What happened to ‘America first’?
Establishment opinion has welcomed the new ‘sensible’ Donald Trump, who has acted ‘decisively’ on Syria. Eddie Ford reports
Mar-a-Lago war room: some advisors on the up, some on the down
Following the US attack last week on a Syrian airbase, something slightly strange has happened. Donald Trump, the subject of so much mockery and fear by mainstream and establishment opinion, has suddenly become a sensible statesman who defends western interests. Perfectly summing up this new attitude, the BBC’s Jonny Dymond - who specialises in cruel, openly contemptuous, humour directed against the US president - now tells us that Trump has “suddenly got real”, all because of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles. They hated the non-interventionist Donald Trump who was prepared to do a deal with Vladimir Putin, but they really like the Donald Trump who cocks a snook at the Russian president and lands missiles on one of his clients.
Trump’s military strike on the Shayrat airbase near the city of Homs was, of course, a response to the April 4 sarin chemical attack allegedly carried out by the Assad regime against the opposition-held town of Khan Shaykhun in the Idlib province - which left at least 89 civilians dead. However, what is surprising - if not alarming - is the unquestioning nature of the coverage and commentary. Following Saddam Hussein’s WMDs that we were told could be deployed within 45 minutes, or the Libyan catastrophe, you would have thought that at the very least there would be more room for doubt. After all, this writer is not aware of any cast-iron proof that there was even a sarin chemical attack at all - there are those with technical expertise in this area that say it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that a Syrian air force bomb landed on a “terrorist warehouse” full of munitions - which happened to include a stash of the sarin chemical agent. In that sense, the Syrian army might have been carrying out a ‘normal’ military operation.
Therefore it is hard not to feel sympathy for some of the comments made by the former British ambassador to Syria, Peter Ford - or, as one headline luridly put it, “Truth bomb dropped live on BBC by British ambassador goes viral”.1 Obviously getting impatient with the uncritical and propagandist nature of his BBC host, or interrogator, Ford contested the idea that Assad’s culpability was a “statement of fact” - rather, said Ford, it is a “myth” or “statement of non-fact”. What is needed, he continued, is an investigation, because there are two possibilities as to what happened: one is the “American version” that Assad dropped chemical weapons on this locality and the other version is that an “ordinary bomb was dropped and it hit a munitions dump, where jihadists were storing chemical weapons”. At this stage, Ford remarked, we do not know which of these two possibilities is the correct one. But unlike the mainstream media, quipped the ex-ambassador, “I don’t leave my brains at the door when I examine a situation analytically. I try to be objective.”
Ford also reminded us that in the run-up to the Iraq war “experts, the intelligence agencies, the politicians” produced “reams of evidence, photographs, diagrams” to convince us that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction - but “they were all wrong”, and “it’s possible that they are wrong in this instance as well”. But instead, it seems, they are just “looking for a pretext” to attack Syria. Based on previous experiences such as Iraq, Ford went on, “we cannot take at face value what the so-called intelligence experts tell us when they have an agenda”.
More controversially, Ford argued that Trump has given the jihadists a “thousand reasons to stage fake flag operations, seeing how successful and easy it is, with a gullible media, to provoke and lead the west into intemperate reactions”. He also pointed out that Assad may be “cruel” and “brutal”, but “he’s not mad” - hence it “defies belief that he would bring this all on his head for no military advantage”, as the site that was hit “had no military significance” - it merely “angered the Russians”. The fact that Ford’s comments are being promoted by various conspiracy websites, some of a far-right or anti-Semitic nature, does not invalidate his more pertinent observations.
Though not a fail-safe method, it is always a good idea to ask about any incident or outrage, who stands to benefit? That does not lead us to think with regards to 9/11, for example, that George Bush must have been behind the attack because he obviously benefited from it. Conspiracies, especially on that scale, tend to get uncovered.
But it is clearly the case that the April 4 attack did not suit the interests of either Assad or the Russians. Firstly, as World War I and other conflicts proved, gas or chemical weapons are not particularly useful militarily: they can go in the wrong direction and are pretty indiscriminate - only civilians were killed at Idlib. Secondly, far more importantly, it has been a political-diplomatic disaster for Assad and his backers - it has allowed the west to unite around Donald Trump, no matter how improbable that seemed only a month ago, when he was damned for wanting to undermine Nato and the European Union. This time there has been no condemnation of Trump from western leaders, but near universal praise for his supposed “proportionate response”, even though it did not go through the United Nations security council or even US Congress. As Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, proudly told us, Trump had acted “decisively” on Syria.
So we have gone from the initial western consensus over the need to overthrow Assad to doing some sort of deal with him - then back again to the idea of regime change. So if Assad, or one of his subordinates, was responsible for a sarin attack then it was a very dumb move indeed.
Anyhow, communists are very sceptical about the sarin story - the first victim of war is truth, it being entirely legitimate to suspect that it was an own goal by whatever group or faction that holds this town. Yet the response to the incident has been very revealing. True, Russia’s reaction is not surprising - disappointment at ruining what seemed a promising relationship and hardening support for the Assad regime. President Vladimir Putin said that Moscow had information “from different sources” that the April 4 attack was carried out by rebel groups intent on dragging the US into the conflict. He also claimed to have information that a “similar provocation” is being prepared in other parts of Syria, including in the southern Damascus suburbs, “where they are planning to again plant some substance” and then accuse the Syrian authorities of using chemical weapons - such “fake attacks” would be used to justify further US missile strikes on the regime. Putin said Russia would ask the UN to carry out an investigation into the attack, and accused unnamed western countries of supporting the US strikes in a bid to “curry favour” with Donald Trump.
