Bret Stephens’ American Fantasy

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

“Goodbye, America. Goodbye, Freedom Man,” laments Bret Stephens in the October 11 New York Times. The conservative columnist was reacting to President Donald Trump’s abandonment of Syria’s Kurds. On October 5, after a telephone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Trump ordered US forces back from the Syrian border with Turkey. Trump’s action put out the WELCOME mat for a Turkish incursion (to which Turkey has given the mocking appellation “Operation Peace Spring”) which began on October 9. Turkey’s objective is the ethnic cleansing of the reason in order to repatriate Syrian refugees presently in Turkey. By Friday, the UN estimated that 100,000 civilians had fled advancing Turkish forces. Turkey has already killed dozens of Kurds, including Kurdish prisoners.

Stephens, a conservative “Never Trumper,” is right to call out the US betrayal of the Kurds. He is right that Trump’s decision will strengthen Syrian despot Bashar al-Assad. For the past five years, the Kurds have maintained semi-autonomy from Damascus. On Monday, units from Assad’s Syrian Arab Army were headed north after the Kurds cut a deal with their enemy in Damascus to protect them from their enemy Turkey. The deal requires the Kurds to hand over the border towns of Manbij and Kobane to Assad. Expect more Kurdish concessions to Assad to follow.

Stephens and others have predicted that US withdrawal from Syria will lead to the resurgence of the Islamic State. They are almost certainly correct. President Trump has called the Islamic State beaten, a statement as laughably premature as President George W. Bush’s May 1, 2003 declaration of “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq. Thanks in large measure to Kurdish forces, the Islamic State has lost the territory it held in Iraq and Syria, but it is not defeated. The thousands of Islamic State prisoners taken by the Kurds may soon be back in circulation; 750 of them have already escaped in the chaos produced by the Turkish advance. Trump on Monday accused the Kurds of deliberately releasing Islamic State prisoners in order to draw the US back into Syria.

Stephens’ Imaginary American Past

Stephens, however, is wrong to think that Trump’s abandonment of the Kurds is unprecedented. For Stephens, placing our Kurdish allies in harm’s way marks a radical break with America’s past exemplary conduct abroad. The US used to stand by its allies, Stephens declares. Trump has turned the US into a “fair-weather friend: “there for you when, and only when, it’s convenient for them.”

Does Bret Stephens know anything about US history? This is not the first time the US has betrayed the Kurds. When the Kurds of Iraq voted for independence in 2017, they were immediately invaded by Iranian militias and the forces of Iraq’s central government in Baghdad. The US and the Western democracies who had been full of praise for the Kurds up till that point, did nothing.

Going back farther, Dave Lindorff writes that “The US promise of an autonomous Kurdish state in northern Iraq, held out during the Iraq War and subsequent troubled occupation of that country by US forces, was forgotten as the US left Iraq.”

In 1988, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons to kill between 3,200 and 5,000 Kurdish resistance fighters. The US did not even impose sanctions. The US would later point to Saddam’s use of gas as one justification for its 2003 invasion of Iraq. By the way, Saddam purchased his chemical weapons from the US.

The US has also betrayed other allies. The US promised the Philippines and Cuba that they would be independent after the defeat of Spain in the 1898 Spanish-American War. The US reneged on its promise to the Filipinos, instead waging a bloody, three-year-long war. The war saw the introduction of a precursor of waterboarding, the so-called “water cure,” in which US troops poured water down the throat of a Filipino prisoner until he burst. The war culminated in US annexation of the Philippines. The US allowed Cuba nominal independence, but the Platt Amendment which the US inserted in the Cuban Constitution gave the US the right to intervene on the island at any time.

The US did nothing to halt the Soviet invasions of Hungary in 1956 or Czechoslovakia in 1968. It stood with Pakistan during Pakistan’s invasion of Bangladesh, up till then Pakistan’s East Wing, in 1971. The US did nothing to prevent the genocides of the 1990s in Rwanda and Bosnia. The Clinton Administration refused even to apply the word “genocide” to Rwanda because that would have obligated the US to intervene under the Genocide Convention.

But the US does not always ignore mass slaughter. Sometimes we enable it. The US lends essential logistical and intelligence support to Saudi Arabia’s genocidal war on the people of Yemen. Yemen puts the lie to Trump’s declared opposition to “endless wars.”

You’d think Bret Stephens would be at least familiar with the conception of the US as unfaithful ally. The American Right has its own roster of US betrayals (usually committed under Democratic presidents). In 1949 the US “lost” China thanks to Alger Hiss and that Commie General George Marshall. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy deserted anti-Castro rebels at the Bay of Pigs. In the 1970s, the US betrayed the government of South Vietnam and the Shah of Iran. Those examples will inspire eye-rolling in the reality-oriented, but their place in right-wing mythology means a conservative like Stephens should know the US sometimes betrays its allies Instead, Stephens thinks this never happened before Trump.

If Stephens is wrong in regarding the US as historically a positive force on the world stage, most Americans are wrong in the same way. Americans see our role in the world (if they think about the matter at all) in the same misty-eyed way Stephens does when he invokes “the idealism that stormed Normandy, fed Europe, democratized Japan, and kept West Berlin free….” (I find it fascinating that anyone who wants to prove how noble the US is has to reach back seventy years or so. They usually throw in the Marshall Plan, too.) Don’t tell us about the unpleasant things America has done in other countries. To paraphrase a line from Inherit the Wind, we do not think about what we do not think about. Thus has it ever been in what Gore Vidal dubbed “the United States of Amnesia.”

Charles Pierson is a lawyer and a member of the Pittsburgh Anti-Drone Warfare Coalition. E-mail him at