WOTR Podcast: Mayhem and Misadventures in the Middle East


The Middle East is the region that keeps on giving, and taking away. How has the American approach to the use of force evolved in Syria and Iraq? And what is the relationship between U.S. politics and these policies? How is Turkey preparing for the possible withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria? What is Iraq’s view of the region’s conflicts? Is the Trump administration really taking the fight to Iran somehow? What of other great powers interests? Our guests tackle these questions and many more. We were joined — over drinks of course — by Doug Ollivant of New America and Mantid International,* Elizabeth Saunders of Georgetown University, and Nicholas Danforth of the Bipartisan Policy Center.




Nicholas: Hello, I’m Nicholas Danforth. I’m a fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

Elizabeth: I’m Elizabeth Saunders. I’m an associate professor at the Georgetown Security Studies Program.

Doug: I’m Doug Ollivant. I’m a senior fellow at New America and a managing partner at Mantid International.

Ryan: The great thing about the Middle East is it’s the gift that keeps on giving. There’s always interesting stuff to talk about. War on the Rocks listeners and readers will have followed these on-again, off-again relationship with a military withdrawal from Syria. It’s not entirely clear how that policy is shaping up. Nick, Turkey was obviously a key player in this. Reportedly, President Erdogan of Turkey was on the phone with Trump and trying to say, “You guys should just leave and let us handle what’s happening,” and Trump’s like, “Great, we’ll do it.” It didn’t quite happen that way, but how did Turkey react to … Was this an expected concession or did it really catch them off guard?

Nicholas: I think they got more than they had bargained for when Trump ceded to their requests so suddenly. They’d been not just asking the United States to withdraw troops from Syria, but actually threatening to conduct a military operation that would’ve put U.S. troops at risk, really amping up the pressure in order to get the U.S. to leave. The problem is from Turkey’s point of view, of course, they were concerned about having the U.S. in northern Syria backing a Kurdish statelet. The fear was that when the U.S. withdrew that suddenly then the Kurds would turn to Russia, would turn to the Assad regime, and Turkey would still be faced with a Kurdish statelet. It would just now be under Damascus’ support and it would have Russia essentially giving it a no-fly zone against Turkey. So the challenge for Turkey after the U.S. announced its withdrawal was to figure out if it could reach an arrangement with Washington to actually get U.S. support for some kind of increased military presence, a buffer zone perhaps, against the Kurds in Syria. Those debates are ongoing, as I’m sure we’ll discuss further.

Ryan: How is Turkey balancing its line to Moscow with its line to Washington on this, because Russia is a not-unimportant player in how this all shakes out.

Nicholas: Well, that’s the problem. Essentially the one common interest that Iran, Russia, and Turkey all had in Syria was getting the United States to leave. That was one of the bases of the Astana process, which all three powers were eager to tout as a sign of their new post-American relationship in the Middle East. The challenge again for Turkey is that once America leaves, suddenly they’re face-to-face with Russia and Iran, and if Russia and Iran are not eager to have Turkish forces in Syria, that puts Turkey in a difficult situation. The United States has actually removed Turkey’s common ground with Russia by leaving.

Ryan: Liz, before we started recording, you hinted at some new polling data that revealed how Trump’s base is reacting to all these decisions. Could you break that down for us?

Elizabeth: I think it’s really interesting because Trump has been touting that he is doing what he campaigned on, which, it is true that that his desire not to do these boots on the ground military interventions is very much one of the few really strong beliefs that he had before he came into office. He’s been consistent about this. But it’s not clear that’s actually what his base elected him to do. My colleague Michael Tesler, who’s, like me, an editor at the Monkey Cage blog at The Washington Post, had a great piece in early January where he looked at polling data from the primary and more recently. If you look at the primary polls and you look at who the most supportive of using military force, it’s overwhelmingly the Trump voters vis-a-vis the supporters of other Republican candidates in the Republican primary.

Elizabeth: They’re more hawkish. That makes a lot of sense because if you think of who the Trump voter is, it’s, to use Walter Russell Mead’s characterization, the Jacksonian types, the ones who are the more willing to use military … They’re not always more willing to use force, but once you get into a war, they want to stay and fight. These are not the people that you would imagine being supportive of necessarily pulling out of an ongoing war. It’s not clear that Trump’s base was really the motivating force behind this policy move. It was really Trump himself. It’s not that surprising that now compared to those who voted for Hillary Clinton, those voters are now very supportive of pulling out of Syria. Why? Because their president is the one making that policy move. What does that tell us? It reminds us, once again, that people don’t vote on foreign policy and national security, it just isn’t really the motivating issue.

Elizabeth: They voted for Trump for other reasons and now they’ve adopted his policy positions as their own, and there’s a wealth of evidence about this in political science across many different types of issues. People don’t base votes on issues, and they tend to follow their leaders. I think we should be skeptical of claims … It is true that as of this moment, the majority … This is actually a relatively popular policy of Trump’s, but it’s not the case that the impetus for it necessarily came from his base.

Ryan: This might be a bit of a rabbit hole, but do you think this means that we really shouldn’t pay attention to what polls of what the American people think about foreign policy? Or rather that leaders shouldn’t pay attention to these polls when they’re making their decisions? Or if they do pay attention to these polls, it’s kind of a waste of time?

Elizabeth: Yeah. If we go down this road, we might be here all day.

Ryan: We’ve got a lot of whiskey.

Elizabeth: Well, this is a subject near and dear to my heart. I think that the way to think about this is that signals from leaders and elites have to be received and processed by voters, but in order for that to make sense, we have to think about what voters’ predispositions are and what signals they’re receiving from elites. Most voters just don’t spend a lot of time thinking about these issues. When you see a poll that says, “30 percent of people support the Iran deal versus some other policy in Iran,” or pick a policy, any policy, if it hasn’t been in the news much lately, those answers are probably not super firm. People don’t have very firm, strongly held opinions. Once-

Ryan: Yeah, and they probably couldn’t give a two-sentence explanation on what the Iran deal is.

