A Speech Too Far: Trump’s Delusion
George W Bush's post-9/11 address launched sixteen years of war. Donald Trump's sequel promises many more.
George W Bush gave his first state-of-the-union address on 29 January 2002, just four months after the 9/11 attacks. Sixteen years and one day later, on 30 January 2018, Donald Trump delivered his own opening performance of the ritual. Where their rhetoric on international security is concerned, the overlap between the two presidential speeches is remarkable.
Just as Bush proclaimed the "new American century", so Donald Trump is "making America great again". It is as if these tumultuous years have brought no change. For both leaders, the United States is destined to just go on winning. Bush's dream soon faced a hard landing in the world beyond Washington. Will Trump's slogan meet the same fate? A closer look at the two speeches might offer a clue.
The consequences of Bush’s address are all around. In the agenda it outlined, and the tragic outcomes it foretold, it may yet be seen as one of the most notable speeches of the 21st century. At the time his supporters were already hailing it as such. After all, it was akin to a victory celebration: in the previous weeks, the Taliban had been driven from Kabul and al-Qaida dispersed from its Afghan bastion. But the president, in between more than seventy bursts of applause from a rapturous Congress, made clear that his administration was already setting its sights on regime termination in Iraq and other rogue states:
"States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world. By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger. They could provide these arms to terrorists, giving them the means to match their hatred. They could attack our allies or attempt to blackmail the United States. In any of these cases, the price of indifference would be catastrophic."
This threat demanded early action:
"We'll be deliberate, yet time is not on our side. I will not wait on events, while dangers gather. I will not stand by, as perils draw closer and closer. The United States of America will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons."
The implication of Bush's stance – the need for pre-emptive and if necessary unilateral action – was made more explicit in his graduation address to West Point army cadets in June 2002. The ease with which adversaries could now attack advanced civilised states was a key theme:
"Enemies in the past needed great armies and great industrial capabilities to endanger the American people and our nation. The attacks of September the 11th required a few hundred thousand dollars in the hands of a few dozen evil and deluded men. All of the chaos and suffering they caused came at much less than the cost of a single tank. The dangers have not passed. This government and the American people are on watch, we are ready, because we know the terrorists have more money and more men and more plans."
So in facing the threat, defending the homeland was simply not enough:
"[The] war on terror will not be won on the defensive. We must take the battle to the enemy, disrupt his plans, and confront the worst threats before they emerge. In the world we have entered, the only path to safety is the path of action. And this nation will act."
Furthermore, rogue states should be treated in the same way as terrorists:
"All nations that decide for aggression and terror will pay a price. We will not leave the safety of America and the peace of the planet at the mercy of a few mad terrorists and tyrants. We will lift this dark threat from our country and from the world."
The world now knows how that played out. What followed Bush's peroration was no one's victory. His prospectus crafted not a new American century leading to a more peaceful world, but a wasteland: sixteen years of war, hundreds of thousands of civilians killed, millions of refugees fleeing their homes and livelihoods, states such as Afghanistan, Iraq and especially Libya wrecked, and expanding insurgency and insecurity across a vast swathe of territory.
A president on repeat
How far the impact of Donald Trump’s state-of-the-union address matches that of George W Bush's, and how far it differs, will be seen in coming months and years. Its own style was, perhaps to be expected, bombastic and celebratory, with a heavy focus on the brilliance of his apparently groundbreaking domestic agenda. Its international component was less forceful than Bush's post-9/11 arousal. But Trump's view of the world as a nest of enemies carried echoes of his predecessor. This became explicit in his uncompromising approach to Iran and North Korea (un-toppled members of Bush's axis of evil) and in his treatment of al-Qaida, ISIS and other Islamist groups:
“Last year, I also pledged that we would work with our allies to extinguish ISIS from the face of the Earth. One year later, I am proud to report that the coalition to defeat ISIS has liberated very close to 100 percent of the territory just recently held by these killers in Iraq and in Syria and in other locations, as well. But there is much more work to be done. We will continue our fight until ISIS is defeated.”
He went on:
“I am asking Congress to ensure that in the fight against ISIS and Al Qaida we continue to have all necessary power to detain terrorists, wherever we chase them down, wherever we find them. And in many cases, for them it will now be Guantanamo Bay. At the same time, as of a few months ago, our warriors in Afghanistan have new rules of engagement. Along with their heroic Afghan partners, our military is no longer undermined by artificial timelines, and we no longer tell our enemies our plans.”
How does these declarations relate to experience on the ground? Libya is one of ISIS's “other locations". Here, Cipher Brief reports:
“[ISIS]…maintains a strong presence in Libya and remains a potent regional threat, despite domestic and international efforts to oust the group from its stronghold. After losing their former base of operations along the Libyan coast, ISIS fighters have regrouped and established training centers and operational headquarters in the central and southern parts of the country. Unless Libya can make headway toward forming a unified government, its lawless border areas will continue to provide fertile ground for ISIS and other terrorist groups to foment instability across North Africa.”
In Afghanistan, the Taliban is reported to control or have substantial influence over a least a third of the country. It remains dominant among a cluster of groups that includes ISIS and the Haqqani network. A recent wave of attacks has killed over 130 people, mostly civilians, while an ISIS attack on an Afghan national army base took the lives of twelve soldiers. Trump’s response is to send in another 4,000 troops, which would take the total to 15,000. The United States also deploys special-forces personnel and armed-drones, while the US airforce has even brought back the A-10 Warthog ground-attack aircraft.
A wrong-headed strategy
On the eve of his set-piece, Trump had told reporters: “We’re going to finish what we have to finish. What nobody else has been able to finish, we’re going to be able to do it.” (Helene Cooper, “Attacks Reveal What U.S. Won’t: Victory Remains Elusive in Afghanistan”, New York Times, 31 January 2018).
It was another bold claim. But that's the point: for it is only the latest in a long sequence of such predictions of imminent victory made by the Pentagon or White House over these sixteen years. Trump is now adding to that list without the remotest hint of new thinking or strategy. It's as well to remember that five years ago, US forces in Afghanistan peaked at 100,000. They were joined by 30,000 military from other countries, and thousands of private-security contractors as well. The idea that barely a tenth of that number will make any difference, when the Taliban and other movements have such a grip, is just out of this world.
More fundamentally, Trump’s policies will stir up more animosity, resentment and deep anger towards the United States abroad. His speech itself demonstrated this. Detention without trial for years or even decades will continue at Guantánamo and probably elsewhere; military control will escalate, and quite possibly reach new heights of destruction; and in a decision that has huge symbolism in the Islamic and Arab worlds, the US embassy in Israel will move to Jerusalem.
This worldview has not worked since Bush’s address, and it won’t work in the future. Indeed, Trump's speech highlights in stark form that he and his advisors really have no clue whatsoever of how the United States is perceived, not just in the Middle East and north Africa but across much of the global south.
Trump's signal in 2018 is that nothing has been learned since 2002. "Making America great again” is from the same stable as the "new American century": an epic delusion foisted on the American people and the world. Bush inaugurated sixteen years of war. Trump will extend that to thirty and more – unless there is a radical change of thinking.