Looks like you’re using a browser we don’t support.

To improve your visit to our site, take a minute and upgrade your browser.

The Madman Has No Clothes

Since Nixon, presidential pundits and sycophants have tried to rationalize executive insanity. But no one was prepared for Trump’s Syria madness.

Nicholas KammI/AFP/Getty

If you pretended you oversaw the most powerful military, diplomatic corps, and liberal political system in human history, and you wanted to discover the single action that would threaten a friendly people with atrocities, war crimes, and genocide; expose U.S. troops to attack by a foreign state’s military; scatter Islamist terrorist prisoners to the winds and invigorate their movement; boost anti-democratic, murderous regimes in Damascus, Ankara, Moscow, and Tehran; shred longstanding liberal alliances; and demoralize citizens of your own nation—you could have barely topped what President Trump has just done. Not without nuclear weapons, at least.

To sum up: Trump and fellow Turkish “nationalist” president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan chatted two Sundays ago, and Trump subsequently announced he was pulling U.S. troops from territory in Northern Syria that we’d helped the Kurds occupy. The reason was that Erdoğan planned a massive incursion to wipe out those Kurds, all of whom he considers to be Marxist-Leninist terrorists, and whose destruction would be a feather in his populist cap. The Turkish operation began. U.S. forces, caught unawares by the move, began a hasty and logistically problematic retreat; at one point American troops found themselves deliberately “bracketed” by Turkish artillery fire—pinned in position and wholly reactive to the movements of a foreign state’s force, one set in motion by their own commander in chief. This may have been the first time any nation that houses U.S. nuclear weapons—there are an estimated 50 thermonuclear air-drop warheads at Incirlik Air Force Base in Turkey—targeted U.S. troops with its own army. (“Seriously, it’s time to take our fucking nuclear weapons out of Turkey,” one longtime arms-control expert tweeted in response to the targeting news.)

Since then, U.S. forces on the ground are in anguish and “ashamed,” witnessing atrocities and abandoning allies to potential Turkish war crimes. The Kurds, having seen Trump almost pull this last year, had asked their American partners’ help in planning for a post-U.S. scenario by aligning with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and his Russian backers. The U.S. had said no, assuring the Kurds it would not abandon them. After all, Trump had publicly bragged last summer that he’d singlehandedly stopped Erdogan from going in before; “I called him and asked him not to do it, and he hasn’t done it,” he said in June. But Erdogan did it. And he told Trump that he was doing it.


Now, with steel raining down on them, without the protection of American promises or partners, the Kurds have made that deal with Damascus, and Assad—a patrilineal dictator in the small pantheon of sociopaths who have used chemical weapons on his own people—holds more territory in the north than he’s had since almost the beginning of the civil war that fragmented Syria. Because the U.S. had no hand in the deal, he can do things his way. Journalists and NGO workers, fearing arrest or torture or death at Syrian hands, are fleeing the Kurdish north, leaving no witnesses for whatever is about to follow.

That deal didn’t come fast enough to prevent the flight of an untold number of former Islamic State fighters and their families from Kurdish prisons that once held them, a ready-made “miracle” around which a near-dead, once-discredited jihadist movement can weave a new narrative of rebirth. If the destruction of “the Caliphate” and the invalidation of its ideology was once among American aims, then those aims have failed.

Last week, I noted that other U.S. administrations had sold out the stateless Kurdish people of Iraq and Syria, but that only Trump lacked any apparent geopolitical aim in doing so. You can’t say Henry Kissinger meant well, but he had a particular evil end in mind for abandoning the Kurds to Saddam Hussein in the ’70s. Trump gets no benefit of the doubt. Even his people’s best spin on this clusterfuck is that Trump called Erdogan’s bluff and lost, but it actually sounds like Trump folded the stronger hand.

Trump and his advisers’ rationales over the past week for abandoning the Kurds have been incoherent, dishonest, and obscene: It’s a primordial fight between lesser peoples; it’s a victorious end to endless war, despite the fact that there’s no actual U.S. withdrawal plan from Syria, and 14,000 U.S. troops have been added in the region since the spring; the Kurds “didn’t help us in the Second World War, they didn’t help us with Normandy”; we “should have never been there in the first place”; Turkey “is a big trading partner”; we “did not endorse” and are “not involved” in the Turkish operation; just go ahead and let it happen, but know that if it gets bad, there will be consequences.

Here’s a consequence: the body of Kurdish politician Hevrin Khalaf, reportedly dragged from her car by Turkish-backed fighters and murdered, captured on video by a fighter who then says, “This is the body of a pig.” Here is another: a video of Turkish militiamen executing two Kurdish prisoners in cold blood. There are reports of dead children and mass refugees. We could add to this the damage done to American promises, the boon to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s expanding sphere of leverage-acquiring potentates and bagmen, and the rending of NATO, but it feels premature to dwell too closely on the geopolitical implications of this catastrophe while the atrocities continue apace.


After Richard Nixon left the White House in disgrace, his disciples and defenders picked up on his “madman theory” of international politics as a defense of his worst impulses. According to his chief of staff H.R. Haldeman, Nixon coined the term to describe his tough hand and nuclear threats while negotiating a Vietnam War settlement:

We were walking along a foggy beach after a long day of speechwriting. He said, “I call it the Madman Theory, Bob. I want the North Vietnamese to believe I’ve reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war. We’ll just slip the word to them that, for God’s sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about Communism. We can’t restrain him when he’s angry—and he has his hand on the nuclear button—and Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace.”

Trump has congratulated himself for being a foreign-policy madman, too, saying his (now clearly empty) threats of “fire and fury” and “total annihilation” helped bring North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un to the negotiating table, for whatever that’s worth, which is nothing. Nevertheless, pundits can’t quite shake their affection for stories that suggest Trump’s crazy whims—on a China trade war, say, or buying Greenland—are just crazy enough to work.

Like so many others who have covered Trump and his coterie of dullards, I have often been caught up in questions of whether despots have blackmail leverage over Trump or offer him favors; of whether he recognizes his kind or he’s an easily influenced idiot. Motives would be wonderful to pin down—after we stop the serial arsonist from starting fires. What’s happening in Syria shows that it doesn’t matter whether Trump is a dope, weak bluffer, toddler-in-chief, serial abuser, narcissist, pathological liar, or mob grifter. It doesn’t matter if he’s been recruited as an agent of a foreign government. It makes no difference whether he’s evil, stupid, or a madman.

You don’t need a psychological sketch to understand the events in Syria, just the bare and obvious truth: Because Trump is president, people are being murdered before cameras, the world is more unsafe, and American promises are worth less than the cursed account that they’re tweeted on.