Elizabeth: Precisely. I should emphasize, there’s nothing normatively wrong with that. We’re all busy people. The three of us are here to talk about policy in the Middle East and the politics of foreign policy, but if you asked us here to talk about the intricacies of health care policy, the War on the Rocks readership should ask for its money back. I couldn’t tell you anything about that, and that’s fine. It’s called comparative advantage, whatever you want to call it. Specialization.

Ryan: That’s very kind of you. There’s that old quote that war is God’s way of teaching Americans geography.

Nicholas: Well, that’s worth saying about Syria, that thankfully so far there haven’t been high casualties from the U.S. forces. There are a small number of people there, so it’s easier for this to go under most Americans’ radar.

Elizabeth: Yeah. But it’s also remarkable, there is also a tremendous amount of evidence that even larger wars, voters are actually following the cues that they see from elites. So when elites in Washington are united and the signals are all trucking in the same direction, most people will follow the government line. This is one reason why it took so long … In our minds, the protest in the Vietnam War and even the Iraq War broke out right away. It’s remarkable to go back and look at just how long it took for that resistance to kick in. It tracks pretty closely with when the elite consensus in Washington began to fracture.

Elizabeth: ’67, ’68, we can quibble about the exact date, but there were many, many years of war with a very strong elite consensus and in fact a public consensus behind it. Then when you get down to these smaller interventions that fly under the public’s radar screen, political leaders have even more room to maneuver. So it’s not that public opinion doesn’t matter. The way I think about is it’s a constraint that takes a lot of effort to kick in. It takes a while before it’s activated. That’s how my colleagues who work on American political behavior think about it. You have to activate it somehow.

Elizabeth: That requires sustained argument. Oversight in Congress does a lot to bring that into the news. It’s what pierces the bubble and gets onto the evening news, which is still a way that a lot of Americans consume their news. Congress’ withdrawal from the national security space has a number of consequences, and we can talk about whether we should or should not have a new authorization for military force, whether that’s likely or not, but short of that, just the fact that we don’t have that many oversight hearings about these issues just means there’s fewer new stories about potential problems with this military intervention or that operation. That again just contributes to the public thinking: “Okay, well, that’s a Washington thing. I don’t need to pay attention.” And that’s normal.

Ryan: I definitely want to return to that AUMF issue later. Doug, I’m really curious to understand better how elites in Iraq are thinking about the evolution of U.S. policy and the U.S. military presence in Syria. You spent a lot of time there. How is it being talked about? This is a country obviously that … There’s a lot of goodwill towards the United States for its role in helping them roll back the self-proclaimed Islamic State, but how do they view what’s happening in Syria?

Doug: I think that in some ways there’s commonality between the opinion of the Iraqis and the opinions of the American public. Syria, to my mind, is an issue on which there’s never been an elite consensus.

Elizabeth: I think that’s right.

Doug: I think that’s why there’s so much operating room on Syria. There are 2,000-plus U.S. troops, -ish, in Syria. I don’t recall the principals ever debating this. I don’t recall the minutes of an NSC meeting. I don’t think there’s ever been a galvanizing event that has forced U.S. elites to take a position on exactly what this policy is and what it means. I think frankly, that’s why the president had so much maneuver room to pull out of it. It was really interesting to watch the reaction in the aftermath on a host of levels.

Doug: As you pointed out, his base initially was hostile to this.  Certainly, the advisers closest to the president were extremely hostile to this, to the point of publicly contradicting the president several times until it became really clear that this was not stray voltage. This really was what the president intended to do. It scrambled D.C. politics. You had the center-left defense community, let’s say, that was extremely critical of his withdrawing even though, as I’m sure we’re going to talk about, there’s no AUMF … You can certainly stretch the AUMF to ISIS, arguably. Certainly we can agree there’s no AUMF to counter Iranian presence. There’s no AUMF to intervene between the Turks and the Kurds. This operation is illegal at a host of levels. I can remember a time when the center-left cared about such things, but they tended not to care about it in this case, so it really did scramble-

Ryan: They hate Trump more.

Doug: There’s that. It really did scramble the normal D.C. politics that we would see in a discussion of a small-scale intervention and withdrawal from it. In Iraq, to get back to your original question, they are watching Syria very closely. They are concerned about the spillover from Syria. We’re already getting reports that there are ISIS fighters moving down the Euphrates River Valley into Iraq, reinforcing the presence in Iraq. We are now hearing talk of Iraqi forces perhaps conducting interventions inside Syria. They’re in the unique position of usually having the authorization of the Assad regime to do that, which puts them in a different legal framework. That’s the advantage of having friends in the region. But I think they’re watching very closely, they’re concerned, and they’re concerned about American will.

Ryan: I want to touch on this pushing back against Iran narrative or containing Iran. This is one of the justifications, as many of our listeners know, that we keep hearing for why we need to keep U.S. forces in this small pocket of territory in Syria. It seems like there’s a magic eight ball of explanations for why we’re supposed to be in Syria. It’s like, “Oh, we’re there to protect the Kurds.” It’s, “Oh our allies, the Brits and the French, need more time to withdraw.” It’s like, “Oh, well, we need to have a seat at the table when it comes to post-civil war stuff.” It’s, “Oh, we need to push back against the Iranians.” “Oh, ISIS isn’t quite defeated.” It’s any and all of these depending on when the situation demands it politically, but the harder you press on each of these explanations, the more none of them — arguably except for the ISIS explanation, but even that — make a lot of sense for why you need a non-SOF troop presence, and even an on-the-ground permanent SOF presence, in Syria. What do you guys think about that?

Doug: The best explanation I heard of what we’ve seen is we’re essentially watching an NSC session in reverse.

Ryan: You worked on the National Security Council staff years ago.

Doug: I spent a year and a half there years ago. We have a presidential decision on Syria, and then in the wake of the presidential decision, we’re hearing all types of both major players inside and outside government start to articulate their rationale for why U.S. troops should or should not be there, but the decision’s already been made, or at least we have the appearance of a decision being made. We certainly have no-

Ryan: Although Bolton and Pompeo say, “Who knows?” Right?

