Tag Archives: US foreign policy

The almost peace president

America goes to the polls today to pass its judgement on Donald Trump’s four years as president. Domestic issues will no doubt determine the choice of most voters, but for a few of them foreign policy will matter too. Among some of the latter there will be a sense of disappointment that Trump failed to deliver what he had promised four years ago.

Back then, more than a few people were more than a little worried about the aggressive foreign policy tendencies of Trump’s rival for the presidency, Hillary Clinton. The chilling video of Clinton laughing about Colonel Gaddafi’s brutal death, and chuckling ‘We came, we saw, he died’, led to fears that her victory would lead to even more wars, with the neoconservative/liberal interventionist lobby riding on Clinton’s coat-tails to push American deeper into futile military adventures overseas.

In contrast to Clinton, candidate Trump, back in 2016, promised peace. He’d restore relations with Russia, talk to North Korea, and bring the troops back from Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq. Trump seemed to understand that endless war brought America nothing but harm, and that foreign and defence policy needed a complete rethink. He was thoroughly castigated for it, but he was right. If he’d done what he said he’d do, the United States, and many other places, would be much better off today.

Alas, it was not to be. Trump tore up the nuclear agreement with Iran and assassinated Iranian general Qasem Soleimani. The wars he promised to end are all still going strong. Initially, rather than bringing the troops home from Afghanistan, Trump authorized a surge of additional forces. Later he announced that all American troops would leave Syria, only to reverse himself a few days afterwards, and then ended up declaring that American had to stay in Syria to control the oil fields! As for relations with Russia, they’ve gone from bad to worse. It’s not a pretty record.

What happened? One part of the answer is that Trump made some poor personnel choices, surrounding himself first with a bunch of generals and then with hawks like John Bolton and Mike Pompeo. It’s almost like he was deliberately sabotaging himself. Another part of the answer appears to be that, at least in some respects, Trump has been a very weak president, unwilling or unable to press his point of view when faced by resistance from the civil and military bureaucracy. Reports say that whenever Trump came up with a plan to reduce America’s military footprint abroad, the bureaucracy would devise some scheme to ‘scare’ him into believing that the consequences of such a move would be disastrous. Again and again, Trump caved in.

There are just two things that can be said in Trump’s favour. First, he at least tried to talk with Russia and North Korea, and in Afghanistan with the Taleban (in the latter case, with some success). And second, he is the first US president in 40 years (since Jimmy Carter) not to start a war.

Think of that last one for a second – the first president in 40 years not to start a war. In a way, it’s a real achievement. Perhaps Trump does, after all, deserve the title ‘peace president’. But then, think a bit more. Not starting a war shouldn’t really count as something special. It ought to be the default position. The fact that it is so remarkable tells us less about Trump than it does about the dysfunctional nature of US foreign policy.

In the end, then, the feeling of disappointment is not unjustified. By 2016, the American people were getting fed up with failed military adventures. Trump won a mandate to bring those adventures to an end. But he blew it. He could have been the peace president. Instead, he was at best the ‘almost’ peace president, or at any rate the ‘not war president’. That’s at least better than the alternative, but it’s not what people were hoping for. We’ll have to see what happens next, but I can’t say that I’m brimming with optimism.

The persistence of bad ideas

My last post drew attention to the strange worldview of some of the Western world’s most senior military officers. Further evidence of that strangeness came with the publication yesterday of another book by a retired officer, Lieutenant General Michael T. Flynn. Flynn has co-authored The Field of Fight: How We Can Win the War against Radical Islam and its Allies with Michael Ledeen of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Until his retirement in August 2014, Flynn was Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, the largest of the many U.S. intelligence organizations. He is currently considered one of the favourites to be Donald Trump’s Vice Presidential running mate. He is also occasionally described as ‘pro-Russian’ due to the fact that he has appeared on the English-language Russian television channel RT. Sputnik News assesses that, compared to Hillary Clinton,

Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn also has a much more optimistic view of Russia’s potential relationship with the United States, much like his counterpart Donald Trump, calling on the two sides to join forces in the Middle East to bring about peace and stability while advocating for the US to take steps to deescalate tensions along Russia’s western border.

The introduction to Flynn’s new book suggests something different, however. Flynn writes that his purpose is:

To show you the war being waged against us. This administration has forbidden us to describe our enemies properly and clearly: they are Radical Islamists. They are not alone, and are allied with countries and groups who, though not religious fanatics, share their hatred of the West, particularly the United States and Israel. Those allies include North Korea, Russia, China, Cuba, and Venezuela.

Later in the book, Flynn states:

When it is said that Russia would make an ideal partner for fighting Radical Islam, it behooves us to remember that the Russians haven’t been very effective at fighting jihadis on their own territory, and are in cahoots with the Iranians. In Syria, the two allies have loudly proclaimed they are waging war against ISIS, but in reality the great bulk of their efforts are aimed at the opponents of the Assad regime.

The terrorists, says Flynn, ‘must be denied safe havens, and countries which shelter them have to be issued a brutal choice: either eliminate the Radical Islamists or you risk direct attack yourselves. … We can’t afford to be gulled by foreign countries that publicly declare their friendship, but then work in cahoots with our enemies.’

‘Most Americans mistakenly believe that peace is the normal condition of mankind, while war is some weird aberration. Actually, it’s the other way around’, Flynn says.  He recommends that the United States wage unrelenting war against its enemies and their allies, and warns that this war may last a very long time. ‘I dare say that most Americans don’t realize that the religious and political transformations of Europe that we call the Reformation entailed hundreds of years of very bloody struggle’, he writes, adding that, ‘The world badly needs an Islamic Reformation, and we should not be surprised if violence is involved.’

If this sounds like a return to some of the crazier policies of the Bush years, that should come as no surprise. Flynn’s co-author Michael Ledeen is a well-known neo-conservative who was an outspoken supporter of the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Looking at the chaos that the Americans have created in the Middle East, Russians often charge that this is deliberate policy. I have always maintained that it is more a product of stupidity. But Ledeen is the sort of person who makes me think that the Russians might have a point.  According to Wikipedia:

In 2002 Ledeen criticized the views of former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, writing: ‘He fears that if we attack Iraq “I think we could have an explosion in the Middle East. It could turn the whole region into a cauldron and destroy the War on Terror.” One can only hope that we turn the region into a cauldron, and faster, please. If ever there were a region that richly deserved being cauldronized, it is the Middle East today. … That’s our mission in the war against terror.’

What all this demonstrates is the extraordinary persistence of bad ideas. The United States has been waging war in the Middle East for 15 years, and the results have been overwhelmingly negative. One might imagine that the response would be to reconsider. Instead, Flynn and Ledeen propose that Americans double down on their past failures. One might also imagine that, given their track record of proposing disastrous policies, people like Ledeen would have long ago been cast out of the corridors of power. Instead, we see Ledeen co-authoring a book with a possible future Vice President. It is a remarkable testament to the lack of accountability which has accompanied the War on Terror.

Flynn’s and Ledeen’s opinions may be a little extreme even by Washington standards – but only a little. They are obviously close enough to the mainstream to be considered acceptable, and for Flynn to be a serious contender for the post of Vice President. In these circumstances, one should not expect the election of either Clinton or Trump to produce a serious re-evaluation of the fundamentals of American foreign policy.

Foreign policy insanity

According to yesterday’s New York Times, a 2013 classified study examined the results of CIA experiences in arming and training rebel groups in other countries. The conclusion: ‘many past attempts by the agency to arm foreign forces covertly had a minimal impact on the long-term outcome of a conflict.’ The only ‘successful’ example the report could come up with was the support given to the Afghan mujahideen which led to the toppling of the Najibullah government in 1992. But given the subsequent history of Afghanistan even this doesn’t look too good.

Despite this dismal track record, President Obama has given the go-ahead to the CIA to arm and train Syrian rebels in an effort to defeat the Islamic State and overthrow Bashar al-Assad. It is not as if Obama didn’t know better – he had apparently read the CIA report and didn’t want to support the Syrian rebels. But eventually he caved in to pressure from the CIA and the Department of State. He felt the need to show the American public that he was doing something. Thus, foreign policy, as so often, was subordinated to domestic politics, and the president approved a policy he surely understood was bound to fail.

Insanity, Albert Einstein supposedly said, consists of ‘doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.’ If that is the case, then American foreign policy is insane.