America’s combative, nationalist president is now in charge of its improvisational, never-ending wars
by ROBERT BECKHUSEN
Donald Trump is now the 45th president of the United States. If I can make one prediction — knowing full well and hoping it’s wrong — it’s that four years from now, America will still be at war.
It might not necessarily be in the same places, or at least all of them and with U.S. troops present in the same numbers. The United States has been at war for 15 years. In 2017, America is still hunting for Al Qaeda operatives in Yemen. In 2016, the U.S. military dropped more than 26,000 bombs in Iraq and Syria in the war on the Islamic State.
There are nearly 7,000 U.S. troops still in Afghanistan. B-2 stealth bombers just blasted terrorists in Libya. America dropped more bombs on Libya last year than the year before. And this is far — extremely far — from an exhaustive accounting.
Trump inherits these wars after campaigning on a platform of keeping America out of the nation-building business. At the same time, expect him to escalate the war on the Islamic State with an aim to defeat the terrorist group “quickly.”
But America’s wars have taken on an institutionalized, routine and more robotic character — and with a lot more commandos. Under Obama, the wars flared up again, first in Syria and then Iraq. Now Trump inherits a national security apparatus that has practically been running on autopilot — stitched together from dozens of bases in Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia and linked back to command facilities in the United States.
In case anyone thinks this will be over soon, Trump describes “radical Islam” as the focus of a long-term conflict that “may require the use of military force, but it’s also a philosophical struggle, like our long struggle in the Cold War.” In his inaugural address, the 45th president said “We will unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism which we will eradicate completely from the face of the earth.”
In four years, expect the United States — and Trump — to keep trying.
Separately, Trump has described a broader foreign policy approach characterized by blood-and-iron nationalism. “No country has ever prospered that failed to put its own interests first,” Trump told the Center for the National Interest during an April 2016 foreign policy speech.
“Both our friends and our enemies put their countries above ours and we, while being fair to them, must start doing the same. We will no longer surrender this country or its people to the false song of globalism. The nation-state remains the true foundation for happiness and harmony.”
Critics who point out Trump’s criticism of NATO and his fondness for Russian Pres. Vladimir Putin — himself an ardent nationalist — see an inconsistency. Trump is supposed to be an American nationalist, not a Russian one. The preponderance of evidence suggests Russia aided Trump’s campaign, but I’m not convinced it was more than opportunistic and based on short-term political calculations. Even the Russian press is at best cautiously optimistic about his presidency.
In the same April 2016 speech, Trump said he would “quickly walk from the table” if he can’t get a good deal from the Russians. Later, he gladly accepted the possibility of “arms race” with Russia were Putin to strengthen his nuclear arsenal. If relations with Russia fall apart again, as it has done twice so far under the preceding two presidents, it’s easy to imagine Trump pivoting in the opposite direction were circumstances to change — or an unexpected world crisis to break out.
A president rarely ends an administration in the place they expected or wanted. Former president Barack Obama entered office with a plan to make peace in the Middle East, reorient America to the Asia-Pacific and rid the world of nuclear weapons. A wave of revolutions and civil wars, the explosive growth of the Islamic State and Russia’s invasion of Crimea derailed him.
And herein lies the danger. In 1945, George Orwell wrote an essay on nationalism in which he described it as not so much an ideology, but a mindset driven by competitive prestige. Nationalism, according to Orwell, is also distinct from patriotism, which he considered to be primarily benign and defensive in nature. By comparison, “[the nationalist] may use his mental energy either in boosting or in denigrating,” Orwell wrote.
“But at any rate his thoughts always turn on victories, defeats, triumphs and humiliations.”
“The list of humiliations go on and on,” Trump said in his April 2016 speech, referring to Obama’s foreign policy. But under a strictly nationalist approach, expect foreign allies to batten down the hatches with an American government that functions in strictly zero-sum terms. At least, that’s one potential outcome.
More to the point, Trump’s nationalism could mean a foreign policy driven almost entirely by domestic considerations — hence his governing philosophy of “America First.”
If the United States under President Trump is challenged overseas — as he inevitably will be — and retreats, he could by extension appear weak at home. Acting out a foreign policy to avoid such an outcome is a formula that has usually ended badly for American presidents.
It’s exceedingly unlikely Trump will be another George W. Bush, who cared little for public opinion and launched an idealistic but disastrous crusade for liberal democracy in the Middle East. The opposite danger is a debacle which occurred when Lyndon Johnson — always arrogant and insecure — feared being attacked as weak by his domestic opponents if he backed down from Vietnam … so he didn’t.
Johnson’s arrogance tore the United States apart.
Let’s hope I’m wrong.