Ethnic Minorities and the Moral Economy of U.S. Military Policy

Of all civilians writing on U.S. military and foreign policy, perhaps the most interesting are former intelligence officers. One of the sharpest knives in that drawer is Graham Fuller, a former station chief at Kabul until the Soviet takeover. Back at Langley from 1978, Fuller seems to have worked in estimative intelligence with responsibility for the Middle East, eventually serving on the National Intelligence Council. He left the agency in 1988 for Rand where he stayed until 2000. Since then he seems to have been writing free lance.

In his 2014 monograph, Turkey and the Arab Spring, Fuller made what looked like a compelling argument that Turkey’s moderate Islamism offered the only viable solution to the crisis of the strongmen regimes of the Middle East.

Turkey still remains the sole stable, dynamic, democratic, prosperous country with functioning national institutions, the only seriously viable model of modern governance in the Muslim world to date.

While the argument looked compelling at the time of writing, Turkey has since descended into its only political impasse, Turkish foreign policy has become seriously incongruent with Western interests, and the Turkish model is now itself at risk. Broadly speaking, there were three forces that confronted each other in the 2000s: The secularist, deep-state, Kemalists; the secretive, moderate Islamist cult of the Gulenists; and the moderate Islamist Erdoganites. The latter two ganged up to marginalize the Kemalists. Then the Ergoganists turned on the Gulenists and prevailed. That’s the peculiar challenge of any three-way fight to the finish: Ganging up on one of the stronger parties is suicidal for the weakest party—it leaves you exposed to your stronger ally once the adversary is eliminated.

Beyond the impasse inside Turkey, the real problem with the Fuller thesis were revealed in Turkish Syria policy. As the Syrian rebellion intensified in 2012, Turkey emerged as the chief conduit for money, weapons, and fighters—Hersh’s rat line. Turkey and the oil monarchies armed Salafi jihadists of different hues. As both Fuller and I wrote at the time, this development left the West with a fait accompli: There was no choice but to back the Assad regime, despite its manifest brutality. This the Obama Administration proceeded to do.

Now, as the Trump Administration throws the Kurds under the bus, Fuller writes on U.S. Syria policy:

Washington has never gotten over the fact that Syria for over half a century has never bowed to US or Israeli hegemony in the region, and has all along been a strong supporter of Syria’s secular—yes secular—Arab nationalism. The US has therefore shown great willingness to “fight to the last Syrian” if necessary to achieve its ends. … As part of the anti-Asad struggle, the US had sought to maintain an autonomous area for the Syrian Kurds in northern Syria along the Turkish border. The hope was that it would remain an enclave of opposition to Asad and a base of US power within a divided Syria.

His account gives too much agency to the United States. The U.S. has not shown any “great willingness” to “fight to the last Syrian”. To the contrary, of all the foreign powers involved in the Syrian war, the United States has been the most restrained. After failing to raise a proxy force of Sunni Arabs — the few hundred it trained abandoned it for ISIS — the United States came to rely near-exclusively on the Kurds of Rojava. ISIS had to be defeated, and unlike Baghdad further downstream, on the northern Euphrates, there were no Iranian proxies that could be relied on to stand up and fight the Islamic State.

It was no coincidence that the United States ended up in an alliance with the Rojava Kurds. They are the most secular, the most feminist, and yes, the most modern force in the region. Perhaps even more importantly, they were the only ones, besides Iranian proxies, ready to stand up and fight Salafi jihadism. Since 2014, the United States applied Biddle’s ‘Afghan model’ in the fight against ISIS with great effect. The key to success was the synergy between U.S. air power and Kurdish ground-force skill. U.S. scouts embedded with Kurdish-led forces on the ground directed air strikes to support ground campaigns. U.S. trainers were not strictly necessary to create an effective fighting force on the ground — the Kurds having long received training from Israeli officers. Over time, cooperation between U.S. forces and Kurdish ground forces became extremely effective. And social and personal relations between Americans and the Kurds became close as well. The anguish of American military officers over the betrayal is genuine.

It is likewise a bit too simple to say that the U.S. ‘sought to maintain an autonomous area for the Syrian Kurds’ as ‘part of the anti-Asad struggle’. The United States had abandoned the anti-Assad struggle already in 2012. As Fuller has himself emphasized, there was no choice. That’s not why the United States made commitments to the Kurds. Those commitments were made in the context of the fight against the Islamic State.

