Why Trump’s Abandonment of Syrian Kurds Is An Ominous Sign for U.S. Allies

US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi argues with President Donald Trump in a photo Trump released on Twitter. Photo: Twitter

The scene inside the White House Cabinet Room, by the looks of the photo released by President Trump via Twitter, was fraught with tension. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was on her feet and pointing at an incredulously looking Trump, mouth agape, chair pushed back from the table. His advisers, mostly heads down looking at their hands, could feel the storm. Pelosi reportedly said, “all roads seem to lead to Putin.” Sometime thereafter the Democratic Representatives stormed out of the room.

Trump’s sudden, impulsive decision to withdraw U.S. troops from northern Syria, where they had been fighting side-by-side with Kurds for years to defeat the terrorist group the Islamic State (ISIS), sparked this epic face-off. An estimated eleven thousand Kurds died for that cause. And here was Trump leaving them to be slaughtered by incoming Turkish forces and their allied militias.

In a press conference that followed, Pelosi questioned Trump’s mental fitness describing his demeanor as a meltdown. Trump fired back with the sophistication of a kindergartner that no it was Pelosi who had the meltdown. So much for executive messaging coming out of the White House these days.

This abandonment of the Kurds and Trump’s apoplectic retorts, are an ominous sign that highly volatile US foreign policy could easily spill over to other parts of the world including Asia. 

In defense of his pullback Trump tweeted that Turkey and Syria should handle the conflict themselves because the US is “7,000 miles away.” US allies Japan and South Korea must be taking note. They are, after all, about 7,000 miles away from Washington D.C. too.

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Trump’s erratic decision making comes at a uniquely precarious moment as North Korea’s Kim Jong-un threatens action of some sort. Most likely he’ll restart nuclear tests if he does not get the Washington attention he craves by the end of the year. 

So far Trump has accommodated Pyongyang, including two long-distance flights to meet Kim in Singapore and Vietnam and cancelling joint US-South Korea military drills. His unpredictable dealmaking instincts were restrained by his then hardline National Security Adviser John Bolton. He no longer serves at the pleasure of the President. New National Security Adviser Robert C. O’Brien will likely play a much less dominant role than his predecessor.

How much longer will Trump stay the course on the US goal of denuclearization despite the threat these weapons pose for Tokyo and Seoul? At this point nothing can be taken for granted in an administration priding itself on the “unconventional” and the leadership style of a self-proclaimed man of “great and unmatched wisdom” who claims he is smarter than all of his generals.

The range of possibilities that might upend decades of US policy in Asia staggers the mind. Trump could unilaterally declare an end to hostilities with North Korea without getting anything in return. He could decide to pull a large contingent of US troops out of South Korea, declaring he’s bringing them home from a forever “war” on the peninsula so far from US shores. No President has done that since the Korean War.

Trump could suddenly decide to reduce the Seventh Fleet’s freedom of navigation operations through the South China Sea as some sort of quid pro quo to get China’s dirt on former Vice President Biden and his son Hunter. In the alternate universe of Trumplandia anything is possible.

The consequences of his unpredictable thinking are already on full display. Japan’s military budget has hit historic highs and is expected to rise nearly five times to US $240 billion in 2023 from US $47 billion in 2018. The increase, fueled mostly by security concerns over China and North Korea, speak to a new abnormal, that the US may not be counted on if Trump remains in office for a second term.

China, of course, would like nothing better than a US pull back, if not an altogether removal from the region, but Beijing can’t celebrate too quickly. Mutual defense treaties that govern US troop and military support for South Korea, Japan, and the Philippines limit any drastic reversals in policy.

Congress erupted with condemnation from both Republicans and Democrats in a powerful vote criticizing the President over his troop pullback form Syria. That forced Trump to backpedal with a warning that he could ”destroy” Turkey’s economy if their military incursion, which he let happen, goes too far.

Any dramatic upheaval in Asia policy would certainly provoke similar ire among legislators on Capitol Hill. He desperately needs the support of Republican Senators to fight a Democrat-led impeachment process.

That doesn’t mean Trump won’t try something just short of politically catastrophic. As he careens from one ill-informed pronouncement to the next it becomes ever more clear that he has no grand strategy. The White House is in the throes of an extremely chaotic and unprincipled phase of this presidency. 

US allies in Asia will need to be prepared for more of the unhinged, unhealthy, or worse. Their relationship with the US Congress is now more important than ever.

This op-ed originally appeared here on the SCMP website 10/24/19

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Hong Kong Protestors Can’t Count on Trump

Illustration: Craig Stephens

This op-ed originally appeared on the SCMP website, 9/16/19.

Every social movement needs its symbols. They rally people to a shared cause and challenge the status quo. During recent Hong Kong protests, the umbrella and gas mask, immortalised in a modern version of Tiananmen Square’s Lady Liberty statue, have served that purpose well. As thousands of demonstrators converged on the US consulate in Hong Kong recently, a new symbol rose as protesters waved the US flag and held signs that called on President Donald Trump to “liberate” Hong Kong from China’s control.

Several prominent demonstrators are even heading to Washington to advocate their cause. The US House of Representatives is considering legislation to thwart any increased Chinese intervention with sanctions and by eliminating trade preferences.

There was a time when an appeal for help like this would resonate in the White House too, but not now, and certainly not with this administration. The US role in Asia is changing, driven both by countries in the region and a Trump Asia policy that vacillates between somnolence and incoherence.

At its core, the US presence in Asia has largely been a welcome and natural counter to China’s growing influence and North Korea’s militarism. When it comes to threats of war, no other military can counter these threats.

But across the region, there is a notable and opposite trend gaining traction – a more unilateral approach to dealing with problems as Trump willingly abdicates the traditional US role of arbiter of disputes and balancer of powers.

Take North Korea, which continues missile testing with impunity. Neither Tokyo nor Seoul has cooperated with each other to create a unified approach to counter Pyongyang’s aggressiveness. Instead, both are engaged in a low-intensity trade battle with each other, which now affects their shared national security.

Seoul has recently severed an intelligence-sharing agreement with Tokyo that makes coordinated action against regional threats, aka North Korea, more difficult. This came in response to Japan cutting off critical exports to South Korean electronics firms and the removal of some preferential trade treatment.

Trump, meanwhile, was more inclined to meet the Taliban at Camp David (later cancelled) than bring Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Moon Jae-in together over the issue. His bromance with the North’s Kim Jong-un also sends a potent message: if you have a problem with North Korea, other than nuclear weapons, then maybe you should settle it yourself.

South Korea’s relationship with the US is also changing, albeit mostly at the edges. Seoul has pushed for, and Washington has agreed, to accelerate the return of 26 US military bases.

While the consolidation is nothing new – South Korean troops took over most duties along the demilitarised zone with North Korea over a decade ago – the turnover tracks with both Blue House and White House preferences for a less overt US presence on the peninsula.

Back in Washington, Trump’s unceremonious tweet-firing of John Bolton as national security adviser eliminated one of the last proponents of hawkish US foreign policy from the White House. Trump now has his dream team of anti-interventionists and eager appeasers on Russia, China and North Korea strategic issues. The trade war with China is a notable exception.

Granted, Bolton’s version of US engagement was perversely extreme. He advocated for a first-strike against Pyongyang and was shoving for a war with Iran. Now, however, Trump’s worst foreign policy instincts, including another useless meeting with Pyongyang, are free to further unwind traditional regional cooperation.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor certainly won’t miss Bolton’s hawkish approach. She continues to warn against any outside interference. This hews closely to Beijing’s political red line and the propagandists’ view that violent protests were the result of foreign “black hands.” That’s an easy conspiracy theory to sell with the stars and stripes flying over the crowds in Central.

Trump’s response to the most recent calls for intervention in Hong Kong’s unrest was neither swift nor resolute – he didn’t bother to comment. During previous Hong Kong police violence, he only spoke out when Washington’s political backlash became too strong to ignore.

That’s not because the idea of freedom is no longer a core US value, but the era of engaged US-Asia diplomacy has withered under Trump. At least for the next 16 months, there’s little to suggest a change of course outside the most forcing issues of the day.

The weakening Asia embrace does have its limits. Talk of a broader “decoupling” of the US and Chinese economies has been largely overstated. Trump pushes the limits then moves to keep relations from spiralling out of control. That includes staying out of mainland China’s politics, including issues of human rights and the forced detention of the Uygur population in Western China.

Countries throughout Asia also still want a counterbalance to China’s growing influence. That translates into continued US freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, multilateral training exercises and military sales to Taiwan. Beyond egregious violence by China or North Korea, Trump has shown little interest in other issues.

As the Trump administration continues dismantling its engagement, preferring short-term gains over longer-term strategy, Asia will inevitably adapt to rely less and less on the US.

The Hong Kong protesters should be under no illusions. The White House might offer platitudes about a peaceful resolution if forced by political circumstance, but official administration support probably won’t last for long.

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