Trump’s plan to pull US troops from Syria is a product of his America First nationalism. But no one should trust the odd bedfellows united against him, writes Ashley Smith in an article first published at SocialistWorker.org.
As the New Year dawned, Donald Trump’s regime appeared to be coming apart at the seams.
The billionaire’s tariffs against China and threats to fire the head of the Federal Reserve Bank sent the stock market into a panic. Trump then shut down the government over his demand for a racist border wall and spent his holiday home alone in the White House, munching on burgers and binge-watching Fox News.
The political establishment, which had until recently tolerated Trump’s impulsive statements and erratic policy swings, decisively turned against him over his surprise announcement to withdraw all US troops from Syria and half of the 14,000 occupying Afghanistan.
Everyone from the generals in his cabinet to the state bureaucracy, the corporate media and both the Republican and Democratic parties have denounced Trump’s withdrawal as nothing less than the abandonment of US imperialism’s bipartisan strategy to defend global capitalism through a system of alliances against terrorism, so-called rogue states and great-power rivals.
Trump’s decision, while made in haste and reportedly over a phone call with Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, isn’t the accident it has sometimes been portrayed as, but a campaign promise that flows from his America First nationalist strategy to put US interests before all else, even if that means disrupting alliances and cutting deals with rivals.
The establishment’s opposition to his decision – and, indeed, his whole America First strategy – began within his own administration. Defense secretary Jim Mattis resigned in protest and was soon followed by Brett McGurk, Trump’s envoy to the global coalition to fight ISIS.
Mattis and McGurk denounced Trump for betraying the Kurdish-led Syrian Defence Force – the Kurds are now threatened with destruction by an invasion from Turkey – and failing to finish the war against ISIS, which, while it lost its capital in Raqqa, still retains over 30,000 soldiers in Iraq and Syria.
But their main criticism was that Trump’s decision was a surrender of American imperial influence in Syria to Russia and Iran. In particular, they and other sections of the establishment are concerned that Iran will gain an upper hand in its regional power struggle with the US’s main allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia.
In his letter of resignation, Mattis further excoriated Trump for trashing the traditional US strategy of superintending the neoliberal world order and thereby compromising Washington’s ability to dominate the world system.
“My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors are strongly held and informed by over four decades of immersion in these issues”, he wrote. “We must do everything possible to advance an international order that is most conducive to our security, prosperity and values, and we are strengthened in this effort by the solidarity of our alliances.”
Mattis was backed up a chorus of retired generals. Former admiral James Stavridis impugned Trump’s intellectual capacity to absorb information in an article in Time magazine. Retired four-star general Stanley McChrystal told ABC News that he considered Trump immoral and would never accept an appointment in his cabinet.
The foreign policy establishment was just as critical. Barack Obama’s favourite neoconservative, Robert Kagan, warned that Trump had opened “an era more destructive of the world order than in the 1930s. Back then, at least Britain and France were responsible for keeping part of the order. Now we are the responsible world power – and we are undermining it”.
Surprisingly, the Republican Party establishment, which has heretofore tolerated Trump’s erratic rule in order secure tax cuts for big business, further deregulation of Corporate America and right wing judicial appointments, condemned Trump’s decision almost unanimously.
Senator Lindsey Graham, who most recently made headlines as the Republicans’ rabid attack dog against Dr Christine Blasey Ford in defence of now confirmed Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh, declared that Trump’s withdrawal was a “disaster”, a “stain on the honour of the United States” and a decision that risked “another 9/11”.
Graham penned a bipartisan public letter to Trump signed by six senators that decried the decision as a threat to American dominance of the Middle East that would “bolster two other adversaries to the United States, Iran and Russia. As you are aware, both Iran and Russia have used the Syrian conflict as a stage to magnify their influence in the region. Any sign of weakness perceived by Iran or Russia will only result in their increase presence in the region and a decrease in the trust of our partners and allies”.
Senator Jeanne Shaheen, who supported George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, signed on to the letter, but she wasn’t alone among the Democrats. In fact, the party staked a position almost to the right of the GOP, denouncing Trump for his misleadership of the empire and for capitulating to Russia and Iran.
Nancy Pelosi pointed to Russian president Vladimir Putin’s statement in support of Trump – “Donald’s right. I agree with him” – and railed: “Imagine. That is the comment of Vladimir Putin on the actions taken by the president of the United States in relationship to Syria, an action that was taken without the benefit of the thinking of our national security establishment and out intelligence community included in that, a decision made in a cavalier fashion in terms of our allies in the fight against terrorism, a decision that is dangerous”.
