US Withdrawal and the End of the Rules-Based Global Order | Joshua Landis


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and join our amazing community. And with that, please enjoy this week’s episode. What’s up everybody? My guest today is Joshua Landis. Joshua is the director of the Center for Middle
East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. He is an expert in the Middle East. He is a Syria expert in particular. He has lived for over 14 years in the Middle
East. He was brought up in Beirut. He returned to the region in the 1980s to
teach in Beirut, and study at universities in Damascus, Cairo and Istanbul. He writes Syria Comment, a daily newsletter
on Syrian politics, which attracts, I am told some 3000 readers a day. And he is a highly regarded academic and commentator
in this space. He’s been on all sorts of programs from Charlie
Rose, to Jim Lehrer, to BBC Radio, to NPR, so we’re very fortunate to have him. Our conversation today, doesn’t just focus
on Syria and the conflict between Turkey and Syria, and the Kurds, and Russia, and Iran,
and all these different players. But it actually broadens into a larger conversation
about the disintegration of the rules-based global order, which is something that I’ve
been thinking a lot about. It’s something that I wrote a lot about in
the rundown to this week’s episode as a topic that I wanted to discuss, and Joshua was very
receptive to that. And so we cover that. We cover not just, what does this mean in
the Middle East? But, what is a reflection of? If we’re going to actually see a withdraw
of American influence around the world, how does that shift alliances? And what does that mean, also, let’s say specifically
with Turkey’s entry into Syria? ANd what does that mean for the security of
Europe, which has relied on the security guarantees of the US and the US nuclear umbrella? And if Turkey decides to become belligerent,
I mean, it’s something that seems unimaginable now. But it’s not inconceivable to imagine Turkey
beginning to encroach upon European territory starting with Greece, which it has already
displayed some level of aggression towards in recent years. And we discussed that. We discussed the possibility of Greece strengthening
its relationship to Russia, possibly forming an alliance with Russia. And all these things are conceivable in a
world where the United States withdraws. I think Joshua’s perspective differs from
let’s say, Jake’s, who is a reporter, in the sense that Joshua has always felt, it seems
to me that this withdrawal was inevitable. And if you read his writings going back years,
it seems that his concern, or his advocacy was around making it a strategic withdrawal,
to bring some order so that it didn’t become chaotic. And I think what we’re seeing now is a chaotic
withdrawal. And so this is what we discussed in the conversation
as well as many other things. The overtime to this week’s episode, or the
overtime feed is an afterthought segment. It’s about 20 minutes or so. After the show was over, I decided to sit
down and give my thoughts about the last two episodes. My conversations with both Joshua and Jake,
why I think these are important, what I’ve learned from the process of preparing for
them. The rundown for super nerds to this week’s
episode is exceptionally large, because it began as a rundown for Jake and then morphed
into the rundown for Joshua. And so I think it’s something like, 15 or
16 pages of material. And it’s, I think, very useful for those of
you that are subscribed to it. If you’re not, as you know, I always recommend
trying it out. Because there is no forward commitment, you
can cancel at any time. Those of you who are not yet subscribed to
our audio file, or autodidact or Super Nerd Tears, there is a link in the description
to this episode that you can click on, which will take you to the Patreon page. You can learn all about those subscriptions
and how you can support the program. Without any further ado, here is my conversation
with Joshua Landis. Dr. Joshua Landis, welcome to Hidden Forces. It’s a pleasure being with you. Thank you for making the time to be on the
program. When I first booked you, I wrote down a lot
of what I wanted to discuss. Primarily, it was a conversation around kind
of establishing a foundational understanding and a context for what’s happening right now
in Syria, and the border between Turkey and Syria and all the different players involved. That is still my primary interest. We did an episode or a recording a few days
ago with Jake Hanrahan, who is an international journalist reporter. And he filled us in on some of that also,
although I wanted him more to talk about more of the timely stuff. But before we get into that, if you had to
write a headline to describe what’s happened in the last week, what would it be? I was thinking about that myself. It would really be that, interestingly enough,
the United States today finds itself aligned with Bashar Al Assad. Now, that seems sort of tongue in cheek. But here we are in the United States today,
fighting alongside the Kurds who are aligned with Damascus. And in a sense, the Russians in order to stop
the Turkish invasion. And allied with the Turks are the Free Syrian
Army forces that we were funding only a few years ago, and that we were hoping would overturn
Assad and take Damascus. And today, we are putting sanctions on Turkey. And we’re telling Turkey to stop this, and
those forces to stop their incursion into Syria, which is allowing serious troops to
rush into places like Manbij. We just handed Manbij over to the Russian
troops. We had a controlled hand over to the Russians
who are, of course serious, great sponsor. In a sense, we’ve come 360 degrees on this,
I guess, in the sense that Obama eight years ago said, “Assad must go.” Hillary Clinton said the same thing. They supported the Syrian rebels who became
too Islamist, too extremist by 2014. And, in a sense, spooked America. America withdrew their support. And ultimately, this was a decision to allow
Assad to survive. When Russia came in, sensing that American
weakness, America said nothing. Obama said, “We’re not going to go to war
against Russia for Syria.” Then, we switched to the Kurds. When ISIS grew so big and took over much of
the rebel-owned territory in Syria and became, in a sense the most powerful rebel force in
Syria, America switched against the rebels and took up with the Kurds who have traditionally
been allied with Assad. Today, the Kurds broke with Assad, broke with
the rebels, because they hoped that America would help establish an independent Kurdish
state in northeastern Syria. Today, those hopes that were raised by the
United States have been dashed. President Trump, in his very rash decision
decided to yank American troops, letting the Kurds down with a great thump. Kurds all saying they’ve been stabbed in the
back. And immediately, the Kurds in a few days,
initiated an alliance that had been hammered out over a year ago with Assad and said, “We’re
going to take second best.” That’s to go back to Damascus, put Syrian
troops up the border and try to stabilize Syria in much the same position it had been
eight years ago. And so in that sense, I think the headline
