Trump Stands for War

by Andrew Murray (source: Stop the War Coalition)
Thursday, February 2, 2017

For once, the habitual hyperbole of the left is justified.  The election of Trump as US President marks the end of a phase of global order – certainly the end of the post-Cold War order, more arguably the whole post-1945 world political regime.

That passing order, it must be underlined, was not ours.  This century it has parented one bloody war after another, the very conflicts Stop the War was founded to end.  It should not be overlooked that, had Hilary Clinton ( a politician who supported every one of those wars) been elected, then we would still be facing a more threatening international situation than under Obama, in Syria and in relation to Russia.

The end of this order is the passing of the “unipolar moment”, of the unchallenged domination of Washington over the international system.  We have been discussing this for some time, and it is a process, not an event, marked both by the rise of Chinese economic power, the return of Russia as a geopolitical player, the defeat of the US military in Iraq and the post-2008 economic crisis which has so tarnished neo-liberalism.  Trump is the response of part of the US elite and of the US electorate to this decline.

Trump Stands for War

The main fact which needs to be understood is this: Trump is a war president – there is no room for doubts of illusions on that point.  His slogan of “America First” does not bear the isolationist interpretation it may have done in the 1930s and early 1940s.  It is, in the hands of the Trump team, a slogan for aggressive imperialism.

Let us count the ways in which this is true:

First, and perhaps most dangerously, he has set a course for confrontation with China, building on Obama’s notorious “pivot to Asia”.  His nominee for Secretary of State, the ExxonMobil boss Rex Tillerson, told his Senate confirmation hearing, that the US would prevent China accessing the military bases it has lately constructed in the South China Sea.  That alone is a programme for military confrontation – such a policy could be pursued by no other means, and there is little reason to think that China would not respond in kind.

On top of this, Trump has directed the main thrust of his economic nationalism, trade-war policies at China, while at the very least flirting with abandoning Washington’s long-standing bi-partisan acceptance of “one China” by upgrading links with Taiwan.

We are not crystal-ball gazers, and cannot predict how this policy will pan out, but it already represents the most direct threat of great-power conflict, reminiscent of the posturing before 1914.

Second, Trump has pledged war to “wipe out radical Islamic terrorism,” first specifying ISIS as a target. This envisages a sweeping intensification of the doomed 16-year long “war on terror” began by Bush and Blair – a war which has failed in all its stated objectives even as it destroyed society, economy and life itself across a large swathe of the globe.

Presumably, this intensification will begin in Syria and Iraq, will also prolong the suffering of Yemen, and may stretch elsewhere in the Muslim world.  Whatever the exact strategy and circumstance, this we can say with full confidence – Trump will neither bring the “war on terror” to a victorious conclusion, nor make the US homeland safer by these tactics. Whatever successes may be scored against ISIS by an imperialist intervention consortium, with Britain as a full member, new pathologies will be implanted in the region thereby.  Only the mobilisation of the peoples of the region against interventionism and sectarianism, and for democracy and independence, can secure lasting peace.  That has long been our position and it is important that we maintain it today.

Third, Trump is set on confrontation with Iran, vowing to unpick the nuclear accord signed by Obama, one of his few progressive steps in foreign affairs.  For many years, either a US attack on Iran, or a proxy attack by Israel seemed a present danger.  That is now back on the agenda.

Fourth, Trump’s full-on backing for Israel in its oppression of the Palestinian people and its continuing aggressive colonisation programme in the West Bank is a harbinger of new conflict.  Again, history shows that without a democratic solution to the Palestinian question, there will be no secure peace in the Middle East.

Fifth, there is the new administration’s economic nationalism.  Many will cheer the demise of trade agreements which benefitted only the elite, which were key props of capitalist globalisation and which many trade unions in the USA and here opposed. But we would be blind not to acknowledge the connection between protectionism and war.  Measures like Trump’s raise economic competition from the level of companies to the level of states, replacing real notional market mechanisms with governmental dictat backed by force, all in the hope of boosting profit margins.  As the 19th century French economist Bastiat wrote “when goods stop crossing borders, armies start.”

Finally, there is Trump’s unabashed racism, on display throughout his election campaign and now expressed in his notorious Executive Order imposing entry controls in the US directed exclusively against refugees and other citizens of seven named countries.  All these countries are not merely Muslim-majority – Trump has indicated that exceptions to the ban will be made for religious minorities from those countries, underlining its Islamophobic purpose – but they are the very places ravaged by the “war on terror.”  

So no-one can enter from destroyed Yemen, for example, but there are no restrictions on citizens of Saudi Arabia, which is destroying Yemen day by day, and was moreover of course home to the majority of the 9/11 terrorists.  This overt racism and Muslim-baiting forms part of the psychosis of war, of gearing up the American people for further international adventure and intervention.

