Who wags? Who gets wagged? What good are alliances? Most defenses of President Trump’s abandonment of America’s Kurdish co-belligerents to Turkey’s cruelties are insincere—for example, Trump was elected to leave the Middle East; his detractors want to stay there. No doubt some do. But the real argument is over how we leave. Nothing obliges us to leave in a way that puts our friends into the hands of our enemies.
Another insincere defense: Americans should not die in a fight between foreign peoples. Of course not! But the Kurds—by far the region’s most formidable fighters—don’t need us to die for them. In fact, they died for us in the fight against ISIS. If we were to give them good weapons, they could take care of themselves. Why not do that?
One of the more thoughtful arguments against this, however, so touches the heart of the matter as to be self-indicting: Yes, the Kurds are our friends. But they are not our allies. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey is an enemy. But Turkey is an ally, part of NATO, and hosts an important U.S. air base.
The truth of that, however, raises the substantive question: how do the benefits we get from this or any alliance stack up against the costs of forbearing an ally who works against our interest?
The question applies not just to our alliance with Turkey today but, more importantly, to NATO as a whole. The closer we look at NATO, the more difficult it is to judge that it has ever been of net value to America. That, in turn, leads us to a deeper appreciation of how American statesmen from George Washington to Theodore Roosevelt—the men on Mount Rushmore—regarded alliances.
How Alliances Hamper America
It is difficult to overstate the extent to which NATO allies, principally British Labor Prime Minister Ernest Bevin, contributed to U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s successful campaign to turn President Harry Truman against his own instinct to let General Douglas MacArthur win the Korean War.
Acheson framed the choice: if we wage real war in Korea, we lose NATO. Substantially because Truman sided with NATO (as defined by Bevin and Acheson), he fired MacArthur and began the chain of no-win wars that has yet to end.
The need for America to make concessions to the Soviet Union for the sake of NATO was a standard argument from U.S. liberals from the late 1950s onward. This despite the fact that Europe’s major statesmen at the time, France’s Charles de Gaulle and Germany’s Konrad Adenauer, advocated no concessions. This so disgusted de Gaulle that he withdrew France from the unified command and Germany put itself under the French nuclear umbrella.
Following the Americans’ lead and given that the U.S. nuclear guarantee discouraged Europeans from taking care of their own defense, European politics turned sharply leftward.
During the Vietnam War and after, the alleged need not to alienate “the Europeans” arguably became the American Left’s principal argument in foreign policy. Those of us involved in the U.S. foreign policy process during the 1970s and ’80s remember vividly and somewhat bitterly having to battle the accusations that Ronald Reagan’s opposition to Kissinger’s détente was ruining NATO, U.S. foreign policy’s crowning jewel. Insistence on U.S. missile defense would alienate the left wing of German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt’s Social Democratic Party. NATO solidarity should trump U.S defense!
In sum, America’s experience with NATO is consistent with what is arguably the norm: alliances end up being less than the sum of their parts because each ally finds in the others’ existence excuses for doing less than it would do if it were alone.
Acquiescing to Allies vs. Asserting Interests
Today, we are asked to believe that not alienating Turkey is very important, just as not alienating Qatar is very important. Why? Because we have bases in both countries. Those bases do serve a useful purpose. But compared to what and at what cost? These specific questions are even sharper than ones about NATO in general because Turkey and Qatar are not equivocal allies. They are, in fact, enemies.
The American people’s chief interest—arguably the only interest—in the Middle East is preventing the export of terrorism. Although Turkey is by no means the cause of the ISIS abomination that beheaded Americans, Erdoğan’s Turkey was the sine qua non of the Islamic State’s existence as a territorial entity.
Erdoğan, and Erdoğan alone, made it possible for ISIS to sell oil and receive supplies, as well as foreign fighters, from abroad. This was policy, oriented in a pro-Sunni, pro-Muslim Brotherhood direction, in concert with Qatar, as well as a foredoomed war against a Kurdish minority that is on its demographic way to majority status.
These remain Erdoğan’s predilections, pursued short-sightedly, incompetently as well as brutally. All the more reason for the U.S. government to expect the worst from him, to give him no help whatever while pointing straight at our own interest, which includes limiting the resources at Erdoğan’s command. Arming the Kurds as we leave would do that.
U.S. accommodation of Turkey (and of its financier, Qatar), and the excuses for it, are so mistaken because they value the existing diplomatic relations and the military bases that result from them over the purposes that these relationships and bases are supposed to pursue. Valuing means over ends is a bad idea.
America’s pre-Progressive Era statesmen were not against alliances. They were clear that alliances should be limited to concrete circumstances and limited to those circumstances’ times. They should never become ends in themselves. They stressed that real concurrences of interest and actions are worth far more than formal commitments.
Current policy, and especially the best arguments for it, compound the error of preferring enemies to friends by reversing the natural relationship between ends and means. Recall Casey Stengel: Can’t anybody here play this game?