The days when Russian politicians talked enthusiastically about “better relations” and state television praised Trump as a “real man” seem to be over. A Putin spokesman stated on April 11 that there were no plans “for now” for the Russian president to meet the US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, currently in Moscow. Not such a bromance between Trump and Putin, after all.
But in terms of the western reaction to Trump’s new interventionist stance, especially in Europe, there has been near jubilation - even if G7 foreign ministers are at the moment divided over possible next steps and refused to back a British call for fresh sanctions against Russia. ‘Welcome back, America’ was the message - this is the sort of decisive leadership we are used to and want more of, thank you very much. This is the America we love, not the isolationist America that Trump seemed to represent at one point. Summing up the mood, the New York Times declared that the missile strike “restores our credibility in the world” (April 8) and the Financial Times praised Trump’s “welcome show of US leadership” (April 7) - whilst TheSundayTimes thought it had taught Russia, China and North Korea that “the Obama era of new world disorder is over” (April 9). The Liberal Democrat leader, Tim Farron, who had previously characterised Donald Trump as a threat to western civilisation, came out in support of the airstrikes, as he believes in the “doctrine of responsibility to protect and there can be no clearer-cut case in which to invoke that than the use of these evil weapons”.2 Even liberals are becoming Trump fans.
Then we have to ask, why exactly did Trump authorise the strike? There are a number of theories. Given his low ratings in the presidential election, when he lost the popular vote by nearly three million, and sinking polls ever since his inauguration, this was a naked attempt to boost his popularity. BBC journalists wandering the streets of New York reported, as you would expect, that most non-Trump voters and Democrats backed the action - undoubtedly Hillary Clinton would have behaved in the same fashion, if not earlier and more eagerly. As the historian, Greg Grandin, writes in The Nation magazine, the object of Trump’s Tomahawks was not Syria’s capacity to deploy gas, but “domestic liberal opponents, who base their resistance to Trump entirely on the premise that he is anti-American because he is too close to Putin, and that he is a traitor to a bipartisan policy of humanitarian military interventionism” (April 7).3 Now they are beginning to change their minds.
Then you have the explanation that Trump is a not a thinker or book reader, he just saw the pictures on TV or Twitter and was emotionally moved by them - which, actually, is quite believable and something that highlights the nature of this particular individual. Trump might have come out with a lot of campaign rhetoric on this or that subject, but there was nothing systematic about his programme. In other words, if his attitude towards Russia had been serious or considered, then he would not have done what he did. If he had been thinking strategically in any way at all, he would have called for a formal investigation into the sarin allegations and got on the phone to Putin - persuade him to sort out Assad and get the situation under control. Whilst Donald Trump might not be entirely unpredictable or politically unstable, it is certainly true that he can react in a manner that is deeply inconsistent with previous statements and positions.
There is also the seemingly undeniable fact that he was persuaded by voices in his Florida resort of Mar-a-Lago, which Trump has variously described as his “winter White House” or “southern White House”. Various newspapers and media outlets have published pictures of the incident room in Florida, showing Trump surrounded by advisors.4 What is most interesting if you are a Trumpologist, is that the US president has around him a lot of experienced generals and career insiders. Even more notably, Trump’s supposed chief strategist, Steve Bannon, is on the edge of the pictures - looking uncomfortable and removed from the inner circle.
Bannon, of course, has been removed from the national security council and by all accounts is due another demotion soon - at the Mar-a-Lago meeting, Bannon argued strongly against the airstrike on the grounds that it does not advance Trump’s ‘America first’ doctrine - as opposed to Jared Kushner, Trump’s close confidant and son-in-law, who maintained that the US needed to punish the Assad regime.5 Though it is a bit too early to say for sure, Bannon - and his version of isolationism that appeared to have heavily influenced Trump - seems on the way out, to be replaced by a more traditional neocon/Clinton/Bush approach than you might have expected, given the initial messages coming out of the White House.
This has certainly upset Trump supporters both in the US and across the world. In a French television interview Front National leader Marine Le Pen commented that Trump was elected “by announcing that the United States would no longer be the policeman of the world” - yet look at what he has done in Syria, which is “appalling”. Rather, she declared, there should have been an “international commission to conduct an independent investigation”. Nigel Farage was unhappy too, thinking a lot of Trump voters “will be waking up this morning and scratching their heads and saying, ‘Where will it all end’?” Yes, added Farage, the pictures were horrible - “but I’m surprised”, for, “whatever Assad’s sins, he is secular”. Paul Nuttall, Farage’s replacement as leader of the UK Independence Party, said the US bombing was “rash, trigger-happy, nonsensical and will achieve nothing”, whilst the wretched rightwing columnist, Katie Hopkins, wanted to know, “Who stole my president?” Meanwhile, in a Facebook post in Italy, Northern League leader Matteo Salvini described the assault as a “bad idea, big mistake, and a gift to Isis”. Closer to home, Senator Rand Paul fiercely condemned the “unconstitutional rush towards war” and, as for the odious white nationalist, Richard Spencer, credited with coining the term ‘alt-right’, his support for Trump was now “dead in the water”. The US president, the messiah they had been so hoping for, was now part of the establishment.
Trump’s neocon turn, insofar as you can call it that, has led to a serious ratcheting of tensions. With a certain logic, North Korea has argued that the US strike demonstrates precisely why the country needs nuclear weapons - otherwise it could be attacked with impunity, just like Syria. Similar sentiments have come out of Tehran. You cannot rule out the possibility that Donald Trump could be persuaded to go for a unilateral strike on North Korea, which could have the potential to unleash a regional or wider conflagration l