By Mark Tokola
The Trump Administration’s precipitous decision to remove American troops from Northeast Syria, where they had been allied with Kurdish forces in opposing ISIS, and had been deterring Turkish forces from attacking the Kurds, raises questions regarding the wisdom of relying on the United States. Of course, the U.S. commitment to have forces in the region had not been open-ended. They would have had to leave at some point. The shock came from the withdrawal coming without warning and apparently without a plan regarding what would happen next. The move seems to have taken everyone by surprise: the Kurds, U.S. allies, and even the U.S. government outside of President Trump’s innermost circle—if he had told anyone at all ahead of his announcement.
The role and mission of U.S. troops deployed abroad is always open to discussion and policies can change. Even surprise is not necessarily a bad thing. Tactically, there are advantages to surprising adversaries. It is hard to ever imagine a circumstance, however, when one should surprise an ally, particularly in the battlefield. And if the surprise consists of suddenly leaving an ally to face an enemy alone, it will be hard to justify for any reason.
South Korea is among the countries most dependent on the United States for its security. It faces an overtly hostile North Korea and a China that often applies pressure on South Korea, for example in its opposition to South Korea deploying a defensive anti-missile system, THAAD. South Korea has integrated its armed forces with those of the U.S. in a Combined Forces Command (CFC) and has forgone developing its own long-range missiles, and perhaps even a nuclear weapons program, because of its trust in U.S. extended deterrence and U.S. commitment to the defense of the Republic of Korea. How will South Korea view the U.S. abandonment of the Kurds?
First, the plight of the Kurds is not an abstract and distant concept for South Koreans. During the Iraq War, South Korean provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs) operated in the Kurdish areas of Northern Iraq. I visited a South Korean PRT is Irbil, Iraq in 2007 and saw first-hand the warm relationship between the South Korean teams and Kurds they were helping train in practical, civilian skills. The South Koreans also saw firsthand the personal relationships between the Americans operating in the area and the Kurds. I have to wonder what they are thinking today.
There are differences between what had been considered the U.S. commitment to protect the Kurds in Northeast Syria and the wartime and treaty alliance with South Korea. The former was a mutually expedient alliance, put together to serve specific and temporary purposes in the complicated and unpredictable context of the Middle East. It was not an alliance between countries. It was not a mutual defense pact. Perhaps this should be enough to reassure South Korea that its case is different and it need not worry about its reliance on the U.S. for its security.
And yet, South Koreans are concerned about U.S. reliability. They have found themselves on unsteady ground with the United States, whether going from the U.S.-Korean Free Trade Agreement being called a “gold standard” to “the worst agreement ever” in the course of a year, to burden sharing demands from the United States that have quintupled from a level which the U.S. had found satisfactory, to a unilateral suspension of joint military exercises that South Korea had agreed were essential to force readiness as the result of the first Trump-Kim summit in Singapore. Any of these might have been the result of an adjustment in U.S. foreign policy. Taken together, they look less like “America First,” and more like, “Unreliable America.”
The quotation about countries having “no permanent friends, only permanent interests,” has been attributed to Henry Kissinger, Lord Palmerston, and Charles de Gaulle, among others. Maybe they all said it. The reason it appears so often is that it introduces a dose of realism when politicians get too carried away in romanticizing relations between countries. There is not much point to an alliance that doesn’t serve the allies’ long-term interests. The key phrase, however, is “long-term.” The United States has benefited enormously for over seventy years from having long-term allies, even when their relationship has gone through inconvenient or aggravating periods. Russia and China envy the global U.S. alliance system and are attempting to emulate it—whether through Russian permanent bases abroad or through the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative—even as they watch the U.S. weakening its ties to allies.
An alliance is valuable almost only in so far as it is reliable. The United States has every right to expect allies to proportionately bear the burden and expense of their alliance. Allies in turn have a right to expect the United States to act reliably. The U.S. withdraw of troops from Syria, on top of the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement, intermediate nuclear forces (INF) agreement with Russia, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and other commitments—you can make your own list—puts U.S. reliability in question. That is tough on alliances, even one so apparently firmly established the one between the United States and South Korea.
Mark Tokola is the Vice President of the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are his own.
Photo from Morning Calm Weekly Newspaper Installation Management Command, U.S. Army’s photo stream on flickr Creative Commons.