Ritter on the Syrian Kurds

Why the Syrian Kurds Aren’t Necessarily Our Friends

As usual, Beltway hawks and the media hive have oversimplified reality to advance their agendas.

A Syrian refugee holds a banner depicting Donald Trump and a PYD fighter, during a protest against PKK/PYD organization by Syrian refugees, including Syrian Kurds, at the Syrian border next to the Syria’s Ras al-Ayn town, in Ceylanpinar District of Sanliurfa, Turkey on September 17, 2017. (Photo by Halil Fidan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has announced the commencement of “Operation Peace Spring,” a military incursion by the Turkish armed forces into northern Syria. The target of the offensive, according to Erdogan, are “terrorists” from the Kurdish Workers’ Party, or PKK, which is comprised of Turkish Kurds fighting for independence from Turkey, and Syrian Kurds from the YPG, or People’s Protection Units. Erdogan is also pledging to combat residual ISIS elements.

The Turkish move comes with an ostensible green light from President Trump, who cleared the way for the Turkish action by precipitously ordering the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the area.

Trump’s actions have been widely condemned as a betrayal of the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, an American-trained and -equipped force of Syrian Kurds who played a lead role in the fight against ISIS in Syria, suffering thousands of casualties in the process. That Turkey, an American NATO ally, is waging war against the SDF (which the Turks label as YPG/PKK—more on that later), while at the same time targeting ISIS, the archenemy of the all these Kurdish groups, underscores the complexity of the regional politics at play in northern Syria today. Deciphering this alphabet soup goes a long way towards explaining why the Turkish actions are justified and why President Trump will ultimately be vindicated for pulling the troops out. 

Truly understanding the complex history of the Kurds in the Middle East would require several Ph.D.’s worth of research, and even then questions would remain. My own opinions are, in large part, shaped by personal experience. When I was in high school, my father was assigned to the Joint U.S. Military Mission for Aid to Turkey, or JUSMMAT. My family accompanied him, and we settled in the Turkish capital of Ankara. One of the perks of this assignment was a very active Rod and Gun club, which my father and I took full advantage of. The Ankara club had a long-standing relationship with a Kurdish tribal leader named Reshad Bey, who would organize excursions into central Anatolia where we would hunt on lands owned by Kurdish villagers.

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During one such hunt, our party (which consisted of a half-dozen Americans and a similar number of Kurds) was confronted by a platoon of Turkish Jandarma, or internal security troops. It was clear these troops had been lying in ambush for our group, and had it not been for the presence of the Americans, mischief would have followed.

That was my first experience with the difficult dynamic between Turkey and its Kurdish minority. Official Turkish policy prohibited one from calling the Kurds by their name; the Turks referred to them as “Mountain Turks” (as Americans, we did not comply with this absurdity). Moreover, the Kurds were prohibited from speaking their own language, although on the hunts, that was the way they communicated with one another. There was a discernible tension between the Kurds and the Turks, as witnessed by the presence of the Jandarma patrol. My family left Turkey in 1977, and a year later, the Kurdish Workers Party, or PKK, was founded in eastern Turkey, precipitating a struggle for Kurdish independence from Turkey that continues to this day.

Since then, I’ve keenly followed the conflict between Turkey and the PKK. My personal interest became professional during the Gulf War, when I helped monitor Turkey’s activities in northern Iraq, the PKK having established itself there, which prompted Turkish military incursions into Iraq. I was surprised to learn that Turkey was aided in part by Iraqi Kurds opposed to the PKK.

The complexity of inter-Kurdish politics was driven home when, in 1992, I led a team of UN weapons inspectors to inspect the area around the Bekhme Dam, located some 40 miles northeast of the city of Irbil, considered to be the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. At that time, Iraqi Kurdistan had freed itself from Iraqi governmental control, and Irbil was controlled by a faction of Iraqi Kurds known as the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK. The territory around Irbil was contested between the PUK and another Kurdish faction, the Kurdish Democratic Party, or KDP. These two factions did not get along.

In order to get to Bekhme Dam, my team was flown in by helicopter to a remote landing zone located in no-man’s land between the PUK and KDP, where we negotiated our transit to the site to be inspected. We were turned over to KDP Peshmerga, or fighters, who accompanied us on our drive through the Zagros mountains. Before we got to Bekhme Dam, however, our convoy was stopped at a roadblock manned by the PKK; the Bekhme Dam fell under their span of control.

