Trump’s lengthening shadow will paralyse Biden’s bid to carry on where Obama left off
Trump’s purge of the Pentagon and announcement of troop withdrawals from Afghanistan and Iraq indicate that the president is no less of a thorn in the side of the deep state now that he is leaving the Oval Office than he was throughout his tenure – and possibly more. He appears to be using his remaining weeks to make things as difficult as possible for Joe Biden to recreate the liberal internationalism of the former Obama/Biden administration’s interventionist foreign policy.
For Trump, the rudderless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are both prime examples of ‘forever wars’, hence the deal that the US brokered in February with the Taliban in Afghanistan, under which the US began to pull back troops.
This was too much for the likes of top brass commander General Kenneth McKenzie who warned that peace talks between the Taliban and the Kabul government could be compromised by the sight of Uncle Sam doing a side bargain with the Taliban and lunging too obviously for the exit. And sure enough, the Taliban continued its battle with the Kabul forces, pointing out that the deal it had struck concerned only relations with the US, not with Kabul.
Nor did it sit well with Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell, who complained that leaving Afghanistan now will undermine US interests and give free rein to “terrorists who would like nothing more than for the most powerful force for good in the world to simply pick up our ball and go home. They would love that" (‘Trump “to order further troop withdrawal” from Afghanistan and Iraq’, BBC, 16 November 2020).
But the most determined attacks on Trump’s policy of disengagement come from within the warmongering ranks of the Democrats. The Democrat co-chair of the Syria Study Group, Dana Stroul, glorying in the claim that “one-third of Syrian territory was owned via the US military, with its local partner the Syrian Democratic Forces,” went on to campaign for the US to intensify its intervention in and against Syria to complete the plunder of Syrian oil. (Daniel Kovalik, ‘Regretfully, US liberals now out-hawk conservatives in eagerness for aggression & war’, RT, 16 November 2020).
True, Trump has been happy enough himself to celebrate the theft of Syrian national assets; but his mentality is rather that of an unashamed smash and grab robber (with the getaway car parked out front with the engine running) than that of a man with an ambitious hegemonic plan for staying put and extending US influence in the Middle East.
And now comes this latest news that troop levels in Afghanistan are to be cut from around 5,000 to 2,500 by mid-January and levels in Iraq from 3,000 to 2,500. Granted, promises have been broken before, and this latest crop is maybe more symbolic than otherwise. But the drawdowns, scheduled to be completed just in time for Biden’s enthronement, will certainly present the incoming president with something of a dilemma: either go along with the withdrawals policy and appear weak, or rescind it and reveal his true warmongering colours right from the start.
Trump’s serial efforts to disengage in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan have met with resistance at every step, including from his own close advisers. Outgoing Syria envoy Jim Jeffrey was unabashed about his efforts to confuse and undermine the president. “‘We were always playing shell games to not make clear to our leadership how many troops we had there,’ Jeffrey said in an interview. The actual number of troops in northeast Syria is ‘a lot more than’ the roughly two hundred troops Trump initially agreed to leave there in 2019.” Questioned about the substance of the withdrawal plans for Syria, Jeffrey was scornful. “What Syria withdrawal? There was never a Syria withdrawal. When the situation in northeast Syria had been fairly stable after we defeated ISIS, [Trump] was inclined to pull out. In each case, we then decided to come up with five better arguments for why we needed to stay. And we succeeded both times. That’s the story” (Katie Bo Williams, ‘Outgoing Syria envoy admits hiding US troop numbers’, Defense One website, 12 November 2020).
Reading the runes
The current purge of key figures at the Pentagon seems intended to set Trump’s own stamp on foreign policy from beyond the electoral grave, though the contradictory mix of personnel parachuted in at the eleventh hour suggests that the outgoing president has been forced to compromise.
One commentator who has attempted to read the runes and anticipate the likely outcome of the Pentagon shake-up suggests that the Defence Secretary who just got fired, Mark Esper, was dubbed “Yesper” by his boss because he could not say no to the military-industrial complex in which he had previously been employed. On Esper’s watch the war budget got ever fatter, running against Trump’s isolationist urge to disengage from ‘forever wars’. Getting rid of him made sense.