has to be that the United States, in many ways, is siding with Assad against the Turks
and against the Arab Islamist Rebels who are trying to take land in Syria. So the headline would be, after eight years
of fighting Assad, we’ve decided to join him. Is that what you’re saying? Yeah. I mean, we’re not joining him because we dislike
him tremendously. But in a sense, strategically, we’ve aligned
in supporting his reconquest of all this territory up to the Turkish border. Is that a way of saying that it’s all for
not? That what we did for the last seven or eight
years… Yes, absolutely. … Has been primarily a waste, a wasted effort? And it’s not only been wasted. It’s caused tremendous destruction in Syria,
because America poured in well over $10 billion into Syria and into military, into opposition
forces. That’s not to mention our allies, Saudi Arabia,
Qatar, Turkey, all of whom we in a sense wound up to take on Assad. If you recall, Hillary Clinton in the opening
days of the Syrian uprising, went around to Turkey, to Qatar and others asking them to
take the lead in this effort to drive out Assad. And so, America has a lot of soul searching
to do, it seems to me. I want to also ask you if we’ve actually made
it worse, because of our reputation. The damage that America’s reputation has taken
as a result of how brashly we left the Kurds to basically fend for themselves and cut a
quick deal with Assad. Also I want to ask you, what impact this has
had in terms of our fight against ISIS, because we decided to take a particular strategy and,
or defeat ISIS? Now as I understand it, the Kurds have had
to basically let lots of fighters escape, and families of ISIS fighters escape the prisons
that they were held in? But I want to take a quote from an article
that you wrote, and I think it was in 2012, and it kind of speaks to this. You write, “With America’s economy in the
dumps, its military badly bruised, its reputation among Muslims in tatters and its people fatigued
by foreign wars, this is no time to intervene in Syria. Washington has no staying power if things
go wrong. He wants regime change on the cheap, to bomb
and withdraw. And if things go wrong, will we leave the
Syrians in the lurch or get sucked into another complicated quagmire? The administration can ill afford to leave
a failed state behind in Syria or to have it unfurl into civil war.” That quote, that what I just read there seems
remarkably prescient? Is that where we are today? It is. America has made things worse in Syria, there’s
no doubt about it. And as you’ve opened up not only has it made
things worse, but we have really scored an own goal here. Because we have ditched the Kurds, ruined
our reputation with allies, but now we’re putting economic sanctions on Turkey. So, we’ve got the worst of all worlds. We don’t have any friends left in the region
as we withdraw. You would think that if we were dumping the
Kurds out in front of the Turks, we would at least gain something from Turkey, get them
to give up Russian missiles, the S400s, get them to move away from Russia in some way. But we haven’t gained any of those possible
benefits. Our reputation is in tatters. And today, President Putin of Russia is swanning
around the Middle East. He’s in Saudi Arabia today with a royal welcome,
because everybody distrusts America. Everybody is looking to Putin as a statesman
who can mediate their flashpoints with Iran, with Israel, with Turkey. He’s the man of the hour, and in a sense where
United States is wearing the dunce cap today. I want to ask you about him also, because
it seems that there are three players that are the front of this civil war in Syria has
expanded. It’s expanded now with Turkey’s invasion. Also, as you said, it’s empowered Russia as
a player in this domain. You don’t hear much about Iran in the news,
but I think this is also another great victory for Iran. And it seems also that not only does this
administration not have a policy or coherent policy, but it almost feels like its policy
is to smash things. Because the withdrawal from the Iran nuclear
deal makes no sense in the context of this decision to just brashly pull troops out of
Rojava. I mean, help me make sense of this. Was this always inevitable, because the US
body politic was never going to support an endless occupation of any sort? Even a small force contingency, they wanted
out. Was this always inevitable? Yes. I think, and it was inevitable. We, unfortunately have a bad habit, and we
have for a number of decades now of inflating their expectations of local peoples in the
Middle East. We’ve done that in Afghanistan, promising
that we would get rid of the Taliban and set up some kind of decent government there. We did this when we rolled into Iraq in 2003,
and President Bush promised to reform the greater Middle East. He made a big, wide ranging speech in London,
in which he promised that he would bring democracy to Iraq, and it would cause a domino theory. And the dictatorship and tyranny throughout
the Middle East would begin to collapse. Then we did it again, of course, with the
Kurds in Syria, promising we would be there for the long haul. That we wouldn’t let them down, and that they
would become a strategic… A fortress for the United States in the region,
and thus, that we would help them to some form of independence. In all of these cases, we’ve been unable to
deliver. We promised way too much, and we’ve let people
down. And that’s the fault of the entire foreign
policy establishment, which somehow has taken its rhetoric and its idealism much too seriously. And its ability to alter distant lands and
societies in a way that they’re not capable of doing. Are you troubled by the fact that there has
been no self reflection whatsoever during the course of the last seven days, and even
up until then? I mean, it seems to me that every time something
goes wrong in the Middle East or something goes wrong with American foreign policy, everyone
just sticks to their position. The hawks just want more intervention. There doesn’t seem to be any accountability
for all the past mistakes. Sure, Trump has acted, seemingly irrationally
without any kind of strategy. But Trump didn’t get us here, right? So… No he didn’t? … Are you troubled by that lack of self
reflection by the foreign policy establishment? Absolutely, and I fight it every day going
on talk shows with… What is the reason for it? What is the reason for this kind of like,
bunker mentality? Part of the reason is that we don’t pay for
it. I went on PBS news just the other night and
I said something like, Trump’s desire to end these endless wars is very popular. And I used the example of Oklahoma, where
people want better schools and better roads, and they don’t want to suspend $5 trillion
in the Middle East. And I got tons of emails and phone calls from
people saying, Oklahoma is a taker state. They don’t pay as much taxes as they get. And they’ve got a point, Oklahoma is a very
poor state. But the point, I think that I would make is
that all of America is a taker society, because we have not paid for these wars. That $5 trillion that we’ve spent on Afghanistan,
