There is a growing anti-war sentiment in the US, and it has already had a profound impact on elite politics

Chris Nineham

One of Donald Trump’s many outlandish pre-election ploys is to present himself as a peace president. He is trying to roll together talks in Afghanistan, Israel’s deals with UAE and Bahrain and his regularly isolationist rhetoric to give the impression that he has broken with previous presidents’ aggressive foreign policy.

Internationally supporters are backing these moves. Norway’s far right MP Christian Tybring-Gjedde laughably put Trump’s name forward for the Nobel Peace prize. At home hawkish former Secretary of State Robert Gates commented that ‘unlike his three predecessors…at least he hasn’t started any new wars.’

Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu has joined the chorus hailing Trump as ‘a peacemaker in the Middle East’ for his support for the Bahrein and UAE accords, even though Israel has never been in conflict with either state.

Trump has made this play at different times throughout his presidency. In June this year he repeated a favourite refrain to a graduating class at West Point when he claimed, “we are ending the era of endless wars.”

The worries in Washington

This posturing is a response to serious difficulties faced by the US foreign policy establishment. Opposition to war went mainstream in the US years before Trump came to office. By the time his predecessor Barack Obama arrived in the White House in 2009 it was clear that the disasters in Afghanistan and Iraq and the associated war weariness meant that the ‘boots on the ground’ invasions of the Bush years were no longer possible.

In Afghanistan, Obama escalated in a desperate and failed attempt to win decisively, but in general he responded by shifting to reliance on mass bombing, drone attacks and covert or proxy warfare. This was a military, strategic turn, dressed up in the language of peace. Under Obama, the US killed thousands of civilians in aerial bombing missions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and drone attacks in Pakistan and Somalia. He initiated a new war to overthrow Gadhafi in Libya, and a largely secret war in Syria.

By the end of his presidency Obama had dropped more munitions on more countries than Bush did and had spent even more on war than Bush.

Trump’s foreign policy has been marked much more by continuity than change. The erratic swings in his approach flow from the fact that, like Obama, he is managing the decline of US empire. He is appealing to a largely war-averse electorate on the one hand, keen to appear tough and patriotic to his core base and surrounded by various breeds of foreign policy hawks in government.

This means that he tries to play to all sides of the argument at different times, but that in reality he is pursuing a policy of expanded power projection, particularly in response to China’s growing power and influence in the world.

The real record

Trump is making much out of a supposed peace process in Afghanistan, but his record is one of escalation in the country. His 2018/2019 bombing surge in the country made them the heaviest and deadliest years of US bombing in Afghanistan since 2001.

He surprised some with a partial pull out of Syria in 2019 but at the very same time he was sending 15,000 extra troops to the Middle East and he has ensured that arms spending has risen year on year since he was elected.

In January 2017, just after he was elected partly because of his supposed isolationism, US forces in Iraq had their heaviest month of aerial bombardment since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. This time, the enemy was the Islamic State.

Trump called for a campaign to “bomb the shit out of” the Islamic State, not sparing women and children, “When you get these terrorists,’ he said, ‘you have to take out their families.”. Middle East Eye reported that Iraqi forces massacred all the survivors in Mosul’s Old City:

“We killed them all,” an Iraqi soldier said. “Daesh (IS), men, women, children. We killed everyone.”

When in the mood Trump is more confrontational than Obama was. He has come close to starting wars with North Korea, Venezuela, and Iran. Provocative, unexpected, and unilateral acts like pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal, assassinating Iran’s General Qasem Soleimani and relocating the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem are an essential part of his playbook. They are aimed at making him look tough at home and threatening abroad.

Meanwhile, on the key current Middle East battlefront, Trump is belligerent. Through son-in-law Jared Kushner the US has pulled closer than ever to the Saudi regime and Trump has vetoed every bill to end US support for the Saudi war in Yemen.

The China crisis

Most serious of all, Trump has made a series of high stakes, hostile moves against the US’s number one world competitor, China. While Trump spent his first two years in the White House trying to forge closer ties with Xi Jinping, Trump’s two waves of tariffs beginning in 2018 have encompassed around $400bn worth of goods shipped between the two countries.

As a result, US-China trade was 14% lower during the first half of 2019 compared to the same period a year earlier. Threats to leave the World Health Organisation, a ban on US companies supplying Chinese telecoms giant Huawei and regular attacks on the record of the Chinese leadership are causing consternation in Beijing.

These moves have bi-partisan support in Washington and go way beyond posturing. They are part of a plan shaping the whole of US foreign policy. There have recently been two massive hikes in US military expenditure justified by the Chinese threat. First a $1.3 trillion investment in new ‘low yield’ nuclear warheads, the militarisation of the space race and much more. Second, a call for an additional $20.1 billion in a report from the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command.

Washington’s Plan A remains to damage China economically, isolate it geopolitically, and threaten it militarily, in the process forcing it to make more favourable deals with the US. But such an international strategy of tension contains the very real risk of creating new military flare-ups or blowing open existing local or regional wars.

Turning the tide

If Trump’s claims to pacifism are laughable, the problem for US voters is there are no plausible anti-war options at the polls. Democratic contender Joe Biden is a creature of the American foreign policy machine. He was chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during his time in Congress and as Obama’s Vice President was key to shaping Barack Obama’s war policies.

Biden rails against Trump’s unilateralism, but even in his speeches he is clear that his stress on working in alliance with other western powers is part of a push to reassert US influence around the world:

“The Biden foreign policy agenda will place America back at the head of the table, working with our allies and partners — to mobilize global action on global threats, especially those unique to our century.”

In a January Foreign Affairs article, he elaborated further on the purpose of heading up a western alliance:

“It makes us more secure and more successful. We amplify our own strength, extend our presence around the globe, and magnify our impact while sharing global responsibilities with willing partners.”

There are some important shifts in grassroots Democratic thinking. There is for instance a growing worry about the US’s close relationship with Saudi Arabia and increasing opposition to support for Netanyahu’s assault on the Palestinians.

On Israel, Biden has reflected little of this mood, even in the election campaign. Instead, he keeps restating that America’s commitment to Israel would be “ironclad”. Grassroots pressure over Yemen has made some impact and ending US support for the war features in his election programme, if without much fanfare. But as Shireen Al-Adeimi, an assistant professor at Michigan State University of Yemeni origin has warned, “it’s important to remember this war started with the Obama/Biden administration, and wouldn’t have been possible without their extensive military support”.

Most importantly, Biden is doing his best to outdo Trump in hostility to China. In April, the Biden team released a digital ad attacking the president as too willing to accept Chinese government explanations about the virus. Trump “rolled over for the Chinese,” the ad says, a message delivered over footage of what appear to be Chinese security forces. Biden has been quick to attack China verbally wherever possible and his top foreign policy aide Tony Blinken is clear that Biden is prepared to make confrontational threats, including over Taiwan. Biden, he says, would “step up defences of Taiwan’s democracy by exposing Beijing’s efforts to interfere.”

The Democrat leadership is offering a slightly different answer to the question of how to restore US influence and control around the world. Being less unilateral will not make it any less deadly or dangerous. There is a growing anti-war sentiment in the US, and it has already had a profound impact on elite politics. But it’s clear that it is going to have to be mobilised in the streets, the unions and the communities to make lasting change.

18 Sep 2020 by Chris Nineham

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