Who Ought to Govern, the President and the People, or the National Security State?

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Donald Trump does not have the qualifications to be President of the United States. He has limited understanding of modern history and the political-economy of the world-system. He is self-centered, and he has an erratic administrative style. He is not the first to occupy the office without the necessary qualifications; but he brings the phenomenon to new heights.

Trump does, however, have a coherent view of U.S. of foreign policy. It has not been well articulated, and at times, under the pressure of unfolding events, he has authorized actions that contradicted his vision. Nevertheless, it is a vision that he has more or less consistently upheld, offered as a promise during the 2016 presidential elections to terminate U.S. involvement in endless wars.

Trump’s view implicitly takes into account and adjusts to the reality that the USA is no longer the dominant power that it was in the fifteen years following World War II. He asserts that the United States should withdraw its troops from distant lands, including Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria; and that allied Arab states should be more actively engaged in defending their interests in the region. Trump thinks that military presence and war games in faraway lands are a waste of money. Accordingly, he wanted to stop the joint military exercises with South Korea in the Korean peninsula and push for denuclearization of the North on the basis of a personal relation with North Korea’s chief of state Kim; he threatened U.S. military withdrawal from the Korean peninsula, if South Korea did not pay more for its protection.

In accordance with his post-hegemonic view, he insists that the United States should no longer pay for the military defense of Western Europe. These nations, now with strong economies, ought to finance their own defense. At the same time, he uses tariff mechanisms to attain more favorable terms of trade with Europe.

His post-hegemonic view of the nation leads him to acceptance of China as a world power, and accordingly, he does not seek regime change in China. He criticizes previous U.S. governments for not defending U.S. economic interests vis-à-vis China; in contrast, his administration has launched a trade war with the intention of forcing China to play by international trade rules, instead of calling itself “developing” in order to take advantage of more favorable trade treatment. Before the coronavirus, Trump had wanted to work out mutually beneficial trade with China. But now, for political reasons, a New Cold War with China is brewing, which nonetheless implicitly reaffirms China as a superpower.

At the same time, Trump believes that the post-hegemonic USA ought to be to a dominant regional power in complete control of Latin America and the Caribbean, its historic backyard. Accordingly, he pursues a policy of regime change with respect to the nations that challenge U.S. neocolonial domination and imperialist interests in the region. His policy has included an unconventional war against Venezuela, including financial, commercial, political, and military dimensions, seeking to overthrow the constitutional government of Nicolás Maduro; the intensification of the economic, commercial, and financial blockade against Cuba; and a destabilization campaign against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. In addition, the Trump Administration supported a violent coup d’état against the constitutionally-elected president Evo Morales in Bolivia; and it has supported the government of Lenin Moreno, who through a Trojan Horse strategy, has removed from power the Citizen Revolution led by Rafael Correa.

Trump wants to make America great again, but its renewed greatness is adjusted to global developments of the last fifty years. Whereas the USA once was the creative force behind global governance, Trump withdraws from structures of global governance that he sees as compromising U.S. sovereignty. Although Trump has expanded the U.S. military, maintaining it as the strongest and most technologically advanced in the world; it should not be everywhere present.

John Bolton’s White House memoir, The Room Where It Happened, reveals that Trump has encountered constant opposition in the implementation of his vision from the national security state (aka the deep state and the invisible state), that is, from the National Security Council, the Pentagon, the CIA, and the Department of State. The national security state has an interest in permanent global war, and it is opposed to Trump’s vision of partial military disengagement.

Bolton defends the opposition to Trump’s vision by his own administration. Trump, Bolton writes, has an inadequate understanding of U.S. national security interests. Trump believes that U.S. troops in a faraway country, like South Korea or Germany, are defending that particular nation; he does not understand that U.S. troops are present in distant lands in order to defend U.S. national security in a complex international situation. For Bolton, Trump is opposed to endless wars in the Middle East, but he had no coherent plan for what happens next.

Accordingly, Bolton reveals that Trump’s advisors do not explain to him how to attain his foreign policy goals; rather, they frame options in a form that are designed to get him to do what they want. Becoming frustrated and isolated in his own government, Trump protests that he campaigned on a promise of disengagement from endless wars, but he is blocked from fulfilling the promise.

The isolation of Trump within his own government brings to mind the similar isolation of John F. Kennedy, as described in the 2008 book by James W. Douglass, JFK and the Unspeakable. Kennedy sought peaceful co-existence with Soviet Union, which he envisioned as a step-by-step process toward general and complete disarmament. JFK outlined his vision in speeches at the UN General Assembly on September 25, 1961; at American University on June 10, 1963; and at the UN General Assembly on September 20, 1963. His commitment to general and complete disarmament was reaffirmed in National Security Memorandum 239, emitted on May 6, 1963. Consistent with this vision, the United States and the Soviet Union agreed to a Limited Test Ban Treaty, signed on July 25, 1963 in Moscow and approved by the U.S. Senate on September 23, 1963. Initially, the treaty had little public support, but it was approved by the Senate by a vote of 80 to 19, following a public campaign in its support organized by NGOs, coordinated by Norman Cousins, a confidant of Kennedy who was not in the government. Meanwhile, Kennedy maintained regular, confidential correspondence with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, initiated by Khrushchev four days following Kennedy’s first UN disarmament speech.