on Iraq, on Syria and other places, Libya has been borrowed. Nobody is paying for it, and that is one of
the main reasons that the foreign policy establishment can get away with these sorts of adventures. Because America has this incredible credit
rating, and it’s borrowed over $20 trillion, which our children are going to have to repay. So we’re getting to do these fantastic experiments
on the cheap, at least it’s on the cheap today. That’s one reason. The other reason, of course, is that our politics
has become increasingly more corrupt. Special interest groups have bought chunks
of foreign policy. And you see that most profligately with this
administration, but it’s not just this administration. This administration is just a little bit worse. Can you give me some examples of that? Yes, I can give you examples of that. I mean, you look at our Saudi policy, you
look at our Israel policy. Somebody like Bolton for the National Security
Council, who didn’t jive with Trump’s foreign policy. Trump said he’s going to end these Middle
Eastern wars. Bolton was the exact opposite, he wanted us
to get us in deeper on the Iran thing particularly. As a neoconservative. As a neoconservative, and he wanted a bomb
Iran and have regime change. Just what President Trump said he wouldn’t
do in his campaign. And it turns out that the way he came to attention
of Trump is not just that he spoke with a tough language on Fox News. But he called from Sydney Sheldon’s office
in Las Vegas, a big gambling billionaire, very pro Israel who liked Bolton because he
was pro Israel and anti Iran. And I don’t know whether Trump made some kind
of transactional deal in which he said, okay, I’m going to let this guy be National Security
Advisor for a number of months, because Sheldon Adelson is giving over 100 million dollars
to the republican party for campaigns. But it wouldn’t shock me if that kind of transactional
policy is going on it. But you see these interest groups pay to play
from one end of Washington to the other, and people become very cynical. And I think that’s why Trump is president
today, because the American people feel that Washington is a swamp, has become terribly
corrupt. And now, they elected the wrong person to
clean up the swamp. But, I guess that it goes to the naive tale
of the American people. But they do feel that something is desperately
wrong in Washington. Well, I have a question about that. Because one of the things that Jake brought
up in our previous episode, and I’ve read something this effect as well is that Trump
has certain business interests in Turkey. And so, he’s more naturally aligned with that
country than he is with the Kurds. And it just got me to thinking, generally
speaking about how much corruption exists across the political spectrum. And if we’re just hearing about Trump’s possible
ties or possible corruption, because he’s so despicable and so disliked within the establishment. But if this is just kind of par for the course,
is this how business is done? Is that kind of more of what you’re saying? It is, more and more is done this way. And more and more is done, and we’ve seen
this. Look at what’s happening in Ukraine scandal
right now, with an ambassador being thrown out because she wouldn’t put the President’s
interests over the national interests. The Two Towers, the Trump Towers that Trump
has in Istanbul. The many apartments he’s sold to Saudis when
his incredible statement of, “Of course, we’re going to do business with the Saudis. They buy my apartments, bing, bing, bing,
bing.” And he makes this incredible, “They’re good
customers. And I think to a certain degree, that’s very
important.” It’s important to Americans at large, but
it’s very important to this president who has these deep economic relationships in different
places. And it underlines, I think this blurring of
interests between the person and the state. Do you think that the American voter who voted
for Donald Trump who supports him, supports him because, at least they know that he’s
transparent about the extent to which he has corrupted work versus let’s say, the kind
of prototypical Democrat or Republican who is seen as hypocritical? Is that kind of one of the things, do you
think that is driving the support? Yes, I do. I mean, I think that his iconoclasm, and he
works it. Is popular because, unfortunately, people
believed because he was rich, somehow he would be immune to all these other moneyed interests,
and that he would somehow turn America around and dry up the swamp in Washington. Of course, that’s so far from the truth, and
he’s just another instrument in this. But we see it. we see it up and down with the Clinton fund. We saw it with Biden’s son taking these fantastical
jobs at high pays for doing, either nothing, or gaining some influence through his father. We don’t know. Maybe he’s just doing nothing and these are
stupid countries, and he’s milking them. But the point is, is that the optics of it
are that everybody is playing this game in Washington. And it’s very hard to see how to undo it. I want to put it back to what we’re talking
about, specifically in Syria. Before we do, I want to ask one more thing
about Trump or point something. Because I saw that both of us retweeted something
that he tweeted, and I never retweet him, and I hardly talk about him. But I found it impossible this week. And I’m just learning about what’s happened
in this conflict, whatever you want to call it. It’s just kind of scary, because it feels
like he’s self destructive and potentially crazy on some level. He tweeted out, “Anyone who wants to assist
Syria and protecting the courage is good with me, whether it is Russia, China or Napoleon
Bonaparte.” Now, I don’t get that, you know what I’m saying? Like in the middle of this slaughter, he tweets
out, obviously a complete trollish tweet. Obviously, Napoleon is dead. He’s not going to help. I think underneath that tweet was, people
are slamming him because Assad and the Kurds are now partners. They’ve made a deal. And the Kurds are helping and Assad returned
to the borders, which of course, is very damaging to Israel’s interests and to Saudi Arabia’s
interests. And a lot of our allies who’ve been pushing
the United States to overturn Assad are furious. That ultimately America in their senses turning
up, allowing us and retake all this land. I think what he is saying is, I don’t care
if the Russians and Assad help the Kurds. And this returns to his rhetoric of the campaign
trail three years ago, when he attacked Hillary Clinton, and I think did some real damage
with Hillary by criticizing her for regime change and saying you tried to overturn Gaddafi,
and what did you do? You turned Libya into this playground for
Islamist militias. Then he realized this resonated with Americans. Then he turned on George bush, and he said,
“George Bush started the regime change thing by invading Iraq, and he turned Iraq into
the Harvard of jihadism.” That’s what he called it, the Harvard of jihadism. And all the Al Qaeda sort of came to Iraq. And he began, he got on a real role there
and he ended up by in a sense, supporting a Russian foreign policy in the Middle East,
which is to support strong men. Americans foreign policy has been based on
