As Donald Trump tackles troubles at home, US interventionism is taking over policymaking. The president is now fully embraced by the national security and foreign policy establishment.
US military aggression in Syria in response to the Assad regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons against civilians signifies the end of US President Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ policy in both rhetoric and practice. The strikes signify his full embrace of the basic principles of US imperial interventionism enshrined in the country’s policies since 1945. Trump has backtracked on a major campaign promise that earned him widespread support, including from some Bernie Sanders backers.
Trump’s authorisation of massive military violence – 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles were fired at a Syrian airbase – means that Trump no longer opposes intervention in the Middle East and undercuts his opposition to former president Barack Obama’s 2013 plans to bomb Syrian government targets. Trump’s ‘decisiveness’ has been applauded by the leaderships of both main political parties, the media – including purveyors of ‘fake news’ like CNN – and the leaders of the principal US allies – Britain, Germany, France and Israel. They are pleased to see this restoration of normalcy after a period of intense anxiety.
Trump’s hard right nationalist political base is ‘up in arms’ at the betrayal of election promises, suggesting that Trump’s chief strategist and white nationalist Steve Bannon’s days may be numbered.
By ordering the strikes, Trump has shown that he is a traditional US president conducting imperial business as usual despite initially claiming that the US had too many of its own problems to expend time, effort, blood and wealth on an ungrateful and demanding world. The Trump administration has been educated, incorporated and domesticated by powerful political and institutional figures and forces.
An international misadventure
A foreign military adventure derives from many sources and motives but there are five worth considering at this point: the crisis engendered by the Congress and FBI investigating several of Trump’s presidential campaign officials for meeting or colluding with Russian government operatives during the election; internal factional crises within the Trump administration, especially between the globalists and nationalists; the administration’s conspicuous lack of achievements other than building a reputation for chaos and incompetence; a message to Chinese President Xi Jinping; and the power that the establishment holds over the Trump administration.
The war in Syria has been going on for several years without the US directly attacking the Assad regime – although it and its Gulf allies have armed and financed opposition groups, including ISIS, and allied organisations. So it is legitimate to ask – why attack now? Domestic political crises are sidelined when the US goes to war – at least temporarily.
Such may well be the case here, especially given the increasing significance of the US establishment’s investigations into the Trump administration’s links with Russian officials – including possible meddling in the US elections. This has stirred up a storm of political and media protests, and as the interrogations continue to dog the administration, there remains a possibility of Trump being impeached if personally implicated. The military strike against Russia’s key ally Syria – and allegations that Russia collaborated with Syria, or at least knew about the alleged chemical weapon attack – will help quell any notions of Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin sharing a warm relationship.
But escalating an already volatile situation – one in which ISIS is facing defeat for the first time in several years – is a high-risk strategy. It may work in the short term but its longer term consequences could be catastrophic. Launching a barrage of deadly missiles on the basis of information provided by pro-ISIS forces points to a policy which is reckless in the extreme.
Plagued by factionalism, hounded by indecisiveness
The Trump administration is riven with factionalism and internal dissent. The most notable example is the factions forming around Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and Banon, his chief strategist and self-declared white nationalist. Last week, Bannon was removed from the National Security Council (NSC), while national security adviser General Herbert Raymond McMaster has been appointing regular conservative Republicans to the NSC instead. Internal factions have impaired the administration’s collective decision-making, causing inaction and recklessness – including the hastily assembled and subsequently court-overruled executive orders banning (Syrian) refugees (for whom Trump now feels so sympathetic) and Muslims from certain countries from entering the US.
With Bannon’s removal from the NSC, it appears that the ‘nationalists’ have lost their chief champion in the administration while the globalists march on – led by Kushner and the phalanx of Goldman Sachs appointees, not to mention General James Mattis, Trump’s defence secretary and McMaster. In this administration, war is left to the generals.
And war may be necessary because the administration, for all its rhetoric and bluster, has yet to achieve anything substantial at home since inauguration day in January. Two failed executive orders banning Muslims and refugees have been declared unconstitutional and resulted in more chaos than decisive action. Trump’s much-trumpeted abolition of Obamacare did not even reach the floor to be voted on in the House of Representatives. It was withdrawn due to the definite threat of defeat at the hands of right-wing Republicans who believe that state-funded maternity care is ‘un-American’. Add to this the sacking of Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, amid allegations concerning his dealings with Russia, and this administration increasingly appears incapable of governing.
But, as former President Bill Clinton discovered in the late 1990s, firing cruise missiles at enemies – real and imagined – can be an effective diversion to throw off the corporate media and its army of pundits. In the love-in that’s engulfed the Washington beltway, the normalisation of the Trump presidency appears complete, although its rough, Tweet-soaked edges remain.
Firing missiles while Xi was in town to discuss the future of Sino-US relations, trade problems and issues arising from the nuclear-armed North Korean regime, may be a masterstroke on Trump’s part. Having threatened a pre-emptive military strike on North Korea, friendless apart from its close dependence on China, Trump has dared Xi to react. The Chinese leader did not say a word in public but is unlikely to underestimate the gravity of the situation. There are now reports of a US carrier group heading towards the South China Sea, probably with Xi’s agreement.
The heart of US power
But the biggest threats against Trump’s ‘America first’ policy have always been stationed at home; the elite networks that are at the heart of US power – big foundations like Ford, Rockefeller and Carnegie, corporate think tanks like the Council on Foreign Relations, Brookings and even the right-wing Heritage Foundation, the network of Ivy League scholars that passes through the revolving door of powerful public and private offices, and the military leaders trained in the US’s far-flung violent conflicts. They wrote ineffectual letters last summer declaring Trump a racist warmonger unfit for office. Trump won against all odds. But the establishment never went away. Instead, it prodded and poked, linked up with media partners, fed reports about threats to the US wherever and whenever they could, took up appointments at key agencies and departments. Of them all, Heritage occupies a privileged position – it is committed to a conservative nationalist internationalism and occupies more places within the Trump administration’s transition and landing teams in addition to other administrative offices than any of the other institutions. Heritage has stood its ground on Putin and Russian ‘expansionism’ and has called for aggressive action against Syria, China and North Korea. The think tank has also called for more military spending alongside tax cuts, along with the rest of the panoply of free market fundamentalist policy prescriptions. Together, these networks have incorporated and domesticated the Trump presidency.
The education of Trump has been swift and may be incomplete still, but the student has proven able and willing to learn how to conduct the business of the US empire. As usual, someone else will pay the price.
Inderjeet Parmar is professor on international politics at City, University of London. His twitter handle is @USEmpire.