Doug: Right. But since they’ve said, “Who knows,” we’ve had the president reiterate his position. So we think we’re there.

Elizabeth: I think the word you used is really apt, which is scrambling. The politics of this are somewhat scrambled in the sense that being in favor of a more hawkish position in Syria is an issue that cuts across the traditional party lines. I think back-

Ryan: In Washington.

Elizabeth: In Washington, yeah.

Ryan: Not in the rest of the country.

Elizabeth: Yeah. Well, but factions within the party. I do think that there are hawkish Democrats and there are more hawkish Republicans and there are those who want a more restrained policy in both parties. I do think that those divisions exist. Then there are how that maps onto the debate in Washington. But you said … I think it’s quite interesting, there’s never been a moment where elites have been asked to take a position in Washington on Syria policy.

Elizabeth: I think that’s right, they never actually did it. But there was a moment when they were asked to, and that was in August of 2013 when Barack Obama actually did ask Congress to vote on using airstrikes in Syria. We all remember this as a big surprise. We all thought he was going to come out on that … It was a Saturday, right? He was going to come to the Rose Garden and make an announcement that he’d already done the airstrikes, just like Trump did in April and then again the following April with some regularity. Instead he came out and said he was going to ask Congress for authorization, and the vote never happened. If you believe the reporting, everybody in Congress was thrilled that they didn’t actually have to come out and vote.

Elizabeth: I think that’s a really instructive episode because what it shows is, first of all, Congress does not like to vote on anything. They don’t want to vote. They don’t want to have votes that can be thrown back at them in a campaign later on. This is one reason, by the way, why I think we’re not going to see another AUMF even though you’re quite right that it’s been stretched beyond all recognition.

Ryan: Could you give our listeners, Elizabeth, a brief breakdown of the history of the 9/11 authorization for the use of military force?

Elizabeth: Yeah, so the authorization for the use of military force was originally intended to cover the intervention in Afghanistan. Iraq was sort of a separate thing politically, very much a distinct thing. But it’s subsequently been used to justify almost all of the U.S. presence in the Middle East and other operations in Syria, the two Trump airstrikes.

Elizabeth: There have been calls for a new authorization year after year after year and we haven’t seen them. This has been true when we had Barack Obama as president, obviously a Democrat and a Republican Congress, and we’ve seen it with Trump as president and now a Republican Congress and now a Democratic House. There are some serious people in Congress who work on this issue and are quite sincere that they would like to see a new AUMF. But I think the reason why you’re not going to see one is that the current situation suits everybody’s needs, politically speaking. The president gets to strike when he wants to. Congress gets to criticize if they don’t like the operation or they want to make political hay out of it because the president’s not of their party, they can criticize on procedural grounds, but not the substance.

Elizabeth: They can say, “I support the troops, I support the mission, I support counter-terrorism, but they should have asked me first.” That’s a convenient way to channel all the criticism into procedure without messing with any of the substance. Everybody goes home happy. You’d have to give Congress a really good reason to want to expend political capital and go on record with a vote to change that situation. Absent some sort of attack, I don’t see why the politics of that would change. I think with these different factions in Washington having their own reasons for either wanting to stay in or get out of Syria, no clear consensus, what you get is this very muddled policy and nobody going on the record and disavowing it. The only people who are really vocal are the ones who are quite invested in it one way or the other.

Ryan: The politics of all this are fascinating. There was some journalist that tweeted that the only people that are happy about Trump’s withdrawal are his hardcore supporters and the anti-war left. Being in neither one nor the other of those camps-

Elizabeth: His hardcore supporters who used to be more hawkish than any of the other voters. It’s a very strange bedfellows situation.

Nicholas: Can I just throw in, in defense of people who’ve been hopelessly scrambled by all this, because there were a lot of accusations and counter-accusations of hypocrisy going back and forth. I think it’s hard to separate people’s reaction to the decision from people’s reaction to the way the decision was made. I think there were a lot of people, count myself among them, who didn’t think the United States necessarily should’ve stayed there for all eternity, but thought the way they went about doing the withdrawal was a disaster.

Nicholas: Conversely, I think you had people who, in the abstract, would have liked to stay there, in the abstract would have liked to have the United States play a more active role in Syria. But, given the president’s vacillation, given the president’s desire to pull out at any time, given the uncertainty and the inability of our allies now to trust us, thought maybe it was better if at this point, after making a mess of it, we just got out.

Ryan: I don’t actually blame the president for this because here’s what I hear is happening. And it’s happening time and time again, and not just on Syria, is the president asks for options, real options, on how we draw down our presence in country X. And his advisers don’t give him those options. And they give him other options that they want.

Ryan: I won’t name names, certainly, but it’s the people in his administration who you would expect to be doing these things. Eventually, he gets frustrated, and he’s like, “Fuck it, we’re leaving.” So, I agree the process is broken, and anyone who follows me on Twitter knows I’m not a fan of the president, but this is not something we can blame on Trump in my opinion. Doug, I know you got-

Doug: The confusion you point out we saw, I think, in the resignations. If you read Gen. Mattis’ letter, his was very much a process foul letter. It really didn’t talk about the policy. It simply said that we owe it to the OIR coalition and NATO, respectively, in Syria and Afghanistan, to at least inform, if not consult with, or words to that effect.

Ryan: We were leaving them high and dry, the French and the British, on the withdrawal timeline in terms of getting their people out.

Doug: Right. He made a process argument. That at least is the hill that he chose to die on in his resignation letter.

Ryan: But it’s also about the value of alliances.

Doug: Right. Absolutely. All about alliances. Brett McGurk’s letter, his resignation, was all about policy. It was: “This is the wrong thing to be doing, and therefore I can no longer serve.” So, even among the principals and near principals in Syria policy, we see this split between process and policy.