the notion that the Middle East is ripe for democracy, and if you– Which has also been somewhat ridiculous, right? Yes, that’s turned out to be false. And Americans argued that if you kick over
these dictators, the healthy society, and people will put their shoulders together and
build good government and democracy in the Middle East. Russia said, “No, that’s not going to happen. Islam is still going to take over. There’s going to be civil war, and pandemonium
is going to come out. This is the worst of all worlds. What you need is a strong man. In a sense, Putin is just in a sense, projecting
a Russian reality. He believes that Russia needs a strong man
Putin. America believes that the whole world needs
democracy, and it’s a God given right. And these are two different visions of the
future of society. Well, the vision you’re describing is, the
American foreign policy in the Middle East before the end of the Cold War. Correct? It was to support a strong man. Well, it’s a democracy promotion. Well, yes, America has supported strong men
in the past. You’re absolutely right during the Cold War. And since the end of the Cold War, and particularly
with the rise of neoconservativeism, where both liberal hawks and conservatives came
to this notion that America can really speed up history. That’s the way they think of it, as sort of
this ineluctable march of history. And all these presidents, both Obama and bush
began to talk about people as if they’re on the wrong side of history. In other words, dictators on the wrong side
of history. History is coming to deliver democracy. It’s a teleological progression towards this
ideal Jerusalem of democracy, and America can speed it up by knocking down the doors
of dictatorship. And this false understanding of not only history,
but the way democracy evolves has led America into these terrible miscalculations that have
cost us trillions of dollars, which has led to terrible civil wars, which have unleashed
what I’ve called the great sorting out in the Middle East. Because these fragile states, like Syrias,
or Iraqs or Libyas, or many of the others in the Middle East, are holding together societies
where people have not come to an agreement on how to live together, on what sort of constitution
they want, what kind of laws and rules. And the basic rules of the game, the rules
of the road that help a society like our Constitution, which helps us all agree on how to adjudicate
our problems. And Syria has not done that, and these dictators
are holding the society together. You kick them off, and these and terrible
civil wars between Alawites, Sunnis, Kurds, breakout, and each group tries to carve out
its own state or to take over and become a dominant group. And so [inaudible] is free for all. It feels, from what… I mean, I agree with what you’re describing
or rather, what you’re describing resonates with my understanding. It seems to me that ever since the end of
the Cold War, we’ve seen in the world a fracturing of states that were carved up after World
War One, fracturing along sectarian lines. We’ve seen it in the Balkans, we’ve seen it
in the Middle East. And it seems that, that has accelerated since
the Iraq war, and Iraq was really the first place we went and we broke a country. And that has since spread, but it’s remained
contained within the greater Middle East. With Turkey’s invasion now into Syria, and
apparently, they’re not stopping. They’re going deeper. They’re going into the government controlled
areas. I don’t know if you can comment on that if
it’s true, I’ve seen it reported. That now opens the risk, depending on what
happens to Turkey, that this issue begins to spill over into Europe. So I want to talk a little bit about Turkey
really, because I feel like Turkey is a player in all of this. I mean, Russia has been playing the role of
outside agitator for some time now. Iran, the US has been committed since Trump
came into office to antagonizing Iran. Iran and Israel have had issues for a long
time, the US has had issues with Iran going back to ’79. Our relationship with Saudi Arabia is changing. All sorts of alliances are changing. But to me, it seems that Turkey is the biggest
new variable in all of this. Am I touching on anything that’s correct here? What would you… How would you respond to that? Well, I think you’re absolutely right. The Turkish army is powerful, it’s not been
used very much. Erdogan, of course, has these grand ambitions,
and we’re not sure. Of course, Erdogan is couching. His incursion into Syria as a national security
issue that he’s going to stop these Kurds who are aligned with the PKK and the insurgency
inside Turkey. And I think most people believe that he has
a much larger agenda. That he wants to change Turkey’s borders permanently,
and that he sees his country in smoking ruins next door to him. Same with Iraq, very weak. This is an opportunity to expand. He talks about, this as a time of the brave
and the courageous. This is, history is in flux. And one has to sort of stand, get a stride,
this current. And one senses this sort of manifest destiny. Going back to the Ottoman Empire, these are
our lands, Musil, Kirkuk, and so forth were stolen from us at World War One, and we’re
going to recuperate them.And this is an opportunity for a great army and a great people who have
a much greater role to play on the stage of history. And that’s the worry. And that’s I think why not only Russia is
warning Turkey not to do this. But the United States has done it, and Iran
has said, don’t do it. Everybody seems to be very anxious that these
Turkish troops could continue to roll. And that once they’re in, they’re not going
to get out. A few questions. First of all, what are the internal dynamics
in Ankara that may incentivize Erdogan to continue to do this? In other words, is this going to give him
a political advantage domestically if he expands Turkey’s borders? Also, how does Russia respond to something
like this? I mean, Russia always wants to pick the strongest
states to align with. How do all the other players fit into this,
because it doesn’t seem that Turkey can proceed to take over Syria without an ally like Russia
or the United States, can they? Well, United States has opted out, but lawmakers
are trying to get sanctions for Turkey. So that could rein Turkey in. And obviously the business class is so important
to Erdogan and to the Turkish body politic, that if they feel that their interests are
really threatened, they may pull in the reins a bit. But Russia has done this. It’s unclear where that border could go. And I think Erdogan will want to push as far
as he can, and then stop and see if he can get leverage for negotiating the best outcome
possible for Turkey. He wants to move, and he says that he wants
to put two million Syrian refugees into this new territory he’s conquering, and that he’s
going to return them. So he’s casting this as a humanitarian effort
to return refugees to their homes. Of course, these aren’t the homes of most
of these refugees. It’s going to change the demography of northern
Syria away from the Kurds towards Arabs. There are a lot of self interested reasons
for him to do this. But he has a number of reasons driving him. And this Islamic wave that he’s riding, I
