Alexander Cutting the Gordian Knot by André Castaigne (1898-1899) (from here)

We forget history almost as fast as the present becomes the past. At best we can only remember and learn from a few key events. One bit of history we have almost forgotten is the story behind an old idiom, “cutting the Gordian Knot”.

The Gordian Knot is a legend of Phrygian Gordium associated with Alexander the Great. It is often used as a metaphor for an intractable problem (untying an impossibly-tangled knot) solved easily by finding an approach to the problem that renders the perceived constraints of the problem moot (“cutting the Gordian knot”):

Turn him to any cause of policy,
The Gordian Knot of it he will unloose,
Familiar as his garter
— Shakespeare, Henry V, Act 1 Scene 1. 45–47

(continued here (en.wikipedia.org))

How did Alexander the Great untie the Gordian Knot? There are several versions of the story, but the most popular version has him cutting the knot with his sword. Instead, of solving the riddle of the knot, Alexander boldly chose to remove an obstacle to his conquests.

Is our president, Donald Trump, as daring as Alexander the Great? Perhaps. Consider a couple of articles that depart from conventional wisdom.

The first article, by Victor David Hanson, points out the frustrating nature of the problem. As the title suggests, Turkey is a horrible ally.

Why, then, is the United States still an ally of this anti-American rogue nation? There are a number of scary reasons.

• The U.S. military has not quite figured out how either to stay in or leave Incirlik in a now-hostile Turkey.

• Washington knows that fighters at the valuable Incirlik base can reach any strategic conflict in the Middle East.

• American diplomats naively hope that democracy will return to Turkey and that Mr. Erdogan is a temporary nuisance who does not reflect a rising Islamist constituency in the Turkish heartland.

• America believes a bad ally is better than a bitter enemy. It fears that a hostile Turkey could start and win wars against our vulnerable regional friends and create a formidable nuclear alliance with Russia, China or Iran.

• The West in general is blackmailed by Turkey, a gateway to the Middle East that has threatened to unleash a flood of millions of migrants onto European soil.

• NATO in general is underfunded and undermanned. In contrast, NATO member Turkey has the second-largest military in the alliance at nearly 650,000 troops. Europe and the U.S. either believe such a force helps maintain credible NATO deterrence or are terrified it will be put into the service of others.

• The United States fears that fighting against or failing to aid a NATO partner might unravel the entire alliance. Turkey has invoked Article IV of the treaty, requiring crisis consultation when a NATO ally claims it is threatened, three times in its regional disputes.

Not since the United States came to the aid of Joseph Stalin’s USSR in World War II has America so disliked and so feared a valuable but utterly untenable ally. (from here)

Instead of trying to solve the riddle, the problem of bringing peace to the Middle East, Trump chose to focus on the vital interests of the United Stations.

Reducing the number of U.S. troops there, where they would only serve as a “tripwire” and stand to get killed in any serious conflict, was the prudent thing to do. Characterizing this as an “abandonment of the Kurds” is unfortunate, but leaving U.S. troops there would not change the military reality.

Even some of Mr. Trump’s best supporters, like Sen. Lindsey Graham, are making statements that simply make no sense. Speaking on Fox, Mr. Graham suggested “taking over the oilfields.” Exactly how would this work? The U.S. military now invades Syria, a country we are not at war with, and seizes the oil fields? What happens then? We turn them over to Exxon? Maybe we hire Hunter Biden and Burisma to figure it out for us.

The current cease-fire negotiated by Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at least offers a window of opportunity to work out a solution that works for the Kurds and their Syrian hosts — as well as Turkey who will need to eventually withdraw from Syria. Nothing in this move will resolve their decades-old conflict with the Kurds. (from here)

Would it have been better if Trump had brought peace to the Middle East? Yes, but no one seems to know how to do that. So, Trump did what he could. Instead of drawing a red line, risking getting bunches of our soldiers killed trying to enforce a hollow threat, Trump threatened the Turks with economic sanctions if they start slaughtering the Kurd. Like Alexander, Trump approached the problem from a different direction, one where he had the advantage.

What will happen next? We can only hope that Turkey will consider the threat posed by Russia and Iran and realize it needs the United States and NATO to counter that threat. That choice largely depends on Mr. Erdogan, not President Trump.


  1. Thank you both for bringing your wisdom and perspective to this knot. As a Vietnam vet, and a student of worldviews, I have observed that while we do not and probably will not understand non-western worldviews, we do understand commerce and trade, and that’s the universal language of the material world.

  2. Tom

    Interesting you compared Trump to Alexander the Great. Frankly, I believe his foreign policies compare more to King Solomon.

    For Example,

    Solomon ruled for 60 years without engaging in any wars with neighboring nations.
    His use of trade as both an incentive and weapon for peace.

    As for Trump sending US Troops to guard the oil fields in Syria, while I wish he did not, it appears NATO should have instead of the USA. NATO is powerless, and even useless, in my opinion.

    Trump is doing what is needed. Cut off the source of income for terrorist groups with troops or sanctions instead of USA lives and enormous amounts of USA debt and treasure.

    Sadly, Turkey, a NATO member, was one of ISIS best customers of ISIS oil when they controlled the oil fields in IRAQ and Syria to fund their purchase of weapons and terror.

    I agree though about your tangled knots comparison, I would add foolish tangled knots mess though..

    Perhaps a future post comparison?

    Regards and good will blogging.

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