The toddler is drunk, tired and angry. It is also stupid. It is a stupid, drunk, tired, angry toddler, and about 49 percent of the adult population wanted to give this diaper-rashed monster a couple thousand nuclear warheads to play with. Donald Trump is the septuagenarian child in this analogy, and while he we can’t say for sure that he will kill us all in a 5:30 am temper tantrum, the latest Trump hire has some of those who dabbled in apologism for his brand of militarism feeling hurt and scared.
“Trump has broken another campaign promise — and it is surely his most dangerous betrayal yet,” Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of The Nation, a liberal magazine, wrote in a recent column for The Washington Post. This was in response to the president selecting John Bolton, an advocate of invading ‘bout everywhere, to be his national security advisor. “The candidate who promised to get us out of stupid wars is now loading up for war,” she lamented — “a far cry from the foreign policy Trump claimed to support during the campaign.”
On that campaign trail, Trump did rail against “nation building,” and he claimed (falsely, vanden Heuvel notes) that he was an opponent of the Iraq war. He also regularly talked about his desire to “get along” with the Russian government, which was juxtaposed with the Democrats’ post-hacking drive for a new Cold War.
But if the Iraq war was on some progressives’ minds, what came immediately before it was not: George W. Bush campaigning against what he called nation building. Every Republican does this, “nation building” a term that serves as partisan shorthand for liberals’ alleged tax-and-spend desire to spread gender equality with boots on the ground.
Trump also ran on more frequent and brutal air raids in any country with a terrorist cell. He promised to kill off the families of any extremist he had tortured by a CIA he now wants run by an alleged Bush-era torturer. And Bolton’s was the first name he spewed when asked, back in August 2015, to whom he turns for advice on foreign policy.
“I like Bolton,” the future president said. “I think he’s, you know, a tough cookie.”
So why might anyone feel betrayed? Because what some on the left conflated with a desire for fewer wars — “A jolt of realpolitik from an isolationist Republican would be no bad thing,” wrote The Guardian’s Simon Jenkins in his July 2016 column, “At least President Trump would ground the drones” — was Trump’s stated policy on Russia: to cede it a sphere of imperialism while bombing the hell out of terrorists, together.
The fact that Trump might have the world’s most dangerous mustache brushing up against him, foreign death tolls moistly whispered in his ear, was drowned out by the chorus of pundits who argued that collusion with Russian militarism was suggestive of a preference for diplomacy.
Weeks before the 2016 election, it was braying about Russian electoral interference that led some to argue that the man who would be president had already shown himself to be a statesman, in his own unique way. In an August 2016 column, vanden Huevel chided Democrats for “peddling unsubstantiated claims of collusion,” pointing to a story about the hack of the DNC possibly having been ordered by the Russian government, to which members of the Trump campaign had some curious ties. Democrats, she wrote, were “on the verge of becoming the Cold War party, with Trump, ironically, becoming the candidate of détente.”
“It is simply sober realism,” vanden Heuvel continued, “not pro-Russia or pro-Putin to make the case that the United States has a real stake in working with Russia,” especially on matters such as “the Islamic State and terrorism.”
That Trump promised to “bomb the shit out of” that same Islamic State was not lost on vanden Huevel, but she characterized that as a “ridiculous” pledge “no more credible” than Democrats’ fear-mongering over the next president’s fondness for Vladimir Putin. But both claims were credible — and how else would one expect an avowed militarist to deal with militant extremists? By the summer of 2016, Russia had already shown what it meant by fighting terrorism in Syria, with thousands of civilian dead a testament.
While some were uncomfortable with Trump’s vulgarity, an unreasonably wide consensus, stated with various degrees of comfort, was that bombing the hell out of Syria would be a lesser evil, just as it’s a lesser evil when others do it. The greater evil was Hillary Clinton’s Syria no-fly zone — the likes of which already exists over the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces forces in northern Syria — that threatened to “start an air war with Russia,” in the words of the Green Party’s Jill Stein.
“Under Hillary Clinton, we could slide into nuclear war very quickly from her declared policy in Syria,” argued Stein, whose campaign website had stated that the U.S. should work with Russia and Syrian governments to fight terrorism. “On the issue of war and nuclear weapons, it is actually Hillary’s policies which are much scarier than Donald Trump, who does not want to go to war with Russia. He wants to seek modes of working together.”
That the anti-establishment subversion on display here reflected the then-dominant strain of neoliberal elite thinking was an argument others made, in its defense.
Like Trump, The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald observed in an August 2016 post, Obama sought “to work in cooperation with, not in opposition to, Russia.” Indeed, Obama had even “proposed a partnership to achieve that,” spending his last year in office seeking an agreement with the Russian government that would have seen Washington and Moscow swapping intelligence and jointly striking Sunni jihadists in Syria; this, instead of Hillary’s global conflagration (Obama, according to a former State Department official, would himself “caricature” critics of his Syria policy as desiring “something between World War III and an open-ended, treasury-draining American commitment”).
The inability to think beyond the conventional wisdom, gratingly framed as adversarial truth-telling, is a reflection of the extent to which left thought on foreign policy has been captured by the faux-sophistication of narrowly geopolitical analysis. Instead of a progressive alternative to overlapping imperialisms, some progressives have chosen to answer a bleeding-heart liberal interventionism constructed of straw with a cold-hearted realism that sees other states but not other people, “getting along with Russia” a ghastly euphemism for two governments dropping bombs on mutually agreed upon targets.
The outrage is dialed up, and only momentarily, when Trump seeks to one-up his predecessor with cosmetic strikes on empty runways in response to the Syrian regime killing civilians with the wrong kind of weapon. Nearly four years of U.S. airstrikes on non-regime targets have killed scores, but at least Russia was happy.
Bomb or be nuked — we wish there were other options — was the manipulative argument of those who advocated invading Iraq, so it is as poetic as it is horrific that Trump has betrayed the shallow, stubborn and blind by choosing a leading proponent of that war to be his first line of advise on who to kill next. But as with the tripling of civilian casualties from U.S. airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, paired with the isolationism of not wanting to rebuild that which was just destroyed, this is what Trump always promised.