Scott Ritter on the satellite phone negotiating access to Bekhme Dam in the Kurdish region of Northern Iraq in August 1992. (credit: Henry Arvidsson/UNSCO)M.

There was discernible unease between our KDP escorts and the PKK fighters manning the roadblock. It turned out that it was the KDP who had been helping the Turks fight the PKK. Through some deft diplomacy on my part, my team was able to gain access to the inspection site, although the PKK was far less impressed with my being an American than they were with my U.N. credentials. By 1994, the PUK and KDP were in open war against one another, and the KDP was cooperating with Iran and Turkey to oust the PKK from Iraqi territory.

The Kurdish proclivity for infighting is a historic fact, underscoring the reality that while the Kurds dream globally, they act locally, especially when it comes to the issue of independence. The Kurds of the Middle East are spread across the region, their homeland divided by the territorial borders of Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria. My experience in Iraq underscored the reality that Kurds will turn on Kurds when it comes to protecting their regional interests. This was underscored by the experience of the Kurdish Regional Government, or KRG, formed in northern Iraq in the aftermath of the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

A large part of the political viability of the KRG, which represented an uncomfortable alliance between the KDP and the PUK, was dependent upon income derived from the sale of oil produced on Kurdish-controlled territory. To maximize their profits, the Kurds sold their oil to Turkey, cutting out the Iraqi government as a middleman. The Turks used this relationship as a vehicle for controlling the political appetites of the Kurds, restraining any call for independence that might resonate among them. The extent of this relationship is demonstrated by the fact that Turkey employed fighters from the KDP to help in its struggle against the PKK. Oil, however, proved to be a double-edged sword—when the KRG undertook to hold a referendum on independence in 2017, it incurred the wrath of both Turkey and the Iraqi government. The Iraqi military seized control of the Kurdish oil fields, ending the KRG’s independent source of income, and subordinating Iraqi Kurdistan to Baghdad.

If the dream of Kurdish independence was quashed in Iraq, it still lingered in Syria, where the Kurds there took advantage of the war that’s ravaged that country since 2011 to impose a regional autonomy in 2012 known as Rojava. A key element of Rojava was the creation of the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, as the de facto armed forces of the Kurdish political entity. While ostensibly a Syrian entity, Rojava has a parallel function as an expatriate front of the PKK, with its political arm, the Democratic Union Party, or PYD, serving as little more than the Syrian affiliate of the PKK.

Turkey has expressed dissatisfaction with the creation of Rojava and the formation of the YPG, rightly recognizing that there was nothing to distinguish them from the PKK, which it views as a terrorist organization. Turkey’s anti-Rojava animus was held in check by the expansion of ISIS in 2014 and the role played by the YPG in combatting the terrorist group. The United States made common cause with the YPG in the larger war against ISIS but, recognizing Turkey’s sensitivities, had that organization rebrand itself as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). This rebranding fooled no one. Turkey views the SDF—and rightly so—as nothing more than a front for the YPG/PKK.

The American embrace of the SDF was always a temporary solution to the problem of ISIS. The United States never has supported a greater Kurdish nation. And while there’s been much lip service to the idea of using the SDF as a vehicle to destabilize the government of Bashar al-Assad, regime change has never been seriously pursued by the United States in Syria. Today there is widespread recognition that, following the intervention of Russia in 2015, Assad is here to stay.

Trump’s decision to withdraw American forces from the Syrian border zone makes perfect sense: it avoids a damaging conflict with Turkey, a strategic NATO ally, and sidesteps a potential major power confrontation with Russia. This was always in the cards, since the United States was never a guarantor of the Syrian Kurds’ objective of autonomy. But the precipitous way that the American redeployment was announced, and the fact that it was done void of any coordination with either the Kurds or other U.S. regional allies, sets the stage for more geopolitical chaos in a region already wracked by conflict.

The United States and Syria

America Doesn’t Belong in Syria

The war hawks will whine but we’ve been there long enough and must honor our commitments to Turkey.

A poster of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad hangs in front of a shop in the old city of Damascus. By serkan senturk/shutterstock

When Syria tragically collapsed into brutal civil war in 2011, Americans had two contending reactions. One was to stay the hell out since there was little they could do other than offer aid to relieve suffering. The other was to intervene big time in order to transform the Middle East.