Daniel Feldman, Obama’s special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, recognised the ironic unity in the establishment across the political spectrum, admitting, “I hate to ever feel like I’m in the company of neocons, and I’m no proponent of a forever war in Afghanistan, but pulling troops out in this way is completely irresponsible and nonstrategic”.
The establishment has come out swinging because they are worried that now, after the resignations of Mattis, McGurk and former general John Kelly, Trump’s chief of staff, Trump will be completely unhindered from implementing his America First program.
The two parties had hoped that the administration’s so-called adult faction – which also had included H.R. McMaster, and CEOs Rex Tillerson and Gary Cohn – would restrain Trump and channel his foreign policy into a more orthodox, if muscular, version of the traditional one of superintending the neoliberal world order.
The deceased warmonger John McCain had greeted this grouping’s appointment by declaring he “could not imagine a better, more capable national security team”. Even socialist Bernie Sanders and progressive Elizabeth Warren voted to confirm Mattis and Kelly to Trump’s cabinet back in 2017.
Sanders justified this by stating that they “may not be the nominees I would have preferred for the departments of Defense and Homeland Security, but in a Trump cabinet likely to be loaded up with right wing extremists, all of whom I will oppose, I hope general Mattis and general Kelly will have a moderating influence on some of the racist and xenophobic views that president Trump advocated throughout the campaign”.
It’s a sign of the times that the bipartisan political establishment would look to a war criminal whose nickname is “Mad Dog” as an adult who could discipline Trump. Mattis infamously told his troops in Iraq to “Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet”. With such instructions, it should come as no surprise that he oversaw a massacre in Haditha and the destruction of Fallujah, which included the illegal use of the chemical weapon white phosphorous.
In fact, the CEOs and generals did at first manage to contain Trump and his America First faction, spearheaded at the start by the dark prince of the alt-right, Steve Bannon. They took credit for stopping Trump from withdrawing from NATO, pulling troops out of South Korea and, until now, doing the same in Syria and Afghanistan. They were so successful that, after the billionaire fired Bannon in a fit of egotistical rage, it looked like the establishment had won the faction fight.
But Trump grew frustrated about the restraints on his agenda imposed by the generals and CEOs. In March of last year, Trump got rid of most of them, firing Cohn, McMaster and Tillerson. They were replaced by like-minded hawks and nationalists like Mike Pompeo and John Bolton. Now, with Mattis, McGurk and Kelly gone, the establishment has few reliable agents left within the Trump regime.
While Trump railed against all his critics, trashing his military critics as “failed generals”, he did agree to slow down the removal of troops from both countries after Lindsey Graham came to the White House to beg for a change of course. Nevertheless, Trump’s nationalist backers know they’ve won a victory. Steve Bannon told a reporter that “the apparatus slow-rolled him until he just said enough and did it himself … Not pretty, but at least done”.
No one on the left should oppose US troops being removed from Syria and Afghanistan. But the fact that Bannon was delighted with Trump’s announcement should be a warning if anyone has any illusions that anti-war motives, let alone anti-imperialist motives, are involved.
The US forces in Syria were never there to aid the now-defeated popular uprising against the Bashar al-Assad regime, to protect Syrian civilians from Assad’s atrocities or to advance the Kurdish struggle for self-determination. Their sole mission was to wipe out ISIS, and this was the purpose to which the US tried to bend all its allies.
Even that war aim should not be seen as humanitarian in any way. Remember that ISIS did not exist before the American invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq. Like al-Qaeda before it, ISIS emerged as a reactionary opposition to US intervention.
The US war against ISIS was destined to backfire. It caused death and destruction for untold numbers of civilians in both Iraq and Syria, and those war crimes have increased the breeding ground for opposition to imperialism in any form.
The occupation of Afghanistan – now the US’s longest war – had similar consequences. The US invaded and toppled the former Taliban government, killed thousands of innocent Afghans, and installed an utterly corrupt and unpopular regime of warlords and crooks. The occupation and its quisling government is so despised that large numbers of Afghans have rallied in despair back to the Taliban, which is likely to return to power when US troops withdraw.
Nor does the withdrawal mean an end to US imperial intervention in either country. The Pentagon has already drawn up plans to use their Special Forces and air power to strike against ISIS in Syria. Trump’s super-hawk national security advisor John Bolton reportedly told Israel that the US would support its attacks on Iranian targets in Syria – and for good measure, he threatened the Assad regime with air strikes if it used chemical weapons again.
Thus, Trump’s America First policy does not, in the misleading words of liberal commentator Gareth Porter, offer “the country a new course, one that does not involve a permanent war state”.
As left wing journalist Jeremy Scahill tweeted, “For those who somehow think this is Trump opposing the war machine, I point you to his massive escalation of drone strikes, his easing of rules for killing civilians, his use of ground troops in Yemen and Somalia and his use of criminal weaponry like the MOAB in Afghanistan”.
