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Reckless in the White House

Within a week, United States President Donald Trump authorised two major strikes—one against the Syrian Air Force and the other against an ISIS base in Afghanistan. Both of these strikes came with little warning, although these are not the first such attacks in either sector. The U.S. has bombed Syria almost 8,000 times over the past few years and Iraq uncountable times since 2003, dropping ordnance that has already dwarfed the tonnage dropped in all sectors of the Second World War. But these bombing raids were against the ISIS, largely, and not the Syrian government.

In Afghanistan, the U.S. has been at war since 2001—making this the longest war in its history. Aerial bombardment of Afghanistan by the U.S. is now perfectly normal. What made this attack so extraordinary was the scale of the bomb—a-10-tonne monstrosity, the largest non-nuclear weapon used on planet earth. Not long after Afghanistan’s eastern province of Nangarhar shuddered with the intensity of that bomb, a U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) spokesperson talked to The Hill (a Washington D.C.-based political newspaper and website) about the attack. President Trump, said this military spokesperson, had given his armed forces greater latitude to fight the War on Terror. This freedom in combat, said the anonymous spokesperson, was “empowering the commanders and winning the war against the bad guys. In this administration, the military is given empowerment to do what we need to do”. Most stunningly, the spokesperson then spoke as if he were the manager of a prize-fighting boxer. “We mean business. President Trump said that once he gets in [to office] he’s going to kick the shit out of the enemy. That was his promise and that’s exactly what we’re doing,” said the spokesperson.

Hastily, a denial came from Doha (Qatar), where this spokesperson is based. CENTCOM’s media chief Major Josh Jacques said that the person who talked to The Hillwas “unauthorised to speak on behalf of the U.S. Central Command”. But that statement had already been made. It revealed the unvarnished attitude of the military, or at least the section that favoured Trump’s more aggressive posture towards the world. The language and tone of the unauthorised spokesperson from CENTCOM mirrored that of Trump. “We have the greatest military in the world,” Trump said. “We have given total authorisation, and that’s what they’re doing, and frankly, that’s why they’ve been so successful recently.”

The measure of success

Since Trump assumed office, the U.S. has indeed stepped up aerial bombing across the geography of the War on Terror, from Syria to Afghanistan. Reports of civilian casualties from these strikes began to trickle out in the days after Trump came into office. The non-profit monitoring group Airwars decided to shift its resources to track civilian deaths from U.S. strikes and stop using its limited resources to look at strikes by Russians. The number of deaths from the former dwarfs those from the latter. In March 2017 itself, Airwars counted 1,782 civilian non-combatant deaths from U.S. strikes. There were three mass casualty attacks that month, one in Syria’s Aleppo (47 civilians dead), another in Syria’s Raqqa (33 civilians dead) and the third in Iraq’s Mosul (200 civilians dead). “Nothing has prepared us for that level of civilian casualties,” said Chris Woods of Airwars.

The bombing has been severe but the strategic gains have been limited. In Syria, the U.S.-backed forces have struggled to push against the ISIS in the country’s north. One aerial strike, in fact, killed a dozen soldiers of the U.S.-backed Syrian Defence Forces (SDF). The SDF has been hemmed in because of pressure from the Turkish government, whose Operation Euphrates Shield is intended to block the advance of these mainly Kurdish fighters along the Syrian-Turkish border. The strike on the Shayrat Air Base in Syria by the U.S. also came with little strategic foresight. From this base, the Syrian Air Force had been striking ISIS columns as they moved to threaten the city of Palmyra. With the destruction of several aircraft by the U.S. cruise missiles, the ISIS has been given relief from the skies.

In Afghanistan, the U.S. targeted the meagre forces of the ISIS’s Khorasan division, which had already been badly dented during an offensive by the Afghan Army in January 2016. It is not the ISIS but the Taliban that is a threat to the Afghan government. The monstrous 10-tonne bomb was used against an opportunistic group of fighters who have been unsuccessful in trying to build momentum in Afghanistan and who have been unable to inflame a sectarian war inside the country. These fighters, in fact, have been a thorn in the side of the Taliban, challenging it to be more brutal in its tactics to win over young fighters. With the ISIS weakened, the Taliban will have the field to themselves just as the summer of fighting is ready to open up.