Elizabeth: I think the thing to keep in mind too, though, is there has been a lot of debate about if you support pulling out, can you separate the broken process, and the decision by tweet, from the pullout. When I try to make sense of the Trump era, I’m constantly trying to separate out what you sometimes see called the marginal Trump effect. In a normal administration, even a messy administration, what would be normal and what’s not normal?

Elizabeth: To me, it’s the announcement by tweet, and it isn’t Twitter so much as just the lack of consultation or informing of anyone. He’s within his rights to call up Mattis and say: “I am doing this tomorrow. Prepare the ground, and call the allies.” Why should you care about it? There’s reasons to care about it that we can’t get into here, norms and civil-military and all that.

Elizabeth: But if you really believe we should be getting out of Syria, then you should want this to be done. There’s no guarantee we actually are going to get out of Syria. If he stops … This requires oversight. If he’s going to be pushing back against military resistance, then he’s got to keep on this. What evidence do we have that this is a president who would do that?

Ryan: Well, he’s not the only president, as you know better than most, that’s had trouble with pushing back against military preferences.

Elizabeth: Exactly. It’s very hard to push against military preferences. Presidents who have been far more engaged than this one is on these issues have tried and failed. To me, there’s the issue of oversight from Congress of the wars we’re in, but if you want to get out, that requires oversight too, to make sure we are actually getting out.

Doug: Pushback from the Pentagon is normal-

Elizabeth: Yes, absolutely. Yep.

Doug: Bureaucratic pushback. We’ve seen this with Bush and the Iraq War. We saw it with Obama and the fights over Afghanistan.

Elizabeth: Absolutely.

Doug: So this is normal. What is not normal is having a national security adviser out there publicly disagreeing with his principal. That is not normal. I worked in Bush’s NSC with Steve Hadley. It is unimaginable to me that Steve Hadley would ever go out and publicly display a disagreement with President George W. Bush. Even if he had them, and I don’t think they did, I think they had a mind meld, but he would certainly never have let that go public.

Doug: Because the whole point of the national security adviser is to force the foreign policy establishment to do the will of the president. That’s his whole [raison d’etre.00:00:23:35]  To show that you’re not synced with the president … If you’re the national security adviser, you’re not synced with the president, what are you doing? What’s your job description?

Elizabeth: There’s plenty of disagreements that go on behind the scenes, as you know far better than I would, but usually presidents have ways of making sure that their advisers go home happy. That’s the other problem with the decision by tweet.

Ryan: Is John Bolton capable of happiness? Interesting question.

Elizabeth: You keep asking these questions that would take hours and a lot more booze than what’s on this table to actually solve. But Trump is not doing the traditional things that presidents do to make sure that policies are implemented and everybody can hold hands and publicly back them. If you think back to the Iraq surge decision, trying to give the military, which was somewhat skeptical, some goodies to make sure it was okay and on board. Keep everybody inside the tent, so to speak. This is not a president who expends a lot of time doing that.

Elizabeth: He expects loyalty. He seems to tolerate a certain amount of freelancing by Bolton up until this point. The degree to which that’s been allowed is somewhat amazing to me. Disagreements are normal, as you say. Even leaked disagreements at lower levels, anonymous quotes, senior administration officials, that’s also normal. A resignation and protests at the level of Mattis is pretty abnormal. Two in one month, pretty abnormal. But resignations is the valve for which you … As you say, constant, open, public breaches are not normal.

Ryan: Nick, you’re leaving Washington tomorrow. This is actually the last podcast that Nick Danforth-

Nicholas: [crosstalk 00:25:20] That I will record in this city.

Ryan: In this country.

Nicholas: In this country for-

Ryan: For six months?

Nicholas: Let’s say.

Ryan: Or if you meet a nice Turkish girl, maybe forever.

Nicholas: It could be decades, sure.

Ryan: Could be, yeah. You’re leaving tomorrow for Istanbul. You did your Ph.D. here in Washington, but you’ve already spent quite a lot of time abroad. Do you think going away from Washington will give you some sort of new perspective on the foreign policy establishment?

Nicholas: That’s a good question.

Ryan: Think taking a break from it will clarify anything?

Nicholas: I guess getting back to our conversation earlier, leaving Washington and going somewhere else in the United States might actually be more instructive than going to Istanbul and talking to the same people who are involved in these conversations over on that side of the Atlantic.

Ryan: Say something profound.

Nicholas: I was going to say, I hope people notice I gave a profound look at that point in the conversation. No, I mean, you get a sense of how people in Turkey feel about the U.S. policymaking process right now. If I showed up in Turkey and found out that people secretly were harboring some profound love for America, that would be a rather dramatic takeaway. That’s not what I’m expecting.

Ryan: Well, it’d be a dramatic takeaway for the last … I mean you’re a historian of Turkey-

Nicholas: Last decades, last 50 years, right.

Ryan: What are your thoughts on the point we’re at with U.S.-Turkish relations?

Nicholas: You’ve mentioned that I wrote about the history of 1940s and ‘50s U.S.-Turkish relations for my Ph.D. That’s often thought of as the golden age. For the last 15 years, when people have been talking about how bad U.S.-Turkish relations have gotten, when people have been saying they’re the worst they’ve ever been, I always, as a historian, was forced to point out: “Oh, they’ve actually been pretty bad in the past. The golden age was never as good as we thought. We’ve gone through a lot of crises.” I’m finally at the point where I’m happy to say this is the worst they’ve ever been, in over half a century.

Ryan: Is it all about Erdogan? Or what are the agent versus structural explanations here?

Nicholas: When the Cold War ended, there were a lot of people who warned that with the threat of the Soviet union gone, there was going to be increased U.S.-Turkish tension in the alliance. It had always been under strain, and the shared strategic vision that enabled it to overcome that strain was going to be gone, so those strains would start to show. Things went well throughout the ‘90s, and so I think people were a little dismissive of those warnings.

Nicholas: But in the end, as crises have emerged, those could have been prescient. I think we’re also seeing in this also somewhat scrambled debate about the Syrian Kurds, the YPG, the PKK, call them what you will, evidence of where the end of the Cold War has also shaped things. The United States is now partnering with a formerly Marxist now-

Ryan: Formerly?