Naturally, the president, leading congressional Republicans and Democrats, and virtually the entire foreign policy community chose the second option. Never mind American interests, public opinion, fiscal responsibility, practical capabilities, and common sense. It was Washington’s job to reorder the world. What could possibly go wrong?

Without seeking congressional approval, the Obama administration embarked on a multi-faceted campaign: oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who had not attacked or threatened America; find, train, and empower moderate insurgents to create a liberal democracy in Syria; use radical extremists, such as al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra, against really radical extremists, such as the Islamic State; expel Iranian forces, even though they represented a government with far more at stake in the conflict than America and had been welcomed by Damascus; convince Moscow, a Cold War ally of Syria, to advance Washington’s agenda; employ Syrian Kurds to act as America’s shock troops against ISIS; persuade Turkey, which profited greatly from the illicit ISIS oil trade, to combat the Islamic State; pacify Turkey while arming Syrian Kurds, which Ankara viewed as an existential threat; and occupy sovereign Syrian territory until the foregoing objectives had been achieved.

It was the plan of a madman—or an arrogant, officious, ignorant social engineer with no understanding of human nature, the Middle East, or America. Predictably, the result was almost complete failure. The Islamic State was at least defeated, but it was also opposed by Syria, Iraq, Iran, Jordan, Israel, Russia, European governments, the Gulf States, and America. Just some of those countries could have done the job, yet they had little need to contribute much once Washington had taken responsibility.

In spite of all that, today, Assad is still in power, and aided by the Iranians and Russians. There were never many moderates and democrats, and they never had much chance of winning. Most of the insurgents, radical and more radical, are gone, courtesy the Syrian military, other than around the city of Idlib. Ankara has occupied and ethnically cleansed Kurdish territory in northern Syria and is preparing to seize more borderlands containing Kurds.

Until recently, around 1,000 American military personnel had been left in Syria, stationed among Kurdish forces that occupy around a third of Syrian territory. The occupying Americans’ job, explained Washington policymakers, was unchanged: oust Assad, bring democracy to Syria, get rid of the Iranians, bring sense to the Russians, and, until Sunday anyway, stop the Turks from harming the Kurds. Washington’s ambitions remained ever fantastic even as after its means shrank to near nothingness.

Moreover, the mission remains entirely illegal, without congressional or international warrant. On his own authority, the president entered a foreign war, occupied a foreign country, dismembered a foreign nation, established a foreign security commitment, and threatened war against a foreign government along with its long-time foreign allies. This is the sort of behavior that the British king engaged in, which the nation’s founders sought to curb by placing the power to declare war in congressional hands.

Of course, there remains much to criticize about the president’s decision to move U.S. forces away from the border and presumably exit entirely. Even when he does the right thing, he usually does so for the wrong reason and in the wrong way. Still, his previous efforts to end U.S. participation in Afghanistan and Syria generated frenzied opposition from the war hawks who dominate Congress and even his own staff. Again and again he gave in to those prophesying doom if the smallest deployment anywhere was curtailed to the slightest degree. Perhaps the only way he can set policy is by acting without warning, essentially by fait accompli.

None of the arguments for remaining in Syria are serious, let alone persuasive. Wishing for a different result does not a viable alternative make. By means more foul than fair, Assad has won: no minuscule American military presence is going to oust him, force him to hold fair elections, or make him send home the Iranians and Russians who sustained him. Even a vastly expanded American commitment wouldn’t achieve what eight years of civil war failed to do. And there is no popular or political will for such an effort.

The U.S. military is not the only force standing between Americans and a globe-spanning ISIS empire. Every Middle Eastern country is threatened by the Islamic State, and each of them has a greater interest than the U.S. in ensuring that the group does not again metastasize. Indeed, an expanded Syrian military presence in areas occupied but not populated by Kurds—currently opposed by Washington—would create an important barrier to an Islamic State revival.

The greatest outrage against the president’s decision is over his leaving the Kurdish autonomous region of Rojava vulnerable to Turkish attack. Yet the Kurds had good reason for battling the Islamic State, which threatened them as well. Washington did not force them to act and provided them with aid, arms, and protection. Nothing entitled the Kurds to a permanent American security guarantee, especially protection from neighboring Turkey, an American ally.

