The election campaign grinds on, trying our patience but nevertheless riveting us to our sofas every night for the spectacle. Though the media dress it up as competing "narratives," much of it is performance art. We have been set up for it by "reality" television — unpredictable, exciting, appalling — starring the man himself, Donald Trump. Now, however, actual reality may be making a comeback. Trump has alienated all but diehard fans by crossing a few too many red lines: ridiculing the disabled, women, Hispanics and especially Muslims; hurling childish epithets at fellow candidates; predicting the election will be rigged to ensure he loses. This last ploy is new, an acknowledgment of coming defeat, combined with its own rationalization. Ironically, he blames the media for his decline, ignoring the fact that he owes his starring role in this circus to their insatiable appetite for his performances — magnets for consumer eyeballs.
The novelty of Trump seems to be wearing off, finally, and opinions range widely over how it happened. Was he ever really serious? Was he just toying with us? Never having thought he would get this far, and knowing he is incompetent to do the job, is he looking for the exit? Many GOP stalwarts seem willing to help usher him out, were it not for the smoking ruin he would be leaving in his wake, starting with the fate of down-ballot candidates and control of the Senate and even possibly the House. With just under three months to go, Hillary Clinton has a sizable lead, and the electoral map looks daunting for the Republicans. However, a committed GOP bloc is going to turn out en masse to support their man, no matter the wholesale defections by college-educated suburban women and other staunch Republicans.
Trump loyalists will have to be carefully handled by the party. They will still be around after an electoral debacle, fuming with resentment. Commanding numbers that European rightist parties can only dream of, they will be looking for scapegoats (I almost wrote "gunning," but that colloquialism has to be retired after Trump's "joke" about political assassination). Their opposite numbers, the Bernie Sanders followers, have earned a place at the table and deserve tangible rewards if the Democrats win.
Dissident groups in both parties say they want change, but the status quo is persistent, particularly in foreign policy, the president's main responsibility. Of course, Trump has made serious debate difficult, seeming to know nothing about what the nuclear triad is, why we can't "use" atomic weapons, or why deterrence has been an effective strategy for over half a century. Humorous references have even been made about the prospect of his short finger on the button. No wonder Hillary Clinton is the commander-in-chief preferred by the Establishment, from liberal interventionists to neoconservatives. The latter have apparently just been visiting for the past 20 years over on the right side of the political spectrum, where remaking the Middle East was their ideological lodestar. The current Republican nominee has repudiated that project, though he did pay the customary lip service at his national convention to the Israel lobby.
Hillary Clinton, by contrast, apparently not content to play President Obama's long game in the Middle East, has indicated a preference for action — doing "something," anything. This is always cloaked in the benign rhetoric of rescue, humanitarian intent and the use of "soft" power. The means, however, are always hard: bombs, missiles, artillery. There is no other way to take out an enemy's military assets and then protect those who are supposedly being rescued; more is inevitably needed. This is the context for "Assad must go," and it always involves enlarging the war. Our side minimizes the civilian casualties: we didn't mean to do it; our intentions are pure; we are therefore not responsible, QED.
However, as Timo Kivimaki put it in a recent article in Middle East Policy (December 2015, Vol. 22, No. 4), "Protection wars have become the main source of violence in the world, occasionally contributing over 50 percent of total conflict fatalities." Is anyone paying attention to such revelations? Perhaps not the major media, but Noam Chomsky is. He cited this quote in his new book, Who Rules the World? (Metropolitan Books, 2016). These wars are not popular with Trump supporters either; they generally blame America's foreign conflicts on the elites and consider themselves part of the collateral damage. Their interests have not been served by war. A great many military recruits and casualties come from their socioeconomic stratum, and the waste of American treasure has been their loss, too.
As one who often disparages conventional wisdom, I tend to agree with those who warn against wholesale Trump bashing. His lack of enthusiasm for the Iraq War is a sign of common sense, although he has typically exaggerated how early he began to have doubts. Not at the very beginning, it seems, but he is in good company. It was only when the war was catastrophically waged that it lost favor with everybody except those who have always favored "creative destruction" for the Arab world — in preparation for a new order, the Sykes-Picot colonial arrangement being so yesterday. It is the Syrian war that needs to be discussed now; how and by whom the endgame should be managed, if it can be. Russia's vital interests are at stake, and its recent accommodation with Turkey may indicate a possible opening, despite the rampant demonization of Vladimir Putin — by everyone but Donald Trump.
The broader challenge of crafting policies that take account of past errors also awaits a new U.S. administration. It should be possible for a Clinton team to re-analyze the Iraq War; it was, after all, George W. Bush and his cohorts and handlers who were responsible. Wait — except for the decision by President Bill Clinton in 1998 to make regime change in Iraq official U.S. policy. That was the beginning of the march to war, once an inciting element could be found. Or perhaps it should be marked from the imposition of sanctions back in '92, at the end of the first Iraq war, when George H.W. Bush was in office and decided to cut Saddam Hussein down to size after he managed to "win" a stalemate in the war with Iran. Saddam thought he had been suckered into invading Kuwait, believing he had all but been granted permission by the U.S. ambassador. A decade later, softened up by sanctions, Iraq was low-hanging fruit, the first in a line of states judged to be ripe for regime "change." Iran was supposed to be next, but it emerged the beneficiary of the U.S. debacle next door. Now the list even includes a nuclear-armed former superpower down on its luck.