Nicholas: Formerly really Marxist, now Marxist-anarchist in some complicated way, organization. Their logo is still a giant red star. This actually hasn’t been that big a deal. Some people are upset about it. But during the ‘80s, because of the Cold War dynamic, the United States was firmly on Turkey’s side against Kurdish separatism.

Nicholas: With the end of the Cold War, with changing U.S. interests, with the United States working with the Kurds against Saddam Hussein, and now of course most dramatically in Syria, you suddenly had the Kurdish issue go from being a point of solidarity between the U.S. and Turkey to being something that drove them apart.

Nicholas: There is something fascinating, I will say … Since the early ’90s and the Kurdistan Regional Government’s quasi-independence, there’s profound paranoia in Turkey that the United States was conspiring with the Kurds to create an independent Kurdistan and tear Turkey apart.

Nicholas: As bizarre as these conspiracies were when the United States was working with Turkey against the Kurds, what’s really strange now is that we’ve actually come to a situation where this decades-long bizarre paranoid fantasy that Turkey had has come true.

Ryan: Well, we’re not conspiring to tear Turkey apart.

Nicholas: No, but we are working with a Kurdish organization that-

Elizabeth: But we have a deep state now.

Ryan: Are you trying to butter yourselves up to your host [crosstalk 00:00:29:33]. That’s a good point.

Nicholas: We’re working with a Kurdish organization that has fought for independence in Turkey.

Ryan: Yes, that is trying to tear Turkey apart.

Doug: Real quick on Turkey. I do think we’ve pulled back in the last few months. I would agree with you that, say, last summer U.S.-Turkish relations were at the lowest ever. We’ve since resolved the Pastor Brunson … There’s now talk about a Patriot missile sale that we will hope in some way can preempt the S-400 sale, although I think that’s delusional.

Nicholas: Right. Turkey said it’s still buying this S-400s.

Doug: It’s still buying the S-400s.

Ryan: Which is, for our listeners, a Russian air missile defense system.

Doug: A Russian missile defense system that we are very, very upset will compromise the integrity of both NATO air defenses and the stealthiness of many of our aircraft. But I do think we’ve pulled back a little bit. And in defense of the Turks, they do have some real grievances here. We are supporting a group that is at very least kissing cousins to a designated terrorist organization, the Syrian Kurdish YPD and its relationship to the PKK.

Doug: And the Turks did have an attempted coup two years ago, almost three years ago, in which several hundred supporters of Erdogan were killed. It was a real, if short-lived, threat to the state, and we did not seem to take it very seriously and side with the elected, if not very popular in Washington, elected-ish government of Turkey.

Elizabeth: I like that. Elected-ish.

Ryan: We were talking earlier about Syria and how there’s hawks on both sides of the aisle on this in Washington. We see a different dynamic towards a different military misadventure in Yemen, where the U.S. has played a big role in supporting the Saudis and the Emiratis to root out the Houthis while they’re also trying to fight AQAP, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Ryan: We’re seeing this building wave of bipartisan consensus that this is actually a bad idea and that the Saudis especially do not deserve our support. Elizabeth, how would you explain the politics of this, and how enough American politicians, enough American elites, came to care about what’s happening in Yemen, which is historically pretty rare.

Elizabeth: Yeah, it is very rare. I think, unfortunately, it’s the exception that proves the rule. One way to look at this is here’s Congress taking back its national security authority and it probably will not surprise you that that’s not what I think is happening here.

Elizabeth: You’re referring to a series of votes that began before the election, or after the election, in late November, early December, when Bob Corker was still running the Foreign Relations Committee, and in the wake of the details emerging about the killing of the Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, and evidence from the CIA and so forth. There were demands that Gina Haspel of the CIA come and testify in Congress. There were a series of votes rebuking President Trump’s war powers authority in Yemen. They were procedural votes. These are pretty toothless measures. But these things have been building, and it’s unusual.

Elizabeth: The question is what does it really mean? I think it’s more indicative of the administration’s handling of the episode, and its relationship with Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, more generally. This is not Congress … You would love to believe that this is-

Ryan: Mr. Bone Saw?

Elizabeth: Yeah, Mr. Bone Saw. You would love to believe that this is Congress suddenly realizing this is a humanitarian disaster and reasserting its oversight of presidential war powers. But it’s really that there were a number of people in Congress who were extremely upset about the administration’s handling of that episode, led by Lindsey Graham and Bob Corker, who are fairly hawkish.

Elizabeth: But Lindsey Graham has been deferential to Trump on many, many issues. Corker, much less so. But for them to come out and really rebuke the Trump administration’s policy — and in particular, when Mattis and Secretary of State Pompeo, went to testify — that only riled Congress up more because they came and tried to defend the Trump position that MBS was not responsible, in the wake of all this evidence that was coming out.

Elizabeth: Lindsey Graham said: “You send Haspel, or I’m holding up all Senate business. I don’t care what vote, what you need me for, votes to get out of town.” This is right before Christmas. So that’s very unusual. But I think we should see it in the context of the administration’s failure to craft its own policy and sell it to Congress.

Elizabeth: This all happened right around the time that George H.W. Bush passed away. And when you heard all the retrospectives about him, one episode that came to mind, for me, was his handling of Tiananmen Square, which is another case of a humanitarian crackdown. Leaving aside the normative implications of that, just from a “how to get your policy accomplished with the minimum of fuss-“

Ryan: If you say normative again on this podcast, you actually have to drink.

Elizabeth: The morality-

Ryan: I know you’re a political scientist, so you can’t help it.

Elizabeth: You’re talking about delicate issues here, so I’m not suggesting it was a good thing to try to smooth over and gloss over the moral implications of Tiananmen Square. But if you just think about an administration getting the policy it wants, clearly George H.W. Bush thought that this episode should not disrupt the trajectory of U.S.-China relations. He’d been envoy to China.