think has tremendous sympathy inside Turkey, as well as the nationalist wave. Where do you think this ends? And how do countries like Israel, how do countries
like Saudi Arabia and Iran? How do these nations respond to Turkish aggression? Well, Iran is trying to lay down the law and
saying that Turkey should return to the Adana agreement, which was hammered out between
Turkey and Syria in 1998 when turkey threatened to invade Syria. Hafez Al-Assad, the father Bashar Al Assad,
the Syrian president to cough up Ocalan, the head of the PKK, this Kurdish militant organization
who had been given refuge in Damascus. And Hafez Al-Assad was forced to send them
out of the country. And they agreed on a border strategy, which
is that Turkey could pursue PKK insurgents in hot pursuit six to eight kilometers across
the border. They’d have to inform the Syrian police and
military, they would have to withdraw quickly. But they did have this ability for hot pursuit,
which would secure their national interests, but not allow them to change the border. And that’s what Iran is insisting on. It has sent some troops into the region, Russia
has sent troops into the region, United States is threatening sanctions. So it’s very possible that much potential
damage from this Turkish incursion could be limited if the world really mobilizes and
insist to Erdogan, that it’s going to pay up much too higher price if he continues this. Is there any risk over the next several years
that what has so far been a Middle Eastern conflict spills over into Europe, where the
Turks begin to move slightly West, perhaps in the Aegean where they’ve already been exploring
for oil resources in the territorial waters of Cyprus, for example. Well, there’s also all the islands off the
coast and right off the coast of Turkey, which are owned by Greece. Yeah. And Greece has military outposts on some of
them, and Turkey has been trying to. The ones that don’t have anybody on, Turkey
has been putting military elements on it. It’s been challenging Greece, lots of friction
along those lines. Then, of course, there’s the new discovery
of all these gas deposits underneath the Mediterranean Sea around Cyprus. And turkey owns a big hunk of Cyprus, and
Greece owns big hunk of Cyprus. And so they’re both demanding territorial
waters, and rights of way and so forth. And this is reanimated, that old animosity
between Turks and Greeks, and it could lead to some fisticuffs because Erdogan has this
inflated sense of his national destiny. I wonder also, because of the incompetence
now of the transatlantic alliance, the problem that Europe is having with the EU, and the
disintegration that we’re seeing of the European Union, is there a risk that the Greek government
could find that it’s in its geopolitical interest to align with Russia at some point in the
not too distant future because of a threat of continued threats by the Turks? I mean, we’re talking about an environment
here where the US has withdrawn. I mean, if this environment– Well Greece is already doing that. Greece is already tons of these Russian mafia
guys are investing their money in Cyprus and in banks in Cyprus. So Greece has been helping to launder tons
of Russian money. Well, that’s Cyprus. We’re talking about Cyprus specifically. That is Cyprus, but the Greeks have been making
alliances with Israel in order to try to develop a pipe way for the gas and oil that would
go through Greece. But they’re also trying to cotton up to Russia
for the same reason that Saudi Arabia is now welcoming Putin, the first Russian president
in, well over a decade to go to Saudi Arabia. All the Middle East, you can see the metal
filings around the various magnus as the balance of power changes as the United States withdraws. Well, that’s what we’re seeing. We’re seeing a… Right. Yes. As the United States withdraws from the region,
countries are looking to Russia at who can. Because were Turkey to invade Greek islands,
or push the oil thing and get into a fight with Greece. Greece doesn’t have the military power to
take on Turkey. And it would need to have a good relationship
with Russia, and hope that Russia’s good offices can restrain Turkish expansionism just as
this is happening in Syria today. It’s so ironic because, of course, Greece
was a major outpost of the CIA after World War Two. And Greece has natural points of alliance
with Russia, not least of which is their common religion of Greek Orthodoxy. –Orthodox. Exactly. So it’s not there– There was a traditionally a big Communist
Party in Greece after the war, the Civil War and Russia is… But there’s still a huge leftist element in
Greece, absolutely. Yes, there is. The world is going back to a 19th century
real politic where there are not two major powers around which everybody has to align
as it was in the Cold War. But there are many different major powers. With the rise of India, China, Russia, America’s
shrinking footprint, and new countries really like Turkey growing up. We’re seeing an environment much like the
19th century where the concept of Europe was able to keep some kind of order until it exploded. Then you had lots of vying for influence and
treaties, alliances. And you’re seeing the same scramble for alliances
trying to balance stronger neighbors. And it’s a much more complicated world, there’s
no doubt about it with spheres of influence. So that’s, I think you’re… You’ve, we’ve arrived now at the point that
I think I wanted to get to or where I felt this conversation was going to go when I asked
you about what the headline would be. Because I feel like this event, what’s happening
over the last week is, it’s the first major watershed in the breakdown of the rules-based
order. I feel like it’s the first clear example of
what happens when the global headroom on the security provider, which has been the United
States for all these decades, retreats or withdraws. And all of a sudden, all of these countries,
all of these states that either assumed that the United States was there to prevent them
from acting on their behalf in a particular way, or was there to guarantee their security
as is in the case, that’s what’s so kind of scary for me about Europe. Because the entire European project has been
built on the premise of the American Security umbrella. You’re right. And a friend of mine just wrote, are we seeing
the end of the American Middle East? And I think that’s two grand a headline, but
there’s a lot of truth in it. America is withdrawing now. I said, I don’t think we are. I think we’re seeing a Middle East in which
there are a number of great powers competing. Not only world powers, but regional big powers
like Iran, like Turkey, like Saudi Arabia, all throwing their weight around, they now
have powerful armies. And they’re realizing they can use them, and
they are using them. And it’s leading to a much more dangerous
environment. That I think is largely true, the United States
is withdrawing. But George Bush took us into the Middle East,
militarily, economically in a way that we had never been there before with all of these
troops on the ground. In the last month, we have bombed eight countries. American military is just so big today, and
