What does an “America-first” foreign policy look like under President Donald Trump? As a start, forget the ancient label of “isolationism.” With the end of Trump’s first 100 days approaching, it looks more like a military-first policy aimed at achieving global hegemony, which means it’s a potential doomsday machine.
Candidate Trump vowed he’d make the U.S. military so strong that he wouldn’t have to use it, since no one would dare attack us — deterrence, in a word. The on-the-ground (or in-the-air) reality is already far different. President Trump’s generals have begun to unleash that military in a manner the Obama administration, hardly shy about bombing or surging, deemed both excessive and risky to civilians. Last week, 59 U.S. cruise missiles (value: $60 million) pummeled an airbase in Syria, a profligate response to a chemical weapons attack in that country which may yet lead to further escalation. Meanwhile, U.S. weapons are to be sold to Sunni monarchies in the Persian Gulf with less concern than ever for human rights abuses, and the Saudis will be provided with yet more of the support they demand for their devastating war on civilians in Yemen. Doubtless further military interventions and escalations across the Greater Middle East are on that classic “table” in Washington where “all options” are supposedly kept.
Most Americans believe the spin that the U.S. military is all about deterring and preventing attacks on the homeland, especially those orchestrated by “radical Islamic terrorism.” Sold as a deterrent, Washington’s national security state has, in fact, exploded into something that increasingly resembles a mechanism for permanent war. Ignorant of the most basic military strategy, impulsive and bombastic, its present commander-in-chief is being enabled by bellicose advisers and the men he calls “my generals,” who dream of ever bigger budgets. (Even Trump’s promise of a $54 billion boost to Pentagon spending this coming fiscal year isn’t enough for some senior military officers.)
The Realities of Trump’s New Era of Winning
Welcome to Trump’s new era of winning. It’s not really about ending wars, but exerting “global reach/global power” while selling loads of weaponry. It promises to spread or prolong chaos in Iraq, Yemen, and possibly Iran, among other countries. In the Greater Middle East, U.S.-led efforts have produced a war-torn Iraq that’s splitting at the seams. U.S. drone strikes and support for an ongoing Saudi air campaign have left Yemen lurching toward famine. Syria remains a humanitarian disaster, torn by war even as additional U.S. troops are deployed there. (The Pentagon won’t say how many, telling us instead to focus on “capabilities” rather than boots on the ground.) Further east, the never-ending war in Afghanistan is, in Pentagon-speak, “stalemated,” which means that the Taliban is actually gaining ground as a new Washington surge-to-nowhere looms. Looking west and south, Africa is the latest playground for the U.S. military’s special ops community as the Trump administration prepares, among other things, to ramp up operations in Somalia.
To Trump and his generals, an “America-first” approach to such problems actually means putting the military first, second, and third. It helps that they can’t imagine the actions of that military as destabilizing. (Possible future headline: Trump destroys Syria in order to save it.) According to General Joseph Votel, head of U.S. Central Command, for instance, the country that poses “the greatest long-term threat to stability” in the Middle East is Iran, a sentiment seconded by retired general James Mattis, the secretary of defense.
You might excuse the Iranians, as well as the Russians and the Chinese, for thinking differently. To them, the United States is clearly the most destabilizing entity in the world. If you were Chinese or Russian or Shia Muslim, how might U.S. military activities appear to you?
* Expansionist? Check.
* Dedicated to dominance via colossal military spending and global interventionism? Check.
* Committed to economic and ideological hegemony via powerful banking and financial interests that seek to control world markets in the name of keeping them “free”? Check.
Wouldn’t that be a logical, if unsavory, assessment? To many outsiders, U.S. leaders seem like the world’s leading armed meddlers (and arms merchants), a perception supported by soaring military action and sinking diplomacy under Trump. Serious cuts in funding loom at the State Department, even as the Pentagon budget is being boosted (yet again). To outside observers, Washington’s ambitions seem clear: global dominance, achieved and enforced by that “very, very strong” military that candidate Trump claimed he’d never have to use, but is already employing with gusto, if not abandon.
Never Underestimate the Power of the Military-Industrial Complex
Why do Trump’s “America-first” policies add up to military first ones? Why is the Pentagon budget, along with actual military operations, surging on his watch?
More than half a century ago, sociologist C. Wright Mills offered answers that still seem as fresh as this morning’s news. In his 1958 essay, “The Structure of Power in American Society,” he dissected the country’s “triangle of power.” It consisted, he explained, of corporate leaders, senior military men, and politicians working in concert, but also in a manner that merged corporate agendas with military designs. That combination, he suggested, was degrading the ability of politicians to moderate and control corporate-military imperatives (assuming the latter even wanted to try).
“The [U.S.] military order,” Mills wrote, “once a slim establishment [operating] in a context of civilian distrust, has become the largest and most expensive feature of government; behind smiling public relations, it has all the grim and clumsy efficiency of a great and sprawling bureaucracy. The high military have gained decisive political and economic relevance. The seemingly permanent military threat places a premium upon them and virtually all political and economic actions are now judged in terms of military definitions of reality.”
For him, the danger was plain enough: the “coincidence of military domain and corporate realm strengthens both of them and further subordinates the merely political man. Not the party politician, but the corporation executive, is now more likely to sit with the military to answer the question: what is to be done?”
Consider the makeup of Trump’s administration, a riot of billionaires and multimillionaires. His secretary of state, former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, may not be much of a diplomat. Indeed, he seems uninterested in the advice of career State Department personnel, but he does know his way around corporate boardrooms. Trump’s national security adviser and his secretaries of defense and homeland security are all either serving generals or recently retired ones. In Trump’s inner circle, corporate executives do indeed sit with senior military men to decide what is to be done.
Soon after Mills issued his prophetic critique of America’s power elite, President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned about the growing dangers of a military-industrial complex. Since then, Ike’s complex has only expanded in power. With the post-9/11 addition of the Department of Homeland Security and ever more intelligence agencies (seventeen major ones at last count), the complex only continues to grow beyond all civilian control. Its dominant position astride the government is nearly unchallengeable. Figuratively speaking, it’s the king of Capitol Hill.
Candidate Trump may have complained about the U.S. wasting trillions of dollars in its recent foreign conflicts, invasions, and occupations, but plenty of American corporations profited from those “regime changes.” After you flatten political states like Iraq, you can rearm them. When not selling weapons to them or rebuilding the infrastructure you blew up, you can exploit them for resources. Seemingly never-ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are an illustration of what happens when corporate interests merge with military imperatives.
While both Mills and Eisenhower warned of such developments, even they might have been startled by the America of 2017. By now, the post-draft, “all volunteer” professional military has become remarkably estranged, if not divorced, from the wider populace, a separation aggravated by an ongoing cult of the warrior within its ranks. Not only are Americans increasingly isolated from “their” warfighter military, but from America’s wars as well. These continue to be waged without formal congressional declarations and with next to no congressional oversight. Combine this with the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which translated corporate money directly into political activism, and you have what is increasingly a 1% governing system in which a billionaire president presides over the wealthiest cabinet in history in what is now a war capital, while an ever-expanding corporate-military nexus embodies the direst of fears of Mills and Eisenhower.
America’s runaway military machine has little to do these days with deterrence and much to do with the continuation of a state of permanent war. Put it all together and you have a formula for disaster.
WAIT, BEFORE YOU GO…
President Trump discusses military operations with Gen. Joseph Votel, head of U.S. Central Command. (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff / CC 2.0)
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