As Donald J. Trump climbed up the polls, and into the Oval Office, to the bafflement of most, and the cheers of some, there was deluded optimism and melodramatic horror freely expressed about his plans once sworn in. The antiwar-cum-xenophobia demonstrated by many self-proclaimed isolationists meant that Trump’s bizarre policy collections had piqued their interest. But even with the relatively low standards that that mentality suggests–less war, perhaps, more domestic misery, certainly, especially when it comes to the lives of undocumented immigrants–Trump will likely fail. The non-interventionists who value the lives of immigrants, and the freedom of all people to live without police intervention remain unsurprised at Trump’s failures of international peace, even as they scorn the neocons just as much as the isolationists do.
America has been at war since 2001. In other ways, America has been at war nearly nonstop since its founding. As in so many other nation-states, the native population had to be culled and brutalized so that Westerners could flourish. Once that was mostly complete by the late 19th century, America eyed Cuba and the Philippines, and engaged in savage, now-forgotten wars in order to colonize there. World Wars one and two are defended by many people, especially the latter, but the savagery with which America fought even its most justified enemies spoke to its disinterest in a moral highground based on anything besides whatever the US says it right at whatever particular time. Korea and Vietnam, various Middle East scuffles and bombings, coups and interventions, not to mention the two decades spent trampling Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, Pakistan, and other places where terrorists occasionally lurk, all of this adds up to a searing black mark on the credibility of the shining city on the hill. Except that among the powerful and the silent majority in middle America, it doesn’t really diminish much of anything.
American wars have been on autopilot for at least the past decade. Mass outrage, most prominently seen during the Vietnam war, is the exceptional response to interventions abroad. And even in the “come on people now/smile on you brother”era, that war wasn’t stopped until two million Vietnamese, nearly 60,000 Americans, and countless Cambodian and Laos citizens were dead. At best, then, outrage as the life and death threat of the draft hangs over American 19-year-olds’ heads, can lead to the stopping of a war after a decade.
How to get out of the death grapple that is the war on terror remains to be seen. Or, perhaps it won’t be. In the grimmest, most borderline conspiratorial interpretations of the post-9/11 world, there is no reason for the US to ever get out of this war against a tactic, an extreme interpretation of a religion, against anyone who consider themselves against the US, and will engage in violence towards that end.
We may or may not have moved away from full-scale invasions like Iraq in 2003. However, Libya and Afghanistan have been destabilized plenty. And the residents of half a dozen other countries now find it necessary to accept the presence of silent robots hovering above them, Hellfire missiles at the ready. The American people are easily exhausted by wars, but they are also easily frightened into them. Letting a few troops, then a few more, then a few drones handle things is the easiest way to keep them distracted, but feeling safe enough.
Trump flirted with a different kind of presidency while he ran. Fundamentally, the man has no political principles that he is not willing to flip. That makes him in most ways an average leader, but one more willing to shamelessly lie, and operate with even less self-awareness. It also means that though Trump lobbed a few delightful spitballs at Cheney and the Bush doctrine, and even the concept of intervention as panacea during the 2016 campaign, he’s not a dependable or trustworthy advocate for human rights and peace. Not when he speaks of “bomb[ing] the shit” out of ISIS as if that’s the extent of his problem-solving, and his thoughts on war and peace. Trump appears capable of scorning the Republican, neocon-friendly status quo of 2003. He does not appear capable of appreciating the century-plus of intervention in the Middle East that has gotten the US to its current, endless conflict. He can mock other political leaders plenty. Going out on a limb for nonviolence, and for explaining why terrorists target the US and its allies is far beyond his capabilities. (He also doesn’t possess the touch of the diplomat, someone who might be able to walk back talk of a new Cold War without acting as if Vladimir Putin or Bashar Al-Assad are good, honest, peaceful men.)
One reason the novel President Trump is so familiar when it comes to peace is his strong foundation in Mexico-phobia and Islamophobia. Even if he sometimes changes his mind from week to week. After all, the Trump whose campaign was propelled so strongly by xenophobia against Mexicans and Muslim immigrants spent three weeks in the fall of 2015 suggesting that the US probably should let in Syrian immigrants, even if the idea made him uncomfortable. To his tepid credit, he sometimes fluctuates even on his worst policy suggestions. But Trump usually does return to what made his supporters cheer (walls) and got him endless press attention and protests (Muslim bans–or whatever is legally close enough to one to get the job done).
The 45th president is not just one for talking unpleasantly, however. Unless the isolationists are particularly deluded, or prioritize hating immigrants over stopping wars (and a lot of them seem to do just this), they must have noticed that Trump began his presidency with the bloodshed of a particularly enthusiastic Barack Obama, who perhaps is leaning towards eventually becoming a George W. Bush.
Trump’s January Yemen raid killed what may be scores of civilians, including the eight-year-old sister of Anwar Al-Awlaki, the American-born radical cleric who Obama killed in a drone strike in 2011. Awl-Awlaki’s 16-year-old son was killed by a drone two weeks later, and the Obama administration never fully committed to admitting whether that was a hideous mistake, or the deliberate targeting of a teenager born in the US. Trump appears to be attempting to best Obama by ordering the killing an even younger member of the family that is slowly being picked off by the American executive branch. He has also ordered airstrikes throughout Iraq and Syria that have killed scores of civilians during the past few months.
As The Nation noted, Trump is also eager to increase US support for the Saudi-lead brutality in Yemen, which is currently putting millions of children on the edge of starvation, and far from medical care. The conflict has killed more than 7,000 people since 2015. This is another unpleasantry that began with Obama–or, if you prefer, began with FDR allying with Saudi Arabia in 1933–but will likely be amped up by Trump.
The man is stuck in the war on terror bog, as any new president would be. And like those impotent, incompetent DC insiders Trump professes to scorn, he doesn’t appear to be interested in doing anything new about endless war. He prefers to let the Pentagon, the CIA, and any other “experts” lead the way farther into the bloody quicksand instead of pretending he has any military knowledge. What appears then to be a novel act of humbleness from Trump is just him keeping the war machine going by letting it alone, and letting it continue being fueled by the same defense contractors, terrorism paranoia, and military hunger as before.
Letting the military lead, for example, translates to lifting the minute restrictions on actions that Obama enacted. This has reportedly already lead to an increase in deaths in Iraq and Syria, either besides the military is more confident in using force in spite of the risk to civilians, or simply because the number of airstrikes has increased. Letting the CIA lead will let them go back to having their own drone strikes, as they did before Obama seemingly stopped that practice in 2013.
Fundamentally, Trump is no more or less likely than another president to start another complete war. He disturbs many of us by palling around with the former CEO of Breitbart.com, and selecting an anti-police reform head of the Department of Justice. But when it comes to foreign policy, the vaguely-worded legal permission, and the never-finished motivations for the war on terror have enough power even without a crony capitalist and political novice at the governmental helm. The idea that Trump would stop the wars is and always was absurd. The only thing to discover under his tenure is how much worse he might make them, and how many more innocent people will die under the militarized American status quo.