In his most recent book, Directorate S: The CIA and America's Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the American journalist Steve Coll offers a valuable take on a bad American habit. He shows Washington's tendency to enter conflicts according to a narrow agenda, only to find itself caught up in wider regional struggles for power that help undermine its objectives.
In 2001, the Bush administration invaded Afghanistan in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks against the United States. While the campaign had a straightforward anti-terrorism purpose, to eradicate Al Qaeda, soon the Americans found themselves at the centre of complex regional rivalries, as Pakistan, Iran, Russia and India all had stakes in what happened. Coll takes readers through this nest of vipers, but judging from the behaviour of the Obama and Trump administrations in Syria, US policymakers haven't learned the lesson.
There too, the US came to the conflict with a limited objective, namely to defeat ISIL. As Syria fell apart and the war there turned into a major regional conflagration, the Americans stubbornly stuck to their anti-terrorism playbook, seemingly oblivious to developments all around them and to the fact that their presence was affecting the balance between other actors involved in Syria.
For example, their main allies against ISIL, the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party and its military arm, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), were alarming neighbouring Turkey, give their close ties to the Kurdistan Workers Party, which Ankara considers a terrorist organisation. Even when YPG-dominated forces crossed the Euphrates heading west, the United States did nothing to prevent an act certain to provoke a crisis with Turkey.
There was something compulsive here: an America ignoring the context all around to pursue a single-minded obsession. Judging from the Trump’s administration’s approach to Syria, we may be falling into that pattern again.
Take Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's remarks in mid-January, when he announced that America would retain an open-ended military presence in Syria. He outlined five US goals: defeating ISIL and Al Qaeda, securing a UN-brokered settlement that would lead to the exit of Bashar Al Assad, curbing Iran's influence, returning Syrian refugees, and eliminating the remaining chemical weapons in Syria.
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In other words Mr Tillerson presented a comprehensive, cohesive plan of action in Syria and beyond, one that took not only local imperatives into consideration, but also offered a vision of America's regional role. His remarks represented a change from the minimalism of the Obama administration, and from that of his own boss, Donald Trump.
Yet, since then, Mr Trump has contradicted his secretary of state. In a press conference with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in late February, Mr Trump said, “We’re [in Syria] for one reason: to get [ISIL] and get rid of [ISIL] and to go home.” In other words Mr Tillerson’s remarks, which surely must have been reviewed by someone at the White House, were made to look like no more that the secretary’s own personal opinion.
It could be that Mr Tillerson and Mr Trump’s national security team pay scant attention to what the president says on foreign policy. But that is hardly reassuring. If the administration is planning to do what Mr Tillerson said it would, it needs the president on its side.
However, an equally worrying interpretation is that Mr Trump is falling back on that familiar US habit of engaging in tunnel vision. Syria is only important because of ISIL, and whatever takes place outside that box is of no concern to me, the president could be saying. In that, Mr Trump could be channelling his predecessor Barack Obama, though he would never admit it.
The comparison should come as no surprise. Mr Obama also did not have a well-integrated regional strategy. He had priorities: to sign a nuclear accord with Iran and defeat ISIL. However, he never looked at the big picture in order to curtail a regional backlash against his actions, just as Mr Trump seems indifferent to how the anti-ISIL campaign affects countries around Syria. Yet doing so would have allowed Mr Obama to better secure Arab approval for the nuclear deal, while Mr Trump could have averted a damaging confrontation with Turkey in northern Syria.
There are many pitfalls in a one-track-mind approach, not least that it brings out the Americans' tendency to pursue their own priorities while ignoring those of others. This allowed Mr Obama to stand by while the slaughter in Syria continued, and it explains why Mr Trump is replicating that shameful behaviour.
But if there is one cautionary tale that best shows the need to understand and adapt to context in foreign policy interventions, it is Afghanistan. Now, more than 16 years after the United States invaded the country to get rid of Al Qaeda, its forces are still there, trapped. America first cannot mean to hell with everybody else.