Moreover, the Kurds had little reason to believe in America’s sponsorship. In the 1970s, Washington worked with Iran’s Shah to use them against Iraq, before abandoning them. In 2017, Kurdistan held an ill-advised independence referendum, and the Trump administration unhesitatingly backed Baghdad—which closed the airspace over Erbil and forcibly reclaimed non-Kurdish areas, including Kirkuk and nearby oil fields.

Nor should anyone confuse a potential Kurdish homeland with liberal, democratic, and moderate values. The Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, in Turkey, is no friend of the West. Kurdistan is a family-run state. The Syrian Kurdish movement is neo-Marxist and linked to the PKK. The U.S. can, and should, have sympathy for the Kurdish people and work with their authorities when appropriate. But Washington should act without starry-eyed illusions. Ankara’s concerns are overblown and its treatment of the Kurds at home and abroad has been outrageously brutish, but neither do Kurdish politicians win medals for humanitarianism.

As for issues of credibility, it is far worse to needlessly risk lives and resources to fight an unnecessary and foolish war than to walk away from a bad promise or deal. No one will judge America’s willingness to defend against existential threats by its willingness to sustain a marginal wartime commitment that generates few benefits. Virtually all great powers put their own peoples and interests first, as assorted American allies and friends have learned to their detriment over the years.

More important, but lost in the analysis, is the fact that Turkey, a member of America’s premier military alliance and treaty ally of almost 68 years, has a higher claim to credibility than the Kurds. Discomfort with Ankara notwithstanding—a good case can be made for expelling the Islamist, repressive Erdogan regime from NATO—as of today, Turkey remains an alliance member in good standing and Washington remains committed to that government’s defense. If the U.S. won’t prioritize Ankara’s security claims, what nation can rely on Washington? If credibility is the issue, then Turkey wins any dispute with the Kurds.

Perhaps the most dangerous attitude in Washington is the certainty that today’s policymakers can succeed where yesterday’s policymakers failed. Consider Uncle Sam’s disastrous record in foreign civil wars. Ronald Reagan’s greatest mistake was taking the U.S. into the Lebanese Civil War, with its more than a score of contending factions. Americans are still fighting in Afghanistan, 18 years after joining an internecine conflict that had begun years before.

The U.S. and Europe intervened in Libya’s civil war, and after eight years of combat and chaos, featuring the rise of ISIS and the murders of Egyptian Copts, fighting continues. More than four years of American backing for Saudi and Emirati depredations in Yemen have yielded tens of thousand of civilian casualties, horrendous famines and epidemics, and increasing attacks on the Saudi homeland, with no end in sight.

Then there is Syria. As that conflict raged, Samantha Power, one of the chief advocates of promiscuous military intervention, complained that war supporters were being held accountable for their previous blunders, especially in Iraq: “I think there is too much of, ‘Oh, look, this is what intervention has wrought’…one has to be careful about overdrawing lessons.” How unfair: destroy a nation, in the process empowering Islamist radicals and terrorists, wrecking minority religious communities, and triggering conflict that kills hundreds of thousands, and people are less inclined to listen to you. Is there no justice?

Imagine what American foreign policy might look like if officials were judged on the results of their actions. Who in power today could withstand scrutiny? Whatever would they do in Washington?

These are the people who are most upset over President Trump’s apparent decision to bring home U.S. forces from Syria. He should ignore the carping. He promised to stop the endless wars. Syria would be a good place to start putting America and Americans first.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan. He is the author of Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World and co-author of The Korean Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relations with North and South Korea.

Winning Iran

Please, Mr. President, We Don’t Want To Win Anymore

Donald Trump at the UN (lev radin via Shutterstock)

by Derek Davison

We’re going to win. We’re going to win so much. We’re going to win at trade, we’re going to win at the border. We’re going to win so much, you’re going to be so sick and tired of winning, you’re going to come to me and go “Please, please, we can’t win anymore.” You’ve heard this one. You’ll say “Please, Mr. President, we beg you sir, we don’t want to win anymore. It’s too much. It’s not fair to everybody else.” And I’m going to say “I’m sorry, but we’re going to keep winning, winning, winning, We’re going to make America great again.”

That was reality TV star-turned-presidential candidate Donald Trump, speaking at a campaign rally in Billings, Montana, in May 2016. Having now survived over two years of Trump’s presidency—which still seems at times more like another TV series than real life—we have a pretty good sense of what “winning” looks like with him at the helm, and there’s really only one thing to say:

Please, Mr. President, we beg you sir, we don’t want to win anymore. It’s too much. You’re going to get us all killed.

