Back in the first weeks after Trump was elected, some more … alarmist minds insisted on comparing the period we’re living in now to the early 1930s. In Germany. Saying things like “if you’ve ever sat bored in History class and wondered how it felt – wondered what you’d have done … well, wonder no longer. What you do now is what you would have done then. How it feels now is how it felt back then.” And other similar wild oversimplifications.
It’s an interesting exercise in historical synthesis, to be sure; but for a number of folks, the comparison was to decidedly the wrong War With Germany warm-up period.
Instead, for some weeks now I’ve been watching some of the brighter minds of my sphere insist instead upon the idea that we’re actually living in a historical re-rub of 1914. That rather than simply watching an autocratic individual begin an arc of ascent into the political supernal … we’re witnessing the squaring off of two Great Powers and their attendant allies in a complex, hypersensitive arrangement which might very well presage a serious and significant armed conflict – a shooting war – between these twinned armed camps. Provided, of course, that the right spark arrived with which to set the entire powderkeg ablaze. A “Proud Tower”, if you will.
At first, I thought this was dismissable as the same sort of alarmist rhetoric which saw endless invocations of “TRUMP IS LITERALLY HITLER” [or, more superciliously, because some millennials apparently insist upon political comparison being phrased in terms of pop-cultural references … “TRUMP IS LITERALLY VOLDEMORT”].
And then, at a little after 13:00 Friday, we received news that the Trump Administration had fired 59 Tomahawk missiles at an airbase in Syria. Or, in other words, that America had attacked a Russian ally, by bombarding a military installation which also harboured Russian personnel. About the only consolation thus far is that a pre-warning to the Russians means it’s unlikely that any actual Russian casualties have been sustained. And, for that matter, that the choice of cruise missiles rather than bombers, meant a lack of overt American casualties. This latter point matters not so much due to any concern on my part for the lives of American servicemen – but more because had there been American deaths as part of this retaliatory operation, then further escalation on the US’s part would have been made vastly more likely. An exceptionally scarier prospect indeed.
The world now waits and watches with amply baited breath to see what Putin and Russia will say or do in response. Not for the first time, the hopes for continued (broad) peace in our time rest upon burly Russian shoulders and pragmatic Slavic restraint.
To be sure, it is not the first time we’ve all – collectively – found ourselves in this situation. Probably the best example from the later 20th century is, obviously, the Cuban Missile Crisis.
But then, despite the speculation that his medicinal use of methamphetamine might have altered his judgement [leading to a vastly more confrontational outcome at the Vienna Summit in 1961], the West had a seriously perspicacious and competent leader – a statesman, even – in the form of President Kennedy. To echo Senator Lloyd Bentsen’s ringing words to Dan Quayle in 1988 after the latter had compared himself to Kennedy … of Trump, it is easily possible to say of him “You’re no Jack Kennedy!“
Not least because when it came to Kennedy’s parlous position in 1963 with the Missile Crisis, Kennedy at least had a clear and compelling sense of his place in history. In fact, he’d just read a book – The Guns of August – about the situation which lead to World War One; and was therefore very much acutely aware of how even small flash-points, when not treated with utmost calm and restraint, could easily boil over into giant and almighty continent (or even world) engulfing conflagrations.
The policy pursued towards Russia as the result of that particular WMD-related encounter, therefore, was one of avoiding rather inflaming conflict – lest the unthinkable happen. Phrased another way, I suspect I’ve just implicitly said that a man with a well-documented meth habit may actually have had better perspicacity and impulse-control than the present President of the United States.
And having said that, as bad as President Trump’s subsonic outburst has been … it could always have been worse. Hillary Clinton suggested in an interview conducted the same day as the missile striek that had SHE been Commander-in-Chief, that the United States would have gone further – MUCH further – in its bellicose actions against Syria. Instead of simply temporarily shutting down one airfield and damaging a few planes [for that’s pretty much what this attack has done], she would have had the collective might of the US Military attempt to destroy pretty much the lot. And, given her comments about Russia aired in the same interview, one can only wonder how much more overtly aggressive towards the Russians she might have been in the process.