The same commentator found it less easy to explain why National Counterterrorism Centre Director Christopher Miller, a known hawk, was chosen as Esper’s successor as defence secretary, and she identifies other Pentagon appointees who would not shine as Trump loyalists. But then she notes that the new senior adviser to Miller, Colonel Douglas Macgregor, had a track record of advocating disengagement, once telling an interviewer, “the first question is what are we doing in Syria and Iraq with troops on the ground? What’s the purpose to begin with? I don’t think that’s ever been fully explained. What we’ve heard repeatedly is that we’re coming out. Each time the president seems to be subverted and we end up with a few more troops left.” And in the same interview, Macgregor basically accused the hawks of wanting to bounce the US into a war, urging on airstrikes in Iraq in 2019, saying “I don’t think the Iranians or the Iraqis, per se, are necessarily going to respond in the way the neocons would hope” (Katie Bo Williams, ‘Deep state member admits sabotage of Trump’s policies’, Moon of Alabama, 13 November 2020).
It will be remembered that Obama was awarded the Nobel peace prize shortly before his first inauguration. His first foreign policy decision on getting elected was to order a new surge of troops in Afghanistan. And it was the Obama\Biden team that presided over the massacre of Libya. Interestingly, Biden has picked as his budget director Neera Tanden. On 20 October 2011, after seven months of NATO bombing had wiped out four decades of modern progress in Libya, Muammar Gaddafi was brutally murdered by western-backed terrorists in Sirte. Hillary Clinton, watching footage of the murder, giggled and declared “We came, we saw, he died”. And Neera Tanden, a big fan of Hillary, on the day after sent an email that was later released by WikiLeaks. In this email Tanden argued that the US should ease funding shortages for progressive domestic social programmes by making countries like Libya pay for the privilege of being bombed, writing that “We have a giant deficit, they have a lot of oil” (‘Biden’s pick for budget director once championed funding social spending by making Libya pay for regime-change bombing campaign’, RT, 30 November 2020).
Trump, by contrast, has (so far) been the first US president in four decades not to start any new wars, despite all his ‘fire and fury’ rhetoric. This is no testament to his pacifist virtue; rather it underlines the degree to which the seam of economic nationalism and isolationism into which Trump so successfully tapped remains an obstacle to liberal hopes of resuming where Obama and Biden left off, regardless of Trump’s own political survival or demise.
As we said, Trump has not initiated a new war so far, and there is no guarantee that this unstable leader could not in his last days stir up one too many hornets’ nests, with incalculable consequences. Be that as it may, before brushing aside the significance of the latest withdrawal announcements, we should pay particular attention to the gravity with which they are greeted from one quarter. One organisation which definitely takes Trump’s plan to retreat from Afghanistan very seriously indeed is NATO, whose chief Stoltenberg reacted like a scalded cat, telling America: “We went into Afghanistan together. And when the time is right, we should leave together in a coordinated and orderly way. I count on all NATO allies to live up to this commitment, for our own security” (David M. Herszenhorn, ‘NATO chief warns Trump against Afghanistan pullout’, Politico website, 17 November 2020).
Trump’s sins against globalism
Trump’s readiness to undermine the institutional fabric which binds the ‘international community’ together, making no distinction between friend and foe and subordinating all other interests to those of America First, cannot but divide and weaken imperialism as a whole, to the long term advantage of the exploited and oppressed fighting for liberation. Whether it’s a case of putting two fingers up to NATO and leaving European troops stranded in the desert or refusing even to pay lip service to the ‘world government’ fiction of the UN, the end result is the same, dissolving all the alliances upon which monopoly capitalism relies to create a world stable enough to allow it to continue to rule the roost.
The international nuclear agreement (JCPOA) hammered out by the UN and EU and signed up to by Tehran and Washington, whilst it took a little of the immediate pressure off Iran, allowed Obama to bask in liberal internationalist glory. Conversely Trump’s trashing of JCPOA and reimposition of crippling sanctions on Iran threw confusion into the ranks of the EU, torn between honouring the agreement or keeping their heads down and tolerating the reimposition of the US sanctions regime, meanwhile whining from the sidelines that this kind of bad behaviour can only serve to stiffen the anti-imperialist resistance – which it will.
