Finishing Honorably, Finishing Safely

President Trump’s decision to allow Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, an enemy of America, slaughter northern Syria’s Kurds is as unwise as it is dishonorable. Of course, America’s interest is to leave the Middle East to its own devices. But history reminds us that exiting commitments is often more consequential than making them.

When war-weary Athenians regretted having built the empire that got them involved in the Peloponnesian War, Pericles told them “to recede is no longer possible . . . to let it go is unsafe.” Athenians, he said, could not escape paying the price of the comforts and honors which they enjoyed because of the empire. Because of “the animosities incurred,” in letting go, the safest course now would be “to pay attention to the navy, to attempt no new conquests, and to expose the city to no hazards.”

In short, if the Athenians really wanted peace and quiet, they would have to earn them by working through their current troubles while relying upon the principles that had made possible their earlier peace.

By the same token, if presidents from George Washington to Theodore Roosevelt had been asked for the “secret” to their foreign policies’ success in securing peace they, like Pericles, would tell us to pay attention to statecraft’s fundamentals—as they did. The choice for Americans sick of unending war now is as it ever was—deal with our wars’ problems in ways that reaffirm those fundamentals.

The United States in its first century or so built a reputation that engendered respect and that respect, along with growing power, made for peace. Progressive U.S. officials, however, made a habit of promiscuous commitments engaged in half-heartedly and easily dropped for new ones. This has earned America a reputation for offensiveness combined with vulnerability that precludes peace. Reversing this reputation without stimulating deadly contempt is problematic.

Progressive foreign policy has led America into some of the world’s toughest saloons. Today’s statesmen would be well advised to back out of them without lingering at the doors and keep their guns pointing at enemies.

Now as ever, how we leave is more important than why we engaged in the first place.

Nothing that America did in Vietnam was as consequential as how America left Vietnam in 1975. As a North Vietnamese tank pushed through the U.S. embassy compound’s gate and as U.S. Marine rifle butts were smashing the fingers of doomed Vietnamese allies clinging to the last U.S. helicopter departing from its roof, millions of other Vietnamese were throwing themselves into the sea on anything that would float to get away from the vengeance that North Vietnam would wreak upon those who had worked with Americans. America had given solemn promises to these people before abandoning them to die.

Then, because the U.S. government tried to pretend it had made “peace with honor,” it refused to pay the ransom that North Vietnam demanded for some 311 of our own prisoners of war, abandoning them, too. To hide the dishonor of feckless defeat, America committed the dishonor of betrayals. America has paid with endless wars for calling peace with honor something that was neither peaceful nor honorable.

Nations, after all, exist only to the extent that they are respected and honored—first by their own citizens or subjects. If flags are not honored, if they elicit other than respect, they are meaningless, or worse.

Learn from Kissinger’s Mistakes

In 1975, as Henry Kissinger was masterminding America’s exit from Vietnam, he also withdrew from a war between Iraq and its Kurdish population.

To relieve the pressure that Iraq was putting on America’s then-ally, Iran, Kissinger had armed the Kurds and blown their simmering resentment into war. When Iraq agreed to back off Iran, Kissinger withdrew support from the Kurds, leaving them to face the Iraqi government’s genocidal vengeance disarmed. Asked to explain, Kissinger said: “Covert action should not be confused with missionary work.” Earlier, he had quipped that while “it may be dangerous to be America’s enemy . . . to be America’s friend is fatal.” Retail Machiavellism, wholesale naïvete, shameful incompetence.

As America exits the Middle East in the here and now, President Trump seems to be following Kissinger’s and the progressives’ destructive, dishonorable counsels.

In 2014, after nearly all U.S. ground troops had left the Middle East, and as the Islamic State sect was ritually slaughtering Americans, the U.S. government saw in the Kurds the only local force willing and able to fight them on the ground. In exchange for helping America against ISIS, these Kurds got some arms, barely sufficient to secure themselves for a time in the mountainous strip that runs along the border between Syria and Turkey.

The U.S government knows the governments of Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria are dead set against the Kurds ever having a home of their own. Though it was clear that U.S. commitments to the Kurds placed America athwart these other countries’ interests, the U.S. government committed to the Kurds without plans to deal with a matter of honor that, eventually, it could not escape.

Now as ever, how we leave is more important than why we engaged in the first place.

Protecting Our Interests With Honor

As Plato shows, doing good to those who have done you good and harming those who have harmed you is far from all there is to justice. But to do the opposite is obviously stupid, as well as unjust and dishonorable. Morality enjoins the positive side of simple justice. Self-interest enjoins the negative.

Through a half-century of U.S. involvement in the Middle East, the Kurds (other than the Israelis) have been the only group that never shot at Americans, indeed on whom America has called for help, repeatedly and fruitfully. Kurds, regardless of under whose sovereignty they live, want a state in which they can defend their way of life. America is under no obligation to deliver it.

But as America withdraws from the region, such a state would be in America’s interest because, in our time, our enemies are the ones who benefit from its absence—specifically, Erdogan’s Turkey, an Iraq increasingly in thrall to Iran, Iran itself, and Bashar Assad’s Syria. Nothing could quite so surely check their ill designs as the existence in their midst of a state composed of the region’s incomparable fighters, well-armed by America. Think of it as America’s parting gift to the region, or an object lesson in the beneficent power of peaceful retreats.

About Angelo Codevilla

Angelo M. Codevilla is a senior fellow of the Claremont Institute, professor emeritus of international relations at Boston University and the author of To Make And Keep Peace (Hoover Institution Press, 2014).

Photo: Matt Sullivan/Getty Images

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