Remember when the Donald was the Dove? When deluded Hollywood lefties such as Susan Sarandon claimed that an “interventionist” President Clinton would be “more dangerous” than an isolationist President Trump? When the New York Times ran a fatuous op-ed headlined “Donald the Dove, Hillary the Hawk”? When John Pilger solemnly announced, “The danger to the rest of us is not Trump, but Hillary Clinton”?
Ah, the good ol’ days. At a conference in Chicago last September, I bumped into a group of Muslim American activists who told me: “Trump may say awful things, but how can we vote for Clinton, who did awful things and has blood on her hands?” It was a common refrain among the anti-war left.
It was also beyond absurd. Clinton was complicit in hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths in the Middle East and beyond, having served as a senior member of both the legislative and executive branches of the US national security state. But why give her Republican opponent, a property developer and reality-TV star with zero government experience, a pass by making such a spurious comparison? “How would he have got blood on his hands?” my New Statesman colleague Helen Lewis only semi-joked on Twitter last July. “Ordered a drone strike as a task on The Apprentice?”
We are less than three months in to a Trump presidency and the bodies are piling up. On 6th of April, the president of the United States, sitting in his club in Mar a Lago, Florida, ordered air strikes against a Syrian army air base in Homs in what the Washington Post described as “the first direct American assault on the government of President Bashar al-Assad since that country’s civil war began six years ago.” While his order to attack the Assad regime came as a shock to many and may now risk an open confrontation with both Russia and Iran, it wasn’t even the first time Trump had authorized military action.
This supposedly dovish and isolationist Republican sent Navy Seals into Yemen on 29 January, resulting in the deaths of at least 30 Yemeni civilians, including ten women and children. In late March, as politicians and pundits obsessed over Trump’s ties to Russia, US air strikes in Iraq were reported to have killed about 200 civilians in Mosul and a US-led coalition bombed a school near Raqqa, Syria, which is believed to have caused the deaths of at least 33 civilians. Shamefully, according to the London-based monitoring group Airwars, US air strikes in Iraq and Syria are now killing more civilians than Russian air strikes. The civilian death toll from such attacks doubled between December – the last full month of the Obama administration – and March. Yet Trump – who also continues to bar Syrian refugees from the United States – had the audacity to claim that his attack on the Assad air base was done to protect Syrian civilians.
In campaigning for the presidency, Trump never hid his crude belligerence, or his utter disdain for international law and human rights. Think back to November 2015. “I’m more militaristic than anybody in this room . . . I’m really good at war,” he told supporters at a rally in Iowa. “I love war in a certain way.” And what about Isis? “I would bomb the shit out of them.”
Over the next 12 months, as the chants of “hawkish Hillary” grew evHer louder on the left – especially among millennials who ditched the Democrats for either the Green candidate, Jill Stein, or the Libertarian Gary Johnson – the Republican front-runner threatened to kill the families of terror suspects, pledged to bring back waterboarding, refused to rule out using nukes against Isis and promised to boost US defence spending.
After entering office, Trump appointed a bevy of retired generals to senior positions in his cabinet: James Mattis at the Pentagon, John Kelly at the department of homeland security and Michael Flynn at the National Security Council. Flynn was fired after his secret contacts with the Russian government came to light, but Trump replaced him with another (serving) general, H R McMaster, whose chief of staff, incidentally, is the retired general Keith Kellogg. There’s also the interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, a former navy Seal commander, and the CIA chief, Mike Pompeo, a graduate of West Point.
The reliance on generals and military officers is a bipartisan and long-standing US political tradition: over the course of his two terms, Barack Obama appointed General James Jones (as national security adviser), General Eric Shinseki (at the department of veterans’ affairs) and General David Petraeus (at the CIA).
The number of generals in the Trump cabinet, however, is the highest since the Second World War. What’s worse is that this particular president is a uniquely inexperienced, incurious and uninformed leader, making his reliance on the ex-military men around him particularly dangerous. It is now thought that Mattis may have baited Trump into launching the disastrous January raid in Yemen by suggesting that Obama would never have had the courage to do it.
As a candidate, Trump said that he would “listen to the generals” for advice on how to defeat Isis. As president, he has authorised, on their advice, not only air strikes against the Assad regime but also a near-doubling of the number of US troops on the ground in Syria and the designation of all of Somalia as a warzone. “Trump seems somewhat star-struck by generals,” the Atlantic’s David A Graham wrote; “this is a man who attended military school, but repeatedly obtained draft deferrals on somewhat questionable bases, and may glamorise generals in a vicarious way.”
In Trump, we have a bellicose and brutish commander-in-chief, with a childlike understanding of national security and international diplomacy, seemingly in thrall to the almost unprecedented number of hawkish generals serving in his cabinet, and bent on what he has called a “historic” increase in US military spending.
The results of his militarised presidency are all too predictable: more wars and more lives lost. As the former White House official Gordon Adams has pointed out, “. . . if all the men around President Trump are hammers, the temptation will be ‘to treat everything as if it were a nail’”. Trump has killed more civilians in his first three months as president than either Barack Obama or George W Bush had killed by the same point in their first terms. Remember also: Obama approached Congress and failed to secure approval for air strikes against Syria in 2013 while Bush went to Congress and succeeded in securing approval for his invasion of Iraq in 2002; Trump, however, didn’t bother even consulting with Congress before bombing Assad’s airfield.
“Hillary has blood on her hands,” some on the left piously proclaimed, over and over again in 2016. Wait until you see what Trump’s hands look like come 2020.
This article appears in the 05 Apr 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue