Donald Trump’s “America first”

US President Donald Trump might be resorting to a course correction attempt on his country’s trajectory by saying that the US could not continue to be a policeman to the world. Trump said so on 26 December, 2018 while addressing the US troops during his visit to Iraq. The statement – or at least the intent – reeks of the Monroe doctrine, embodying isolationism.

By the end of 2018, one point became clear. In 2019, the US would not only withdraw its forces from the conflict zones of Syria and Afghanistan but it would also insulate itself from its southern neighbor, Mexico. Whereas the Monroe doctrine – named after US President James Monroe – owned the whole of the American continent in 1823 as the legitimate overseeing domain of the US, Trump’s anticipated self-isolation is meant for reducing the size of the oversight to the US only.

On 19 December, 2018, when Trump tweeted that the US was pulling 2000 US troops out of Syria, his statement took many by surprise. Trump also claimed that the withdrawal would fulfill the election campaign agenda and that ISIS had been defeated. His announcement effectively countered the pro-imperialist image of the US. Dissenters such as the defence secretary, James Mattis, and the Islamic State expert, Brett McGurk, had to resign in opposition, as post-statement casualties.

In the wake of the announcement, two challenges emerged. First, how to protect the Kurds from the chemical weapon attacks from the regime of Bashar-al Assad on the one hand, and from the bombing attacks of Turkey on the other hand. In April 2017 and in April 2018, in the wake of chemical attacks on the Kurds, the US launched retaliatory strikes against the military installation of the Assad regime. Further, the US put Turkey on notice in case it attacked the Kurds. The protection of the Kurds was an extension of the US mandate meant for curbing the advance of Islamic State. With the arrival of US troops in Syria, the Kurds earned the byproduct of security against both chemical bombing and the cross-border bombing. After the departure of the US troops, the Kurds would be the most vulnerable community in Syria. The US officials have being trying to placate the Kurds by offering them the possibility of arming. The Kurds, however, know that their arming can offer them a shield neither from chemical weapons nor from the border bombing. The strengthening of the ground forces of the Kurds cannot protect them from air strikes.

Trump has announced a grace period of 120 days to initiate the withdrawal of the US troops from Syria and that gradually. Further, the withdrawal would not be absolute rather some troops would be left at a key military outpost, al-Tanf, in southern Syria to check Iranian activity. This is another dimension of the Syrian conflict. The announcement of withdrawal has unleashed ripples of uncertainty hitting neighbouring countries including both Iran and Israel. Nevertheless, it is expected that the major beneficiary of the post-withdrawal scenario would be Iran. It is also surmised that the wave of instability would hit Israel harder than it would strike Turkey or Iran. The turf war between Israel and Iran may start in Syria. The fear is that Israel may resort to air strikes against the groups supported by Iran in Syria. The consequent conflict may engulf Syria. The US has envisioned a solution to this problem in leaving some surveillance troops in southern Syria.

More awkward is the position of Russia, which had presumed that it was a counterbalancing force in Syria specially, and the Middle East generally, against the US. Russian entered Syria in September 2015. Now, Russia is left in the lurch, stay or leave. Persisting with the Bashar-al Assad regime would bring the Russian forces into direct conflict with those of Islamic State. Vacating Syria, however, would mean that Russian forces also sounded the death knell for the Assad regime. This is the third dimension of the ongoing conflict in Syria. The US has offered no solution to this aspect of the crisis.

Before Syria becomes a hotbed of terrorism to threaten somehow the mainland US, Syria will have to experience implosion under its own weight. A surge is the internecine conflict is expected. By instinct, the armed group would tend to fill the vacuum through their power. Moreover, before any ensuing civil war in Syria could threaten the US mainland, the conflict is bound to affect Europe including Great Britain and France. It would be like reinventing the Suez Canal crisis of 1956, but this time for the entrance of European powers at the cost of the exclusion of the US.

In Afghanistan, the US is promoting an intra-Afghan political settlement by opening the doors of government to the Taliban sub-groups ready for doing two things: first, to establish peace in Afghanistan; and second, to deny any space to terrorists launching an attack on other countries. Both the US and Europe are not ready to offer leeway for Afghanistan to participate in international terrorism. The US intends to leave Afghanistan by gradual withdrawal of its forces totaling 7,000 troops spanning one and a half years. NATO also intends to follow the same pattern of withdrawal. The single major problem, however, is that the US has been trying to envision the intra-Afghan peace on constitutional and democratic terms, whereas the Taliban tend to envisage the same on their own contrived terms of governance bordering on orthodoxy and despotism. [The Taliban have pulled out of US-Taliban talks. Ed]

On 8 January, 2019, from the Oval Office, Trump addressed his nation and presented his case for the expansion of the wall on the southern border with Mexico on certain grounds such as inflow of criminal gangs and illicit drugs with the help of immigrants including women and children. The central focus was on prospective immigrants crossing over the southern border. During his election campaign, to fetch votes from white middle-class Americans, Trump reviled immigrants generally because of two reasons. First, they were mounting a demographic burden endangering country’s financial health. Second, they were a conduit for terrorists, Islamic militants, jeopardizing the country’s national security. Though the arrival of immigrants to the US has been reduced from 1.6 million in 2000 to one-third of a million in 2018, Trump wants to ensure further reduction. He has asked Democrats to allocate funds amounting to 5.7 billion dollars to expand the US-Mexico wall.

In short, the journey of “America First” has started from Syria. Not Iraq but Afghanistan will be the next destination. The last station of the itinerary will be the US-Mexico border.