This article first appeared on the Ethics & International Affairs blog.
The Russian defense news site Voennoye Obozrenie has a very interesting and caustic take on the U.S. withdrawal from Northern Syria:
. . . the Americans are an unreliable ally . . . And this, by the way, is a good warning to all countries and forces counting on American support. They will not sacrifice their people, or invest big money in "foreign" wars for the sake of other countries and peoples . . .
This ties back, however, to the question of narrative. Americans are prepared to sacrifice, but leaders must connect a specific policy action to a larger, understandable narrative. What we are seeing currently in Washington and around the country is how the Kurdish question fits into larger narratives about the role the U.S. should play in the world and how U.S. commitments and promises should be honored. In particular, what guarantees were given to Syrian Kurds by both the Obama and Trump administrations, both by senior figures as well as U.S. representatives on the ground?
It also speaks to the problem of the forked tongue in foreign affairs. I've always been concerned about the phenomenon of double-dealing when it comes to the question of alliances and commitments. As a way to square the circle in recent years, policymakers have encouraged partners to believe that they have a firmer and more binding relationship with the United States (often conveyed by describing someone as an "ally") while at the same time avoiding the formal and legal treaty commitments that make alliances real. The gamble is that the proverbial check will never be cashed—but the problem is that when a demand is made to honor the commitment, the American public is not in favor and the U.S. government finds the legal rationale to regretfully announce that, after all, there was no actual alliance in terms of law.