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6 November

America’s fast-depreciating handshake

On Trump’s transactional approach to politics

On February 15, 1991, American President George Bush Sr. made an appeal on Voice of America radio to Iraqi citizens: “There is another way for the bloodshed to stop: and that is, for the Iraqi military and the Iraqi people to take matters into their own hands and force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside and then comply with the United Nations' resolutions and rejoin the family of peace-loving nations.”  Two of Iraq’s largest groups heeded the call and rose up in bloody rebellions: the Shia in the South and the Kurds in the North. Though the rebel forces initially claimed successes on the battlefield, occupying several population centers, Saddam Hussein’s army began to gain the upper hand thanks to its indiscriminateshelling of both the rebel units and civilians. Tens of thousands perished, and over a million Kurds became refugees. Under orders to stand down, the American troops did not intervene, staying put across Iraq’s southern border, in Kuwait.

 

As the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman put it,Mr. Bush never supported the Kurdish and Shiite rebellions against Mr. Hussein or, for that matter, any democracy movement in Iraq” because Saddam’s iron fist simultaneously held Iraq together, much to the satisfaction of the American allies Turkey and Saudi Arabia.”

 

By the count of leading regional experts, the UShas betrayed the Kurds at least “8 times over the past 100 years.” And now, capping this ignominious record, for the 8th time, comes Donald Trump with his decision to pull out of Syria’s northern Rojava enclave, populated largely by ethnic Kurds. The very Kurds who have been at the forefront of America’s clandestine war against the Syrian butcher Bashar al-Assad, and, subsequently, the fight with ISIS. The very Kurds who are now facing the prospect of imminent and indiscriminateslaughter at the hands of their Turkish arch-enemies. The decision apparently followed Trump’s conversation with his Turkish counterpart, President Erdogan, and seems to have been made without any consultation with the Pentagon, Trump’s military advisers or members of Congress. 

 

Paul Krugman, the Nobel-prize-winning economist encapsulated the policy establishment’s bewilderment with Trump’s decision on his Twitter, providing a tongue-in-cheek multiple-choice list of possible reasons: 

 

(a) He has business interests in Turkey

(b) Erdogan, being a brutal autocrat, is his kind of guy

(c) His boss Vladimir Putin told him to

 

Whatever Trump’s motivation for the decision was (whether he is bowing to the isolationist wing of his supporters or, as usual, playing politics of distraction, in order to deflect attention from the Ukraine scandal, which I believe may be the reason), Trump, “in his great and unmatched wisdom,” as he characterized his decision-making on Twitter, has just driven another nail in the coffin of America’s credibility on the world stage. 

 

Throughout his presidency, Trump has not only betrayed the expectations of his supporters that he would become “more presidential” after he settles in to his new role, but indeed has doubled down on his cynical and transactional approach to politics. No areas of government have been unaffected by his banana-republic-style transactionality, including graft on the part of cabinet members, tax breaks for rich cronies, and the Trump family selling political access to power by luring foreigners to buy, rent or stay at its properties, including the Trump hotel a few blocks down from the White House.  

 

Likewise, matters of national interest, such as security, diplomacy and economy, have been victims of Trump’s quid pro quo way of doing things — the Latin expression roughly meaning “something in exchange of something,” which millions of Americans have now learned as a result of Trump’s now legendary, historical phone conversation with the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Contrary to Trump’s insistence that he had a “perfect conversation” with his Ukrainian counterpart, and that there was “nothing to see there,” he comes across rather like an Italian mafia capo “asking” his foot soldier a “favor” in return for protection. “It would be a shame if something happened to all these pretty millions we give you” is Don Trump’s clear message to his minion.

 

Trump’s other motivation seems to have been to undermine the legacy of his predecessor, President Barak Obama, apparently just “for the hell of it” and to look like a leader following his own “great and unmatched wisdom.” This includes abrogating the nuclear deal with Iran, which has been successful in the opinion of America’s European allies, or cancelling the NAFTA treaty with Canada and Mexico, subsequently to slightly tweak and repackage it. Not to mention Trump’s tariff war on China, which (the war) is doing serious damage to American farmers, his constant disparagement of America’s traditional NATO allies and his conspicuous cozying-up to the world’s “who’s who” list of authoritarian strongmen: Putins, Dutertes, Erdogans, and Kim Jong-uns.  

 

It is hard to match the succinctness of Trump’s former envoy in the anti-ISIS operation, Brett McGurk, who, when commenting on Trump’s decision to abandon the Syrian Kurds, said:  The value of an American handshake is depreciating”. Now that Ukraine has become embroiled in a major scandal that may well lead to Trump’s impeachment, it is incumbent on Ukraine’s President to heed this message and not to play into his American colleague’s depreciated, perfidious hands. 

 

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