The Peace President

And another bus heaves into view…

I think that the first time I came across James Mattis was when reading Chris Mackey’s 2004 memoir The Interrogators, in which Mackey (a sergeant in the US army) described his experiences interrogating Al Qaeda and Taleban prisoners in Afghanistan in the early 2000s. According to Mackey, at one point, then Marine Corps Major General James Mattis turned up at his interrogation centre near Kandahar one day and made a speech which went roughly like this:

You are helping us to kill the enemy. Let’s not make any mistakes about this. Let’s not try to sugarcoat it. You are assisting my marines to kill evil. To bayonet it, to grenade it, to shoot, it with machine guns, to cut its eyes out and shit in the sockets. And you can take pride in that. You can take pride in knowing that you had a hand in gouging out the eyes and cutting out the tongue of evil.

As somebody who was trained as a military interrogator, I found this more than a little disturbing. This isn’t the sort of language you want to use if you want your interrogators to treat their prisoners with the respect required by the laws of war. Suffice it to say that after reading this, subsequent scandals such as Abu Ghraib didn’t come as a big surprise.

No doubt Mattis is a formidable soldier. But I’ve never understood why people think that generals are suitable political leaders. Leading men in combat and making judgments about the nature of the international order, threats to national security, national strategy, and the like are entire separate things, and to be frank Mattis never showed himself to have particularly good judgement on any of the latter. Instead he stood out as a proponent of ever expanding defence expenditure and the prolongation of wars for which he offered no obvious path to victory. Quite how America benefited from the policies he supported, I cannot fathom.

So it is that I can’t share the general belief that his resignation yesterday is a severe loss for the United States. Moreover, I think that the reaction to his resignation and to the event which provoked it reveals something rather disturbing about the American attitude to war and peace.

As a candidate for the presidency, Donald Trump took a lot of provocative positions. There were very few of them which a good Western liberal like myself could support. But two did make sense: that it was in America’s interests to improve its relations with Russia; and that America’s endless wars in the Middle East and Central Asia were harming the United States without bringing any benefits, and so ought to be ended. To my mind, both of these propositions are blindingly obvious, but in the odd atmosphere of American politics, they were viewed as downright dangerous. Trump’s support of better relations with Russia has resulted in him being denounced as a traitor, a paid agent of the Kremlin. And his idea that America ought to bring its wars to an end has seen him being condemned as foolish and irresponsible.

Once elected, Trump rapidly turned his back on these views. His government imposed more and more sanctions on Russia, and Trump filled his cabinet with hawks like Mattis, Pompeo, and Bolton, and then proceeded to pursue reckless policies such as ripping up the nuclear deal with Iran. Those who hoped that Trump would bring peace were cruelly disappointed.

Until this week, when Trump suddenly declared victory in Syria and announced that he was ordering American troops to leave that country and return home. One might imagine that this would be a cause for celebration. American interference in Syria has had catastrophic consequences. On the assumption that the government of Bashar al-Assad was doomed, the United States funnelled weapons and money to a range of opposition groups who in some cases ended up fighting themselves, and in other cases defected to join ISIS, taking their American weapons with them. They failed to overthrow Assad, but did weaken him enough to open the way for ISIS to spread across a large part of Syria. Only after the Russian intervention in Syria began in late 2015 did ISIS finally begin to retreat. Now with ISIS largely defeated, any pretence that there is a legitimate reason for American troops to be in Syria has disappeared. Trump’s decision to get out is entirely warranted.

Yet it has led to howls of protest. Leading Republicans responded to the announcements of the troop withdrawal and Mattis’s resignation by saying that, ‘we are headed towards a series of grave policy errors which will endanger our nation,’ and that they were ‘legitimately frightened for the country’, as if ISIS were now going to be suddenly landing its troops on Roanoke Island. But it isn’t only Republicans who have been complaining. The reaction among Democrats has been equally outraged. Democratic Senator Mark Warner, for instance, described the situation as ‘scary’, while CNN (not noted for its love of the Republican Party) declared that Washington was ‘shaken, saddened, scared’, and the New York Times ran headlines such as ‘US Exit (from Syria) Seen as Betrayal of the Kurds, and a Boon for ISIS.’

There was a time when going to war was seen as a measure to be taken only in extremis. Unfortunately, lacking serious military competitors following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Western powers decided to use the ‘unipolar moment’ to flex their muscles, with the result that they got mired in a series of apparently never-ending wars. Instead of discrediting the idea of war, these had the opposite effect – they habituated the political classes to it, so that now waging war has become normal and making peace is seen as ‘scary’. Conventional judgements about the national interest, international law, and the ethics of war have been turned on their head.

There’s not much to like about Trump, but the one (actually very significant) thing in his favour is that he professes a desire to put a stop to all this. It would be wrong to say that Trump has been a ‘peace president’. He has, after all, continued American involvement in wars such as that in Yemen. But, to date he has yet to start a new one. This is actually quite remarkable. Barack Obama launched a war against Libya and got American involved in the wars in Yemen and Syria. His predecessor, George W. Bush, invaded Iraq and Afghanistan. Before Bush, Bill Clinton bombed Yugoslavia, and before him George H.W. Bush fought the first Gulf War. And of course, Bush Senior’s predecessor Ronald Reagan invaded Panama and Grenada. One has go to back 40 years to Jimmy Carter to find a president who didn’t start a war. So, despite what I said above, by American standards Trump is indeed a peace president and, if he keeps it up, far more deserving of a Nobel Peace Prize than Obama ever was.  The fact that so many find this worrisome indicates that something has gone seriously wrong not only with our understanding of the world but also with our moral compass.