Although it is interesting to invoke the specter of “Clintonian” foreign policy in the context of what happened Friday. Not just because of the natural questions as to what the alternative to Trump would have done; but because there are several precedents drawn from her husband’s tenure as President which are pretty overtly similar to what we’ve just witnessed.
The first and most obvious of these is the narrowly-averted *actual shooting engagement* between Russia and NATO which took place during the Serbian intervention in 1999. Then, as with today, Russian forces were again deployed at an airbase which the US and its allies wished rendered inoperable by adversarial hands. Troops from the UK were sent in – and were ordered straight-up by the American General acting as NATO Supreme Commander Europe to engage the Russians with force. Needless to say … this would almost certainly have lead to a patently undesirable escalation of (literal) conflict between NATO and Russia, with the very real risk of World War Three ensuing as a result. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed (including a young, pre-stardom James Blunt – yes, *that* James Blunt), and the American order to British forces was countermanded by the UK’s General Mike Jackson.
The second concerns the cruise missile strike which Bill Clinton ordered against a pharmaceutical factory located in Sudan, which was alleged to have been manufacturing a nerve gas that might have been put to use by Al Qaeda. Now, as it happens, the “evidence” which underpinned this decision was later thrown into some rather strong doubt by even the Americans themselves. And, in concert with the now demonstrably spurious assertions of Iraq allegedly possessing vast stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction (other than, presumably, the ones America sold them in the first place), just goes to show that the American track-record of alleging that Middle Eastern countries are in possession of nerve agents is not exactly one hundred per cent.
My point is that the comparable actions from recent American history to what occurred Friday do not necessarily suggest that Trump’s course here is the particularly wise one. Hitting wrong targets on the basis of faulty intelligence; and engaging in a dangerous dance of death by ‘prodding the Great Bear’ … are not what many would call fine examples of Presidential prudence. It is a dangerous form of international engagement indeed which only avoids serious escalation through the patience and valued restraint of the Russians.
But leaving aside the precedents and the potential Great Power entanglement … what of the attack itself which prompted Trump’s missile strike? Has it been proven that the Syrian Government ordered it and carried it out? I am not aware of actual evidence that this is the case. The best we have is conjecture, awaiting verification. (And assertions on the part of Turkey which some might view as rather sketchy and questionably motivated) Russia has stated – quite validly, might I add – that if the United States is in possession of evidence as “incontrovertible” as has been claimed of Syrian culpability, that this should be made public as promptly as possible. They have also floated a counter-narrative of Syrian warplanes hitting a chemical munitions depot controlled by rebels; whilst others have suggested the potential for some form of deliberate ‘atrocity propaganda’ by those opposed to Assad.
Certainly, there are a regrettably lengthy span of instances which prove either narrative may have validity. In the case of the former, the UN’s Carla Del Ponte has already made the case for anti-Assad forces carrying out at least one chemical weapons attack in Syria already. Whilst others have scratched their heads asking what on earth Assad could POSSIBLY have to gain from carrying out this kind of attack mere days after the stunning reversal of US position on his government.
And in the case of the latter, it has become regrettably customary for Western military interventions to be prefaced with all manner of exaggerations and outright lies in order to create a moral imperative for NATO ordnance to begin raining down in earnest. Consider, for starters, the breathless allegations by a girl called Nayirah of Iraqi forces deliberately killing Kuwaiti infants which preceded the First Gulf War. At the time, nobody thought to mention that the person making the accusations was the daughter of the Kuwaiti Ambassador to the United States; and it was only after the intervention against Iraq had already taken place that it was shown just how willfully counterfactual her story had been.
