Penning an introduction to Alexander Kinglake’s Eothen at the turn of the last century, an anonymous Englishman declared that “in the Eastern Derby there are no winning horses.” He explained that those European observers who, for reasons of “business or philanthropy,” devoted “any real exertion, sentiment, or interest,” to the affairs of the Middle East would inevitably be disillusioned: “for, whether they are fascinated by the picturesque and manly virtues of the Moslems, or roused to honourable indignation by the slaughter and oppression of their fellow-Christians, they will find in the end that they have put their money on the wrong horse.”
While nominally criticizing his countrymen’s idealism, the anonymous author reserved his real derision for the Easterners themselves, whose corrupt, incompetent or simply ludicrous nature he believed was destined to betray it. Re-read in Washington today, however, his comments seem more apt as an unintentionally damning indictment of the enduring manner with which Western powers engage with Middle Eastern politics. That is to say, by identifying their interests and values with a particular party in the region, then recalibrating as necessary while placing the blame on the parties themselves.
The English, of course, kept this up for centuries. They backed Turkey against Russia, fought with Russia against Turkey, supported Greece against Turkey and then, finally, allied with both Turkey and Greece against Russia again. However disillusioned they became with their choice of partner – and however deeply embittered their partners became – they never gave up on the derby itself. And, indeed, profited handsomely off it.
Now, in Washington, an establishment that spent decades providing diplomatic and military support for Turkish war crimes is working itself into a frenzy of outrage over Trump’s betrayal of the Kurds.
Watching this all unfold certainly offers a window into the remarkable dysfunction of Washington today. But it also helps reveal the process through which, in more conventional times, U.S. policymakers have gone about picking, backing and, when necessary, switching horses, all in order to advance U.S. interests. When things function smoothly, pride, principle, hypocrisy and betrayal all work together to serve the needs of great power politics. As with so much about Trump, seeing the system break down provides new insights into how it was supposed to work.
From this perspective, the crescendo of anti-Turkish anger in Washington represents a force that, in other circumstances, would have turned the ship of state in a more consistent and measured way. In the face of strategic frustration and symbolic affronts, honourable indignation is the language in which policymakers are best prepared to retaliate. To point out that it is irrational, hypocritical or unhelpful misses the deeper, long-term logic behind it. Similarly, to argue that Ankara provoked this response, and should have predicted it, is not to justify the response itself.
Over the past decade, Turkish policy has brought it into conflict with both American interests and America’s amour propre. Buying Russian missiles or facilitating Iranian sanctions-busting represented geopolitical challenges. Attacking protestors on U.S. soil or imprisoning an evangelical pastor represented a challenge to American pride (as a leader who plays on religious nationalism as effectively as Erdogan should certainly be able to appreciate). Either set of challenges, on their own, could potentially have been accommodated, but the combination will likely prove insurmountable.
It’s not that American policymakers would consciously prioritize their relationship with a non-state actor like the YPG over a longtime alliance with Turkey. Rather, their current enthusiasm for the YPG represents an inarticulate articulation of their mounting frustration over the alliance with Turkey. Put differently, from Washington’s point of view, a good ally can get away with being a bad ally in a way that a bad ally can’t.
Trump, certainly, has complicated this equation. His eagerness to accommodate Turkey’s interests could perhaps be seen as an exaggerated version of the countervailing impulse that would be found in any administration. If nothing else, he seems to have a distinct appreciation for the picturesque and manly virtues of foreign leaders – not unprecedented in Washington but certainly taken to an extreme. What’s more, the president is notoriously vindictive when faced with personal slights. But he defines these slights differently from everyone else in Washington, in a way that can be hard for many of us to grasp. So far Erdogan has proved better at anticipating what will and won’t rub Trump the wrong way than most Americans. The result, however, is still that Ankara has put all its diplomatic eggs in one basket, then handed it to a man with a well-known reputation for breaking eggs.
However this plays out in Washington, the incoherence is unprecedented but the mechanics are not. After seven decades of backing Turkey, Washington may well continue, and find new reasons to be disappointed with the YPG. Or, quite possibly, indignation with Ankara could carry the day, justifying new realignments as necessary. The real test for the United States will be whether policymakers and the American public can maintain the conviction that our former or future partners are the ones to blame for our continual disillusionment.