While most fixate on the betrayal in Trump’s decision to withdraw troops and leave the Kurds to the mercy of Turkey, the real betrayal goes back further – the original sin of US indifference to the Kurds’ predicament and the whole matter of America’s own self-interest in international relations.
During Gulf War I in 1991, with American forces deep inside Iraq and Saddam Hussein on his knees, the US called on the Kurds – long brutally oppressed by the Saddam regime – to rise-up and help in the overthrow of the brutal Baathist Government. And on cue, the Kurds did what they were asked.
The consequences for the Kurds were not long in coming, with the administration of George H W Bush having a change of mind and having ended the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait deciding to withdraw and not topple Saddam after all.
George Senior’s statements at the time that the US was not in the business of regime change was all a bit late and a little bit inconvenient for mobilized Kurds who recognised the real and cynical motivation of a US administration worried about getting bad PR following publication of the ‘Road to Basra’ photos showing US aerial devastation of Iraqi transport and armour.
The US decision to not finish the job when they had the chance and leave Saddam in place had its own consequences – further oppression of the Kurds and US no-fly zones needing to be enforced to protect them from Iraqi jet attacks with a consequent further raising of tensions in the region and headaches for the future Clinton and George W presidencies.
Of course, if Saddam had been removed in 1991 in Gulf War I there would have been no 2003 Gulf War II and all the dire consequences that have followed from that second war as a result. And if there had been no Saddam regime still in control then perhaps a solution for the Kurdish people would have been found and the long-lived tensions with Turkey sorted years ago.
But with every consequence comes a moral conundrum and this is the lesson to be taken from this Trump decision and applies equally to the political right and left with no simple answer or moral purity no matter the sanctimonious posturing.
For those who have consistently argued for the US not to interfere in world affairs and not act as the world’s policeman how do we reconcile this with what happens when in this case, US hard power is now removed? Equally, those who were pleased that Gulf War I stopped, unfinished back in 1991 with the job half-done. How do they now view how leaving Saddam in place until 2003 has panned-out in the Middle East over the last three decades?
Or perhaps we go back to the original sin and those back then that argued the Americans should have done nothing at all and left Saddam in Kuwait when he invaded in 1990?
And then these days there is another group – those who don’t really care about the logic of the latest decision but really just hate it because they hate any decision made by Trump.
Damned if you do, damned if you don’t, they say — or tweet at three in the morning if you’re Donald Trump. But this is its own moral blind end with its own consequences and in foreign affairs where clear thinking used to be paramount should be avoided at all costs.
For every action, there is a reaction. For every foreign policy decision, there are consequences and not much morality to go round. This is Foreign Policy 101.
Michael Scammell was Media Officer for the US Consulate Melbourne during the first Gulf War.
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