Another instance is the much-maligned “people shredder” which Saddam Hussein was reputed to possess. Countries across the West were sold on the Iraq War (the Second one, I mean) on the basis that a man who allegedly fed his own people into a woodchipper as a form of torturous execution absolutely had to go. The claim about such an apparatus and its moral turgidity justifying invasion was continually repeated by MPs and even Prime Ministers in a number of polities. It turned up as the direct subject of any number of Jingoistic headlines and articles. And you know what the funny thing is? As far as we can tell, this plastic people eater never seems to have existed in the first place. A ‘convenient fiction’ which, in its own way, wound up giving garb-of-right to any number of subsequent civilian killings.
Or, more recently, we had the statements by US diplomats that Gaddafi was issuing his troops with massive quantities of Viagra for the purposes of facilitating atrocity-scale mass-rapes as part of his bid to shore up domestic control. By this point, it should probably come as absolutely no surprise that investigations by a number of organizations (including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Doctors Without Borders) have failed fairly comprehensively to find any actual evidence that this took place.
But, you know, what does it matter. The US got its NATO-backed Air War in Libya, ‘officially justified’ in no small measure by striking claims that Gaddafi was some sort of monstrously evil man regularly carrying out acts of CARTOONISH SUPERVILLAINY against his own people. (Rather than, you know, the tangible acts of every-day regular and more low-key despotism which the US habitually tolerates – or even outright encourages – from its allies and vassals).
So with all of the above in mind, it is certainly possible to view the “official narrative” being bandied about (without substantiation nor serious detail, might I add) by the Americans with a certain healthy degree of skepticism.
I am not saying that an exposure of a civilian population to a chemical warfare agent did not happen earlier this week. After all, unlike at least one of the other sources I’ve cited in this piece, I am no expert in this area. All I am doing is noting that there are so many unanswered questions – and previous instances of a dubious nature – that it is difficult to take the American justification for shooting first and waiting for actual verification of facts to come later as being the ‘right’ course of action.
Particularly given the manifestly high-stakes nature of this situation. And, further, the fact that some of the loudest supporters and direct beneficiaries of America embarking on a campaign of destruction in Syria appear to be ISIS themselves.
Serious questions need to be asked, to my mind, whenever the most vocal supporters of your course of action are Republicans who seem to deliberately wish to provoke a war with Russia, Neocons of all stripes, and the very abhorrent black-clad militants whom pretty much all factions and actors involved in Syria’s ongoing horror agree are the local apogee of evil.
Whatever the ins and outs of American domestic politics which gave rise to this rather stunning reversal of position on Trump’s behalf – from consciously eschewing the prospect of US involvement in Syria on the campaign trail and repudiating America’s previously held position of demanding Assad’s ouster, through to what may very well turn into an escalating campaign of military action … I think we have justifiable cause to be worried.
What makes this even worse is that many of the theories as to why Trump has suddenly changed position are not built around what you might call notions of Trump as a rational strategic actor. The lead narrative doing the rounds at present is that his daughter, Ivanka, had an emotional reaction to photographs of the aftermath of the chemical incident and thusly brought to bear influence on her father to engage in an aggressive response. It doesn’t take more than a moment’s consideration to see why that is fairly immediately concerning; although it is potentially an open question as to whether the First Daughter attempting to shape policy in reaction to photos shared on Twitter is more or less worrying than, say, Nancy Reagan doing much the same thing on the basis of consulting an astrologer.
Besides, even if we accept that a certain ‘humanitarian’ impulse lies behind Trump’s decision to bombard an airbase with missiles, this does not necessarily improve the situation. Not least because we’re still not entirely sure where somewhere more than half of the missiles used on Friday actually landed. They may even have erroneously hit civilian targets. “Humanitarian Interventions” rarely stop with a single action; and the evidence thus far from Syria is that US-led airpower is actually more lethal to civilians than ISIS. We should therefore be very cautious about this motivation – and its related impetii from “interventionist left” voices calling for a stepping up of Western bombing campaigns against Syria.
