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Trump Repairs His Ratings: Syria and the Democrats’ Denunciations of Dissent

Photo by David Drexler | CC BY 2.0

Photo by David Drexler | CC BY 2.0

 

The US military’s cruise missile attack on Syria reveals much. First, it lays waste to the idea and endless moronic bloviating in the US media (chiefly by MSNBC) about the purported Trump/Russia connection. There never was any, beyond Russian oligarchs with equally poor taste as our unctuous President Trump (but with deeper pockets) who buy his properties. Donald Trump tried for three decades to enter Russia’s property markets, as most major US hotel chains successfully did. Unlike them, however, Trump, failed at every turn. To be sure, there were figures linked to Trump’s presidential campaign like Paul Manafort and Matt Flynn with connections to Russia (and, incidentally, no small number of US Democrats too). They were the usual carpetbaggers (like so many before them) that monetized their positions of authority to cash in on ‘consulting’ opportunities in the post-Soviet world. This, however, seems more like business as usual than not, despite possible US laws violated in the case of Flynn. Increasingly like Russia, however, laws in the US seem only to be applied selectively to those threatening power and privilege.

Donald Trump’s chief ‘strategic advisor,’ Steve Bannon, however, was different. Having already made his fortune in finance, he is more ideologist than opportunist. Bannon seeks neither money, love, nor approval. Like Nixon, he wants power. Bannon believes war with Iran and China are inevitable and appears to delight in the prospect. Thus, Bannon wished to position the Russian bear at his side for these coming crusades. Bannon’s Alt-Right outlook framed Russia as a white Christian nation to join his war on Islam. The fact that Russia is a multi-ethnic federation with millions of Muslims, along with Vladimir Putin taking endless pains to not alienate this population, seems to have escaped Mr. Bannon’s attention. Bannon chose Trump as the impressionable vehicle to implement his ideas. Mr. Trump, however, proved a flawed choice for this mission. Thankfully, the television ratings obsessed Trump, is equally sensitive to presidential approval ratings, to which Bannon acts as a repellent.

Bannon’s brooding vision for the US that courted bigots and fanatics, was an affront to the ‘enlightened’ liberal interventionist prejudices of America’s opinion shapers. The Gramscian state (preferable to the simplistic ‘deep state’ advanced by figures like Patrick Buchannan) was arrayed against him. Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, pointed out the obvious: Bannon was killing Trump’s Presidency. Thus, Bannon was sidelined and a ‘New Trump’ was unveiled. The best way to repackage this ‘New Coke’ was to attack Syria and scold Russia. The desired (and altogether predictable) result was a chorus of approval from the media. From “Remember the Maine” in the Spanish American War, to Germans bayonetting Belgian babies in WW I, to the Gulf of Tonkin incident in Vietnam, to WMD in Iraq, America’s crusading middle class prefers to shoot first and wring hands later when it comes to righting wrongs that later prove to have never occurred. For this latest projection of US force in the name of ‘good,’ MSNBC served as cheerleader in chief, with Brian Williams, in what looked like an audition for a starring role in a remake of Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, declared images of American cruise missiles at work, “beautiful.” Only the sensible Chris Hayes at MSNBC suggested caution in accepting the US government’s narrative or the efficacy of force. Mr. Hayes, however, might exercise more caution in airing his intemperate dissenting remarks on the need for conclusive evidence before bombing. The last MSNBC figure who doubted US good intentions and demanded evidence on the need for aggression was their top-rated Phil Donahue. Mr. Donahue quickly found himself under fire and in short order unemployed for questioning the justification and veracity of the US can ‘only be a force for good’ line.

The first 18 Op-Eds published in the US’s top 5 newspapers all weighed in with a celebratory chorus of praise for Trump sending in the cruise missiles. None dissented, other than some suggesting not enough force was applied. Meanwhile, former Democratic National Party Chair, Howard Dean asserted figures like Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, who served in Iraq and who has actually been to Syria, was “outrageous” and should “resign from Congress” for having the temerity to suggest it might be possible that the “chemical weapons attack” was precisely what Assad (and some in the UN) claimed, a dispersal of chemicals from the terrorist warehouse bombed by the Syrian Air Force. The fact is we simply don’t know at present who unleashed the chemicals. An international investigation must be undertaken. Stating the need to find out the truth in the age of Neo-McCarthyism, however, is enough to become the object of denunciations. Indeed, when I recently referenced to an old friend that once served as a presidential speechwriter in one of Donald Rumsfeld’s “New Europe” countries that joined the US in its war in Iraq (presumably for the similar reasons Cuba supported the the1968 Soviet intervention in the then Czechoslovakia) that we were in a new age of Neo-McCarthyism (albeit ‘lite’) designed to silence dissent, he indignantly declared “nonsense” and that McCarthy in fact found real communists. This brought to mind a comment by the late Stalin-era Soviet leader, Vyacheslav Molotov, who when confronted later in life with the charge that many innocents were eliminated in Stalin’s purges, dismissively asserted “that 8 out of 10 of those people were guilty!” In a rather unpleasant fashion (that of the McCarthy/Stalin era) the person then re-posted several mendacious items on the internet regarding yours truly without bothering to investigate whether they were true. In short, for authoritarians and liberal interventionists alike, the “road to good intentions” continues to be paved with denunciations….

While President Assad certainly is capable of committing the worst acts and, scandalously, has refused to sign the international agreement banning the use of chemical weapons, this does not mean he used them in this recent instance. Moreover, given he currently is winning his war, use of these weapons at this time seems a most curious choice. Having unleashed cruise missiles, however, President Trump has been politically rehabilitated by the media he scorned, but for whom in reality he desperately sought the approval of. Attacking Assad and, by implication, Vladimir Putin, he is now on the way to becoming “respectable” and “sensible.” The military industrial complex (in all its dimensions from military contractors to consultants and legions of faux “specialists” on Russia) can continue gorging themselves at the all you can eat buffet of US military spending knowing that Donald Trump is not pursuing détente with Russia. Russia just put forward its fourth straight year of military budget cuts as their economy remains in the doldrums. Yet, the Russian bear’s military power is presented as being bigger than ever.

What does the US want in Syria? Hard to say, but it may be “permanent chaos” (as Sam Husseini suggests) as an alternative to the consolidation of power by Assad (Alawite Shia) or Sunni radicals who surely would eat the former for lunch should they ever take power. A ‘moderate opposition’ exists, but realistically is unlikely to assume power given the forces arrayed against it. Revealingly, former US Ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, reported some months back that, “I’m on TV all the time where I have to use the phrase ‘moderate opposition,’ and I don’t know what it means.” Thus, the US keeps its enemies fighting among themselves. The cost has only been a few million killed and displaced persons and to quote former President Jimmy Carter National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski before 9/11, only some “stirred up Muslims.” What could go wrong? Meanwhile, some psychological comfort has been restored by returning Russia to its central casting role as villain, a role it (like most big states) plays often enough to render the casting credible. This will mean more helicopter dumps of money for the US military industrial complex. But, fear not Russia, Donald Trump may still be the man you hoped for at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Trump’s military adventures are likely to result in global instability and military demand for fuel that spikes oil prices and repairs your financial balance sheets. The losers will only be the rest of us…

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Jeffrey Sommers is Professor of Political Economy & Public Policy in the Department of African &African Diaspora Studies and a Senior Fellow, Institute of World Affairs, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. His book on the Baltics (with Charles Woolfson), is The Contradictions of Austerity: The Socio-economic Costs of the Neoliberal Baltic Model.

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