Elizabeth: He knew a lot about China. So he played a public bad cop, private good cop strategy. He said: “This is terrible. We’re sanctioning China in this way, and we’re cutting off these contacts.” And then he sent a secret mission to reassure the Chinese that if they went along, then this would blow over.

Elizabeth: You could easily imagine this happening in the case of Saudi Arabia. You say: “This is terrible. We hold MBS responsible. We’re going to sanction him this way. We’re not going to sell them these things.” And then privately, you send emissaries. If you had an ambassador sitting in Riyadh, that would have been helpful. That’s very helpful for the private good cop strategy. We didn’t name one until this all went sort of nuclear.

Ryan: They did the opposite of what you just described.

Elizabeth: Exactly. They sent Pompeo to play public good cop, which, those images of him smiling with MBS really backfired. It made Congress even madder. This is not how you make things blow over and keep the policy you want. Now, they still have the policy they want, but it’s become a lot more politically costly for them. I think that’s one reason you see this McConnell amendment on the Syria and Afghanistan pullout.

Elizabeth: It’s just made everybody more skeptical of the Trump administration’s national security policy. I say all this because I think it highlights how rare this is, because most presidents work very hard to prevent this from happening, to keep their freedom of action on these issues.

Ryan: One of the hallmarks of how the president likes to talk about his foreign policy is that he’s really tough on Iran, and he pulled out of that terrible, terrible JCPOA, the nuclear deal, and that he’s pushing back against Iran, and that he’s holding Iran to account. I’m not, as most people know, I’m not an Iran hawk. I supported the deal for all its flaws and think it was a mistake to leave it.

Ryan: But even if you are an Iran hawk, I think you have to be disappointed in the president. Because what is he actually doing? I think their Iran policy is just hot air. They’re not actually pushing back against the regime. They reinstated sanctions, sure. Pompeo gave a real tough-guy speech in California, but what are they actually doing?

Nicholas: I think that’s part of how we ended up … Why it looked like, I thought we were going to stay in Syria for longer, was because we were very eager to be tough on Iran. There was no obvious military way to do that. And so, keeping troops where we had them in northeastern Syria seemed like something we could seize on. Seemed like a default strategy to at least look like we were doing something to contain Iran. Now that we’re not even doing that, I-

Elizabeth: It’s almost as if the real reason he doesn’t like the JCPOA is because Obama negotiated it.

Ryan: Yes.

Elizabeth: And so, that’s the thing that explains all the inconsistencies. But you didn’t hear that from me.

Ryan: Elizabeth Saunders.

Nicholas: This is Chatham House rules, right? Nothing’s-

Ryan: But we also saw the president push back against his intelligence community, who said that Iran’s technically in compliance with the deal. Doug, what did you make of that?

Doug: The president is in a tough spot. His base certainly wanted the red meat of: “This deal is terrible, Obama gave away pallets of cash,” so on and so forth. “These are the people who killed our soldiers in Iraq.” We heard all the talking points during the campaign. It turns out once you’re in office that there’s actually a political cost to withdrawing from the JCPOA. Your allies are remarkably unhappy about that, your closest allies, and in fact are now setting up mechanisms to try to work around your opposition to the JCPOA.

Doug: And then when it came time to sanctions, they found out that “Oh, well, if we don’t let the Iranians sell oil, that means it could go north of a hundred dollars a barrel again, and that means $4 gas.” And that was not-

Ryan: How does that go over in the heartland?

Doug: Yeah, that does not sell well in Peoria.

Elizabeth: Also, sanctions do better when you have allies.

Doug: Yeah, that too. But with the secondary … We could have stopped the oil sales. We gave sufficient waivers to the oil sales that they’re effectively unsanctioned. But he just found himself in a … Turns out this is really hard.

Elizabeth: “The Trump Administration: Turns out This Is Really Hard.” That’ll be the title of somebody’s book.

Ryan: That’s a good slogan, actually. Doug, you’re, I think it’s fair to say, one of the more cautiously optimistic voices on what’s going on in Iraq, and you take some heat for it. But you go to Iraq more than anyone else I know personally in town who focuses on Iraq. What are sort of the reasons for your optimism, and how do you think things are shaping up under the new government?

Doug: I have stayed pretty optimistic on Iraq. I always like to point out, in 2015 when I was saying, “No, they’re going to liberate Iraq in two or three years,” people thought I was wildly over-optimistic then. I like to think that I may be in a similar place now. The reason I’ve always been bullish on Iraq is just the fundamentals are good. They’ve always had all the ingredients that you need to make this work. Their people are relatively highly educated. Their education system has suffered in the last 30 years, but they’re still mostly literate. They’re a fairly cosmopolitan people. They travel the region. They traverse their country all over the place. They’ve got good infrastructure. Well, they have some good infrastructure. The roads systems work. You can drive from the south of the country to the north of the country. People do all the time.

Doug: For the region, they have a fairly high view of women. I mean, that’s a major qualifier, but if you have to be born an Arab woman and you’re not lucky enough to be Lebanese, you probably want to be Iraqi. And of course they’re floating on a small lake of oil that God not only gave them a ton of it, but put it about 30 kilometers from the Gulf so that it’s extremely easy to get onto the world markets. So they have all the ingredients it takes to make things work. That said, they’re handicapped by a legacy socialist system. They’re handicapped by an isolation from the rest of the world that still permeates their society. There are lots and lots of problems and I could talk about them for an hour. But the fundamentals of Iraq are good, and there’s no reason to expect that they should not, more slowly than we would prefer, but should not reemerge. [crosstalk 00:41:27]

Ryan: They have more free and fair elections than you do in, say, Turkey.

Doug: Absolutely. Still free and fairish, but less -ish than other places in the region.

Ryan: Yeah. There was recently this episode, maybe Nick or Doug, you can help me understand better what happened, but there was some protests. Protesters overran a Turkish military base in Iraq. Explain to our listeners why there’s Turkish military bases in Iraq, and then explain this whole episode.