Under this head to we must note the threat to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a “terrorist organisation” on the basis of no obvious evidence.  This is presumably Trump’s sop to his friend, the mini-Mussolini on the Nile, Egyptian President Sisi.  Here he follows in the inglorious footsteps of Cameron, who flirted with such a move under pressure from the Saudis a couple of years ago.  Then as now we will express solidarity with our long-standing allies in the Muslim Association of Britain against such oppressive moves against an organisation which was the winner of the only free elections the people of Egypt have been allowed to hold.

This is by any standards a formidable list.  It gives the lie to those who argue as  I have read in recent days that Trump is merely pursuing US imperial interests by “economic means” while Obama and Clinton stood for war.  That is a radically wrong reading of the situation, which allows correct opposition to the liberal warmongers to blind us to the contours of the new reality.  Sad, as Trump himself might tweet.

All this is before we dwell on Trump’s temperament.  It does not seem very likely that a man who engages in a Twitter row with Miss Universe at 3 in the morning will, once placed in control of the world’s most formidable military machine, neglect to use it.

Trump and Russia

There are, however, two issues which indicate that Trump is deviating from the standard policy of US administrations and, indeed, the present consensus in the chancelleries of the west.  These are his willingness to reach some accommodation with Russia, and his apparent scepticism about the utility of NATO.

Trump’s approach to Putin may in part be based on an admiration for a fellow authoritarian nationalist.  The US and Russia share a willingness to use the rhetoric of fighting Islamic terrorism to justify intervention in the Middle East.  A Trump-Putin alliance against ISIS is not beyond the bounds of possibility.

Nevertheless, the rolling back of the level of anti-Russian mobilisation, which has reached truly hysterical levels of late, is welcome.  Here, too, a war psychosis has been whipped up, with improbable stories of Russia manipulating the US election outcome, and Le Carre-style secret dossiers alleging Moscow control over Trump and his team.  There seems to be a psychological dependence on Russophobia in some circles.

Trump states that he wants to move relations to a better footing, something that would have to include acknowledging the legitimacy of some of Russia’s concerns over NATO’s provocative eastward expansion and ending the sanctions imposed after Crimea’s vote to return to the Russian Federation.  Beyond that, there may be an attempt to come to a classic “spheres of influence” agreement in and around Ukraine and the Baltic, as well as Syria.

This will all make an extension of conflict in Eastern Europe and confrontation in Ukraine less likely.  While such agreements on spheres of influence do not tend to last, a damping down of the war fever and the escalating arms race in the region would be welcome in itself.

It may also make a peace agreement in Syria easier to obtain, something now on the agenda following the return of all of Aleppo to the control of the Assad government.  That, however, also depends on the actions of regional powers including Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran, as well of course on the Syrian people themselves (too often left out of such calculations).

It is striking that it is on these linked issues of Russia and NATO that Trump has faced the fiercest pushback from the elite – from his own Republican Party in the US, from most European leaders and from the transatlantic commentariat, both liberal and conservative.

Already any idea that Trump’s correct view that NATO is “obsolete” would become administration policy has been all-but dismissed, including by Trump’s choice for Pentagon boss, General James Mattis.  Clearly neither conventional Cold Warriors nor the neo-conservatives are ready to let go of their Russian “enemy” and their NATO power-projection tool just yet.

Indeed, it is not impossible that if Trump persisted in his NATO-sceptic line, the US establishment would try to rid themselves of him through impeachment – grounds enough will always be at hand with such a compromised and baroque character – and replace him with the more tractable and conventional conservative Mike Pence, presently vice-president.

But if Trump does put the brakes on NATO, that is welcome, as long as it is not the better to take the brakes off unilateral US aggression.

British Government Position

Our focus in Stop the War has always been on the British government, and on opposing its involvement in war.  So the response of the May government and its position in this shaken-up new order is critical for us.

The main line from the Prime Minister and Boris Johnson since Trump’s win has been a degraded and humiliating attempt to clamber on board with the new regime in Washington.  Already this sycophancy towards a racist, misogynistic, xenophobic and authoritarian presidency has proved to be a disaster for Downing Street.

Still caught in a post-Brexit spiral of confusion, May apparently calculated that British establishment’s interests demanded sticking like glue to the White House, however deranged its occupant.  In this she recalls nothing so much as Tony Blair, of course.

Despite voting for the United Nations resolution condemning the illegality of Israel’s West Banks colonisation, she rushed out a statement dissociating Britain from the Obama administration’s late and lukewarm criticisms of Netanyahu.

