AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
President Trump this evening signed an executive order imposing new sanctions on Turkey. He also spoke with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and called him to immediately stop the invasion into northeastern Syria and start negotiations with Kurdish forces there, negotiations he hopes Vice President Pence will lead in an upcoming trip to Turkey.
Congress is also discussing passing sanctions of their own when they return from recess this week. Earlier today I spoke with Congressman Don Bacon, Republican of Nebraska and a retired brigadier general with the U.S. Air Force. He supports both the president's sanctions and Congress pursuing more. He told me he has serious concerns about the situation unfolding in northern Syria.
DON BACON: I'm concerned that we are rupturing our good relationship that we have with the Kurds. I'm concerned that the ISIS fighters are being released that will fight another day.
CORNISH: So was it a mistake for the president to let Turkey go forward with this operation?
BACON: I think it was a mistake how we communicated early on. We should have made very clear that we oppose the Turkish operations, that we would condemn them and that we would hold them accountable for taking this action. So I think the president should have been much more firm opposing Turkish operations.
CORNISH: But it sounds like you're saying more than that. It sounds like you're saying you disagree fundamentally with the administration's decision to withdraw U.S. troops from northern Syria. Did they make a mistake?
BACON: I think they made a mistake yesterday saying they're going to pull the thousand troops back or perhaps even out of Syria altogether. There was a little bit of ambiguity there. But really, it was - the opening communication sounded like we acquiesced to Turkish operations, and that was a mistake.
CORNISH: Today Senator Lindsey Graham met with the president and with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi to talk about sanctions against Turkey. How soon would you like to see Congress take action?
BACON: I think we should do it immediately.
CORNISH: Is it too late for it to have impact?
BACON: No. It'll have impact on Turkey whether we do it today or next week. But we should have communicated clearly from day one - the administration should have said, if you do this, this is going to be the consequence. I feel it would've been better to say it right at the beginning of this operation versus a week later.
CORNISH: Now we're living in the aftermath of this decision. Has President Trump's foreign policy fundamentally changed your party's approach on how they deal with key allies?
BACON: It has to when it comes to Kurdistan, but I think we have to go country by country to do this - to make this determination.
CORNISH: But I ask because you served in Iraq. You worked with the Kurds. They served as critical allies in the fight against ISIS. How damaging is it now?
BACON: It has damaged us with the Kurds, no doubt about that.
CORNISH: But would any allies in the region want to work with the U.S. again if they saw what happened to the Kurds? Do the Kurds become a cautionary tale with a long ripple effect?
BACON: Our relationship with the Arab states by and large has been better than it was under the Obama administration. The problem is there has been no easy answers for eastern Syria. There is no really bright future ahead there, but I think it has hurt us clearly with our Kurd allies who served with us so well in Iraq and in Syria. And I feel like that has done long-term damage with our Kurd friends.
CORNISH: How long should American troops have stayed in the region?
BACON: You know, the - right now, my view is that most Americans want us out faster. That's part of the reason the president has been inspired to take this route. My view is, though, that we need to have a small presence in the region, particularly in Syria, for a long time to come. If we pull our forces out of Syria or Afghanistan, you're going to see a resurgent ISIS, a resurgent Taliban, a resurgent al-Qaida, and we'll have to go back again.
CORNISH: Are you essentially calling on the president to reverse this decision?
BACON: Yes, particularly the thousand-troop withdrawal. I think it does more damage totally pulling out of Syria because it will just create the conditions for ISIS to come back and own a large real estate area that - it could conduct operations again against neighbors that we're allied with, but also in Europe and America.
CORNISH: Do you feel heard by this White House? Or on this issue, are Republicans who say that we should stay in northern Syria - are they essentially being ignored?
BACON: I think they're being heard, and they're trying to grapple with this tough situation. I think the president has heard us, and he's trying to come up with a policy that protects our forces but also does not provide the conditions for ISIS to return. So I think that they were probably surprised by the intensity of the pushback from the Republican side of the aisle on this.
CORNISH: That's Congressman Don Bacon, Republican from Nebraska. Thank you for speaking with us.
BACON: Thank you, ma'am. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.