Vietnamese forces occupied Saigon—also because American troops had been removed. As a result, thousands of civilians were targeted, all of which was captured in those dramatic images of helicopters fleeing. Yet, at the time, the Left did not seem to care much about those refugees. The important thing was that the United States stop its imperialist war in Vietnam. If the North Vietnamese were to bully the South Vietnamese, that was nobody else’s business, or as one boxer-cum-activist famously claimed: “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong.”
Be that as it may, despite its hypocrisy, the Left is right this time. Trump has shamelessly betrayed the Kurds, and in the process, has allowed Turkey, Russia and Iran to fill the void and increase their power in the region.
But, precisely because Trump’s decision deserves criticism, the Left now needs to understand that, like it or not, the world does need a global policeman. The Left has been infatuated with the concept of sovereignty and non-intervention. Back in 1648, when the Treaty of Westphalia formulated this concept, maybe sovereignty made sense: after all, European countries were constantly invading each other because of religious differences. But, in our times, sovereignty as a concept needs to be revised. Today, this concept is used by dictators like Putin or Maduro to commit all sorts of abuses and do as they please in their own countries (and tell outside observers to mind their own businesses). Sovereignty has become a cheap excuse.
By the late 1990’s, there was an understanding that sovereignty needed limits, and indeed, after the failure to prevent the Rwandan genocide, the new concept of “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) became prominent as a counter to unrestrained sovereignty. The concept was invoked by NATO to militarily intervene in Kosovo in 1999, in order to protect Muslim minorities from Milošević’s brutal assault. But, again, who opposed that particular intervention, again in the name of sovereignty and anti-imperialism? You guessed it: the Left, under the leadership of gurus such as Noam Chomsky.
For all its faults, the United States is a more benign empire than Russia or any other empire-wannabes, such as Turkey and Iran.
The factof the matter is that—as much as the Left may hate to admit it—imperialism is not always all that bad. Yes, the conquistadors were horrible in South America, King Leopold was brutal in Congo, and the Brits could have been better in India. But, like it or not, empires do offer peace and security in unstable regions, and that is precisely why American troops should have stayed with the Kurds. And, again, the Left may not like it, but it must come to terms with the fact that some empires are more benign than others. For all its faults, the United States is a more benign empire than Russia or any other empire-wannabes, such as Turkey and Iran. Ideally, the global police should be made up of a multilateral force. That is what the United Nations is supposed to be. Unfortunately, the UN Security Council is made up of less-than-benign empires such as China and Russia, who constantly invoke the concept of sovereignty—but ignore it when it suits their interests. For that reason, in the meantime, the United States has no other option but to, as Niall Ferguson phrases it, cease to be an empire-in-denial and come to terms with the fact that, for now, the world needs a global policeman, and the United States is the one country that can play that role.
Dr. Gabriel Andrade teaches ethics and behavioral science at Ajman University, United Arab Emirates. He has previously contributed to Areo Magazine and DePauw University’s The Prindle Post.