it’s overstretched. And I think we’re going to see this retreat
for years to come. It partly is not an absolute retreat. It’s because there are other powers growing
up. We’re … But it’s not strategic, that’s the problem
that we’re seeing. I mean, the last week shows a non strategic
retreat. It does. I think you would agree that retreat, a strategic
retreat is needed. In fact, you made the argument in some of
the articles that I read, that this was effectively an inevitability. That in the case of the Kurds, there was no
way that the United States is going to be able to maintain support for the Kurds indefinitely,
because it was such an unpopular position, that it would drive a wedge between them and
all the countries in the region. But what we’re seeing here is, it’s almost
as if Donald Trump is going out of his way to destroy American foreign policy. Well, his pitching is, he’s draining the swamp
and he’s trying to blame all the people around him, who of course, he’s put into positions
of power for being part of the swamp. And he’s relishing, in a sense lashing out
at them. And firing them here and hither and yon like
Bolton and others who said we disagree, and he’s no good. And I’m not going to agree with him. In a sense, he stages these little temper
tantrums. And I think it plays well to his base. But you’re absolutely right, it’s thrown American
foreign policy into chaos. He’s the agent of chaos. He is the agent of chaos. He is an agent of chaos. But there’s never a good time to withdraw
from Syria, and it’s the same for Afghanistan. We are in untenable position in Afghanistan. We are not going to destroy the Taliban, and
we’re not going to stay there forever. And when we pull the plug on that, it’s going
to look something like Vietnam, because the Taliban is going to sweep in and take over. And all of the nice secular people that we
have been employing, training, schooling, they’re going to flee the country. And they’re going to be damaged badly, and
it’s going to be chaotic. Whether it’s a democratic president who’s
very careful, or a Trump who throws a temper tantrum and just yanks a plug, there’s going
to be a large element of chaos. Because we’ve gotten ourselves into very stupid
positions around the world that we cannot afford. and which don’t make any sense. It’s interesting, because in some ways, we’ve
seen something similar with China. Because many people will agree that the United
States needed to change the way that they engage with China, but China was so effective
at lobbying American businesses and politicians, that the United States has not adjusted its
policy all of these years. And so here comes Trump and he adjusts it. He doesn’t adjust it as well as people would
like. But I guess it sounds like what you’re saying
is, it’s hard to imagine that because of the nature of the interests, that this would be
done in a way that wouldn’t be messy, regardless. That it’s something that we may want, nut
realistically speaking, it’s not going to be easy. It’s going to be messy whenever we’re going
to do it, and this is kind of how it’s going to look like what’s happening now. Some elements are. But I mean, like Iran, President Obama, I
think very smartly got us out of a potential war with Iran. By scuttling the Iran deal, we’re now, I think,
ineluctable march towards some kind of conflict with Iran. Because we’re crushing Iran’s economy, and
they’re not going to sit by and allow it to be closed. But that’s the crazy right now. But that’s, see, that’s the crazy thing. And this goes back to the point. On the one hand, he’s withdrawing us from
a region where we have 1000 troops. I forget how many people we had on the ground
in Syria. I think, five collective fatalities in the
entire time that we’ve been there, and he would put us potentially in a war with Iran. I mean, he pulled out of the Iran nuclear
deal. Right, it makes no sense. It makes no sense from a geopolitical standpoint. And to take on China, we need to stabilize
the Middle East. We need to get out of this conflict, looming
conflict with Iran. We need to shore up NATO and our alliances
with Europe. And in a sense, develop as many alliances,
even with the Russia. In order to corner China, we needed to stay
in the economic agreement in Asia. Because all those Asian countries who are
fearful of the rise of China wanted to have an economic agreement with the United States. The TPP you’re saying right. Yes, so they could counterbalance China. We didn’t do that. We needed to use every instrument at our disposal,
and our long history of very strong alliances and friendships with all these countries,
in order to, in a sense, provide a roadmap for China that led into the direction of really
becoming a capitalist country, and abandoning the statism that has made America question
its own capitalism and fearful. Is that also a naive belief? In other words… Well, you might be right. I don’t know. Yeah. But it’s worth a college try. I mean, that’s the… Well, haven’t we been trying though? Isn’t that what we’ve been trying to do with
China? The presumption has been that as they get
wealthier, that they’ll become more open. But in fact, it seems the opposite has happened. Yes, it does. We don’t know the answer. We’re facing a real competition between two
different systems, economic philosophies and systems. And this system in China is not like Marxism,
which was based on a faulty notion of human nature. That humans wanted to share, and that they
would be productive, even as the state owned everything. But China has come up with a model that it
seems to be working beyond anybody’s wildest dreams with 10% growth a year for 30 something
years. I mean, it’s really extraordinary. Now it’s possible that, that could all come
crashing down, and that we’re just seeing a very extended lucky streak. Well, it also depends on where that growth
went, and how much of that is malinvestment. Right? It does. How much of that over capacity of course, You’re right, because they could become corrupt
like everybody else over time, because this state directed capitalism seems to be working
now. But we know that you let it go long enough
and you begin to invest in stupid things. And there’s tons of interest self interested
people who… Anyway, the point being that we are in this
incredible competition, we need to be smart. And what we’re doing today is not smart. Just to recap here a moment, it seems that
there have been a number of things that have come out of the last week or so. One is that, this has revived ISIS. And I want to ask you about ISIS, because
we haven’t discussed it yet. Right. You said that basically, the big story is
that it’s cemented Assad’s grip on Syria. And it’s also handed Russia another geopolitical
victory, right? Yes. And we didn’t talk about the Kurds. This has been, obviously a huge betrayal to
the Kurds. As you said, our position with the Kurds was
always untenable, but it certainly could have been handled better, and it certainly could
have been handled in a way where we didn’t further damage our reputation in the Middle
East. And on top of that, US credibility at large
has been damaged from all of this. It seems to me that these are kind of the