There is yet another, even more important, reason to question Fuller’s case for Trump’s shameful policy. He says:

Under these circumstances, I believe that President Trump is justified in pulling out US forces from Syria as part of an ongoing process of bringing a gradual end to Washington’s endless wars.

Is abandoning the only reliable partner the United States has on the northern Euphrates a part of ending ‘Washington’s endless wars’? Too often, the phantasmagoria of ‘endless war’ is deployed as a purposefully vague discursive weapon against any U.S. engagement. Its logical conclusion is strict Isolationism. And it’s a cheap fallacy. The U.S. is not dis-engaging from the region. President Trump has committed further forces and U.S. prestige behind its odorous “allies” in the region—above all, the Salafi Kingdom of Saudi Arabia — and escalated low intensity war against the Islamic Republic. The entire case for abandoning them vanishes upon scrutiny.

In any case, the issue is not whether the United States should continue or terminate ‘endless wars’. Of course, the U.S. should not be shooting itself on the foot. What is required, above all, is a responsible, eyes-wide-open realism. The United States can afford to keep its commitments; as it should. It should also seek to free resources from the region for obvious reasons. The way to do that is to follow a more even-handed gulf policy. In particular, it should seek a modus vivendi with Iran, the strongest power in the gulf region. The Iranians have been long ready to reach an understanding. What Washington needs to swear off is not ‘endless war’ but the rogue states doctrine: The notion that the United States cannot have a working relationship with the so-called rogue states; that they must be contained. This is a policy of harassment and entanglement that has zero chance of success, however defined.

Being a realist is not the same as being an asshole. A true realist pays attention to the full price of any given strategy, policy, or course of action. Keeping the American commitment to the Kurds of Rojava is fiscally, militarily, and geopolitically cheap. The United States can indeed afford to protect them in perpetuity — like it does at least thirty other nations across the Eurasian continent. If you want to make the case for abandonment, tell me how it differs from Taiwan or Kuwait. Don’t give me bullshit about ‘endless war’. This is not about ‘endless war’. This is about the moral economy of U.S. foreign policy.

A good signal for when the U.S. is shooting itself in the foot is transatlantic relations. More precisely, U.S. unilateralism. The Europeans opposed the escalation of U.S. commitments to South Vietnam in the early-1960s. In 1990, they fought with the Americans to kick Saddam out of Kuwait. After 2001, they fought again with the Americans against the Salafi emirate of Afghanistan. In the early-2000s, they opposed Bush’s drive to war. Now they are opposed to throwing the Kurds under the bus. They are right again.

Another former CIA officer, Douglas Blaufarb wrote of the catastrophe of the Sixties. He was the station chief in Laos during the “quiet war” when the U.S. backed the Hmong/Meo in their fight to preserve their autonomy from the Pathet Lao, a proxy of Hanoi. Writing in the aftermath of the American abandonment of the Meo, “People’s war” is the title that Blaufarb pointedly gives to his chapter on the American counterinsurgency experience in Laos.

Among the indirect costs to the U.S. was eventually to have these achievements misunderstood while the Meo resistance was caught up in the public attack on all aspects of the Indochina war, its unique factors ignored, its nature distorted and misrepresented. … The idea that the Meo had a right to fight and sacrifice for their own vision of their future was dismissed as unreal and the U.S. decision to support them as contemptible.[1]

A deep sense of moral anguish over the American betrayal of the Hmong would come to be shared more broadly as details of the secret tragedy became widely known in the decades ahead. In a 1997 book review for the New York Times, Arnold R. Issacs would write that Roger Warner’s Shooting at the Moon: The Story of America’s Clandestine War in Laos was ‘impossible to read without a strong sense of anger, sorrow and shame’.[2]

This is precisely how the American experience with the Kurds of Rojava will be remembered. At the most fundamental level, the issue is one of the moral economy of U.S. foreign policy. Ethnic minorities have been used for their own ends and then abandoned by the great powers through the modern period. Yet, this is not a law of nature. It is a question of policy. The United States can afford to forge these crimes.

What would a social democratic foreign policy look like? At the minimum it has to thread the needle between U.S. commitments and a grand-strategy of restraint.

[1] Douglas Blaufarb. Counterinsurgency Era, 1977, p. 167.

[2] Arnold R. Isaacs. “The Cut-Rate War,” New York Times, March 16, 1997.


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