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The Noose of Betrayal

Why letting friends and allies down tarnishes your credibility

By Nick J. Danby, Contributing Opinion Writer
Nick J. Danby ’20 is a History concentrator in Kirkland House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

Last fall, I fought with one of my blockmates over our rooming situation. Initially, our blocking group decided to have two common rooms where one would be the actual “common room” and the other was split amongst myself and another roommate as a bedroom.

When I returned to campus, I thought the bigger room should become the bedroom, since people would actually live there. One of my blockmates, who used the designated common room far more than I did, fervently disagreed. On our first day back, a shouting match erupted. Another roommate, who I consider one of my closest friends, was in the room listening. When I asked him if he agreed with me, he demurred. He had no position on the matter.

I was furious. Not with the roommate who I had gotten into an argument with, but with my best friend, who had removed himself from a fight I ended up losing. At the time, I had been reminded of a Martin Luther King, Jr. quote, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” That same quote has been ringing in my head since U.S. President Donald J. Trump decided to withdraw American troops from Syria’s northern border with Turkey. Trump’s decision ultimately cleared the way for a Turkish invasion of land belonging to the Kurds, a key American ally in the fight against the Islamic State, or ISIS.

Compared to my own infinitesimal fight, I can only imagine the anguish, anger, and betrayal the Kurds must feel toward the United States. Unfortunately, their plight has already faded from the headlines. Turkey continues to fight the Kurds despite an ongoing ceasefire, but people are already moving on to the next story — they must not. The Kurds’ story needs to be told as it continues to evolve and as the damaging consequences for future American foreign policy are realized.

The Turkish invasion that followed American withdrawal has already killed “scores of civilians and hundreds of combatants” while driving “300,000 people from their homes.” It has also destroyed the truce in northern Syria and given an opportunity for ISIS to resurge.

All that, however, pales in significance to the betrayal.

In the coalition to defeat ISIS, Kurdish forces fought with American soldiers to defeat the caliphate. As noted in the Economist, “the superpower had fused its matchless intelligence-gathering with a local ally to drive out the world’s worst terrorists at a relatively modest cost in blood and treasure” — and with success, I might add.

That success has been reversed. More importantly, American credibility has been upended. The Kurds were good friends and good allies. Former Central Intelligence Agency Director and General David H. Petraeus noted that when he visited northern Iraq, the Kurds would say that their “‘only friends are the mountains.’” Petraeus told them, “‘No, no, no. You have the Americans.’” Not anymore.

Some commentators are not surprised that Trump betrayed the Kurds, since “[b]etrayal is a leitmotif for the president’s entire life.” Perhaps they are right. Trump’s desire to betray the Kurds should come as no surprise. The surprise, then, is that the rest of the American government did nothing to delay Trump’s decision or protect the Kurds.

Senator Lindsey O. Graham (R-SC) can try to earn “Profiles in Courage” points by saying the Kurds have been “shamelessly abandoned by the Trump administration” — but talk is cheap. Graham, and everyone else in the Republican Party or the bureaucracy, who lukewarmly condemned Trump on this issue, did nothing to thwart this decision. And, if their response is that they could not do anything, maybe that should warn us about the “imperial presidency” that influences American foreign policy.

Regardless, the damage is done. If you want to begin hypothesizing about the magnitude of the repercussions, look to Thucydides’ “The History of the Peloponnesian War.”

During the famous Melian Dialogue, the Athenians give the Melians an ultimatum: surrender to Athens or be destroyed. Among other things, the Melians argue that they will not surrender because the Athenians’ rival, the Spartans, “are bound, if only for very shame, to come to the aid of their kindred,” the Melians. The Athenians replied, that “when their own interests or their country’s laws are in question,” the Spartans “are the worthiest men alive” but they consider “what is agreeable honorable, and what is expedient just. Such a way of thinking does not promise much for the safety which you now unreasonably count upon.” Sound familiar?

The Athenians were right. When they laid siege to Melos, the self-interested Spartans were nowhere to be found — and the Melians paid for it. Throughout the rest of the war, during the Peace of Nicias and Battle of Mantinea, Spartan’s allies began to distrust the Spartan commitment and turned against the superpower — weakening its strategic position.

As the U.S. demonstrates that it does not value loyalty, its rivals (Russia and China) will feel more emboldened to annex or bully America’s allies because they know the U.S. will not come to the rescue. Our own allies, in Europe or Asia, may also soon realize that Americans are not the best of friends or the worst of enemies. They are fickle and unreliable — an American commitment becomes as useless as a sunroom on a submarine.

Nick J. Danby ’20 is a History concentrator in Kirkland House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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