WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump is surfacing cultural stereotypes as he depicts the Middle East as a blood-soaked sandbox where people “play” violently because that’s “what they do” in that part of the world.
“It’s unnatural for us, but it’s sort of natural for them – to fight,” he said.
This from the president of a nation born in revolution, ruptured by civil war, tested by world wars, bogged in Vietnam and now trying to extricate itself from the longest war in its history, in Afghanistan.
“It’s a lot of sand,” he said Wednesday of the Syrian areas of Turkish-Kurdish conflict from which he is pulling back U.S. troops. “They’ve got a lot of sand over there. So there’s a lot of sand that they can play with.”
The area, for the record, is certainly not known for being sandy. It’s the fertile breadbasket of Syria.
Trump’s dismissive words were the latest iteration of a world view that typecasts foreign cultures or countries as alien ones: the Africans from countries he compared to excrement; the foreign Muslims he wanted banned from the United States; the wily Chinese mercantilists outsmarting lesser U.S. presidents; the other countries of the Americas sending their ne’er-do-well “hombres” here.
Now that world view is subjecting the Kurds, the U.S. military allies who helped diminish the Islamic State group as a territorial force and are being left vulnerable by a U.S withdrawal, to revisionist history. “They’re not angels, if you take a look,” Trump said. “They did well when they fought with us. They didn’t do so well when they didn’t fight with us.”
He also noted, days earlier, that it’s not as if the Kurds landed at Normandy with U.S. and allied forces in the D-Day invasion of France in World War II.
To some specialists in the Middle East and foreign policy, Trump is tapping successfully into public exhaustion with seemingly unwinnable wars and the blood and money that involves.
‘He lives, thrives and is a master at deploying his own personal prejudices and stereotypes,” said Aaron Miller, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment and former State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. In this matter, Trump may be employing that skill to “create a new reality” that makes abandonment of the Kurds more palatable.
“Today’s comments are very much driven by the anger and resentment on the part of the Republican establishment at what they believe is an act of betrayal and gross incompetency,” Miller said. “I think this was an exercise in Donald Trump’s determination to excuse and justify his decisions.”
Trump is not alone in seeing the Middle East as a region of intractable conflict and grievances dating to antiquity. It can be seen, without cultural bias, as “still a broken, angry and dysfunctional part of the world,” Miller said.
Turkey is, after all, the ancient home of the Byzantine empire, which so exemplified complexity and intrigue that complicated things now are called Byzantine.
Shibley Telhami, a Mideast scholar and the Anwar Sadat professor for peace and development at the University of Maryland, samples American public opinion on the region and on the Islamic world. He said Trump’s impulse to detach militarily from parts of the Middle East is popular and that his portrayal of the region’s populations as prone to violence “probably registers with some people.”
“Of course the stereotype doesn’t represent the reality,” Telhami said, addressing the history of ancient civilizations that over centuries have known tranquility as well as war, prosperity as well as poverty. But Trump, he said, uses various tropes to deflect responsibility should disaster unfold with a U.S. pullback — and to suggest that the Kurds aren’t worth saving.
For one, the president tweeted that Turks and Kurds “have been fighting each other for 200 years.”
Fighting between Turks and Kurds isn’t as inevitable as Trump suggests. Turkey has good relations and significant trade with the Kurdish autonomy zone in northern Iraq, as long as it does not declare independence.
To the extent he thinks the Middle East is a war-happy wasteland, Trump nevertheless carves out exceptions — Saudi Arabia most notably now. He is increasing the U.S. military presence in that kingdom.
Until not that long ago, the Kurds were exceptions, too, drawing only admiration from the president. They were great fighters — angels, almost — until they were not so great.
“They fought with us, they died with us,” Trump said just over a year ago, of the Kurds who died fighting ISIS. “I can tell you that I don’t forget.”
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