Representative Ro Khanna has been one of the most outspoken critics of endless wars, military interventionism, and ill-conceived military alliances in the current Congress. He has long advocated for the withdrawal of US troops from Syria. Yet he has been sharply critical of President Trump’s decision to order troops out of northern Syria, and of the Turkish invasion of the region. This week, he voted for a bipartisan, bicameral resolution condemning what has happened, and said, “While I support removing troops from Syria, which were never authorized by Congress, withdrawing US troops for the purpose of allowing Turkish forces to attack Kurdish communities is incomprehensible. A responsible withdrawal acknowledges the limitations of American military power to reshape and restructure societies abroad, but we have a clear moral obligation to protect the lives of people who will be impacted by our decision.”
I spoke with Khanna, at the close of a chaotic and frustrating week, on how he believes progressives can and should be thinking about what Trump got wrong, what has been happening in Syria, and the plight of the Kurds.
John Nichols: You have for some time advocated for withdrawal from Syria, but not in the way it has been done. What should have been done?
Ro Khanna: We ought to have not just notified the Kurds and consulted our allies, but we ought to have had an agreement with [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan before any withdrawal that Turkey wouldn’t invade Syria.
The fact that they’re getting a cease-fire now [after a meeting between Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Turkish officials], even though it’s very temporary—five days—and not sufficient, shows that more negotiation could have been done earlier on. Effective diplomacy could have prevented the outcome that we have seen.
We should have a commitment towards helping rebuild, with humanitarian aid both to the Kurds and to civil society in Syria, and an obligation to take Syrian refugees.
So while there is a potential coalition with certain Republicans on military restraint and on ending these endless wars, the approach of progressives and conservatives is very different. The conservative frame, as Trump has basically explicitly said, is, “If American lives aren’t at stake, nothing else matters”; whereas the progressive view takes our moral commitments and human rights seriously while recognizing the limitation of military intervention to reshape society.
JN: The Congress never authorized military action in Syria. There was no declaration of war. Yet there was a military intervention, a military presence. Was it a problem that the US sent so many mixed signals?
RK: It was, and it was destabilizing. We called for regime change in 2011 without the backing of Congress, and that was one of the main problems.
It’s not just that Congress is constitutionally required [to declare war]. If you go make a declaration of regime change without congressional authorization, one of the things you see is you don’t have the political support to be effective. It actually leads to the type of fecklessness that we saw in Syria, where we invited all of these opposition groups to Assad, provided arms here and there, didn’t have the American public behind an intervention, and so you were destabilizing the country, and it ended up leading to Assad, frankly, being even more brutal and committing extraordinary atrocities.
We were not the primary people to blame, but we share some blame in calling for regime change and then not really being willing to go to war with Assad.
Now, I would have not advocated that we send troops in or go to war, but I also would have not advocated that we call for regime change and give people false hope. What we should have done is condemned Assad morally, worked with regional partners there, tried to hold him accountable for his war crimes with the United Nations, and spoken out morally against it, but not give people a sense that we were going to do something that we weren’t prepared to do.
JN: That is a big deal, because the United States is seen as such a powerful country. When it takes a stand on something, that is expected to have meaning. Yet, without a declaration, without a clear mission statement, people in other places assume it means something different than what it may mean. We confuse the world, so to speak.
RK: I agree. I mean, when we say regime change, people in other places think, “OK, the United States is going to have our back and they’re going to be at war with Assad.” And, meanwhile, we’re thinking, “Oh, wouldn’t it be nice if Assad topples and all we have to do is provide some kind of military assistance to other groups to do that.” So there is an ambiguity of meaning that often makes the situation worse.
The reality is that—and this is why war requires Congress’s authorization—I don’t think the American people are prepared to have 100,000 troops or 200,000 troops go to Syria to have a war there. They don’t want that, and you would never get the congressional authorization. So we also should be careful with just making a blanket call for regime change.
That doesn’t mean, though, that we be morally indifferent to Assad’s brutality. I think we [ought to] say that Assad is a brutal dictator, and he’s been gassing his own people, and it has led to a mass exodus in the country, but we understand the limits of American military power. We understand that we have to work through NATO and the United Nations and regional partners to try to bring a cease-fire in Syria and try to hold Assad accountable. And we’re going to play our role as a leading nation in a community of nations to hold Assad accountable, but we also aren’t committing militarily.
