Last week, President Donald Trump continued his now longstanding trend of saying one thing and doing another. Despite his repeated assurances that he would put “America first” and that he was the “peace candidate”, Trump ordered a missile strike on Syria.
Trump’s strike was greeted, at least initially, with almost universal acclaim. The President, as so many commentators seemed to agree, had arrived. Many seemed to be reassured by what they saw as decisive action in the face of what was undoubtedly an horrific atrocity.
Leaving aside the troubling moral argument this illuminates – that, essentially, it’s ok to kill babies by blowing them to shreds or letting them drown as they try to escape your war, just don’t suffocate them – the celebration of the air strikes by both liberals and conservatives has more to do with their sense of relief. Not relief that Assad was being dealt with, but relief at the restoration of the American sense of self. During his campaign and early days as President, Trump had threatened to resign from America’s role as a “global policeman“. He was not, he said, the President of the World. With his strikes on Syria, Trump suggested that maybe, as with most things he says, he didn’t really mean it.
Trump was not, and is not, the “peace candidate”. He is not, and was never, an isolationist.
In their praise of Trump’s “decisive” and “proportionate” action, liberals and conservatives alike – from Nancy Pelosi to John McCain – were celebrating a return to the status quo. The global policeman was back with a vengeance. Trump’s sidelining of Steve Bannon and embrace of the now-familiar rhetoric of American interventionism suggests that it’s here to stay.
Trump was not, and is not, the “peace candidate”. He is not, and was never, an isolationist. When the President claimed that preventing another chemical attack in Syria was in “the vital national security interest of the United States,” he was aligning himself with a very long and very chequered history of American military adventurism abroad. Those not celebrating Trump’s intervention are very rightly concerned to see signs of that history once again rearing its ugly head.
When Rex Tillerson, Trump’s Secretary of State, started dropping hints about regime change in Syria, he reminded the world of what historians already know: successive administrations, both Republican and Democrat, continue to learn the wrong lessons of history.
During the Cold War, which, for a large part of the world, wasn’t all that “cold” at all, the United States intervened all over the world – from Latin America to the Middle East to Southeast Asia – in the name of freedom, democracy, and vital national security interests. In almost every case, the United States left those countries either no better, or worse off, than how it found them.
In Vietnam, the United States intervened in the same of freedom and global security. More than a decade of fighting, and the deaths of two million Vietnamese civilians, over 58,000 Americans, and 500 Australians, succeeded only in delaying, not stopping, the fall of Vietnam to communism.
The lessons of the first Gulf War, Rwanda, and Yugoslavia were inconsistent, and painfully complex.
Vietnam, of course, prompted a great deal of soul searching. But that soul searching focussed inwards, not outwards. The idea that the United States should not play a central role in shaping the world flared only momentarily, and was snuffed out by Ronald Reagan and the end of the Cold War.
The collapse of the Soviet Union, and the supposed “end of history” seemed to herald a new era for the United States in the world. Confronted with Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, President Bush acted decisively. In Kuwait, Bush seemed to have learned the lessons of Vietnam. This time, there was a clear plan: to get Saddam out of Kuwait. That plan was executed cleanly and followed by a swift exit.
Afterwards, Bush said: ‘By god, we have kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all’. American failures in Vietnam, then, served not as warning, but as justification.
Further American failures in Rwanda, under Bill Clinton, only further encouraged active interventionism. In Rwanda, decisive, swift action may well have helped to prevent a genocide. And the United States did intervene, under the NATO umbrella, to prevent genocide in the former Yugoslavia.
The lessons of the first Gulf War, Rwanda, and Yugoslavia were inconsistent, and painfully complex. They began a very real conversation, though, about the difficulties of the United States assuming the role of “global policeman”. That conversation was obliterated by the Bush administration immediately after September 11, 2001.
In the United States, the overwhelming momentum is always towards military intervention in the face of international political crisis.
In Afghanistan, and then in Iraq, President George W. Bush sought instant regime change. Conveniently forgetting their history, the Bush administration expected democracy, civil society and an economic boom to materialise immediately, without significant planning, investment or even a basic adaptation to local history, culture or economics. The Bush administration expected a repeat of the rebuilding of western Europe and Japan after the Second World War. They expected it would happen spontaneously, without the decades of investment and commitment it actually required.
That, in the end, is why President Barack Obama “failed” to intervene in Syria after drawing a “red line” for Assad. Obama, perhaps more any of his recent successors, knew what increasing American involvement in Syria would mean. He knew there was no appetite for the decades of commitment, hundreds of thousands of troops on the ground, and billions of dollars that actually fostering a peace, and then rebuilding the nation, would actually take. He knew, too, that even then, the odds were against success.
In the United States, the overwhelming momentum is always towards military intervention in the face of international political crisis. Bush Senior resisted that momentum in the Gulf the first time, and Obama resisted it in Syria. As flawed as Obama’s foreign policy was, in Syria, Obama beat back the “Washington playbook”. In Syria – though maybe not elsewhere – Obama was all too aware of the lessons of history.
Ever since World War II and Vietnam, and now Afghanistan and Iraq, forces within the American defence and security establishment have been looking for a ‘real’ war.
But the almost unbearable weight of the American military-industrial complex is still there, and is gaining momentum under Obama’s successor. From within the vast bureaucracy of American defence and security, the pressure to continually increase military involvement and engage in “nation building” is immense and, more often than not, self-fulfilling.
Ever since the end of World War II and the disaster of Vietnam, and now Afghanistan and Iraq, forces within the American defence and security establishment have been looking for a ‘real’ war. They yearn for an enemy that they can see, fight out in the open, in uniform. The United States lost in Vietnam, and is now losing in Iraq and Afghanistan, furthermore, not because it should never have been there in the first place, but because successive presidential administrations wouldn’t allow the military to win. That’s how many of those now lining up behind Trump understand “making America great again”.
Trump reflected, ‘We have the greatest military in the world. We have given them total authorisation’.
And in Trump, they have their best chance in a while. After the US dropped the biggest non-nuclear bomb it has on Afghanistan just a few days ago, Trump reflected, ‘We have the greatest military in the world. We have given them total authorisation’. Trump doesn’t care for the lessons of history, except, maybe, the one that says that when things are going bad domestically it can help to start a war abroad. History, otherwise, is entirely irrelevant, and Trump, it seems, is giving his generals permission to disregard it altogether.
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