Trump merely wants to extract the US from losing positions, compel other nations to shoulder the burden of fighting and bend relationships with both allies and enemies to what he perceives to be the interests of the US state and American capitalism.
This is what led him to rip up the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran and threaten it with war, back Saudi Arabia’s brutal war in Yemen – and, most importantly, launch a new cold war with China.
But being opposed to Trump’s erratic nationalism should not lead anyone on the left to follow the Republican and Democratic establishments’ defence of the traditional imperial strategy of ruling the neoliberal world order. While that status quo brought riches to ruling classes around the world, it has produced nothing but misery for workers and oppressed peoples.
Indeed, few if any great powers rival the crimes that US imperialism committed in establishing and running that so-called rules-based international order. It was founded at the end of the Second World War with two of the greatest acts of barbarism in human history: the nuclear annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
After that, during the Cold War, the US and its superpower rival, the Soviet Union, trapped the world in fear of total destruction through nuclear war. The US even called its policy, which promised to ensure peace through the arms race, MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction).
Faced with rebellion within its own sphere of influence, the US was the principal enemy of national liberation struggles, backing reactionary dictators throughout the developing world and, when that didn’t work, launching wars like in Vietnam that laid waste to whole countries in a vain effort to preserve imperial dominance.
Since the collapse of the USSR, Washington’s unchallenged rule over the world order has been no better. The US used the World Trade Organization, International Monetary Fund and World Bank to impose free trade globalisation for the benefit of capital and to the detriment of workers throughout the world.
It deployed its military to put down all opposition, whether progressive or reactionary and to impose its rule on sections of the world reduced to chaos by neoliberal economics.
Neither Trump’s “America First” nationalism nor the establishment’s neoliberal imperialism offer anything but austerity, war and state terror for the workers and oppressed of the world. Meanwhile, on the central question of imperial competition with China, both Trump and his critics agree on the need to confront a rising threat to US dominance over the world system.
One mainstream commentator, Robert Samuelson, went so far as to argue that the US is spending too much on the welfare state and underfunding the military, thus causing it to fall behind its competitors in China and Russia. He ominously warned:
“It’s hard to miss the parallels with the period before World War II, when England, France and the United States allowed Adolf Hitler to rearm Germany, altering the global balance of power … This is not a call for war. It is a call for stopping many self-inflicted wounds. We need to stop underfunding the military, especially on research and cyberwarfare, even if that means less welfare.”
These developments make the question of imperialism and anti-imperialism unavoidable and central for the new socialist movement in the US. So far, it has been ill-prepared to answer it for two reasons.
The first is the influence of pro-Democratic Party liberalism, which led the main forces of the anti-war movement that protested the “war on terror” invasions of the Bush years to dissolve themselves when Barack Obama won the White House in 2008 as a supposed anti-war candidate.
As should have been obvious then and certainly is in retrospect now, Obama never intended to be an anti-war president. He sustained the occupation of Iraq, increased the troop presence in Afghanistan, launched a global drone war and attempted to confront China through his administration’s failed Pivot to Asia.
The dissolution of the anti-war movement meant that many lessons about US imperialism have not been transmitted to a new generation of radicals.
Second, among the radicalisation taking place to the left of the Democratic Party since 2008, imperialism has been downplayed.
Most of the socialist radicalisation associated with Bernie Sanders, for example, has focused on domestic reforms like Medicare for All. But there is a connection between anti-imperialism and the struggle for such reforms – and as the ruling class, as Samuelson signals, puts the demands of imperialism first and social reforms last, it becomes impossible to separate them.
Sanders’ lead on the question of US foreign policy is inadequate. Recently, he laudably called for a progressive internationalism that puts human rights and democracy at its heart. But on key issues – like supporting Trump’s protectionism against China – he falls short, following the traditional social democratic practice of promoting a left version of nationalism.
Some in the new left have fallen under the sway of another inadequate doctrine: a form of Stalinist anti-imperialism inherited from the Cold War. This position, known as “campism”, uses the idea that “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” to justify support for any and all antagonists of the US, no matter how oppressive and capitalist. This had led some to unconscionably support Assad’s regime in Syria and even Xi Jinping’s in China as somehow anti-imperialist.
Instead of these models, the new left must recover the genuine socialist tradition of anti-imperialism that opposes the US state, first and foremost, but also its rivals like China or Russia – and instead builds solidarity from below between workers and oppressed nations and peoples of the world.
Only this approach can provide the new left with a solid foundation to oppose Trump’s unbound nationalism and the establishment’s neoliberal imperialism.