And the sight of May’s hand-holding with the pussy-grabber-in-chief shortly before he issued his Muslim-baiting Executive Order, followed by her belated, partial and evidently reluctant distancing from Trump’s racism, has done more to discredit the so-called “special relationship” than a thousand pamphlets.

She has abased herself not just because she represents a British establishment desperately in need of powerful mates. She is also endeavouring – on behalf of the entire Davos elite and indeed the entire establishment – to bring Trump back into line on issues like NATO and free trade.  “May sent to Tame Trump” read the London Standard headline as she headed off to Washington.

However, this is a two-way street.  Trump has forced a modification of some of the positions on which British Toryism had become something of a reactionary outlier.  Boris Johnson this week graciously allowed that Syrian president Assad could be a candidate in any election to be held after peace is established in that suffering country. It may seem like a statement of the obvious, and the British Foreign Secretary has no business declaring who can or can’t stand in other countries’ elections, but it was nevertheless a reversal of five years of “Assad must go” before any deal policy from the government, a position which has resulted in oceans of Syrian blood on all sides.

Grimly, the Foreign Secretary even conceded that better relations with Russia might be a good thing too.  None of this represents any change of substance yet in British positions.  But the vast and growing reaction to Trump’s entry ban may force further course corrections on May and Johnson.

So the government’s foreign policy and the “special relationship” are exposed and vulnerable as never before.  Again playing to the Trumpian gallery, May has announced that, whatever else happens, liberal interventionism is now off the table.

Given that millions have died in the name of such wars, and that millions also marched against them at the time, that sounds like progress.  But is it a change of policy, or a change of excuses?  After all, if Syria or Iran are to be bombed in the name of “fighting terrorism” rather than “exporting democracy” it is a distinction without much of a difference on the ground.  But it may indeed be the case that May and Trump, like Obama before them, are going to be leery of any war which relies on prolonged military occupation by a ground force in the manner of Bush and Blair’s Iraq and Afghan adventures.

Not everyone agrees.  Just last week the right-wing think- tank Policy Exchange issued a pamphlet arguing for restoring Britain’s unique moral right to take military action whenever and wherever its conscience is pricked. The liberals who write such texts are most likely among the people most appalled by much of what Trump is doing. Yet they are still performing their historic function of cooking up the humanitarian rationales for inhumane wars, including those which Trump will launch, and they unite with the pompadoured troubadour in the White House in their view that the west should feel free to deploy its might wherever they feel that right is engaged.  Imperialism walks on two legs, one is Trumpism, the other is Blairism if one can personalise the issue.  Stop the War will have to continue its polemic against “liberal interventionism”. Despite its apparent abandonment by the present US president and the British Prime Minister, it is yet undead.

In summary, the right want to use Brexit as the rationale for pushing Britain into a still-more subordinate diplomatic position with regard to Washington. This plan is disrupted by the nature of the Trump administration.  Our focus now must be on channelling this opposition to Trump in a direction which hamstrings the “special relationship” in its war-making potential.

For the last sixty years, the “special relationship” has, in foreign policy terms, been an alliance of military confrontation, interference in other countries, frequent aggression and support for empire. It has neither served the British people’s interests nor world peace.  That truth is now more widely recognised than ever.  There has never been a better opportunity to challenge that alliance, when a British premier acts as chief accomplice to a racist misanthrope in the White House.  Theresa the Appeaser – it is a charge that will stick.

Stop the War Policy

To radically over-simplify Stop the War’s history we could say that our influence expanded rapidly and was maintained at a high level through the years of George Bush’s presidency, then declined appreciably under Obama.  This had something to do with the difference in policies between the two administrations and as much to do with perception.  Even before 9/11 and the attack on Afghanistan, public opinion was alarmed at Bush, seeing him as a dangerous reactionary.  Obama has continued the “war on terror” by modified means, yet his more sympathetic persona, in British progressive eyes at least, has allowed him to be cut a lot of slack.

Bush now seems like an X-factor winner in popularity terms compared to Trump.  The majority of British people, including many conservatives are repelled and scared by his presidency.  This is without doubt a huge problem for May and, indeed, the liberal interventionists.  Either Trump will decline to fight the wars they earnestly desire, in the Middle East or elsewhere, or, if he does, they will run into a wall of opposition that will destabilise their political position even more than it did in 2003.

Bluntly, it is hard to envisage circumstances in which the British people would support a war led by this administration of semi-fascists, senile billionaires, Strangelove securicrats and intemperate ideologues, or would tolerate our government aligning with it.  The revulsion at the Muslim immigration ban is just a foretaste.