Nicholas: Because the PKK that Turkey has been fighting with for decades now was in Iraq. If you follow this in the Turkish press there are ongoing debates about whether or not the Kurds, thought of in some loose, broad abstract sense-

Doug: Right. Big capital-K Kurds.

Nicholas: Big capital-K Kurds are with the PKK or whether they all support the Turkish government. What you find out, in fact, ordinary Kurds are often very fed up with a number of the political forces who claim to speak in their name. And I think what you saw in the case, it was a Turkish military base in northern Iraq that was used to target PKK forces in the region. In the course of doing it, it had killed some Kurdish civilians. This, not surprisingly, created considerable anger amongst the Kurdish population in the region. Both sides blamed the other, but at the end of the day it seemed like people were not necessarily huge fans of the PKK, but they were definitely opposed to being killed by the Turkish government as part of its war with the PKK.

Ryan: The presence of these bases on Iraqi soil reached a … There was a crisis point in relations between Ankara and Baghdad about this. Where do things stand now as far as the Iraqi government’s acceptance or nonacceptance of this presence?

Doug: I think the Iraqi government will continue to formally protest this. They are very touchy about sovereignty issues. We’ll probably get to that more later-

Ryan: In a future episode.

Doug: But in fact they can’t do very much. They can’t really project power that far north. So they will protest very strongly and that will probably be the extent of it.

Nicholas: And the Kurdish government in Iraq is in a similarly … Or the Kurdish Government, sorry, the KRG is in a similarly difficult situation. Barzani is not a huge fan of having Turkish military bases on-

Doug: Which Barzani?

Nicholas: Well, I don’t think any of them are, to be fair. They’ve all maintained good relations with the Turkish government. They have a profitable relationship with Erdogan, with Turkish businessmen. At the end of the day, they’re also not fans of the PKK. They are caught in the middle, and the more things like this come to the fore, the more there’s public tension between Kurdish people in Iraq and the Turkish military, the more of a difficult situation it puts the Barzanis in.

Doug: Right. And the emerging strength of the PKK in northern Iraq is a direct reflection of the failure of the ruling KDP party to protect not only the Kurds but the other minorities in the region, giving the PKK an opening in the past years. They’re certainly stronger now than they were four or five years ago.

Ryan: It’s times like this that I would ask you guys to give our listeners not a 101 but a 201 breakdown of the different Kurdish factions, because just like you joked earlier, capital-K Kurds in Turkey, in Washington it’s the same thing. It’s like “the Kurds,” as if they’re all this one homogenous political faction, when in fact they’re divided into lots of different political factions. Doug, can you take the Iraq side, and Nick, could you take the Turkey side?

Nicholas: In the Turkish side, you have a Kurdish population, which in the roughest terms is split between those who have in the past been assimilated without any judgment, embraced a kind of Turkish identity, have aligned with the Turkish state, and those that have taken a Kurdish nationalist position, which in time has become associated with the PKK, which is the illegal military wing, and then now the HDP, the Peoples’ Democratic Party, which is the increasingly legally persecuted political wing of the Kurdish nationalist movement in Turkey. That division has now spread to Syria, where the YPG or the PYD, who’s America’s partner there is, and people play with a lot of different terms, but is essentially an outgrowth of the Turkish PKK, which is why U.S. support for them has been so sensitive in Ankara.

Ryan: And also, interestingly, most Kurds in Turkey are actually very religiously conservative. [crosstalk 00:00:45:54]. Well, the southeast by and large is, and most Turkish citizens who have joined ISIS are actually Kurds.

Nicholas: Another side of this, exactly, is that by and large the more religious portion of the Kurdish population has tended to support the Turkish state and the PKK as a formerly explicitly Marxist organization has drawn support from the less religious part of the Kurdish community.

Ryan: And Doug, what’s the breakdown in Iraq?

Doug: In Iraq, the Kurds are more tribal. There’s no other word for it. You primarily have two political groupings of the Kurds run by two families. The KDP are run by the Barzanis. I made a slight joke earlier, the prime minister, the president, the former president are all Barzanis, all very closely related — father, son, nephew, uncle. Then you have the Talabani family that runs the PUK, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, based out of Sulaymaniyah, also has a lot of strength in Kirkuk. Then you have some smaller outliers. You have Kurdish Islamist, and you have Kurdish PKK-aligned, former — making air quotes — Marxists. And that’s essentially the breakdown. But the vast majority — 90, 95 percent of Iraq’s Kurds — essentially belong to one of these two political parties, the KDP or the PUK.

Ryan: Doug, before we end the show, you’ve hinted to some sovereignty issues earlier. I’ve heard you in the past, if I’m remembering right, you’ve compared Iraq to the bride that everyone wants. They’re courted and pursued, sometimes violently and sometimes aggressively, by rival powers. The Iranians want a piece. We want a piece. The Turks, the Russians. Iraq has a lot of reasons to be concerned about sovereignty issues. How do they pick and choose which ones to emphasize and worry about the most?

Doug: I think they’re pretty good about focusing on the most salient threats to their sovereignty. In my mind, the barometer to always watch for this is the Sadrist Movement, extremely nationalist group of religiously oriented Shia Iraqi Arabs, for the most part. Famously, throughout the entirety of the occupation, they were emphatically opposed to the American presence. If you’re concerned about Iraqi sovereignty, clearly the presence of 50 to almost 200,000 American soldiers is the most salient threat to your sovereignty. As of the end of December 2011, when the United States left Iraq, if you’re a Sadrist and you look around, what’s now clearly the greatest threat to your sovereignty? It’s the Iranians. Just no question about it.

Doug: Now the Sadrists are clearly the most anti-Iranian party, or most concerned about Iranian influence, let’s put it that way, inside Iraq. That’s my barometer. I think they’re very sophisticated about weighing threats to their sovereignty. The Russians are not a threat to their sovereignty. They’re not coming any time soon. The Turks have very, very limited interests in the north. They’re really not interested in coming much further south. Within this small band they’re a real issue, but further south of that, not so much. They’re pretty sophisticated in weighing the threats to their sovereignty. Well, frankly, you don’t have to be very sophisticated. The threats to your sovereignty kind of reach out and grab you.

