As the Trump administration recedes into memory and Joe Biden takes the reins of the warfare state, it’s important to reflect on the changing nature of American militarism over the last decade. Trump received a lot of attention for his proclamation that “we are ending the era of endless wars.” But this was more rhetoric than reality, and never received much support from his base, which appeared perfectly fine with militarism and war. As I documented during Trump’s term using national survey data, support (in hindsight) for the war in Iraq, continued support for war with Syria, and agreement that Trump should escalate the U.S. conflict with Iran, were all significantly associated with increased support for Trump.
A comprehensive examination of the Trump administration’s policies demonstrates that across many issues, his presidency was significantly worse than its predecessor, despite both being defined by hyper-militarist policies. At day’s end, both presidents will be remembered for keeping the war machine humming and for the politics of limited-engagement militarism via their avoidance of long-term commitments to large concentrations of ground troops in major military conflicts. Obama’s first term was largely a continuation of the George W. Bush administration’s commitment to large numbers of “boots on the ground” in the “War on Terrorism.” Bush committed more than 160,000 troops to the Iraq war at its height in 2007, and Obama committed more than 100,000 troops to Afghanistan at the height of his escalation from 2010 to 2011.
While massive troop escalations characterized Bush’s foreign policy in both of his terms, Obama moved toward a “militarist-lite” version of U.S. empire by the mid-2010s, with the war in Iraq having ended, and with Obama’s “surge” of troops in Afghanistan being reduced to the levels that Trump inherited when he assumed office. In the late Obama years, troop concentrations in Afghanistan ranged from 10,000 to 20,000 a year, where they consistently stayed throughout most of Trump’s term. So when we talk of the Obama administration, it’s important to recognize that we’re really talking about two administrations – the one that mimicked the Bush administration and its boots-on-the-ground heavy “War on Terror” during the Democrat’s first term, and the imperial-lite administration of his second term that was marked by other forms of militarism, including a heavy reliance on drone strikes, light troop deployments in conflict zones, and conventional bombing campaigns. These tactics continued to be employd during Trump’s term, amidst a modest troop reduction in Afghanistan that was instituted in 2020.
On a dozen dimensions, I assess below the Trump administration’s policies in comparison to Obama’s. In each of these areas, Trump’s policies were significantly more repressive than his predecessor.
It’s one of the great farces of the Trump era that so many people, including many identifying with “the left,” fell into Trump’s propagandistic rhetoric about opposing U.S. militarism. War propaganda has been a constant throughout modern American history, and is embraced by both Democratic and Republican leaders who adopt the rhetoric of peace, while waging war. And under Trump, reactionary and militarist policies were particularly pronounced.
* On immigration, Trump was notoriously reactionary, with his administration defined by a draconian crackdown on legal immigration. These efforts were far more severe than anything seen under Obama. Trump’s travel ban openly and illegally discriminated against Muslims in mass, and was driven by Trump’s erroneous assumption that they represent a unique extremist and terrorist threat. Legal immigration to the U.S. was reduced by half during Trump’s term compared to under Obama. Trump’s immigration policy was based on white nationalist principles that depicted Muslim-majority countries and Latin American immigrants as an existential threat to American national security. This virulent white supremacy is beyond anything we saw during the Bush and Obama years.
* On unauthorized immigration, Trump’s politcies were viciously reactionary and oppressive, via the construction of his separation wall and his catering to neofascistic supporters, and his demonizing of Mexican immigrants as “drug dealers, criminals, [and] rapists.” Trump’s policies were needlessly punitive and destructive, as he imposed a child-parent separation policy in which more than 500 kids were still without their parents more than two years after the policy was imposed. Trump utilized concentration camp-style mass detainment, marked by dangerous overcrowding, children imprisoned in cages, and the denial of basic needs such as soap, toothpaste, and medical treatment. And he horried subordinates at the Department of Homeland Security when he ordered that immigrants at the Mexican border be shot, gassed, and electrified, and that all immigration be (illegally) shut down.
* In the Afghanistan war, the Trump administration was Nixonian in its policy – announcing a drawdown of troops while expanding the bombing campaign. Trump promised a withdrawal of U.S. troops, but dropped more bombs on the country – more than 7,000 strikes each year in 2018 and 2019 respectively, than even the height of bombings under Obama, which reached just over 5,000 strikes a year in 2010. Unsurprisingly, civilian casualties also reached their peak in 2018 and 2019, compared to during the Obama years, with just under 400 casualties from international air strikes in 2018, and more than 500 casualties in 2019. By comparison, under Obama there were less than 200 casualties a year in 2010 and less than 300 in 2011 at the height of his bombing campaign.
