Pompeo Bolton G20
Credit: U.S. Department of State/Flickr

Back in December, our wise and noble president was on a phone call with Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the likely president-for-life of Turkey. Erdogan reportedly entered into a long, garrulous litany of all the complex problems that American forces and their Kurdish allies were causing him. There’s no transcript of the phone call available, but here’s a condensed version of what Erdogan might’ve tried to relay to his American counterpart:

Turkey and Syria have historically been regional rivals–they nearly went to war in 1998. But early in Erdogan’s presidency he made amends with Bashar al-Assad. The two enjoyed a peaceful and economically vibrant friendship when the Arab Spring occurred in Syria. Erdogan was, understandably, reluctant to back Assad’s would-be ouster: he had worked hard to build the relationship, and if he were to back a failed revolution, he’d be stuck with a very pissed off dictator next door. By 2011, the civil war worsened. Erdogan believed that Assad wouldn’t last long, and he finally publicly called for Assad to step down. Things obviously didn’t turn out that way. In the intervening years a few things happened concurrently: Assad held on to power; Erdogan conducted a long and ultimately successful political campaign against Turkey’s Republican institutions (including fomenting paranoia about a deep state!) to secure his own power, which included reigniting the country’s nationalist hostility toward Kurds, who are steadfast American allies despite numerous past betrayals; ISIS became the strongest military force in Syria, after Assad’s military, and the most likely one to oust Assad; and the Kurds–who have created the last, best hope of a Middle Eastern secular democracyentered the fray on the side of U.S.-backed democratic insurgents. Erdogan desperately wanted Assad either gone or severely weakened, and he definitely did not want Kurdish militias holding territory in northern Syria. Therefore, he implicitly and explicitly backed the only force that would combat both: Islamic State. That he also backed other militias that combated Islamic State was little more than to provide himself some political cover, and to placate the rest of NATO.

Erdogan, of course, would never admit that last part to a U.S. president. Instead, he reportedly gave Trump his “word” that Turkey could take up America’s campaign against ISIS. Trump, with his proven track record of being incapable of following complex situations that are presented to him by world leaders, and apparently exhausted and irritated by Erdogan’s long diatribe, folded like a wet toupee: “OK, it’s all yours. We are done.” Trump declared ISIS defeated and said the U.S. was fully withdrawing from Syria. He listed no conditions for withdrawal.

Former Defense Secretary James Mattis tried and failed to reverse Trump’s decision. Then last Sunday, John Bolton tried to add conditions to Trump’s mandate, to the point of nearly countermanding the president.

At last, final and conclusive proof that the deep state is real and it involves officials at the highest levels of government! Erdogan responded with the predictable vitriol and even a New York Times op-ed. But when it comes to Syria and our Kurdish allies, a rough but overall useful policy axiom should be the following: if the Turks hate it, we’re doing something right.     

But on Thursday, just hours before the military officially began the process of withdrawing its 2,000 troops from Syria, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave a speech in Cairo titled “A Force for Good: America Reinvigorated in the Middle East.” Pompeo dressed it as a bold address that would lay out America’s new and improved Middle East policy. But early into the speech it became readily apparent that it targeted an audience of only one.

As Pompeo told it, America’s new and improved Middle East policy is … not Obama’s. In fact, it’s definitely not Obama’s! Trump’s predecessor “was absent too much” in the region and timid in asserting” American strength. It was under him that we learned that, “when America retreats, chaos often follows.” 

Pompeo’s grammar may have been better, his vocabulary slightly more elevated, but the essentials of his speech were nothing different from Trump’s campaign rhetoric. This was obviously by design. It was Pompeo’s way of making a last plea with Trump without endangering his standing with him. But for how much longer will Pompeo value his standing with a president who almost exactly resembles the GOP’s caricature of his predecessor?

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Joshua Alvarez is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal. He edits syndicated opinion columns at the Washington Post, and can be reached at joshuaalvarezmail@gmail.com.