13 thoughts on “The Peace President”

    1. But weren’t they always just two different PR campaigns for justifying and promoting imperialism? A supremacist one (a-la ‘manifest destiny’), and a soft/fuzzy one, based on… well, the same ‘manifest destiny’, just with a different emphasis, on ‘duty’…

      Liked by 1 person

    2. “Obama’s principal achievement was marrying the liberal interventionists to the neocons.”

      As as honest man – he ought to 🙂 But, seriously, this “affair” began under his predecessor.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. For me before, Lyttie. Long before. Not that it would have been on my mind at the time the curious yellow cake letter, curveball/Rafid Ahmed Alwan and the British student paper made headlines. But alas how are we to translate the moment of inertia into the human sphere of politics and/or multilateral vs unilateral ME strategy and intentions?

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    3. Patrick, we’ll see how ‘El Trumpissimo’ squares the circle between Iran as larger ME top sponsor, Jerusalem the capital of the Jewish state, and MBS as present representative of Saudi Arabia.

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  1. What, no mentioning of Korea? Did you see this (wikipedia):
    “On October 14, 2018, North and South Korea, agreed to meet the summit’s goal of restoring railway and road transportation which had been cut since the Korean War by either late November or early December 2018.[76] Road and railway transportation along the DMZ was reconnected in November 2018.[77][78][79]”

    Did you think this was possible, with any establishment politician in power?

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  2. It is very early days. The withdrawal from Syria can easily be reversed because it is not aligned with the US having military presence in all countries. Israel will push for reversal.

    Conflicts are never resolved. They want to keep them simmering so they can leap into military action quickly again (when the shelves in the warehouses need to be emptied to hold new production).

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  3. Probably Patrick is correct that Obama united the liberals interventionists and the neocons though I am not sure that people generally think in these ideological terms. (The meaning of “liberal” means something different here in Oz.) On the other hand, my impression is that Trump has managed to unite (almost) everyone in Australia, and most Western countries, against him. (Of course, the media has played its role in this for malevolent reasons.) It is rare that one hears even a slightly nuanced opinion of him, and few people would have any understanding of why he won an election. One reads the attributed quote and is shocked. Probably most Australians would be too, but this would be put down to the fact that Mattis is a Trump man. If the Russian and Chinese leaderships were as crazy as the West’s then “we will all be rooned” as Hanrahan said.
    Writing about all this is rather similar to swimming through cold custard- you cannot do it for very long. But Paul manages to, and I thank him for it, and wish him, and his readers, “Merry Christmas”.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. (Of course, the media has played its role in this for malevolent reasons.

      That raises a big bag of missing tools, or at least I am not aware of them. That’s my crux (of the biscuit?). I would appreciate a closer historical look from past to present. If I may use the British standard, somewhat connected to this non-political liberal for most of my life: Facts are sacred, opinion is free. But then I live in a country that has failed to some extend lately too in its legally enshrined information and education layers at least concerning our public channels. Not that this is completely new, but heightened lately maybe?

      To some extend rightly or wrongly I assumed that the ultimate trump card for ‘El Trumpissimo’s# victory was to simply ignore it. Swimming on a by then established wave of no solid answers available in standard politics speech. Painful to watch, no doubt. More painful even to watch the fact checkers.

      I may be nationally handicapped in this context. I still recall when long before Trump entered the scene Bernhard/b at the Moon of Alabama used the term Lügenpresse/lying media on SST. Did he have a grasp on matters of what objectivity meant or how delicate an ideal it necessarily is? …

      Who is/was Hanrahan, and would I be wrong to translate rooned to ruined?

      take care, be well

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      1. Sorry, I am not a scholar and cannot really answer your queries. I might say that Paul’s early articles in “The Spectator” probably had a bigger effect on me than any others. After those, a good working principle then seems to be one of Patrick Armstrong’s: to wit, one’s default position should be that anything written on Russia in the MSM is false. When it comes to geopolitics I turn to Alastair Crooke. Here are his latest
        https://www.strategic-culture.org/news/2018/12/18/america-technology-sanctions-war-will-end-by-bifurcating-global-economy.html
        https://www.strategic-culture.org/news/2018/12/24/its-not-just-trade-war-its-not-just-china-its-russia-too.html
        I would like to be privy to discussions about what to publish about Putin, Trump et al in the Australian MSM but that is hidden- perhaps there should be Freedom of Information legislation about media discussions. (I used to be a supporter of the Manchester Guardian, but no longer. I prefer the “Off Guardian”.)
        “Said Hanrahan” is an Australian bush poem that some Australians of my generation like to quote. Hanrahan is a pessimistic guy who continually imagines that all are about to be ruined, because of approaching drought, flood, bush fires, pestilence or whatever.
        Apologies to Paul for this indulgent comment.

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  4. Thanks, Davidt, got the Australian perspective by now. Concerning Hanrahan, that is.

    I also follow Patrick or Strategic Culture thus Alastair Crooke too.

    But considering coincidences what exactly was Paul’s article on The Spectator, and were exactly should I locate it considering time (in space, can’t help)

    Ok, admittedly, should be an easy search routine. 😉

    Best to you in 2019

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