Perhaps that’s hyperbolic. After all, for as much as he’s blustered about U.S. military might and as much as he’s bungled U.S. foreign policy since taking office, Trump seems to have assessed (correctly) that he will pay a heavy political price in the event of a full-blown military conflict and has tried to avoid one.

Of the multiple overseas crises Trump has manufactured or helped manufacture in a bit over half a term in office, the only one that really risked the loss of a great number of U.S. lives was his 2017 dust-up with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. That multi-episode arc saw our protagonist threaten with “fire and fury” a state that would in short order test both a thermonuclear bomb and an intercontinental ballistic missile, but the danger was averted after Kim sent Trump the first in a series of “beautiful letters” and the two leaders held the first-ever (and first of three so far) summit between a North Korean leader and a U.S. president.

Winning So Much

But the thing about being president of the United States, a nation with pretensions to global hegemony that spends as much on its military as the next seven countries combined, is that your actions don’t just affect the people of the United States, and your wars—if you start any—don’t just harm the United States. And in the Middle East, a region that wasn’t especially stable before he came to office, Trump has driven all concerned to the brink of war. It’s a war nobody seems to want—least of all Trump himself—but one that edges ever closer as the president and this season’s antagonist, Iran, continue raising the stakes.

Let’s be clear about one thing. Although it is the September 14 attack against Saudi oil facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais—claimed by Yemen’s Houthi rebels but widely presumed, whether directly or via proxies, to have been an Iranian operation—that has the Middle East on edge at the moment. No matter what’s happened since or what comes next, the Trump administration fired the first shots in this conflict. Trump’s decision last year to violate the 2015 Iran nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA) and impose crippling economic sanctions against Iran got this ball rolling. Because the United States has the power—through its effective control of international financial networks—to levy penalties against foreign, as well as U.S., individuals and companies for trading with Iran, the administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign amounts to an economic blockade. And an economic blockade is, under international law, an act of war.

The effect of the campaign is also akin to war. Missiles may not be striking Iranian cities, and U.S. soldiers may not be landing on Iranian beaches—yet—the Iranian people are suffering nevertheless, for lack of basic human needs like medicine and food. The Trump administration continues to insist that its sanctions are not meant to apply to such humanitarian goods, but their practical effect has been to block the sort of financing that Iranian importers would need in order to pay for the importation of critical items. And despite repeated warnings about the impact of its sanctions on the Iranian people, the administration continues—seemingly with malicious intent—to make it harder for them to survive.

Sick and Tired of Winning

What have the Trump administration’s punitive measures wrought? In a recent Foreign Policy article, Ilan Goldenberg and Kaleigh Thomas from the Center for a New American Security declared Trump’s Iran policy to be a “failure.” But the more salient question is: what Iran policy? Going all the way back to the days of candidate Trump, what has he ever said or done with respect to Iran that’s constituted a definable goal, let alone a coherent plan for achieving it?

The one thing candidate Trump seemed to know about Iran was that Barack Obama had negotiated the JCPOA and that the JCPOA was bad. Why was it bad? As far as it was possible to tell, Trump’s main objection was that it had been negotiated by Obama. He never displayed any grasp of the deal’s substance, and, on those occasions when he tried to explain the deal, he invariably got the details seriously wrong. But it was the “worst deal ever negotiated,” he was sure of that, and “dismantling” it would be his “number-one priority.” Trump would “revise” the agreement, his advisers said, after “negotiating” either with Iran directly or with the multilateral group that had negotiated the original deal.

Then Trump took office, and…did nothing. His path toward renegotiating it was closed off because the other five parties to the accord—Iran above all—had no interest in reopening what had been a grueling negotiations process simply to appease the new U.S. president. There’s no indication that it ever even crossed Trump’s mind that he might be the only one interested in talking, and so, for the first 16 months of his administration, Trump chafed against the deal but left it grudgingly in place.

Then, in early May 2018, after appointing ultra-Iran hawk, John Bolton as his national security adviser, Trump took the step that, more than anything else, has led us to the present moment: he pulled the U.S. out of the JCPOA and reimposed sanctions against Iran. Indeed, the Trump administration has gone further than the Obama administration ever dared in terms of the degree to which it has closed off virtually all Iranian economic activity, driving its oil exports nearly to zero and, crucially, designating the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization. Since the IRGC is a government institution and plays a considerable role in the Iranian economy—an artifact of the Obama-era sanctions regime—that designation has given the administration the latitude to essentially criminalize the Iranian government and vast swathes of the Iranian economy.