Ryan: Final question. Elizabeth, you’re on the cutting edge of scholarship on presidential decision-making in terms of foreign policy and use of force, and the politics of the use of force. Especially within the boundaries of the Middle East, how has this presidency challenged prevailing views and theories and hypotheses on how this is supposed to work, or has it actually conformed a lot more than most people expect or suspect?

Elizabeth: There’s ways in which it surprised people, but I think there’s a lot of ways in which it has confirmed a lot of what we know. My own research suggests that presidents come into office, they know what they know, they believe what they believe, and they tend not to change it very much. And even when events force them to change, they … The way they act is very powerfully informed by those beliefs. And that’s natural. We don’t want leaders who have no context and who change with the wind and so forth.

Doug: And who aren’t who we voted for.

Elizabeth: Exactly. And who aren’t who we voted for. So exactly a year before Trump’s inauguration, while the election was still ongoing, Tom Wright from Brookings Institution published this piece basically saying: “Look, this talk that Trump has no beliefs is not right. He has three beliefs that we can identify that have been consistent for decades. He doesn’t like trade, he doesn’t like alliances, and he really likes authoritarian leaders, particularly in Russia.” But most of what he’s done, and take the Middle East, what he’s done has been very consistent with that. His first trip was to go hang out in Saudi Arabia. The orb, you remember the orb picture?

Ryan: I wish I didn’t remember, but yes.

Elizabeth: Sorry.

Doug: And the sword dancing.

Elizabeth: And the sword dancing, of course. I would actually add to that, he’s been pretty consistent about not liking boots on the ground. I think this issue of process is super important and can’t be separated from it, but his desire to pull out is consistent with … That confirms what we know. I think Iran is the real outlier because I do think there’s this political, just opposing all the deals Obama made. He doesn’t strike me that he really wants to get into a war with Iran, with boots on the ground. I think the bigger-

Ryan: But he’s doing things that lead us to a crisis.

Elizabeth: Of course, and that’s the risk. The other big risk is he does seem to really love airstrikes. He likes to bomb things. If his military advisers convinced him that we could get the nukes with bombs, that might ultimately lead to boots on the ground, but that would be what might overcome his beliefs that we shouldn’t put boots in on the ground but that we should be tough. It appeals to his wanting to be tough.

Elizabeth: I don’t think anybody expected him to actually appoint John Bolton. I think this public disagreement and-

Ryan: He didn’t like his mustache very much, probably.

Elizabeth: Yeah. The gutting of the State Department, the personnel, has really been to me the area where it’s been the most surprising because those are all such own goals to not be able to get what you want. If these are the policies you want, there are ways you get it and they mostly involve attempting to insert your beliefs into the process through staffing and so forth. But a lot of what he’s done has been pretty consistent with what he said he would do. And the fact that his base has come along with him is also consistent with what we know. And the fact that the Congress hasn’t tried to retake its authority except under these very limited circumstances where they got mad about MBS, also consistent with what we know. So there’s been a lot of ways in which the politics have been normal, I would say.

Ryan: All right, Nick, this isn’t a substantive question, and listeners, you should know, Nick has no idea I’m about to ask him this. I’ve had this title for years that I’ve wanted to use for something Turkey-related. It’s “Ottomentary ,” which is obviously a very, very clever combination of “Ottoman” and “commentary.” First, I thought it might be a podcast, and then I thought it might be sort of a vertical. Are you familiar with Van Jackson’s “Nuke Your Darlings”? The series he wrote for us? You’re not? Are you not a regular War on the Rocks reader? [crosstalk 00:00:53:24]

Nicholas: There’s just so much good content. I can’t always keep track of every particular thing.

Elizabeth: You should be.

Ryan: So “Nuke Your Darlings” Van Jackson, senior editor at War on the Rocks, associate editor at the Texas National Security Review, just came out with a great book on North Korea, the-

Elizabeth: I can vouch for it. It’s a great book.

Ryan: We just had a nice book party for him last night. It’s called “On the Brink”. You should all get it. It’s on North Korea and Trump and Kim. But while he was writing this book, he did a daily writing diary for us called “Nuke Your Darlings.” I would like to challenge you to do the same. It doesn’t have to be daily. But while you’re writing this book, which is what you’re going to Istanbul to do, to do maybe like a, maybe daily, maybe weekly writing diary modeled off “Nuke Your Darlings” called “Ottomentary,” just so I can get this title off my plate.

Nicholas: It’s so easy to come up with good cliched names for something, like I heard all sorts of great fake book ideas: “Under the Shadow of the Crescent Moon,” “The Long Ottoman Century: 1923 to Today.”

Ryan: I got chills just when you said that.

Nicholas: Otto-erotic is something people have tried to use but you get in trouble for that.

Elizabeth: He’s stalling.

Nicholas: But what do I have to do now? Drunkenly commit to writing a column for you?

Ryan: Yeah.

Nicholas: Sold.

Ryan: Great. You heard it here first, War on the Rocks listeners [crosstalk 00:54:38].

Elizabeth: Breaking news like last week. Got to drop with some good music.

Ryan: That’s right. Tre and I are laughing. And you’re also drinking one of my favorite beers, Pilsner Urquell.

Nicholas: Delicious.

Ryan: Yeah. And Doug, this is your first time trying Redbreast Irish whiskey?

Doug: It is.

Ryan: What do you think?

Doug: It’s very smooth.

Ryan: Good. And Elizabeth, how’s your Starbucks?

Elizabeth: It’s excellent.

Ryan: Okay. Thank you for joining us in this episode of the War on the Rocks podcast. Please don’t forget to rate us five stars on iTunes. It helps more than you think. And check out our membership program at warontherocks.com/membership.


Don’t forget to check out the War on the Rocks membership program: https://warontherocks.com/membership

*Mantid does business in Iraq