“If I lose my honor,” said Shakespeare, “I lose myself.”
What Shakespeare said of the individual human being applies also to the nation, a collectivity of human beings. When a nation loses its honor — its moral integrity — or, worse, as with Trumpian America, when it loses it not through defeat to an overpowering opponent but by its own heedlessness — when a nation in effect gives away its honor, prizing it so little — the loss feels just as grievous, perhaps even more so.
This is not to say America the Beautiful has not acted in un-beautiful ways before (see: slavery, the Iraq war, torture). But two recent instances of honor-depletion — Ukraine and Syria — occurring within just days of each other, have struck deep with conscientious Americans and leaves fresh hurt. The conscientious, by definition, are ones who prize things like honor and feel things like shame.
The Ukraine and Syria stories, dominating the news for weeks now, are quickly grasped in their shameful essence.
With Ukraine — when president Donald Trump asked “a favor” of the new Ukrainian president: that he investigate Trump’s rival Joe Biden, in exchange for badly needed military aid (nearly $400 million) for Ukraine’s fight with Russia — the public can see the quid pro quo. As House Democrats put it in their fact sheet for their impeachment inquiry, there was the “shakedown,” “the pressure campaign,” and “the cover up.”
All of which is, in a word, corruption. Meanwhile, the White House chief of staff insists that people should “get over it,” that foreign aid is leveraged this [corrupt] way all the time.
With Syria, the shame is even sharper: abandoning an ally on the battlefield to possible genocide. In a phone call with Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and without consulting his own military, Trump acceded to Erdogan’s plan to invade northern Syria and quash the “terrorist” Kurds, for the ostensible purpose of creating a buffer zone. Again, as the import impinged, the American public could see the shadow this move cast over America: that we sacrificed a stalwart ally, the Kurds, who fought alongside us — and died in far larger numbers (over 11,000) than Americans (fewer than 10) — in the battle to defeat ISIS, which battle let it be remembered was then successful.
There is a damning word for this act: treachery. Roger Cohen, columnist for The New York Times, reaches back to antiquity and calls it “perfidy.”
Perfidy between comrades-in-arms cuts deepest. American military personal who fought alongside the Kurds, as well as others up and down the line, have defied the formal chain of command and gone public, venting disgust at their Commander in Chief’s abandonment of an ally. Says one soldier: “I joined the Army to prevent genocide, not to pave the way for one.” The Times reports one officer saying of the Kurds, “They trusted us and we broke that trust. It’s a stain on the American conscience,” while another officer said, “I’m ashamed.” The Washington Post quotes a senior official saying of other senior officials, including retired generals: “They are livid.” As for the Kurds, officials speak of “the worst thing”: “betrayal.” Says Kurdish general Mazloum Kobani Abdi of the U.S.: “You are leaving us to be slaughtered.”
Tellingly, Republicans in Congress, until now in lockstep with Trump, have taken note of the blot on the nation’s reputation of abandoning allies on the battlefield and stepped up, finally, to protest: Two-thirds (129) of House Republicans joined Democrats in a House resolution condemning the Syria withdrawal, passing it 354 to 60, in what the Times called “the most significant bipartisan repudiation of Trump since he took office.” Dishonor pierces even the thickest carapace.
Also telling: Trump did his corrupt and treacherous deeds at the bidding of corrupt and treacherous foreign strongmen. Persuading Trump to abandon the Kurds is a leader (Erdogan) who jails or kills opponents. And coming to light about Trump’s Ukraine move: It was Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who also jails or kills his opponents, and Hungary’s president Viktor Orban, who brags of turning his country’s liberal democracy “illiberal” — it was these two worthies, Putin and Orban, who filled Trump’s ear about Ukraine’s alleged villainy. And Trump, possessing not a trace of honor himself, bit. Putin aims to prove America is as corrupt as, well, Russia. Point, Putin.
What must be remembered in all this noise is the tragedy befalling those America shafted. Regarding Ukraine, Trump has been bad-mouthing the country as corrupt, which is rich, considering how corrupt Trump himself is! In fact, while it did slide into corruption through oligarchic greed in the immediate post-Cold War period, Ukraine has worked mightily to get clean in recent years; the new president won office for his anti-corruption campaign. As for the Kurds, the heart bleeds at their unending bloodshed and misery, made all the worse when we remember the U.S. has betrayed the Kurds before, most recently when President George H.W. Bush, at the end of the Gulf War, encouraged the Kurds to rise up against Saddam Hussein, then provided no cover.
Adding to the human tragedy is the tragic turn in policy: In Syria, we had a policy that worked. With a minimal footprint in-country (1,000 U.S. troops), along with U.S. air cover, intelligence, and logistics, the U.S. and the Kurds had quelled the ISIS menace and written finis to the caliphate. Now, untold numbers of ISIS captives have escaped — to reorganize and fight the Infidel another day. Meanwhile, Trump crows at his rallies he’s bringing the troops home, but in truth he is redeploying the troops elsewhere in the Middle East. And, while he pulled out our 1,000 troops allied with the stalwart Kurds, he has sent 3,500 new troops to Saudi Arabia, whose strongman leader admits responsibility for the killing of Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
My fellow conscientious Americans: Given the company we now keep and the corruption and treachery of our own leader, we are far from America the Beautiful.
Perhaps we Americans should not be surprised that we have come to this low pass. After all, there’s a certain logic to the descent: After Trump, newly elected, began trash-talking our allies and alliances and cozying up to autocrats, after we surrendered the precious mantle of Leader of the Free World, it was just a matter of time before we would see the ugly results play out. Still, for the conscientious, it is humiliating, it stings. It hurts to be given the side-eye by the world and be thought morally and ethically lesser.
Question to Trump’s base: In electing Trump the Disrupter, are you O.K. with the ensuing dishonor? Yes, let us end “endless wars,” but let us end them honorably — in consultation with our allies, especially allies left in the field of battle.
Americans of recent generations have not bothered unduly with honor, but, now that our national honor is in tatters, we hunger for it. Thus it is heartening to see diplomats defy State Department and White House bans and testify at the House impeachment inquiry, stating for the record that, regarding Ukraine, Trump’s quid pro quo was “wrong.” Likewise it is heartening to see military personnel break protocol and speak out of their disgust at abandoning our Kurdish ally in Syria. And it is moving to see how many Americans have taken the loss of our honor to heart.
Lost honor: We mourn it now, we want it back, but it will be hard to recover. Trade deals can be negotiated, but honor can’t. Some commentators now believe the reputational damage to America is irreparable. I believe we can recover our honor, but it will take a long, long time.
As Socrates said: “Regard your good name as the richest jewel you can possibly be possessed of — for credit is like fire; when once you have kindled it you may easily preserve it, but if you once extinguish it, you will find it an arduous task to rekindle it again.” Socrates’ last word on the subject: “The way to gain a good reputation is to endeavor to be what you desire to appear.”