* On the Israel-Palestine conflict, Trump rejected a Palestinian state within the pre-1967 Israeli-Palestinian borders. This was most apparent in the administration’s propagandistic “peace proposal,” which endorsed Israel’s illegal annexation of large portions of the West Bank, rejected Palestinian control of its borders and territory, denied territorial contiguity for a Palestinian “country,” and abandoned the longstanding international commitment to Jerusalem as a shared city that would be claimed by both countries. Trump’s rejectionism was also clear in his recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, contrary to longstanding international efforts to broker a peace agreement resulting in the city’s shared status. Trump’s brokering of bilateral diplomatic agreements between Israel and UAE, and Israel and Bahrain, was widely assessed within a larger political framework in which the Gulf monarchies normalized Arab relations with Israel, despite its longstanding repression and colonization of the Palestinian people.
* With Iran, the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal (known as the “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action”) greatly accelerated the chance of war with the U.S. The withdrawal was widely derided as a dangerous provocation against an agreement that had effectively limited Iran’s potential for developing nuclear weapons. Trump’s shredding of the agreement, coupled with the illegal assasination of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, brought the U.S. to the brink of war with Iran, and resulted in a “sharp increase” in Iran’s uranium enrichment activities, amidst fears that U.S. aggression would push the country toward developing nuclear weapons. Iran has announced that it’s willing to reengage with the U.S. under the original terms of the agreement, although that will require the Biden administration to commit to the difficult work of diplomacy and deescalating tensions between the two countries.
* With the shift away from large concentrations of “boots on the ground” during Obama’s second term and Trump’s presidency, the U.S. moved toward a militarist-lite strategy that embraced drone strikes, which were illegally used against sovereign nations across the globe. The Obama administration launched a total of 186 drone strikes in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and in South Asia (Pakistan) in its first two years in office. By comparison, Trump launched 238 strikes in his first two years. Unfortunately, comprehensive data on Trump’s strikes and the deaths they produced were not available from 2019 onward, when Trump revoked a 2016 Obama-era rule requiring open reporting of these strikes and their impact. The revocation made it easier for Trump to utilize drone strikes with minimal transparency and accountability.
* Trump significantly increased the risk of nuclear war with Russia, China, and North Korea. Trump’s chief strategist, the criminally charged (and now pardoned) Steve Bannon casually threatened nuclear war with China in the name of saving “face” due to China’s attempts to expand its military presence in the South China Sea. Bannon’s saber rattling was echoed by Trump in his own racist and xenophobic attacks on China, which he shamelessly derided for failing to contain the “China virus”/ “Kung flu.” Trump’s attacks on China were accompanied by a marked increase in hate crimes against Asian Americans. Trump’s provocations included his announcement that he might have to “totally destroy” North Korea, and his abandonment of the U.S.-Russia START anti-nuclear proliferation agreement, which is slated to expire in February of 2021. The treaty has been imperiled by Trump’s refusal to agree to a simple renewal, after lamenting that China is not a party to the agreement.
* Trump’s efforts to deny the realities of the escalating climate crisis fueled his decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris agreement. Although Biden immediately announced his intention to re-enter the U.S. into this agreement, Trump’s withdrawal provided the U.S. with four years of freedom from working toward stabilizing and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Trump’s baseless claim that climate change is a conspiracy concocted by China to destroy the U.S. economy is part of a larger problem of American denial, even as we face the dire threat to human survival posed by a warming planet. As was recognized following Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris agreement, the U.S. refusal to lead on climate change would have deleterious consequences, undercutting the willingness of other major polluting countries to carry the load and compensate for U.S. intransigence.
* On the catastrophe of Covid-19, the outgoing Trump administration has perhaps irreparably damaged the U.S. reputation throughout the world, via its embrace of the disastrous “herd immunity” approach, which idealizes mass infections and death, and was associated with an estimated 130,000 to 210,000 avoidable deaths in the first 8 months of the pandemic alone. Coupled with U.S. willful ignorance to the dangers of Covid was the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the World Health Organization, which the Lancet medical journal condemned as “unlawful” and as “threaten[ing] global and U.S. health and security.” Trump’s withdrawal from the WHO, coupled with his cruel calls for “herd immunity,” sent a signal to the rest of the world that the U.S. holds fundamental contempt for medical science at a time when the worst pandemic in a century has led to the deaths of more than 400,000 Americans and more than 2 million people across the globe.
* On the corruption issue, Trump pioneered the art of clientelism with regard to the fiascos commonly known as Russiagate and Ukrainegate. I was never a true believer in the exaggerated, even propagandistic accounts of “Russiagate” – “golden shower” tape and all – and with regard to alleged Trump-Russian collusion in manipulating the 2016 election. And I didn’t buy into claims of the widely assumed and seldom documented effects of Russian attempts to manipulate the election. It’s not that Trump didn’t try to collude with Russia to manpulate the election outcome – he did – so much as he failed at said collusion, making an extended discusison of the impact of that failure a political distraction. Still, Trump will be remembered for his clientelistic corruption in electoral politics, not so much with Russiagate, but with Ukrainegate. As I argued in late-2019, the available evidence made it clear that the President consciously sought to shake down Ukraine’s President, and to exchange U.S. foreign aid for damaging information on Joe Biden and his family that Trump hoped would help him get re-elected.
