NOW man-child Trump has acquired a taste for confrontation the possible consequences don’t bear thinking about, writes Dani Garavelli.
Last year, when Donald Trump was a Republican candidate with what seemed like an outside shot at the presidency, and I, like many others, was writing columns about why it should stay that way, my Twitter feed would fill up with right-wingers telling me I was ignoring the potential benefits of his isolationism.
He may hate women and immigrants, the argument went, but at least he would end his country’s involvement in proxy wars in the Middle East. If Hillary Clinton was elected, there would be drones and missiles all over the place. But America First meant no more poking US noses into other countries’ affairs. Well, how’s that working out for y’all now, eh?
In the past fortnight, the US military has gone conflict-crazy. First it fired 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at a Syrian government airfield in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack on the rebel-held village of Khan Sheikhoun; then it dropped “the mother of all bombs” (MOAB) on a suspected Islamic State base in Nangarhar province, Afghanistan.
Perhaps these are positives: how can you be implacably opposed to intervention in Syria when President Bashar al-Assad is poisoning his own people? And 90 or so dead IS militants is hardly something to mourn. Still, bombing campaigns have not previously proved an effective way of bringing stability to troubled states. Now the shots are being called by a man you wouldn’t trust with scissors, as journalist James O’Brien framed it, it is difficult to envisage anything other than an escalation.
Certainly, Trump doesn’t appear to have anything approaching a strategy; nor is he eager to legitimise his actions by building a broad base of support. He did not consult Congress before launching the Syrian air strikes. Instead, he has given the Pentagon and the CIA more autonomy to launch attacks without seeking approval from the White House, a move which reduces accountability and makes an increase in collateral damage almost inevitable. The order to drop MOAB was made by a general.
All this is particularly worrying when set in the context of Trump’s staggering ignorance. Even at his best, he comes across as a wide-eyed ingenue astonished by the harsh realities of the world. Last week, it dawned on him that innocent babies are dying in Syria, but not, apparently, that the US kills them too, as appears to have happened in Mosul in Iraq. Like an easily distracted primary pupil, he struggles to focus on important details. The memory of a dessert he ate at Mar-A-Lago – “the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake you have ever seen”, as he told Fox News – can make him forget which country he is targeting (he said Iraq instead of Syria). And his reluctance to do even the most basic homework means he had to be disabused of his belief that China has “tremendous power” over North Korea. President Xi Jinping’s ten-minute bluffer’s guide to diplomatic relations taught him what “any fule kno”: that the situation is “quite complex” and taking on the pariah state “not so easy”.
Trump’s patchy knowledge, and his tendency to fall in with the views of the last person he spoke to, helps explain his inconsistency: why one minute he is convinced Assad is the key to Syria’s stability, and the next he’s sanctioning air strikes; why one minute Nato is obsolete and the next minute it has an important role to play in the fight against terrorism.
Here’s another rudimentary fact Trump has somewhat belatedly stumbled on: conflict can be a useful political tool. It bolsters the economy, deflects attention from domestic travails and arouses the kind of gung-ho idiot (MSNBC anchor Brian Williams) who could look at footage of cruise missiles and talk about “the beauty of our weapons”. After tanking in the opinion polls, Margaret Thatcher was rescued by the Falklands War, and – sure enough – the Syrian air strike gave Trump a six- point increase in his approval rating.
The fear is, having got a taste for confrontation, he will go looking for more. While his infantile Twitter exchanges with Mexican president Vicente Fox were merely embarrassing, his online goading of the unpredictable Kim Jong-un could have much more serious repercussions.
Trump’s online pledges to act against North Korea with or without China’s help, and his decision to send a US navy strike group to the peninsula no doubt feed his ego, but Kim is already rising to the bait. What happens if North Korea does carry out another nuclear test? What if it goes on to launch an attack on US bases in South Korea? China has already warned there can be no winners if war breaks out in the region.
Many people have welcomed the return of a red line in Syria, and, of course, there must be a point beyond which we will not let tyrants go. But other countries have their own red lines (for example Russia is unlikely to tolerate attacks on air bases where their troops are stationed). Barack Obama’s refusal to act decisively against Assad last time round – which Trump portrays as a weakness – was born of a fear of making things worse. He didn’t do nothing: much of Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal was destroyed at his insistence. But would launching an attack have stopped sections of the country falling into the hands of IS or led the US into another protracted civil war?
The problem with military interventions is you don’t know the answer until it’s too late. Their success or failure can only be measured after the bodies have been counted and the peace process completed or abandoned. And, even then, you will never be sure what would have happened if you’d pursued a different course of action.
Trump’s greatest virtue – if you can call it that – is that he is not intelligent enough to be paralysed by doubt. He acts instinctively and the law of probability means now and again he will make the right call. But it is also his downfall. His inability to grasp that situations are complex and that the job of being president is “not so easy” leads him to lay down ultimatums, with no thought for what will happen should the other party refuse to comply.
Just four months after Trump’s inauguration, Google searches for “WWIII” have hit a record high. The tragedy is this no longer seems like an over-reaction.