Another (not necessarily exclusive) narrative has the strike resulting from an increasingly fractious relationship between Trump and his formerly closest advisor Steve Bannon; in parallel with the rising influence of Ivanka’s husband, Jared Kushner. Phrased in these terms, military action in Syria has come about due to the chief ideologue of ‘America First’ and noninterventionism being eclipsed by an entirely different sort of operator who’s not nearly as concerned with maintaining the doctrinal purity – much less, promises to voters – of the Trump White House. This growing split between Trump and Bannon had been suggested earlier, when Bannon was removed from the National Security Council (although there are alternative explanations for that); but with media-pieces now appearing that seem to suggest Trump is considering getting rid of Bannon entirely, it certainly seems probable that this situation at the heart of American politics will be getting worse before it gets better.
A third set of explanations concern the ongoing struggle between what some have termed the US “Deep State” and the previously announced vision of the Trump Administration. This is the same strife-line arguably responsible for General Flynn’s ouster as National Security Advisor (important, due to Flynn’s advocacy for warmer – rather than more antagonistic – relations with Russia); and if true, it certainly wouldn’t be the first time that the CIA et co have undertaken to duplicitously manipulate a President into doing their bidding against his better judgement.
It’s also possible that Trump ordered this missile barrage out of a simple desire to be liked. Not just by his own daughter and son-in-law, or by the shadowy spooks who hang out in cigar-smoke-filled back rooms with videos of the Kennedy assassination shot from the Grassy Knoll. But by the American people at large. They’ve been saturated with images and evidence (whatever its provenance) that Assad’s a bad guy; and recently, this has reached somewhat of a fever-pitch with the latest round of gassing allegations. Trump’s occasionally somewhat paradoxical need for (popular) approval, therefore, may have lead him to choose to respond to the bellowing demands of a certain swathe of popular opinion … whilst electing to disregard that segment of the body-politik whose votes he relied upon to get into office in the first place, and whom we might fairly describe as being broadly “anti-interventionist” as the result of their previous visceral experiences with the human consequences of ongoing Imperial OverReach.
Or, for that matter, whether appointing a guy with the nickname of “Mad Dog” to the lofty position of Secretary of Defence may have lead to a certain irascibility when it comes to the Administration’s policy in Syria.
Oh, and it would be extraordinarily remiss of me to neglect to include the “explanation” proffered by those people for whom everything Trump does – up to and including attacking a Russian Ally, apparently – is the singular result of a Putin-authored conspiracy.
In any case, regardless of why Trump has done what he has done, we are now in rather perilous waters. A rational appraisal of the situation would suggest that Russia will be unlikely to retaliate – and that the US, having flexed its hugely expensive military muscles in a largely ineffective show of force, can go back to voicing vague distaste in diplomatic forae without doing anything substantive.
But for a number of reasons, it would now appear perhaps questionable that we are dealing with rational decision-makers operating within the constraints of rational assumptions about a rational environment.
And, as we know from decades of analysis on both game theory and brinksmanship in international relations … it’s the consciously /irrational/ actors who are the dangerous ones.
After all, as we saw in the immediate period before the outbreak of World War One – to a /rational/ actor, it would have been almost entirely inconceivable for a continent-spanning world war to break out given the nature of the international situation at the time – particularly over something as relatively small in scale as an intervention in a third-rate country which had long been something of a volatile hot-spot.
Yet the inexorable march of history oft-seems with alarming frequency to be hell-bent upon making avowed fools of the best-laid plans of mice and men.
Let us hope with avowed fervor that the continued course of the Trump Presidency does not give us cause to ponder Karl Marx’s famous maxim upon the subject of Louis-Napoleon’s seizure of power in France that events in history often occur twice – the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.
[Author’s Note: Thank you to Russell Berry and others for helping with some of the inspiration for this piece. Hope you’re not right.]