As the baleful administration of President Donald Trump bumbles from one scandal to the next, a set of deeply disturbing patterns have emerged in the domestic politics and foreign policy of the United States.
The mainstream corporate media, bewitched by Trump’s non-stop shenanigans, devotes a great deal of space and airtime to fevered speculation about what all the arbitrary firing and flouting of protocol means for Republican pet projects and popularity ratings. A second fixation is the “Game of Thrones for morons” in which a cast of cutthroat White House courtiers jostle to get the last word in the president’s ear before he takes back to Twitter. Still a third preoccupation is the solemn admonitions, such as that on May 14 from the former director of national intelligence, James Clapper, that US “institutions are under assault” from both Trump and foreign adversaries, chiefly Russia.
The Trump circus is not just some grand distraction—the president’s seeming propensity for decision-making by tantrum is indeed worrisome and his decisions to date really do pose dangers to democratic governance in the US, flawed as it is. His Russian connections warrant thorough and unimpeded investigation. But the anxious buzz of the times—“this is not normal”—is white noise blocking out discussion of actual policy and, particularly with regard to what the US does overseas, serving to normalize the same old imperial consensus.
An early example is the April 7 missile strikes on Syria, in the wake of the chemical attack (apparently by regime forces) on rebel-held Khan Sheikhoun. CNN hastened to pronounce the strikes “decisive,” not in the Syrian war, but in the Trump administration’s attitude toward the regime of Bashar al-Asad. Previously, the assumption had been that Trump, in deference to Russia, would limit US military involvement to salvos at the Islamic State, or ISIS. Now interventionists jumped at the chance to agitate for more. Just hours before Trump ordered the Tomahawks into flight, his presidential campaign rival Hillary Clinton had said the US should “take out” the airfields used by Asad’s forces and reiterated her support for a no-fly zone over all of Syria. After the strikes, CNN gave her remarks heavy play—interspersed with commentary expressing relief that Trump might be moving in her direction.
Then, on April 13, a warplane dropped a 21,600-pound bomb, the second largest non-nuclear weapon in the US arsenal, on an alleged ISIS tunnel complex in Afghanistan. The Pentagon had been looking for the opportunity to use this “mother of all bombs” for some time. Its destructive power was first advertised slightly more than a week before the US-led invasion of Iraq, as a form of “psychological operations.” Iraq was judged too populous a proving ground in 2003, but not Afghanistan in 2017. As Moustafa Bayoumi noted in the April 14 Guardian, Western nations have a long history of turning “territory inhabited by the ‘uncivilized’” into a “laboratory for the newest and worst weapons of war.”
The national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, is said to be pushing for deployment of extra troops and planes in Afghanistan, as well as Iraq and Syria, lest these airstrikes be seen as the “pinpricks” Republicans decried in decades past. Arrayed against him, reportedly, is Stephen Bannon, the repulsive white nationalist behind the “America first” slogan of Trump’s campaign. There is nothing to root for here—only various things to dread.
It is pointless, so far, to look for a guiding principle in Trump’s foreign policy. Riven by infighting and facing stiff resistance on other fronts, such as the attempted “Muslim bans,” the White House has time for little beyond the occasional made-for-television explosion. Bad as that is, the worse news is that the bipartisan Washington establishment, abetted by the media, is lining up behind permanent war as the sensible alternative.