International affairs can be terribly cruel to nations weakened by poverty, bad leadership, or poor decision-making. Their diplomats may enjoy world travel and nice salaries, but they also have to put up with the leaders of more powerful countries lying to their faces, humiliating them behind their backs, and moving their armies around the chessboard on a whim.
For the last century, no American political, military, or diplomatic leader has had to play this subordinate role. But President Trump seems determined to give his appointees and the career security establishment a decade’s worth of experience in a week.
On Thursday, a delegation led by Vice-President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo held meetings in Ankara. They had been given contradictory messages about whether Turkish president Recep Erdogan would meet with them — not something that normally happens to the leaders of the world’s largest economy, greatest military power, and biggest purveyor of weapons.
Indeed, while Erdogan was letting the press know he might not meet with the Americans, his team was also making sure we knew how he had responded to President Trump’s October 9 letter — a.k.a. the “Don’t be a tough guy. Don’t be a fool!” missive. We already knew how Erdogan had responded, of course: He had gone right ahead and done the thing Trump told him not to do, sending troops over the border into Syria and unleashing extremist allies to attack and murder civilians and political leaders in Kurdish-held areas. But just in case we missed the point, Erdogan’s team variously told journalists that he had ignored the letter, ripped it up, or thrown it in the trash.
In diplomacy, weak states get ignored because there is no cost to ignoring them. And in diplomacy — somewhat like in high school — one is usually advised not to respond to being humiliated from a distance by showing up to receive more punishment in person. But Pence, Pompeo, and their team went to Ankara anyway.
Fortunately for the U.S. delegation, Erdogan opted to play nice. He did meet with Pence, for much longer than planned. He let American journalists into a part of the presidential palace journalists never see (the Committee to Protect Journalists calls Turkey the world’s “worst jailer of journalists,” but never mind that). And, oh look, Pence and Pompeo said that the goal of their travel to Turkey was to arrange a cease-fire and an end to the Turkish military action, and the Turkish government let them announce just that.
President Trump, who earlier this week disparaged the region as one with “a lot of sand” to be fought over, quickly took to the microphone to call the deal “amazing” and say that it couldn’t have been achieved without “a little bit of rough love” — which is an interesting euphemism for a military assault that the United Nations says has displaced more than 100,000 civilians.
But the Turkish foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, had the real tough love. “We will suspend the Peace Spring operation for 120 hours for the PKK/YPG to withdraw,” he said. “This is not a cease-fire.” After the United States pressured Kurdish military officials to acquiesce, the head of the Kurdish-led Syrian Defense Forces offered his own interpretation, saying that the cease-fire applied only to a limited area and not the full northeast Syrian region that Turkey wants to wrest from Kurdish control. And by Friday, we had proof that the cease-fire was less than “amazing”: While the rest of the border was calm, fighting continued in Ras al-Ayn, a Syrian town at the center of the fight between Turkey and Kurdish forces.
So, to summarize: The government of Turkey, a NATO ally, had no qualms about sending officials out to make fun of a letter from the president of the United States of America; contradicting the U.S. vice-president and secretary of State before they had even left the country; and making clear that they had absolutely no intention of stopping their advance into Syria.
All of this — the precipitous American withdrawal, and the indifference with which Kurdish forces who fought alongside U.S. troops and civilians who had sought to build peace have been left to their deaths — has sparked a remarkable outcry inside the U.S. military. Officials seem to be steadily leaking the contents of conversations with angry and despairing Kurdish leaders. The former head of U.S. Special Operations, Admiral William McRaven, wrote an op-ed flatly calling for a new president.
This is still a far way off from the sort of military intervention into national politics that tends to happen in weak and unstable societies. But it’s a troubling shift, especially when paired with Republican lawmakers’ apparent disinterest in fully exercising their constitutional right to check the president. While the House passed a bipartisan resolution condemning Trump’s decision pull troops out of Syria on Wednesday, Senate Republicans are still struggling to come up with a unified response. And of course, it remains unlikely that any Senate Republicans will vote to remove Trump if he is impeached.
While some Republican leaders are publicly fuming over Trump’s moves in Syria, the incident may ultimately have little effect on his political standing — which is another marker of a feeble, dysfunctional country. Embarrassments suffered abroad have less impact domestically when you’re used to seeing your leader pushed around by foreign governments.