How Are We to Determine the National Interest?

There is no greater truism in foreign policy debates than that foreign policy should be guided by the national interest. Everyone from Rand Paul to John Bolton would agree, but obviously Rand Paul and John Bolton do not agree on what constitutes the national interest? If the national interest was self-evident, we would not have fierce debates over what the national interest is. So how should be best determine what the national interest actually is?

Let us start with a contemporary debate: the situation in Syria as it relate to the Turkish invasion and the fate of the Kurds.

On one hand you have people like Paul and President Trump saying that it is not in the national interest to get into one endless war after another, especially when those wars are built upon centuries of sectarian divides that the U.S. cannot solve and often does not understand or even recognize exist. Furthermore, the Kurds were an ally of convenience against ISIS, whereas Turkey, as detestable as Erdogan may be, is a treaty ally, a NATO ally, and the home to Incirlik Air Base which holds about 50 American nuclear weapons. Would you have Trump start a war with a NATO ally on behalf of a sub-national SDF and ethnic group that is not the unified people group that its biggest backers portray it as?

On the other hand, you have just about everybody else saying it is not in the national interest to abandon actual allies to be slaughtered, by someone who is an ally in name only. If your allies don’t trust you, then they will seek help elsewhere, as the Kurds have done, and potentially new allies will have a harder time being convinced to join our efforts after the dishonorable actions of the past couple of days. It also makes your other security guarantees look less firm, which some nefarious character may try to take advantage of. This will also lead to a mass ISIS jail break, which is clearly not in the national interest and since we abandoned our main ground allies, the second war with ISIS will be much more difficult. Finally, nobody was asking Trump to do anything, they were asking him not to do certain things such as not insisting that the Kurds dismantle their border fortifications.

Both of these arguments make sense when made in a vacuum. If you were to ask a random person on the street who knows nothing about the Syrian Civil War, Turkey, the Kurds, or ISIS if it is in the national interest to be engaged in multiple wars that have no foreseeable end, that person would say “no, of course not.” If you were to ask that same person if it was in the national interest to peruse a policy that would see some of the world’s worst terrorists released from jail or abandon your allies in a recent war to be slaughtered, the answer would be the same. So, how do we break this impasse?

The answer is simple enough: look at things outside of the vacuum. To do this we must look at some of the basic concepts of the national interest.

1. Territorial Integrity & The Protection of the Citizenry

It is not just the starting point of any state’s foreign policy strategy, but also the ultimate purpose of government itself to defend the members of the community from outside aggression by defending community’s borders and the people who live within them. With the exception of the most devoted pacificsts, everyone agrees that ff you’re attacked, you defend yourself.

This is simple enough when dealing with nation-states. The Japanese attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor and the United States therefore went to war with Japan, but what about non-state actors? There is no fear of ISIS landing multiple divisions on the American mainland and toppling the American government, but there is a fear that the jail break of ISIS prisoners could see a resurgence of attacks on Western citizens, such as journalists or humanitarian workers inside Syria, or targets inside Western countries like we saw when ISIS was not on the verge of imminent defeat. People may talk about finding the root cause of terrorism, but it is also true that nobody wants to join a losing cause.

It is ironic that many of the people who sight possible ISIS infiltration of refugee groups as a reason to limit refugee admissions are the same people who are backing a policy that would only make that worse.

In this case, point to the critics.

2. Geography

Another basic aspect of the national interest includes geography. This is mainly which geographical features that are valuable to you for are necessary for you to control in the event of conflict or some larger spiritual (see Jerusalem) or economic reason (see Peter the Great’s drive to the Baltic). These could be land features such as mountain passes on your border, maritime choke points half-a-world away, and everything in-between. Again, this is easy to understand in the traditional sense. During the Cold War, control of Iceland was important for the United States and NATO to monitor Soviet submarine activity entering the Atlantic and control of the GIUK gap was crucial for American convoys re-supplying Europe during wartime, but again it gets more complicated with non-state actors.

If the goal is to deny the worst terrorist organization, arguably ever, any territory, then once again, we must conclude that perusing a policy that could free more than 10,000 ISIS prisoners, is clearly a problem.

Again, point to the critics. That’s Critics 2 Supporters 0

3. Allies, Enemies, and Reactions

After identifying your interests based on the previous two areas, you evaluate who the threats to those interests are and who has similar interests to you and begin to implement policies that reflect those conclusions. Meanwhile, every other country is doing the same process. Part of the problem with discussions of the national interest is that it is often analyzed in a vacuum, without consideration to how other actors will react. They may take a hard line stance, back down in the face of threats, decide to seek rapprochement, appease, sense weakness and try to expand their own influence, peruse limited military action, or go to war. The ability to accurately predict these reactions is the mark of a good foreign policy thinker who can advance the national interest.

In this instance, Actor A (the United States) decided to withdraw because Actor B (Turkey) invaded and started shelling our troops and Actor C (the Kurds) responded by making a deal with Actors D and E (Syria and Russia). That is clearly not good for the U.S., but on the other hand if the Russo-Syrian alliance is to fight a war with Turkey, what does that mean for the Russo-Turkish rapprochement? Furthermore, while Russia gains influence as the U.S. loses, some perspective is important. Syria has been a Russian vassal since the 1950s and so a Russia-Syria win in the civil war is not as great of a victory as some anti-Trump commentators portray it as, rather it is a return to the status quo ante bellum. Since there is no realistic scenario in which somebody other than Assad rules Syria after the war is over, saying “Trump lost Syria to the Russians” is unfair.

However, he did lose, at least for the moment, the Kurds to the Russians, and not only did he give up U.S. leverage, he gave it up rather easily. As a result, getting the Iranians out, just became harder. He also damaged U.S. credibility in the process.

This one is not as clear as the others, but it still a point to the critics. Critics 3 Supporters 0.

As I have just explained, I believe those who support Trump in this decision are wrong. But, if you still don’t believe me, consider their own argument. This is done to end “Forever War,” but if the jail breaks are as bad as predicted war will return. Winston Churchill apocryphally told Neville Chamberlain, “You were given the choice between war and dishonor. You chose dishonor, and you will have war.” Unfortunately, it appears Trump did the same and because he damaged our relations with the Kurds, this war will probably be more difficult to wage, and therefore longer. How ironic.

Still, some words of caution are necessary. Donald Trump is an easy target because this was such a haphazard decision that had such obvious results and because just about everybody who isn’t Rand Paul predicted the disaster that has resulted. Even Tulsi Gabbard, the nation’s foremost critic of “Forever War” opposed the move. Speaking of Paul, he too is an easy target, because he is a simpleton masquerading as a deep thinker. But, while Trump and Paul defend this move against all the evidence and against all well-informed opinion, there is a kernel of truth to what they say. The United States was not going to be in Syria forever, for the simple reason that we can’t, we weren’t invited. We took advantage of a wartime power vacuum that was not going to last forever. Assad is a tyrant, but he’s not worth a war to overthrow. One day Assad will rule over all of Syria again as a Russian client. That’s not an isolationist or pro-Putin position, it’s simply a realistic one. Trump’s problem was he left before our objectives: the elimination of ISIS and hopefully the ejection of the Iranians were achieved. The dishonorable abandonment of the Kurds just makes it all the worse.




Writing about politics and other interesting things. Contributing Writer to NewsBusters. Member of YAF’s National Journalism Center’s Spring 2019 class.

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Alex Christy

Alex Christy

Writing about politics and other interesting things. Contributing Writer to NewsBusters. Member of YAF’s National Journalism Center’s Spring 2019 class.

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