Never before has any presidential administration been as all over the place in terms of national security and foreign policy as is that of Donald J. Trump. Indeed, one might well argue that there is no overriding policy at all in terms of a rational doctrine arrived at through risk versus gain analysis of developing international situations. Instead, there has been a pattern of emotional reactions fueled by media disinformation supplemented by “gut feelings” about a series of ultimately bilateral relationships that frequently have little or nothing to do with American national interests.
This is not to suggest that the “gut feelings” are always wrong. Established wisdom in Washington has long reflected the view that the United States must exercise leadership in establishing and maintaining the neoliberal consensus that gained currency after the devastation of the Second World War. Elections, free trade and a free media were to be the benchmarks of the new world order but they also came packaged with U.S. hegemony to confront those who resisted the development. And it turned out that those “benefits” were frequently difficult to achieve as elections sometimes produced bad results while trade agreements and an uncontrolled media often worked against broader U.S. objectives. All too often the United States found itself going to war against nations that it disapproves of for reasons unrelated to any actual interests, routinely claiming inaccurately that dissident regimes were both “threatening” and disruptive of the universal values that Washington claimed to be promoting.
To consider how the neoliberal order works in practice one only has to consider the Clintons, who justified brutal military interventions in the Balkans and in Libya based on what they claimed to be humanitarian principles. Or Obama, who demanded regime change in Damascus and was prepared to launch a large-scale attack on Syria before he realized that there was no public support for such a move and backed down.
More recently, particularly since 9/11, neoconservatives have dominated U.S. foreign policy through their think tanks, access to the media and their ability to infiltrate both major political parties based on their essentially fraudulent appraisals of threats to national security. They have been so successful at selling their product that the bogus claims that Iran is a threat to the United States are generally accepted without question by both Democrats and Republicans, not to mention the White House. Russia, meanwhile, remains the target of bipartisan wrath, from the left over the results of the 2016 election and from the right due to fearmongering over alleged threats to Eastern Europe.
But hope springs eternal, even in 2019. There have recently been some encouraging signs that change is in the air. Donald Trump has declared that he will be pulling all American soldiers out of Syria and half of U.S. forces out of Afghanistan, though the timetable appears to have slipped somewhat and might slow even more as the Establishment pushes back. That Trump may have chosen to break with the interventionist model with Syria, if he succeeds in doing so, is certainly commendable, but one wit has observed that the departure will be somewhat like the line in the Eagles’ song Hotel California, “you can check out any time you want, but you can never leave.”
There are other indications that something is afoot. On January 3rd, Trump offhandedly commented that Iran could do what it wishes in Syria, a comment that generated shock waves through the neoconnish Washington Post’s coverage of the remarks. To be sure, other Administration officials have continued to send different signals, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo insisting that the U.S. will stay in Syria as long as Iran remains there.
Pompeo has also cautioned Iran against the development of ballistic missiles in connection with a claimed space program, a warning that Tehran has rejected. Israel meanwhile, presumably acting with U.S. connivance, has introduced a new destabilizing element into the Middle East cauldron, using civilian airliners to mask the approach of its military jets to attack targets in Syria. The possibility of an airliner being shot down with great loss of life by “accident” has thereby gone up exponentially.
To be sure, there are some who believe that the Trump anti-interventionist turn is essentially fraudulent. They cite the unrelenting hostility coming out of the White House regarding Iran, which is vilified on a nearly daily basis for its alleged threats not only to the Middle East region but also to Western Europe and the United States. That the Administration’s fulminations have little basis in reality is beside the point as it would seem that Trump, Pompeo, John Bolton and the now departed Nikki Haley all believe that the case for disarming Iran and bringing about regime change has been made effectively. Indeed, warfare directed against the Iranian economy has already begun by virtue of a punitive series of targeted sanctions with much more to come when a complete ban on oil exports kicks in in May.
Iran has responded to the threats by restating in early December its intention to exercise control over all ship traffic leaving the Persian Gulf via the Straits of Hormuz if its own oil exports are blocked by the United States. The U.S. responded immediately by sending the aircraft carrier U.S.S. John C. Stennis to the Gulf, the first such deployment in the region in eight months. With all the pieces in place, the possibility that there will be some accident in the region, presumably involving Iranian Revolutionary Guards and U.S. naval units, will escalate just as the largely contrived Gulf of Tonkin incident famously accelerated American involvement in the Vietnam War.
Much of what happens in the Middle East will ultimately depend on the extent to which America’s feckless allies, Saudi Arabia and Israel, succeed in selling their version of what is going on in the region. Trump, uncharacteristically, seems to be standing firm, telling a journalist that concerns about the Syria pullout are misplaced because “We give Israel $4.5 billion a year. And we give them, frankly, a lot more money than that, if you look at the books — a lot more money than that. And they’ve been doing a very good job for themselves.” Likewise, the much more important relationship, with Russia, will depend on the ability to ignore congressional hostility towards the Kremlin as well as the media bias that continues to promote Russiagate as a national security threat.
There is also North Korea, which has now indicated clearly that it is willing to talk to the U.S. but will revert to its nuclear development program unless sanctions are removed. And anyone for Latin America? Bolton has dubbed Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela as a “troika of tyranny,” though fortunately suggestions that Venezuela might be invaded by the U.S. to restore order appear to have faded.
If one reads the neocon press one cannot help but notice that China is the anointed over the horizon threat, but it is also a major trading partner and the drive to somehow renegotiate the terms whereby the two nations are linked economically will be complicated. Care must be taken lest what now appears to be an aggravated sense of great power competition becomes something more dangerous. The detention of Weng Manzhou in Canada one month ago together with the implication that the United States can and will enforce U.S. imposed sanctions globally could easily develop into a major problem with China as well as with others, including some NATO allies. The arrest has already disappeared from the media but several Canadians have been detained by Beijing and the U.S. government has warned American businessmen about traveling to China at the present time.
All of the above sounds somewhat depressingly familiar, but the real question is whether in 2019 Donald J. Trump will have both the vision and the necessary gumption to fulfill his campaign promises to change the face of American foreign policy by withdrawing from useless wars overseas and mending fences with countries that are actually important like Russia. There is admittedly a long way to go and it is very much a work in progress, but Trump actually has the ability to overrule the hawks in his administration and change the entire conversation about America’s place in the world.
Philip M. Giraldi, Ph.D., is Executive Director of the Council for the National Interest, a 501(c)3 tax deductible educational foundation that seeks a more interests-based U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. Website is www.councilforthenationalinterest.org, address is P.O. Box 2157, Purcellville VA 20134 and its email is [email protected].