Trump vs. the National Security Establishment: Will There be a Revolution in US Foreign Policy?

Photo by Jamelle Bouie | CC BY 2.0

Photo by Jamelle Bouie | CC BY 2.0

Since the beginning of his presidential campaign, Trump had been savaged by the National Security establishment, castigated as unfit to lead, dangerous, incompetent, and ignorant.  These criticisms were woven together in an August 8 letter signed by fifty former National Security officers, denouncing a possible Trump presidency.   His national security team was also severely ridiculed by establishment media from the New Republic’s “Trump’s Court Jesters”, as “a rogues’ gallery of outcasts and opportunists, has-beens and never-weres, conspiracy-mongers and crackpots,” to the “Who?” of Top experts confounded by advisors to Donald Trump” from the New York Times.  Trump responded to the letter stating that these are the same people who brought us two decades of war – and his advisor Sam Clovis sardonically remarked that the National Security team is composed of people who “work for a living.”

Putting aside these castigations, Trump’s most egregious national security faux pas is his contestation of the Russophobic paradigm that has dominated US foreign policy since the end of WWII and the establishment of the National Security Act of 1947.  Trump’s contestation further amplifies his purported hubris to even raise the question of NATO – and his contemplation of the end of the seven decade US occupation of Europe (“We cannot afford it”).  Such perspectives fly in the face of the entire history of the National Security establishment, which, since the founding of the National Security Council (NSC), has sought to contain its former allies (Russia, and then, China) and maintain US hegemony on the European continent.

Trump could respond, of course, that Obama’s conflict with Russia is a distraction from the war on terrorism, especially in its current incarnation as ISIS.  Trump envisions Russia and the US working in tandem to defeat terrorism – and sharing the spoils of war in real estate, oil and infrastructure contracts.  Trump would of course have his war against radical Islam, but it will be fought alongside Russia.  If the presence of Carter Page and Michael Flyn on his National Security team tells us anything, it is that Trump does not see Russia as a threat, but as a potential partner in geopolitical and international business affairs.  Trump has substantial business interests in Russia and the Middle East and approaches the decade’s long conflict from a business security paradigm.  Indeed, Trump went so far as to suggest the US let Putin defeat ISIS on his own. “What do we care?”

It is clear from the intensity of its reaction to Trump’s faux pas that the National Security establishment will not tolerate deviation from the official script.  Since its beginning in the crucible of anti-Communism, the NSC – and through its surrogate organisations, such as the CIA and FBI – has waged a continuous war, internationally and domestically, on perceived threats to US global hegemony.  Russia has always been perceived as the greatest threat to a Pax Americana.  The NSC projected a strategy of full spectrum dominance from the outset, acting through political interference, regime change, assassination, cultural propaganda, psychological warfare, and domestic political repression.  This plethora of acts has come to be known collectively as the Cold War and it is Russia (and its potential supporters) which continue to be the primary target of global US national security strategy.

From this perspective, it was no accident that George H. W. Bush, a former CIA director, invaded the Middle East as the Soviet Union (a permanent, veto-wielding member of the UN Security Council) teetered on collapse.  Alongside Turkey, a longstanding NATO ally, the Middle East stood as the holy grail of global military and economic dominance – and the containment or destruction of Russia.  Before the dust settled in Iraq, Clinton undertook the eastward expansion of NATO which now stands with baited breath at Russia’s border.

Russia objected to the second Gulf War – and to Libya – but stood on the side lines of the Middle East until its 2015 intervention in Syria.  The root of Russia’s intervention lay in the dangers of regime change in Syria, especially following the US orchestrated coup d’etat in Ukraine in 2014.  What is at stake for Russia is the security of its European gas and oil markets which it sees threatened by the US and its allies.

On the one hand, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Israel seek regime change in Syria in order to build a gas pipelines to Europe.  On the other hand, the US disrupts Russian supply chains – via the Ukrainian crisis and the European sanctions regime – to destabilize Russia and Russian-European relations.  Crimea is significant, in this light, as it is a primary distribution hub for Europe, a status threatened by the coup d’etat.  The reunification of Crimea with Russia took place directly against the background of the Syrian conflict as a response to the overall US strategies of containment and market displacement.  Further pressure has been placed on Russia through oil price deflation from shale gas and oil smuggling by ISIS.

US strategy in Syria has tragically metastasized into a policy of “nation destroying”, of proxy, mercenary warfare, destabilization, partition and ethnic cleansing (the “refugee crisis”).  Syria has made a horrific sacrifice for the US national security obsession with Russia.

For Trump to ask, “What do we care?” clearly exposes why the national security establishment has condemned his candidacy in such vitriolic terms.  In its view, to allow Putin to win in Syria would be not only to accept Assad, but also to give Russia a permanent presence in the region. To exclude and push Russia back has always been the US objective and Trump’s Russophilia is a direct challenge to the National Security establishment and its plan to throw Putin out of Europe.

Trump has however won the election and he is on a direct collision course with the National Security establishment.  Of course, Trump is an unlikely revolutionary.  He has never said he would defy the National Security Act of 1947 (no president has), which means that he will accept its shadowy apparatus and its bureaucratic methodologies. Indeed, he supports increased NSA surveillance, expanded military spending, CIA activism, FBI phone hacking, etcetera. He is simply suggesting a different target for business-as-usual, by reminding us of our last propaganda cycle, the “War on Terror”.

Yet, Trump has thus far failed to articulate the “big picture” of a Russian rapprochement in the context of the necessity of a US glasnost – of a deconstruction of the National Security state.  During a campaign characterised by serial violations of longstanding taboos (Sanders’ opposition to the CIA, his support of the Sandinistas and Cuba) and Wikileaks’ disclosure of sensitive and damaging government and campaign documents, Trump squandered his opportunity to lay out a credible vision for either radical reform or revolution.  Indeed, he has been happy to simultaneously endorse the NSA surveillance state and Wikileaks – and without irony.

Trump’s has thus far failed to articulate a coherent vision of a cooperative, multi-polar world – in other words, to invite ordinary citizens to demand a radical change in the concept of national security and of the place of the US in the world.  If he does not challenge the NSC, Trump’s insurgency will expose itself as a distraction to the urgent task of finding a pathway out of the labyrinth of empire.  In its naivety, Trump’s “revolution” would then serve to further merely consolidate the unquestioned impunity of the National Security state.

If Trump is serious, he will set forth a coherent critique of US national security and the constitutional disaster that is the National Security Act.  If Trump is serious, he will defy the National Security Act.


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James Luchte is a philosopher, author and activist in the United States. He is also Visiting Professor of Philosophy and Aesthetics at Shanghai University of Finance and Economics. He is the author of Marx and the Sacred Revolution. His latest book is titled “Mortal Thought: Hölderlin and Philosophy” (Bloomsbury 2016).

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