Let us stipulate that Donald Trump is dishonest. Yet history is nothing if not a tale overflowing with irony. Despite his massive shortcomings, Trump appears intent on recalibrating America’s role in the world. Aligning US policy with actually existing global conditions and ending its endless wars, starting in Syria.
“Great nations do not fight endless wars.” So the US president announced in his 2019 State of the Union address. Implicit in this seemingly innocuous statement is a radical proposal to overturn the US national security paradigm. Tug hard enough on the dangling threads of that paradigm, and it could unravel.
To acknowledge the folly of this country’s endless wars calls into question the habits that Washington sees as the essence of “American global leadership”: (1) positioning US forces in hundreds of bases abroad; (2) partitioning the planet into regional military commands; (3) conferring security guarantees on dozens of nations, regardless of their values or their ability to defend themselves; (4) maintaining the capability to project power to the remotest corners of the Earth; (5) keeping in instant readiness a triad of nuclear strike forces; (6) searching for “breakthrough technologies” that will eliminate war’s inherent risks; (7) unquestioningly absorbing the costs of a sprawling national security bureaucracy; (8) ignoring the corrupting influence of the military-industrial complex; and outpacing all other nations, in (9) weapons sales and (10) overall military spending.
During the 1960s, it was tested in Vietnam.
Military activism surged. During the otherwise disparate presidencies of George HW Bush, Bill Clinton, George W Bush and Barack Obama, the United States intervened in or attacked Panama, Iraq, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Sudan, Afghanistan (again), Iraq (again), Libya, Somalia (again), Yemen, Syria, several West African nations and, briefly, Pakistan.
Reticence regarding the use of force vanished. After the September 11 terrorist attacks, an open-ended Authorisation to Use Military Force handed the commander in chief a blank check to “deter and prevent” terrorism anywhere and by whatever means necessary.
The “global war on terrorism” now centres on the Turkey-Syria border. Given media coverage of the president’s abrupt troop withdrawal there, you might conclude that the pivotal issue is the fate of the Kurds, with the United States military deemed uniquely responsible for their well-being. America’s abandonment of the Kurds undoubtedly qualifies as cruel and immoral.
Yet widen the aperture and the outcome appears less impressive. In Afghanistan, the Taliban never admitted defeat and today threatens the Western-installed Afghan government. If anyone can be said to have won the Iraq war, that honour must surely belong to the Iran. And despite hundreds of thousands of deaths and trillions of dollars spent, the United States has come nowhere close to fulfilling its declared political aims in the region.
Call it quits
Now the president of the United States says he wants to call it quits. In response, many Democratic and Republicans insist that Trump may not do what he declares himself intent on doing.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, typically the president’s most stalwart defender, recently took to the pages of the Washington Post to denounce Trump’s decision, insisting that “the post-World War II international system” that “has sustained an unprecedented era of peace, prosperity, and technological development” must be preserved.
If you believe that the world today resembles the one that existed in the wake of World War II — the US economy dominant, Europe weak and vulnerable, China poor and backward, a climate crisis unimaginable — McConnell’s argument would possess merit. But that world no longer exists.
Sadly, Trump’s determination to blow the whistle on this charade doesn’t extend much beyond making noise. Even his troop withdrawals result in little more than repositioning.
As a result, diplomatic initiatives that might actually open a pathway to ending endless wars — restoring normal diplomatic relations with countries, or curtailing weapons sales (and giveaways) to nations that use US-manufactured arms to create mayhem, or declaring a no-first-use policy on nuclear weapons — don’t even qualify for discussion.
The fears are not misplaced: Syria is a dangling thread. Give that thread a good yank and US national security policy might become undone. But it will take someone with greater determination, consistency and strength of character than Donald Trump to complete this necessary task.
Andrew Bacevich is political writer and columnist. His newest book, “The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory,” is out soon