major takeaways from what has occurred. Right. If we had been running our policy in a thoughtful
way, President Trump who wanted to get us out of Syria after the destruction of the
Caliphate, the Kurds went. When he made that statement in December of
this year, about eight, nine months ago, 10 months ago now, everybody shuttered and some
people resigned. It was an irresponsible statement, but he
walked it back, and he basically gave his foreign policy lead another 10 months. The Kurds on hearing that 10 months ago went
to Damascus and hammered out an agreement with Damascus, an agreement that they never
acted on, because they had a much better agreement from the United States. But James Jeffrey, the special envoy to Syria
and others told the Kurds not to make a deal with Damascus, because they were going to
stay there for the long haul. They were, of course, all completely wrong. Then when Trump basically just ripped America
out in the last few days of Syria, the Kurds had the deal. They managed to revive it within two days. I mean, everybody was stunned at how quickly
this deal fell into place. But that’s because they’d hammered it out
long time ago. And America should have been facilitating
the Syrian return to these lands, knowing that it’s not going to stay, it’s not going
to be there to defend a Kurdish state in northeastern Syria. It should have laid the groundwork for stability
in Syria and stopping a Turkish invasion, which was going to be so damaging to the Kurds,
and to the whole political order in the Middle East. And it could have done that, and it refused
to do it because it didn’t really know what it’s foreign policy was. Because two sides of American foreign policy
were fighting each other, and we’ve got this chaos that’s come out the other end. But we could have done this in a much more
reasonable way, and we didn’t do it. One of the things that you said, this word
chaos, that brings us back to ISIS. Yes. These types of extremist organizations operate
well in environments of chaos., and that’s what we are seeing increasingly in the Middle
East. What does this mean for ISIS? And what does this mean for the security of
European nation states and the United States, which have seen attacks from ISIS? I don’t know if we had any in the US, I guess
we had some ISIS inspired attacks. Right. But certainly, there have been some in Europe. This is no small threat. We managed to roll them back through our relationship
with the Kurds. Now, presumably, they’re in a better position. How much better? And what does this really mean in the next
several years? Are we going to start seeing attacks again,
do you think from ISIS as a result of this? ISIS has not gone away. I mean, look, this is obviously a great opportunity
for ISIS. And I’m sure there are a lot of ISIS people
out there who are rubbing their hands together and hoping that the whole situation falls
apart, and Turkey and Syria get into a real fight. But if this can be contained, the Syrian government
has a very long and deep interest in destroying ISIS. So does Russia, so does Iran, and even Turkey. So it’s very possible that ISIS is not going
to grow up again, in the middle of Syria. It is obviously has positions in Yemen and
in North Africa, in Central Africa. So, it’s not over for ISIS by any means. The Islamic extremism is still a potent force
in many places in the world, but it doesn’t have to be the replay of Iraq in Syria. I think, the long term solution to ISIS in
Syria is a strong central state, a good police force and stability. That needs to be built around a government
in Damascus. Now, of course, America does not want to see
a strong Assad. Traditionally, it has not because that means
Iranian influence, that means hurting Israel, hurting Saudi Arabia. But ultimately, that’s the only long term
solution for ISIS in the Middle East. Dr. Landis in closing, I’d love for you to
give us maybe a best case and worst case, and maybe even middle of the road case scenarios
for what you think comes out of this current crisis, and this larger crisis of American
leadership and foreign policy within the Trump administration. Because of course, we do have one more year,
and we don’t know what’s going to happen, ans I don’t think the democrats have this
in the bag whatsoever. In fact, I’m quite concerned by the fact that
there hasn’t seemed to emerge a compelling democratic candidate who can appeal to both
sides of the aisle. And I wouldn’t put it past the electorate
to put Trump back into office, because of much of the rightly deserved hate and disgust
with the hypocrisy and the mistakes, the unacknowledged mistakes of the ruling class that have unfastened
so much of the ire of the body politic. So how do we forecast American foreign policy
amid all this uncertainty? The US is withdrawing slowly from the Middle
East from this high point of the bush, sort of projection of power, which was very unnatural. America had never had that kind of power projected,
and couldn’t afford to project that kind of power. So where we’re withdrawing for two reasons. One is, because we’d overextended, and two
is because America is no longer the sole superpower in the world, which we were for about 20 years
after the collapse of the Soviet Union. We had this little 20, 25-year period in which
to play on the globe. And now China’s come up, Russia is back. There are many other smaller regional powers
that are pushing in at this as well. So, America is going to find it much more
difficult to project power. Our major interest in the Middle East today… Well, we have two. One is Israel, and the other is the Persian
Gulf and oil. And if there was one lesson that came out
of World War Two is that, you wanted to have your hand on the spigot. We defeated Germany, because we didn’t allow
Hitler to get to oil. He ran out of oil, and his pants or units,
his Air Force came to a screeching halt. Germany was trying to get to oil in what Churchill
calls the hinge of fate, the Battle of Stalingrad in Russia, and El Alamein in North Africa. He was stopped. Now as a result of that, the US began to think
about a World War Three, and they wanted to have control of world oil. That meant the Persian Gulf, where over 50%
of world’s strategic oil reserves or known oil reserves lie. And so the US has doubled down on Saudi Arabia,
and this is part of the reason why we have not been able to abandon Saudi Arabia. Because we don’t want to cede control over
that Persian Gulf Oil to China, or to Russia, who would move in very rapidly should America
withdraw. And that has to do with our identity as a
superpower. If we concede that, we’re no longer going
to be… That’s one of the major tent pegs of superpower
dumb, if you want to put it that way. So, America is at a very, at a crossroads
here. And we see this amongst the Democratic Party,
who’ve been trying to hammer a Trump for his alliance with Saudi Arabia. But in some ways, they’re undermining a central
tent peg of American foreign policy since World War Two, which is, control over the
Persian Gulf and this alliance with Saudi Arabia. We don’t know what is going to replace that. And it’s something that Americans aren’t talking