Even those who have congratulated Trump on his actions, such as the U.S. Senator John McCain, bemoan the lack of a strategy to win the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. The Trump Doctrine, if there is any such thing, is to show that the U.S. is willing to use the full extent of its military power to intimidate its enemies. But the problem with this view, if this is indeed the vision of the Trump Doctrine, is that the U.S. might indeed fire its massive arsenal but it will also earn itself more enemies from the families of dead civilians and from patriotic-minded people who will not tolerate the attempt to intimidate. Even Hamid Karzai, former President of Afghanistan who was close to the U.S., said after the bombing: “This is an inhuman act, a brutal act against an innocent country, against innocent people, against our land, against our sovereignty, against our soil and against our future.” Karzai is not alone. Trump’s especially brutal language and the relish with which he has unleashed military power have alienated many potential allies and friends. It is easy to bomb a country; far harder to build alliances in its aftermath.

When he was asked to define the Trump Doctrine, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said that the two words that are essential to the Trump world view are “America First”. “We’re not just going to become the world’s policeman, running around the world,” Spicer said. But, the U.S. would use its military only when there is a “clear and defined national interest,” he said. What “clear and defined national interest” was served in the attacks on Syria and Afghanistan? Of Syria, Spicer said that the U.S. was acting so that weapons of mass destruction do not “spread to other groups” that might threaten the U.S. The logic here is similar to that advanced by George W. Bush in 2002 and 2003, that the U.S. should destroy Iraq’s fictional weapons of mass destruction arsenal before the country shared it with Al Qaeda. There is little evidence that the Syrian government, like the Iraqi government before it, would ally itself with a group like Al Qaeda, which it sees as an enemy. But that is beside the point. Logic and history are unimportant in the Trump White House (Spicer even said that Adolf Hitler had not used chemical weapons against his own people, which, of course, denies what the Nazis did in the Holocaust). The U.S.’ national interest is not served by the attack on the Syrian government. That is the kind of regime-change policy that Trump had campaigned against during his run for the White House.

Selective outrage

Almost no logical account has been provided by the White House as to why the U.S. acted against the Syrian government for the as-yet-to-be-investigated attack in Idlib. The White House said that Trump was moved by pictures of the children killed in the attack, and that his daughter, Ivanka, implored him to do something. There was no such reaction when at least 126 people were killed by extremists who bombed buses outside Aleppo in midApril. There were 60 children amongst those killed then. No U.S. outrage was evident against the extremists, many of whom have links of one kind or the other with the U.S. and its allies.

Minimal explanation has been given for the U.S. attack in Afghanistan apart from the assertion by the U.S. commander that this massive bomb was necessary to take out the tunnel networks used by the ISIS. These tunnels, many of which were built with the assistance of the U.S.’ Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) for the mujahideen in the 1980s, have been used for long by various extremist groups. Why strike the ISIS, already weakened, when it would have been far more useful to the Kabul government if the U.S. had turned its firepower against the more threatening Taliban? No explanation has been given for this.

After Trump’s two strikes, he received accolades in the U.S. from a range of politicians and commentators. It is as if U.S. culture is incapable of being unhappy with a President who bombs another country. The term “presidential” began to be used for Trump by people who had previously seen him merely as a usurper. Perhaps Trump’s bombing raids had less to do with Syria and Afghanistan and more to do with U.S. politics, where his personal approval ratings are miserable. Trump would not be the first U.S. President to use the U.S. military to bolster his popularity. President Bill Clinton routinely used cruise missiles as a way to distract people from his domestic scandals. It has even been suggested that Trump used the attacks on Syria and Afghanistan to send a message to North Korea—that he would act if he sees fit (as in Syria) and he would use massive weaponry that is unimaginable (as in Afghanistan). Whether Trump acts for domestic reasons or to send a message to North Korea, either way his use of violence seems to be lacking a logical strategy for Syria and Afghanistan.

Richard Nixon pioneered a theory of foreign affairs known as the “Madman Theory”. He told his Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman: “I call it the Madman Theory, Bob. I want the North Vietnamese to believe I’ve reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war.” Nixon’s people would spread the rumour, he said, that the nuclear option was available and that Nixon was mad enough to use it.

“Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace,” Nixon said. Perhaps Trump, like Nixon, believes in the Madman Theory, one pioneered by Machiavelli, who wrote: “It is a wise thing to simulate madness.” It terrifies one’s adversaries. It pleases the bloodlust of one’s supporters. But it does not make the world a safer place.

This article originally appeared in Frontline (India).

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Vijay Prashad’s most recent book is No Free Left: The Futures of Indian Communism (New Delhi: LeftWord Books, 2015).

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