The administration has taken these steps in violation of U.S. obligations under the JCPOA and against the positions of virtually the entire international community—Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain excepted. It’s little wonder that virtually nobody in Iran still sees much value in remaining in the JCPOA, nor do they have much faith that the U.S. can be trusted to keep its word under any similar agreement moving forward.

It’s been over 16 months since Trump announced that he was running the JCPOA through the White House shredder, and still his aim in doing so remains unclear.

Was it to force Iran to capitulate? That certainly seemed to be the intent behind Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s list of 12—later 13—“demands” to which the Iranians were supposed to capitulate simply to open the door to new talks with the U.S. More recently, however, the administration has been practically tripping over itself to insist that it wants to talk with Iranian leaders with “no preconditions.”

Was the aim, then, simply to bring the Iranians back to the table to negotiate a new deal—either an augmented nuclear accord or something broader? Because the Iranians have been offering the possibility of new talks, provided the United States returns to the JCPOA and resumes upholding its obligations under the deal. They’ve even suggested that they’d be willing to negotiate a deal that goes beyond the scope of the JCPOA, provided the U.S. “pays more” for it. But the Trump administration clearly isn’t happy with those offers.

Was the goal to weaken Iran? To make Tehran retreat from its involvement in regional affairs and ultimately contain its foreign policy? In that case then, the policy has been a clear and total failure, and that’s without including the recent strikes in Saudi Arabia—assuming Iran really was responsible for those.

Was the intent to so badly immiserate the Iranian people that they would rise up as one and overthrow their government? Because the pressure campaign is striking out there as well.

Winning, Winning, Winning

The truth is that the Trump administration’s Iran policy has achieved none of these possible goals, and yet there’s no sign it’s considering a course correction. Which means one of two things: either it has another goal in mind, or it has no goal in mind.

The obvious assumption is that the maximum pressure campaign is meant to provoke a war with Iran. But, despite surrounding himself with long-standing advocates for such a war (Pompeo, his now-former National Security Advisor Bolton, and hanger-on Rudy Giuliani to name but three); outsourcing much of his Middle East policy to Iran foes Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates; and accepting considerable financial support from Iran war advocate Sheldon Adelson, Trump himself continues to insist that he doesn’t want a military conflict.

So, then, what does he want, and how does he imagine that staying the course on a dismally failed policy will achieve it? Whether intentional or not, what now seems clear is that the maximum pressure campaign is both means and end. Cruelty has become the goal. And this isn’t just true with respect to Iran. In case after case—from North Korea to the Palestinian people to Venezuela to the southern U.S. border and inside the U.S. itself—the Trump administration has adopted policies marked by what can at best be described as callous indifference to the tremendous suffering it has caused.

Is that ultimately Trump’s objective? Simply to inflict as much misery on as many people as possible while he’s in office? Or is that the unintentional effect of electing a president who has no goals, or at least no idea how to accomplish them?

Amid this wanton cruelty, Trump seems not to have realized that the pain he inflicts brings consequences, and one of those consequences can be retaliation. As a wounded animal may lash out in self-defense, so too may a country straining under international isolation, to make its adversaries feel some of its pain and raise the costs for those who continue to maintain that isolation. Iran is lashing out now. Every time it does, and every time the United States responds by tightening its sanctions regime just a little more, the Persian Gulf moves closer to war. A war that, to reiterate, nobody wants–least of all Trump himself.

The one positive thing that can be said about Donald Trump’s foreign policy is that for all of its cruelty, all of its inconsistency, all of the chaos it’s created, he hasn’t started a full-scale war yet. But the haphazard mess that is Trump’s Iran policy now threatens to breach even that low bar. The president may not want a war, but unless he changes course quickly, war may be what he gets.

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DEREK DAVISON

Derek Davison is the editor of LobeLog and an analyst covering U.S. foreign policy and international affairs. His writing has appeared at LobeLog, Jacobin, and Foreign Policy in Focus. He has Master’s degrees in Middle East Studies and Near Eastern Civilizations from the University of Chicago and in Public Policy from Carnegie Mellon University.