* In declaring the defeat of ISIS, Trump promised to end U.S. wars, and to terminate U.S. participation in the conflict in Syria. Despite promises that he would remove U.S. forces, 800 troops remained in the country from early 2020 onward. In its partial withdrawal, the U.S. enabled Turkey to invade Syria and commit ethnic cleansing against the Kurds. The Syrian people suffered through the worst of both worlds – a continued U.S. and Russian military presence in their country, coupled with the empowerment of regional neighbors who took advantage of the power vaccum of a partial U.S. withdrawal to assault the Kurds, with an estimated 200,000 being displaced. In September of 2020, Trump continued to lie about his opposition to war, claiming the U.S. was “out of Syria,” despite 500 troops remaining and another 100 being sent there to reinforce the continued campaign against ISIS.
* One of the darkest stains on the Trump administration was its empowerment of Saudi Arabia to continue its scorched earth, genocidal level of violence against Yemeni civilians. Imposing a blockade on Yemen in late 2017 in their assault on the country’s Iran-allied Houthi rebels, Saudi Arabia unleashed “a never-ending nightmare” of starvation and destruction that led to the deaths of an estimated 233,000 Yemenis by December of 2020. Aside from the United States’ continued economic and military support for Saudia Arabia through this criminal siege, the Trump administration also vetoed a bipartisan resolution designed to end U.S. military involvement in the conflict. The United States’ criminal actions in Yemen demonstrate its commitment to terrorizing civilians and enabling mass murder. These are not the actions of a principled anti-imperialist, or a president committed to anti-militarism.
The Trump administration’s policies represented a continuation of the militarism that has long fueled American foreign policy. Trump’s particular version of militarism was much more blunt than what we saw during the late-Obama years. Obama was a more careful and calculating caretaker of the empire, adopting a lighter version of American militarism than what we saw under Trump. As a result, Obama performed far better in confidence measures included in multi-national opinion surveys when compared to Trump, whose more brazen form of imperialism was far less popular. More effective image management aside, the U.S. empire did not substantively transform from Obama to Trump. It is true that U.S. troop concentations in Afghanistan declined from about 10,000 a year late in Obama’s second term (2015 to 2016), compared to just 2,500 troops in the country by the time Trump left office. But as with Syria, while troops may have been removed, they were never brought home, instead being repositioned throughout the Middle East. U.S. troop levels overseas have remained constant during the late Obama and Trump years, with 200,000 soldiers stationed across the globe at the end of Obama’s presidency, as well at the end of Trump’s tenure. And military spending from the end of Obama’s second term and throughout Trump’s term were generally comparable, consistently ranging from $700 to $800 billion from 2011 to 2019. By comparison, the U.S. allocated between $600 to $700 billion in military spending per year during the post-9/11 Bush years.
The radicalization of U.S. foreign policy from Obama’s second term through Trump’s tenure was dramatic. The biggest shift in U.S. foreign policy in managing the empire, however, was not from Obama II to Trump, but from Obama to Obama, comparing his first and second terms. In that time, U.S. policy shifted from the blunt force of a “boots on the ground” approach including multiple wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and involving hundreds of thousands of troops, to a militarist-lite approach that relied heavily on airstrikes, conventional (Libya, Afghanistan, and Syria) and drone-based (throughout MENA and South Asia), and with relatively small concentrations of troops in the field (Afghanistan and Syria). This shift didn’t occur because of any epiphany on Obama’s part. Rather, it was due to rising anti-war sentiment in the United States, which was fueled by war burnout that emerged in the mid-to-late 2000s and that continued in the 2010s. This anti-war movement – which I broadly define to include protesters who were active in the early-to-mid 2000s and the majority of Americans by the late 2000s onward – has imposed serious limits on the ability of the U.S. government to wage war. Considering this shift, and in light of mass public opposition to drawn-out wars with significant casualties, we should expect that the militarist-lite strategy will persist under a Biden presidency. I expect Biden’s militarism to be significantly less blunt than what we saw under Trump. A number of the Trump’s most radical initiatives – including his support for white nationalism, the Muslim travel ban, and the crackdown on legal immigration – will be dramatically scaled back. The travel ban has already been rescinded, and Biden has already repudiated Trump’s white supremacy. We should also expect the xenophobic and unilateral attacks on China and Iran to recede, and the sort of brazen and corrupt clientelism of Ukrainegate is unlikely to define Biden’s presidency. Finally, the clumsy effort to dismiss climate change as a Chinese conspiracy is now a thing of the past. But make no mistake – the U.S. war machine will continue to roll on, even if it’s with a more “human” face.