At the same time, Kennedy took the option toward peace in Cuba and Southeast Asia. He resisted the recommendations of his advisors to attack Cuba at the Bay of Pigs in 1961 and during the missile crisis of 1962; and in 1963, he initiated private communication with Fidel. He insisted from the beginning that South Vietnam must successfully defend its own cause, and when it demonstrated that it could not, Kennedy issued National Security Memorandum 263 on October 11, 1963, ordering the withdrawal of 1000 military personnel from Vietnam by the end of 1963 and of the bulk of U.S. personnel by the end of 1965. Previously, on July 23, the United States joined with thirteen other nations in signing the “Declaration of the Neutrality of Laos.”

Douglass demonstrates that Kennedy’s peace initiatives confronted the constant resistance of the national security state, which had an interest in a permanent war economy and an endless Cold War. During discussion of possible options, Kennedy at times was the only one in the room opposed to military action. At the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy was set up by the CIA with misinformation, in a maneuver designed to force him to send troops to Cuba. He refused, and instead, he fired long-time CIA Director Allen Dulles. But Kennedy’s own appointment to the post could not attain de facto control of the agency. Especially with respect to Vietnam, the CIA and the U.S. embassy maneuvered behind Kennedy’s back and ignored his directives; and his order to initiate troop withdrawal, which had the active support of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, was not implemented by the military.

Like Trump, Kennedy was weakened by his own inconsistencies. He sometimes authorized actions or made declarations that went against his long-term vision of peaceful cooperation. Indeed, his 1960 electoral campaign included criticisms of the Eisenhower administration for not being tough enough with respect to Cuba and for a fictitious “missile gap.” Moreover, Kennedy’s 1963 order to withdraw from Vietnam was secret; he did not attempt to marshal public support for U.S. withdrawal, as he did with respect to the Partial Test-Ban Treaty.

It was once said of John F. Kennedy that he regarded himself as human, but he treated the office of the presidency with profound respect. I doubt if the same could be said of Donald Trump. But they had something in common: they both held views, not fully developed, which implied a step toward peace; and they both found that they were unable to overcome the resistance of the national security state.

Can resistance by the national security state to military reductions be overcome by a president? In addressing this question, we should keep in mind that both Trump and Kennedy weakened their positions by not consistently proclaiming and following their vision. For any president who wants to take on the national security state, the first item on the agenda must be a consistent and clear formulation of a foreign policy that is an alternative to that of the national security state and its interest in permanent war.

In formulating a clear alternative, the assumptions of the Cold War have to be discredited and cast aside. The national security state was created in the late 1940s at the beginning of the Cold War, and its logic is bound to the Cold War ideology, which falsely assumes or claims that any nation exercising its sovereignty is falling victim to something evil, either “communism” or “terrorism.” A president has to arrive to the White House with false Cold War assumptions and claims jettisoned, and on a foundation of a reframed foreign policy that has the solid backing of the people.

The reframed foreign policy has to be based on the principle of the rights of all nations to sovereignty, a principle affirmed in the UN Charter. The right to sovereignty includes the right of each nation to exercise control over its natural resources; and it includes the right of every nation to choose its political-economic system, in accordance with its national conditions. Nations, therefore, have the right to freely choose, if they have the political will, a system in which the state directs the economy in order to ensure the social and economic needs of the people; and/or in which its political process is shaped by structures of people’s democracy rather than representative democracy. A U.S. foreign policy based on respect for the sovereignty of nations would be based on a vision of cooperation among nations, necessary for humanity to confront common threats to human civilization.

A presidential candidate who formulates such a principled foreign policy and who attains a popular mandate would arrive to power with the capacity to confront the national security state. Indeed, the need to confront the national security state has to be an explicit part of the president’s electoral campaign and platform, denouncing the historic tendency of the national security state to usurp political power and to override the wishes of the elected president.

If a president were to arrive to political power on the basis of such a campaign, with a strong popular majority and with the backing of a legislative majority that also is committed to a foreign policy reformulation, he or she would be in a position to wage battle with the national security state, which would involve naming new directors and assistant directors and reorganizing departments. Here we see in outline the struggle of the people to put the foreign policy of the nation under its direction, a necessary and possible task.

Charles McKelvey is Professor Emeritus, Presbyterian College, Clinton, South Carolina.  He has published three books: Beyond Ethnocentrism:  A Reconstruction of Marx’s Concept of Science (Greenwood Press, 1991); The African-American Movement:  From Pan-Africanism to the Rainbow Coalition (General Hall, 1994); and The Evolution and Significance of the Cuban Revolution: The Light in the Darkness (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018).