Trump's alarming contempt for the Middle East

In his comments on Syria and Afghanistan, the US president has demeaned his office

Syrian scouts tour the Roman Theatre at Bosra, a World Heritage Site, south of Sweida, in the Daraa province on November 23, 2018.  / AFP / Maher AL MOUNES
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To describe Syria as a land of nothing but "sand and death" is such a contemptuous mischaracterisation that anyone voicing it could normally be dismissed as a fool. But when such words are uttered by the US president, the world must react with alarm and despair. Syria is the cradle in which much of human history was nurtured. There, great city states left their mark on the landscape. The ruins of Tell Brak, Mari, Ebla, Palmyra, and the ancient port of Ugarit all bear witness to the passing of great empires, from the Hittites, Assyrians and Babylonians to the Persians, Greeks and Romans. Of this, President Trump appears ignorant. Instead, he weighs the value of such a place on a much cruder scale.

The decision to pull US troops out of Syria is a policy U-turn that has prompted widespread concern. Syria is to be abandoned to the ambitions of Russia, Iran and Turkey. Dangerous non-state actors are also eager to exploit the vacuum. Now Mr Trump has sought to justify the US disengagement because he regards Syria as a land that, because it lacks "vast wealth", is of no interest. It is clear that the reality TV host and author of The Art of the Deal is a man incapable of viewing complex international relations through anything but the grimy lens of commerce.

Mr Trump also held forth on the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, which he praised as a righteous response to entirely fictional Afghan terror attacks on Russia. If he ever knew, he also appeared to have forgotten that America armed and funded Russia's opponents during that war. This is a man who only last year described developing nations as "s***holes". He knows the price of everything, but the value of nothing, and his ignorance of history is breathtaking.

Mr Trump is correct in his view that the US should hang up its badge as the world’s sheriff. America forced itself upon the Middle East after 9/11 with chaotic and tragic consequences. The past two decades are evidence enough that it is time for the Arab world to start solving its own problems, without outside interference. But, having barged in, it would be irresponsible for the US suddenly to withdraw before Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq are fully able to stand again on their own feet. Until then, it must hold the line, resisting the obvious ambitions of other powers, most notably Russia, to take its place. The fate of Syria and the wider region is not a deal to be struck in the boardroom of Trump Towers. Neither is it the subject of a gameshow in which contestants must vie for the host’s approval. This is the real world, with real lives at stake, and President Trump must respect the responsibilities of his great office.