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Trump Doesn’t Always Get It Wrong on the Middle East

Must one talk of Donald Trump? One must and not just because of the power of his position as US president, but because the nature of his foreign policy is misunderstood.

I was answering questions about the future of the Middle East at a meeting of Independent subscribers last Tuesday evening when there was a predictable question about the impact of Trump on the region.

I had the impression, perhaps unfairly, that the person who made this very reasonable and important query was expecting a reply that would be a blend of denunciation and derision.

This is usually the automatic reaction to all Trump foreign policy initiatives by the media across the world as soon as they read his latest tweet. It does not matter if the subject is Canada or Afghanistan, the reaction is one of instant condemnation and often this response is more than justified – but not always.

The exceptions are important but Trump does not get credit for them because of the knee-jerk hostility which rules out any possibility that Trump may be right and his vast array of critics wrong.

North Korea, Russia and Syria are good examples of the positive side of Trump foreign policy, however unorthodox its expression.

He may not have got as far as he wanted through talks with Kim Jong-un, but war in the Korean peninsula is certainly less likely than it was in pre-Trump times. Any contact between Trump and Vladimir Putin is portrayed by most news outlets as a hideous act of betrayal of the west. But Russia has a nuclear arsenal capable of blowing up the world several times over, so it is surely unwise to refuse to talk to, and treat as a pariah, the Russian leader who could press the nuclear button?

Trump’s sudden decision in December to pull US troops out of Syria was condemned by everybody from the most liberal Democrats to the most belligerent Republicans. They all jumped on to their moral high horses, but none proffered an alternative policy and happily pretended that the status quo was sustainable – though it is not.

The US is a bit player in Syria where the Kurdish-led forces it backs have largely defeated Isis. “Oh no they haven’t,” shouts the Washington foreign policy establishment, but Isis used to rule eight million people in a powerful state stretching from the outskirts of Baghdad to the Mediterranean. It now controls only part of a single small town, Hajin, in the depths of eastern Syria. The jihadis are never going to run up the white flag, but if this is not defeat it is something very close to it.

Other US objectives in Syria, such as curtailing Iranian influence and weakening Bashar al-Assad, are not attainable and are simply an excuse for continuing a war of extraordinary ferocity and destructiveness. The Washington establishment, which is itself a child of the Cold War against the Soviet Union, seems quite happy to contemplate this and denounces Trump for breaking the logjam.

What is needed is for the US, as it withdraws, to keep Turkey from launching an onslaught against the Syrian Kurds, and this can only be done – if it is to be done at all – by allowing the Kurds to do a deal with Damascus and for Syrian troops to return to the Syrian-Turkish border.

It may not turn out that way, but Trump’s approach is more realistic than those who dismiss it as dangerous idiocy. For all his verbal belligerency, Trump is a genuine isolationist who has yet to start a war anywhere. It is an achievement not to be underrated.

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Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

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