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The Trump Doctrine – From ‘America First’ to ‘Military First’

Men of violence are in command in the US and now call the shots in the world’s major ‘trouble spots,’ with diplomacy slowly slipping out of sight.

US President Donald Trump listens to remarks by Defense Secretary James Mattis (R) after a swearing-in ceremony for Mattis at the Pentagon in Washington, U.S., January 27, 2017. Credit: Carlos Barria/Reuters/Files

US President Donald Trump listens to remarks by Defense Secretary James Mattis (R) after a swearing-in ceremony for Mattis at the Pentagon in Washington, U.S., January 27, 2017. Credit: Carlos Barria/Reuters/Files

US President Donald Trump has a de facto doctrine that explains his administration’s foreign policy up to this point – Military-First, War-First. The commander-in-chief has ceded authority over the use of military violence to the generals who are now gunning to send US ground troops to Syria, have ordered more airstrikes in Yemen this year than in the whole of 2016, fired scores of cruise missiles at Syria, dropped the biggest non-nuclear bomb the biggest non-nuclear bomb ever used in combat on Afghanistan, stationed an anti-missile system in South Korea and diverted a battle-ready fleet to the region to further intimidate North Korea and its single ally, China.

And instructively, an increase of over $50 billion in the war budget – at the expense of the diplomatic departments like the State Department – is planned.

Military power and the men of violence at its command now call the shots in the world’s major ‘trouble spots’, while diplomacy has slipped out of sight, and the voice of US’s top diplomat, Rex Tillerson, is hardly audible as UN ambassador Nikki Haley issues threat after threat of military intervention.

In the late 1950s, sociologist C. Wright Mills wrote of the predominance in Cold War America, of a ‘military definition of reality’. The Cold War ended long ago but its mentalities, which in actuality were never historically limited to the Cold War, live on. With Trump deferring to the military men – Generals James Mattis and H.R. McMaster – it would appear that military versions of reality have actually taken over the White House.

This sends a message, domestically and internationally – America First-ism is dead, and diplomacy, soft power, values and moral authority lie way below the reassertion of violent American power in the global south.

Dropping the ‘mother of all bombs’ (A GBU-43 Massive Ordnance Air Blast or MOAB) – a bomb weighing 9,800kg and containing 8,164kg of explosive, equivalent to 10 tons of TNT, with a mile wide blast radius – was designed to shock the local population. But its demonstration effect cannot fail to be noticed in Damascus, Beijing, Moscow and Pyongyang.

MOAB is reported to have killed almost 100 ISIS fighters and commanders. It is the latest in a long line of weapons that people of the global south have been at the receiving end of over the colonial and neo-colonial period.

Aerial warfare on civilians did not begin at Guernica in Spain in 1937, but in Libya at the hands of Italian colonialism in 1911. Chemical warfare was used in Iraq a century ago and napalm during the Korean War, as was agent orange in Vietnam and white phosphorous in Iraq.

The laws of war, as originally conceived in 19th century colonial Europe, were never meant to be applied to the colonies – only to conflicts between “civilised” states and peoples. The racism that was supposed to have been extinguished in the post-racial US of Barack Obama remains alive and well, entrenched well within American society.

And the corporate media, think tanks, Democratic party, Republican leaders and the ‘international community’ cheer Trump on. CNN’s Fareed Zakaria declared after the 59 cruise missile strike on Syria – “I think Donald Trump became president of the United States…”. Trump had killed the source of great anxiety to the US foreign policy establishment – America First.

He is a war president after all.

Reports suggest that Trump’s national security adviser, General McMaster, is heading to Syria to discuss the local US commander’s desire for US ground troops. As the local outranks McMaster, who is a three star general, it may be difficult for McMaster to contradict his military superior’s assessment.

All this is happening in the wake of a chemical attack blamed on the Bashar al-Assad regime, which has yet to be independently confirmed, amid claims by missile technology expert Professor Theodore Postol of MIT that the sarin gas container used could not have been dropped from the air, as Trump’s administration claims.

An additional 8,000 troops are on their way to Afghanistan.

The battle fleet diverted to east Asia, while the equally reckless North Korean regime threatens more nuclear tests, carries massive firepower – over 60 attack fighter jets. This merely highlights the willingness to raise tensions to fever pitch, a game of ‘chicken’ in Cold War terms – a test of strength to see who blinks first. It’s the American gung-ho gunslinger showing the world who’s boss and who’s not – who can have nuclear weapons and who cannot.

Former President Richard Nixon’s ‘mad man’ theory comes to mind. As Charles Krauthammer notes, acting unpredictably makes “adversaries tread carefully because they suspect the US president of being unpredictable, occasionally reckless and potentially crazy dangerous. Henry Kissinger, with Nixon’s collaboration, tried more than once to exploit this perception to pressure adversaries.”

Nixon explained it thus to chief of staff H.R. Haldeman: “I call it the Madman Theory, Bob. I want the North Vietnamese to believe I’ve reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war. We’ll just slip the word to them that, ‘for God’s sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about communism. We can’t restrain him when he’s angry — and he has his hand on the nuclear button’ and Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace.”

But in North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, Trump has met a master ‘mad man’ in a regime long-used to playing that game. The world has never faced a time when two such adversaries confronted each other in quite so cavalier a manner, certainly not since the Cold War ended.

In the end, they are not actually mad but projecting an appearance of being willing to go to any lengths to advance their interests. So there may well be a de-escalation of tensions, as there so often is in this perennial controversy, where officially the Korean War continues.

Trump, flanked by military men of violence, who now appear in full control of when, where and how massive force is deployed, remains commander-in-chief in name only. He may enjoy the position when American losses are few and the media fails to hold him accountable. But is it possible that the US can unleash weapons in so many places at once and nothing goes disastrously wrong? And when things do go pear-shaped – violence begetting further violence, including terror attacks at home, and escalated tensions and military counter-deployments – will Trump step up and take responsibility? Or will he blame it on the generals?

The world is entering a dangerous period, which, it is likely, would have occurred even if Hillary Clinton had won the US election. In that sense Trump is a normal president in foreign policy terms.

A century ago, President Warren Harding declared the US would take care of itself and return to ‘normalcy’, to a kind of isolationism – which made the US’s European allies, especially the UK and France, very angry at its ‘irresponsibility’. Today, Trump has returned the US to ‘normalcy’ by unleashing military violence across the globe, winning plaudits for taking responsibility.

How long the applause will last remains to be seen and another crisis of legitimacy appears. The willingness to use military force, the one area in which the US retains overwhelming superiority, may be the act of a superpower in terminal decline and in complete denial.

Inderjeet Parmar is professor of international politics at City, University of London, and a columnist at The Wire. His twitter handle is @USEmpire