I think if we had taken that approach of moral clarity without implied commitment of American military presence, it may have not given as much false hope.
Of course, this is not [just] my thinking. This is basically what [former Secretary of State and President] John Quincy Adams was talking about when he said that we don’t have to go out to seek monsters to destroy, but America should always be on the side—in terms of our statements, our prayers, and our hopes—of freedom and human rights. And he tried to walk that fine line of how we can stand up for our values while recognizing the limitation of power to construct society consistent with those values.
JN: One of Adams’s codicils to that, one of his associated messages, was that if you spent time going abroad seeking monsters to destroy, mingling in all these struggles around the world, you ultimately would undermine freedom and progress at home.
RK: I think you’re absolutely right. I think that Adams warned that we could be seen as a dictatorial force even if we intend to be a liberating force overseas. Added to your point, since you read the same passages I have, is that he warned that it would threaten our own democratic conception of right and wrong, and that’s exactly what’s happening in Syria.
People [Americans] don’t like to think that we are involved in something that is dishonorable, and at a base level they know that the Kurds fought with us and they see this abandonment, and it pains our sense of conception as a democracy that believes in basic principles, that we stand with our allies, that we stand for freedom. And it’s really making us question our own values.
Not to be too philosophical, but this gets back to the distinction that Adam Smith made, which was that if there’s an earthquake in China, most people would care more if they lost a little pinkie finger. They don’t feel necessarily the capacity for human empathy. But if you ask the person, “Would you save thousands of lives if it meant giving up your finger?” most people would say, “Yeah, I’d save thousands of lives,” giving up [their] finger. What Adam Smith’s point was is that, while human beings don’t have the capacity necessarily for extraordinary empathy, we do view ourselves because of our reason as capable of having some moral principles and acting consistent with those moral principles.
What’s happened in this case is, it’s not just a matter of empathy for the Kurds. It’s the sense that our conception of reason, of what is right in a society, that we’re not doing that when it comes to Syria and the Kurds. And that is deeply problematic in terms of the American conception of what it means to be a liberal democracy.
JN: This also strikes me as a media issue because, when the US sends troops abroad, our media doesn’t often do a very good job of covering what they’re doing or what is happening.
RK: That’s a great point.
JN: I think there are a tremendous number of Americans who perhaps don’t know that much about the Kurds, and don’t understand that they’ve been US allies, and who might believe some of the disparaging things the president is now saying about them.
RK: Yeah, this gets back to the need, at the very basic level, for more of an education in citizenship, in world history, right? Most people probably don’t know that the Kurds have been a stateless nation or that the Treaty of 1920, where they were going to get a Kurdish state, was overturned by the Treaty of 1923, and that basically 25 million people are a stateless nation because of arbitrary decisions that were made by Europeans and the United States in how to draw up the map after dissolution of the Ottoman Empire.
So, because we don’t have that historical context, you can have the president come and try to manipulate public opinion and distort the facts. And this basic understanding of world history, of world geography, does not require a complex education. I think we just need to have a greater focus [on that] in our schooling, in high school, understanding our role and leadership in the world, especially in an interconnected world.
But I agree with you. I think the reporting of international news is not sufficient in our country. It’s not sufficient on our cable news. And certainly [our understanding of] our role in these countries in terms of our presence is not sufficient, and our understanding of the complexity and the historical complexity is not sufficient.
JN: I want to end where we started, on this question of diplomacy. Just to clarify, it’s your belief that what we’ve seen happen (with the announcement of a cease-fire) suggests that, with a little bit more diplomacy up front, a lot of the crisis of the last week could have been avoided?
RK: Absolutely. And the proof of that is Pence and Pompeo going to Turkey and, within hours, getting a five-day cease-fire. Now, that five-day cease-fire is insufficient, we don’t know what provision is going to be made for the Kurds, and we don’t know what they’re going to do after five days. But if they could do that now, why weren’t they there two weeks ago? Why weren’t we negotiating this before?
The argument the president is making that he removed US service members because he didn’t want them to be killed is totally disingenuous. I mean, no one thinks that Turkey would have actually attacked and risked killing US troops and risked a major confrontation with the United States. Turkey is not that irrational. So we had the opportunity to negotiate earlier…
[What has happened] just shows the importance of civil service expertise, of foreign policy expertise, in trying to achieve these ends. Instead, it’s been total chaos.