honestly about, and haven’t really thought about. This is our relationship with Israel is another
complex, traditional tent peg in our middle east foreign policy. And the democrats today are at six and sevens
over our relationship with Israel. You listen to Bernie Sanders, or the sort
of very left wing of the Democratic Party, Ilhan Omar and so forth, who are condemning
Israel for its settlement policy, and it’s rather nasty policy towards the Palestinians. And yet, Israel has been a central part of
the Democratic Party. The vast majority of American Jews vote for
the democrats and support the Democratic Party, and the Jewish community in America is so
important to politics, to intelligent discourse. So we’re in a time of real flux, where we
have to rethink our global strategy. We have to retrench, there’s no doubt about
it. But we have to retrench, as you were saying
earlier in a very smart way. Because if we unravel things in a chaotic
way, the way we’ve been to a recently, we’re going to be left with enemies on the right
and the left. We’re going to lose a lot of power quickly,
and we don’t have to do that. We are the major player in the world, and
this is still American Century if you want it that way. I mean, 60s, 5, 70% of world trade is done
in the dollar. We have tremendous power to shape things. So, America has an important role to play. We have to limit our ambitions, we have to
have a much more realistic sense of what we can accomplish in the world, and we have to
maintain our alliances and reshape our alliances. Those are going to be very important things
for the next president. I think, it’s not unreasonable to assume that
if someone like, let’s say, Joe Biden comes into office, he will retreat to the traditional
strategies, he’ll try to deploy some of what you’re describing. If Donald Trump gets reelected, what are we
looking at for the next four years, in your view? Or do you think that the establishment, the
deep state, whatever you want to call it is so committed to ejecting him from office? They see him as such a threat that they’re
going to impeach him one way or the other? And then, what are we dealing with? I don’t know the answer to that. I think that President Trump has tapped into
some deep veins of American anxiety. Not only economic in terms of the economic
gap, but also identity politics. I think that many Americans felt uncomfortable
with Hillary Clinton’s real retreat to identity politics where it was. Yes. Yeah, sure. Women interests, whether it was black Americans,
Hispanic Americans. At the National Convention, she paraded one
special interest group after the next. And I think, many white American men got very
anxious. And a lot of American women got anxious, because
they have sons who are white American mens, but also because of many Americans don’t want
to think of their country as a parceled between these different identity groups. It was very divisive. So the Democratic Party adopted a very divisive
framework for thinking about politics, and that’s what identity politics is. It is, and that’s what played into Trump’s
hands. The democrats today, whether it’s Bernie or
Warren are trying to move away from that. That’s what makes Bernie Sanders so compelling,
because he sticks to his economic arguments with incredible, like a laser beam. And he is pitting that two percent of the
top against the rest of America, and he’s saying, look, we have to fix this. And Warren is moving in that direction, but
she doesn’t… She has moved away from some of that identity
politics language, I’ve noticed that. She’s been moved away from some of it. She’s tried to, but she comes back to it. And Trump has been trying to nail her, but
first with the… Pocahontas. … Pocahontas thing. But so he has every interest to make her Mrs.
identity politics, and he’s going to try to find a way to chisel that into her. And we’ll see. Well, interestingly enough, he has exploited
the competencies of the democrats and the vacuum that they have created, in the same
way that Vladimir Putin has exploited the competences of the American foreign policy
establishment and the hypocrisy of American foreign policy, because that’s the other thing. It’s very difficult for us to make moral statements
about the behavior of Russia or Iran, or turkey or China, when the United States has been
caught red handed, many times doing things that are totally immoral in foreign policy. Whether we’re talking about Abu Ghraib, whether
we’re talking about the… Killing a million Vietnamese in order to… Yes, sure. No, and there’s no doubt that America is capable
of being very self serving. It’s hard to know who the good guy is when
it comes to American foreign policy sometimes, because the rhetoric is very lofty. But the record isn’t really so pristine. It isn’t, and American power has been abused
a lot in the last 20 years. We had that sort of glowing record of the
victory in World War Two, and a good cause is in the great generation, all that. Today, Americans have a much deeper sense
of self doubt, I guess, both economically in terms of the way their own society works,
and the way that they can use their authority in the world. Dr. Landis before we end it, maybe you can
give us a silver lining here. What if you gave us an optimistic outcome
out of all of this, what can we take away to feel good about the future? Well, I think America holds wonderful lessons
for the world. We still are an incredibly successful society. You look at our education system, the whole
world and particularly in the Middle East. If you name any school, the American school,
everybody wants to send their kids to it. People believe in what America has put together,
a multi ethnic, a multicultural society that is ruled by a civic nationalism rather than
an ethnic nationalism, that can produce fantastic institutions, and learning and progress. That model is still the envy of the world. And not a China, not a Russia have found something
that can really replace it. It has become tarnished, and America’s in
a sense casting about for a more restrained vision of its place in the world. But I think there is a lot… There’s so much that’s good in the American
model that needs to really be highlighted, and that should act as a real future for the
world because we’re seeing the rates of migration. The old national idea of a Switzerland or
a sub Sweden, excuse me. That’s all Swedes are Germany, that’s all
Germans…. Immigration is going to change the face of
nationalism in the blink of an eye, and it’s doing it. And it’s causing great backlash of this nationalist
backlash, but it’s happening. And America has a good answer for that, which
is a way to integrate people with their civic nationalism, and how that can make you stronger. And I think that’s a model that we need to
hold up to the world as a counter measure to some of the darker, more atavistic nationalism
that we see. Well, Dr. Landis, I really appreciate you
making the time to speak with me today. Thank you so much. Well, it’s a pleasure. Very good questions, very challenging. Today’s episode of Hidden Forces was recorded
at Creative Media Design Studio in New York City. For more information about this week’s episode,
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