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This is a time of rhetorical overkill, with the presidential candidates promising more than they can deliver and journalists hyping the horse race. David Ignatius of the Washington Post, reputed to have close ties to the Pentagon, went so far as to claim that the 2016 election is a "fork in the road," like those of 1860, 1932 and 1940. Whoa! We are facing the equivalent of the Civil War, the Great Depression and World War II? Most people would agree that those crises posed existential threats to the United States, as did the Cold War nuclear standoff. But it is unlikely that any terrorist act would represent the end of life as we know it. Götterdämmerung for the country? I don't think so. However, one can't prove a negative, so the exchange of claim and counterclaim goes on. It's going to be a long six months.
Last quarter, a Donald Trump candidacy seemed fanciful; today, not so much. The chairman of the Republican Party himself, Reince Priebus, says we must presume Trump will be the nominee, there being no other contender. In view of this turn toward seriousness, Trump gave a formal speech on foreign policy, the president's main responsibility being commander in chief of the armed forces and all. It was self-contradictory, but the candidate actually pointed that out and owned it: he seemed to intend for his policy to be unpredictable. Keep the enemy guessing, perhaps? However, America's friends are also at a loss to interpret the Trump signals. This is how lab rats are broken down — random reinforcement; sometimes food follows the bell, sometimes an electric shock.
A large share of the blame for Trump's success can be laid on the media; he was a T.V. personality long before politics beckoned. It was a natural segué, selling himself as the Man, the Boss ("You're fired!"), just a short step into the role of King. His shtick sells papers and attracts eyeballs to the products of the conglomerates. He's golden, a self-perpetuating publicity machine. And most Republicans are falling in behind him. What choice do they have, lacking an alternative candidate or even a moral leader of any gravitas or popular appeal? House Speaker Paul Ryan played hard to get for a moment, but he is now on board. The opinion polls in mid-May actually show Trump neck-in-neck with Hillary Clinton. Explanations vary, but it is too early to draw firm conclusions. None of the pollsters predicted Trump's success, so it would seem wise to maintain a modest silence. Impossible for the 24/7 "news" machine, but the rest of us can avert our eyes.
Meanwhile, the effort to tar Barack Obama as either too averse to military action or too eager to resort to it goes on apace. His nuclear-weapons deal with Iran, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, is criticized by Iran's enemies in the region — all of them America's good friends — as evidence of Obama's bad judgment. His hesitation to make Bashar al-Assad go, once the Syrian president had crossed Obama's chemical-weapons redline, had already dented his reputation among U.S. allies, who want to prevent Iran's ally from retaining power. Losing Baghdad was bad enough — inexcusable, in their view; Damascus and Aleppo have to be saved. There is no evidence from the U.S. wars in Iraq or Afghanistan that a military intervention in Syria would have yielded preferable results.
On the other hand, Obama is carrying out missions in seven different wars, according to an article in the May 15 Sunday New York Times by Mark Landler, who compares him with the formidable wartime presidents FDR, LBJ, Nixon and Lincoln. A bit of a stretch, as the stakes are far lower, and far fewer soldiers are in harm's way. Two hundred thousand were sent into battle by George W. Bush, who never asked the public to sacrifice for the war effort; the costs were hidden. He should be given a pass, however, according to Eliot Cohen of Johns Hopkins SAIS, the main source consulted by Landler: "For all his faults, with Bush, there was this visceral desire to win." Richard Clarke, in his congressional testimony about 9/11, quotes Bush as follows: "I don't care what the international lawyers say, we are going to kick some ass."
This man-of-action affect is an obvious selling point for the Trump candidacy; Obama thinks too much. Or is Hillary Clinton the "real" man in the race? Back in the run-up to the Iraq War, an easy victory was predicted for a campaign of Shock and Awe. People would supposedly fall in behind the strong horse. We know better now; the military are constantly asking, "What happens next?" This is what is postponing an attempt to retake Mosul, for instance. Iraq, by all indications, is still in chaos, and there is blame enough to go around. One mea culpa was published in The New York Times on Saturday, May 14. The Iraq War promoter Kanan Makiya, in a new novel, blames his fellow Iraqis' corruption and "mistakes." The neocons had promised they would be grateful for their "liberation" and become democratic. In 2005, Hillary Clinton made the same charge as Makiya and called for more American troops: "The Iraqis have not stepped up and taken responsibility, as we had hoped." Maybe they considered it our war.
For some diverse views of U.S. military involvement in the Greater Middle East, see the proceedings of our recent Capitol Hill conference. This issue merits wide debate before November 8. It will help counter Trump's America First impulses. Robert Gates, former defense secretary, claims that "continuing American global leadership is in our own economic, political and security interest. America's turning inward will make the world more dangerous for others but also for us." Is he right? In the opinion of many, Hillary Clinton has to make that argument in order to beat Trump. His macho credentials are obvious, even if he argues for doing less for our international allies. She is considered a hawk compared to Obama, but he is not her opponent this time. It's the macho man.
May 20, 2016