So there is the possibility of a vast movement directed against Trump and the “special relationship” of imperial self-interest which has dominated British foreign policy since 1956 at least.  It intersects, of course, with those who might prioritise opposing Trump for other reasons just as important – his racism, his misogyny and his xenophobia.  All these are good reasons for any self-respecting British government to keep its distance, and we need to unite them all.

But there are several tactical issues which need to be addressed.  Such a movement will only emerge and sustain itself if care is taken to nurture it, and to build a coalition around our central demands.  Extraneous issues and demands, however good in themselves, need to be avoided.

Let me take a few of the potential difficulties. Some supporters of Stop the War have expressed a certain sympathy for Russia’s intervention in Syria, although the Coalition as a whole condemned it from day one. If Trump and Putin, aligned with some sort of peace deal between Assad and the secular opposition (a good thing in itself), jointly declare renewed war against ISIS, such controversies cold re-emerge. Britain would doubtless play some junior role in such a coalition.  We should oppose any British military intervention in the Middle East under these circumstances, or indeed, any circumstances at all. The defeat of ISIS is devoutly to be wished for, but there can be no enduring resolution of the problem of sectarianism on the basis of external intervention.  Each such intervention in recent times has ended one problem for the west while breeding another. Britain and the US have intervened in the region against communism, Nasserism, nationalism, Baathism and now Islamism.  It is past time that the idea of not intervening was tried out.

Likewise, there is the question of conflict in the Far East. It is not clear what role British would play militarily in any such clash. Presumably a small one. Blocking British involvement in dangerous US provocations is the perspective we must focus on, rather than trying to adjudicate territorial disputes in the Pacific.

There is also the issue of Trump’s economic nationalism.  Against a background of generations of neo-liberal neglect, such policies will have a certain echo amongst trade unionists.  Addressing this in the round is perhaps beyond Stop the War’s remit, but raising the link between protectionism and inter-state conflict, and encouraging the development of alternative ways of securing the economic future is essential.

Finally, there is the issue of Brexit, one on which Stop the War does not take a position.  There will be attempts to conflate opposition to Trump with the campaign to keep Britain in the EU despite the referendum vote.  We have to argue that any perspective for the movement which starts off by excluding more than half the population is entirely misguided; that Brexit and Trump are different questions; and that disengaging from Washington’s dictat is the best perspective for Britain inside or outside the European Union.

So our slogans are “Special Relationship – just say no” and “No Trump – No war”.  Of course those can be refined as Trump’s policy aims become clearer, and need to be supplemented perhaps by slogans directed more immediately at Theresa May.  Our stand against Islamophobia is also more relevant than ever today. This must be our main thrust, without neglecting to continue to highlight the present wars Britain is fighting in Syria and Iraq, and the war the Saudis are against Yemen, with British support.  The Labour front bench has been doing good work highlighting this last issue.

And we must continue to stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people in the face of what is likely to be a most challenging period in the face of intensified Israeli colonialism.

But our immediate aim is clear – to campaign against Trump and his outrages, with a special focus on mobilisations to stop the plan for a state visit this year, and to obstruct it if it occurs in defiance of public opinion.  Such a movement needs to be broad and inclusive, reflective of all strands opposed to Trump, his policies, and May’s subservience to him.  It must reach far beyond the left.  Stop the War’s role will, in part, be to highlight Trump’s dangers to world peace and his Islamophobia.

Conclusion

Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev has said that major states are now preparing for a Third World War.  He is not wrong.  Stop the War has warned from the outset that the dreadful wars we have seen this century – broadly wars of a neo-colonial type – were likely, unless checked, to be the precursors to bigger wars between great powers.

That danger is only growing.  But it is not inevitable that such wars will break out.  The mobilised people across the world can determine the question.  Here in Britain that responsibility falls to a large extent on our organisation.  We are far from alone, of course, with our allies in CND, the trade unions and the Muslim community, and with our former Chair leading Her Majesty’s Official Opposition.  But it is not breast-beating to say we sit at the heart of this movement of resistance.

That is because we have fought against the “war on terror” without wavering for fifteen years and more, we have credibility and very high “brand” recognition even from millions who have not joined in our protests for years, we have maintained our unity, have weathered all sorts of attacks and learned from our mistakes, while standing firm on our principles without lapsing into a self-satisfied sectarianism.  With a revived focus locally and a consistent message nationally, we can help give a dynamic leadership to the new movement developing against Trump and mitigate the inevitable tendencies for it to be channelled in directions the elite could manipulate.

These are huge assets at a time when the world perspective seems to be further darkening and some people may feel on the edge of despair. Our method has always been to mobilise ordinary people for peace and justice. Has this strength ever been needed more?


( filed under: )