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The Trump Doctrine: American Unexceptionalism

Eli Lake

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- According to President Donald Trump, Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria “has nothing to do with us.” America’s longtime adversaries in the region — Syria, Iran and Russia — should be left to fight Islamic State. And it’s good that Syria is now protecting the Kurds he has just abandoned.    

Trump’s two rambling appearances in the White House on Wednesday are notable not merely for their incoherence, which is by now familiar. They amount to a raw expression of his foreign policy: He is the leading proponent of what might be called American unexceptionalism.

Trump’s comments are baffling for many reasons. He is sending Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Vice President Mike Pence to Ankara Thursday to plead with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to pull back his forces and agree to a cease-fire. If the Turkish invasion is of no concern to the U.S., why send the vice president and secretary of state? Why send Erdogan a letter urging him to negotiate with the leader of the Syrian Democratic Forces?

Furthermore, Trump has boasted of America’s great success in the war against Islamic State, a war in which the Syrian Kurds fought alongside the U.S. and lost 11,000 soldiers. Trump now claims Trump then was a sucker. He could have let Iran, Russia, Syria and others in the region fight against Islamic State.

There is a temptation to call this isolationism. But that’s not quite right. Trump seeks regime change in Venezuela. His administration is pressing allies to keep China out of their 5G networks. The president inveighs against endless military wars, while gleefully waging economic ones on nominal allies such as Turkey and regional enemies like Iran. He threatens North Korea’s tyrant with annihilation only to be charmed by his lies after a few personal meetings. 

As a believer in American unexceptionalism, Trump sees the world as a savage place, and the U.S. is just as savage as its adversaries. The lofty ideals of Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy are a sham. As Trump said in 2017, just weeks into his tenure: “You think our country’s so innocent?”

In fairness to Trump, he is not alone in seeing American idealism as an elaborate con. Thinkers such as Noam Chomsky have made a version of this argument for years. There is a strain of American foreign policy realism based on the idea that the rules-based international system camouflages the inherent chaos of state competition. The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must, as Thucydides wrote.

This worldview may seem clarifying, even liberating, for a superpower. But it also leads to decline. Ten years ago this month, Charles Krauthammer made this point in a stinging and now-famous lecture. “The fundamental consequence” of seeing America as unexceptional, he said, was “to effectively undermine any moral claim that America might have to world leadership, as well as the moral confidence that any nation needs to have in order to justify to itself and to others its position of leadership.”

At the time, Krauthammer was worried that President Barack Obama was ceding U.S. foreign policy to international institutions such as the United Nations. Obama, Krauthammer said, was surrendering America’s global leadership out of guilt.

Trump, by contrast, seeks abdication out of pride. He vents about the trillions the U.S. has spent on endless wars in the Middle East. He worries about allies ripping off America.

Nonetheless, both Trump and Obama ended up in the same place in Syria. Obama’s CIA funded and helped to arm a Free Syrian Army only to allow it to be slaughtered by Russia, Iran and the regime of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad in Aleppo in 2016. Trump increased U.S. support for the Kurdish fighters in northern Syria against Islamic State, only to betray them to Turkey.

Krauthammer’s point was that American decline was not inevitable. The title of his lecture, a decade later, remains bracing: “Decline Is a Choice.” How, then, to characterize the choice Trump has made? Last week, northern Syria was relatively peaceful. Now it is chaos. Russian officers are touring bases abandoned by U.S. soldiers. A NATO ally is slaughtering America’s Kurdish partners. Islamic State prisoners are breaking out of jails.

It would be charitable to say Trump has chosen decline in Syria. It’s more accurate to say that he has chosen collapse.

To contact the author of this story: Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Newman at mnewman43@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.

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