Monday, April 10, 2017
The terrifying story of Assad's chemical attack on Syrian civilians, wrenched his soul. That, the paper says, is why he sent aloft a few dozen Tomahawk missiles, and bombed a half-deserted Syrian airfield. Love Trumps Hate, after all.
The collapse of the alt-centre media into adulation of a president who has waged merciless war on them, is stunning to behold. But at least now, the demented conspiracy theories and anti-Russian nationalism, can cease. Keith Olbermann can stop bellowing about Russian scum. Whatever else Trump is, he is not Putin's pet.
So what is he?
When it comes to foreign policy, he talked like a Bannonite. America First, bash China, smash Islam. Now, he is sounding a bit more like his Vice President, Mike Pence. There is even talk from his UN representative Nikki Haley, though quickly rebutted by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, of prioritising the overthrow of Assad. That is unlikely to bear fruit, at least in the short term, because what is happening for now is not about Trump's heart, or convictions.
The bombing in Syria is not a significant departure from existing policy. That is because Trump's policy is the one left by the Obama administration. When he came to office, bragging that he had a great plan to destroy ISIS, what he meant was that he would tax the generals with producing one, and would support it. The plan they gave him, within his 30 day deadline, was one devised by the previous administration, and included a number of lines of escalation and expansion within the terms of the existing strategy.
That strategy, with regard to Daesh, can be summarised as: medium footprint, with aerial bombardment supporting local auxiliary forces. In relation to Syria, the Obama policy was what the 'Realists' of the Pentagon would call offshore balancing. In this context, it means supporting the weaker side just enough to prevent it from collapsing, thus allowing both sides to bleed one another to death. It also means, of course, tolerating Russian support for the regime, which may be the only thing keeping it alive. And in the context of the rise of Daesh as a parasitic factor on the military stalemate, it means a de facto military alliance with Russia, a multilateral bombing campaign targeting Daesh (and also Jaish al-Nusra). Thus, the Syrian revolution has been drowned in blood and reduced to brutal struggle for survival led by reactionaries, but Assad's army has also been decimated, and is almost entirely dependent on outside forces. Trump hasn't broken with either, thus far.
The only major difference is that Trump has relaxed the fairly exacting political oversight exercised by the Obama administration on the military's actions. He has loosened constraints on targeting, which were already abysmal, with the recent major bloodshed in Al-Yakla, Mosul and Raqqa being notable byproducts. He has expanded the war along lines indicated by his predecessor, in Somalia and Yemen, and has changed the rules of engagement so that parts of these countries are deemed 'war zones' which can be targeted under the laws of war.
The major significance of bombing the airfield is that, by punishing Assad, it is a slap in the face to Russia -- although a very gentle one, it seems, since Russia was carefully warned beforehand. There is a risk that the neo-Cold War hawks will start setting the tone and, in the context of Syria, prepare the ground for a dangerous and potentially disastrous inter-imperialist confrontation. Naturally, this would be less of a surprise if so many people hadn't inhaled the laughing gas about Trump being Putin's puppet. In fact, whatever connections he has to Russian capitalism (on this, see Jordy Cummings in Salvage) his amateurish pre-inauguration diplomacy with Russia seems to have been an ineffectual attempt to get Putin to relax support for Iran and Syria, and enlist him into a confrontation with North Korea. Indeed, though it is not widely reported, it is North Korea that has been the subject of Trump's rhetorical escalation in recent months. There is a reason why the Chinese government regards the Syria strike as a form of sabre-rattling against North Korea, and Rex Tillerson has been explicit about the connection.
The shift in register and rhetoric, however, is also linked to the resistance to Trump coming from within the state, 'deep' or otherwise. First, they engineered the ousting of General Michael Flynn, who was responsible for the organisation of the National Security Council which included Bannon as a permanent member and demoted the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Director of National Intelligence. Briefing and leaking against Flynn ultimately ensured his resignation, even though the charges seem relatively trivial. The old military and intelligence leadership regained their dominance. This decisive change also led to Steve Bannon's departure from the National Security Council, and the tempering of some of Trump's rhetoric -- his acceptance of the Iran deal for example.
Many mandarin liberal pundits talked, in the early days, about a possible military coup against Trump. Such a move would have reflected sheer panic, indicating a complete breakdown of the embedded knowledge, cohesion and technological sophistication of the old state elites. Now, the foreign policy commentariat speaks of Trump 'learning' -- and that is the correct term. The pedagogy has been crude in some ways: a ferociously alarmist media campaign fed by intelligence leaks and more or less open dissent in the apparatuses of state. But it has still showed far more patience and guile than a simple coup, and there is probably more afoot. So, what has been achieved on the empire front is not the recomposition of forces at the top that Bannon et al were aiming for, but a consolidation of the Pentagon's priorities.
The empowerment of the military elite is, in itself, dangerous enough -- particularly if it is linked to the creation of new far right networks within the state. Add to it the fact that this is the Trump administration. This is not business as usual, and it won't be until it is effectively a lame duck administration. The military establishment has succeeded in reining Trump in for now, but Bannon is still his chief advisor, and his team is still dominated by lunatics of various stripes. Such an administration, I suggest, is almost definitionally a war administration.
The obvious thing to do, as their agenda falls apart on a number of fronts, and domestic support collapses, would be to organise a major war. That would consolidate the chief executive's authority. It would give an organising impetus to the administration, cohering the apparatuses of the state and, if done well, summoning a degree of popular support. It would license a major augmentation of repressive capacities, and justify renewed aggression against the media: 21st century fascism finds the diffuse spectacle superior to the concentrated spectacle. And, of course, it would filter new loads of racist ideology into civil society. Syria may not be the front in which they choose to embark on that war, given the range of state and other agencies already embroiled in that situation, and the huge potential for calamity.
So what is Trump, if not a Russian puppet? He is a pure, concentrated expression of the culture of US imperialism.