Trump’s cack-handed approach to Palestinian diplomacy similarly has the effect of stripping bare the hypocrisy of the UN passing resolution after resolution criticising Israel’s criminal record but never lifting a finger to hold Zionism to account, whilst one US president after another has produced ‘road maps to peace’, posing as the much put-upon honest broker doing his best to overcome the obstacles that prevent peace between two equally stubborn sides. This fantasy is now brought crashing down by Trump’s open endorsement of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and green light for the illegal spread of Zionist settlements across the West Bank, exposing Israel’s core role as an armed camp placed at the heart of the Middle East, a guard dog for US imperialism. Under all other US presidents the illegal settlements have gone on all regardless; what is different with Trump has been his shamelessness.
Instead of worrying about keeping all his ducks in a row at the UN and the EU and persisting with attempts to prettify US hegemony by securing approval from the ‘international community’, Trump just goes to pay a visit to the corrupt feudal chieftains of the Arab world, finds out what it will cost to persuade them to drop their empty declarations of solidarity with Palestine, and does a deal, hoping thereby to isolate Palestine. By way of a suitably biblical note, the sales trip is called the Abraham Accords, but the deals are strictly secular.
The UAE and Bahrain have agreed to join Jordan and Egypt in ‘normalising’ relations with Israel (and unceremoniously ditching Palestine) in the expectation of getting their hands on more US arms supplies, a win-win deal for US arms manufacturers. Sudan is cautiously moving towards ‘normalisation’, letting it be known its assent depends on the US Congress giving it immunity from terrorism lawsuits relating to 9/11. (This should prove easy enough, given the blind eye the US turns toward the much closer ties linking Bin Laden with Saudi Arabia).
Morocco is the most recent country to agree to cosy up to the Zionists, sparking demonstrations in protest. The price the kingdom is demanding, and looks like getting, is the US recognition of Morocco’s territorial claim for the Western Sahara, in the teeth of opposition from the Polisario Front. In 1991 the UN brokered a ceasefire and called for a referendum on independence, which never happened. This year Morocco sent troops into an area patrolled by UN peacekeepers, triggering a declaration of war from Polisario. This is the powder keg into which Trump has just thrown his discarded match. But what the hell, a deal is a deal, and Morocco now recognises Israel. As a last flourish, the US plans to open a consulate in Dakhla, a city in Western Sahara.
Signally missing from this chorus of ‘normalising’ Arab states is Saudi Arabia, though it is doubtful that either the Emirates or Bahrain would have added their voices without permission from Riyadh. Some sources suggest that Morocco’s adherence to the Abraham Accord could persuade MBS to come out of the closet.
Of course, what held back all these Arab governments from long ago casting off the pretence of solidarity with Palestine has been the well-grounded fear of a backlash from those for whom these princelings claim to speak. It is to be hoped that Trump’s used car salesman diplomacy has brought the reckoning closer to hand.
Resignation of Hanan Ashrawi
The current ructions in the Palestinian Authority also would indicate that Trump’s clunky tactics, first supporting the annexation of the West Bank, and then persuading Netanyahu to postpone this definitive land grab in exchange for securing the UAE’s adherence to the Abraham Accords, are also forcing a major rethink of the way forward for the Palestinian struggle.
Critics of the Mahmoud Abbas leadership complain that policy has been made on the hoof, lacks a plan and is more symbolic than substantive. When Israel signalled its intention to go for annexation, Abbas reacted by suspending all relations with Israel, including all humanitarian coordination and Israel’s transfer of tax revenues, measures which hit many Palestinians very hard. Yet no sooner had it been announced that the wholesale theft of the West Bank was to be delayed than all relations were resumed willy nilly, including contentious undertakings by the PA regarding internal security.
Criticism of the current PA leadership has come to a head with the resignation of Hanan Ashrawi from the PLO’s Executive Committee. Ashrawi has a record of opposition to the PA’s policing practices. “Her choice of words in the announcement makes clear that she has had enough of Abbas’ reign. She cites an alarming marginalisation of the PLO’s top decision-making committee, where Abbas exclusively retains the final say over all matters. She calls for reforming and activating the PLO to resume its intended role at the forefront of the Palestinian struggle for liberation… Ashrawi said she submitted her letter of resignation to Abbas on November 24 – less than a week after Abbas abruptly instructed the PA to officially resume all relations with Israel, including the widely detested security collaboration, as an empty gesture to the incoming Biden administration” (Muhammad Shehada, ‘Hanan Ashrawi’s departure leaves the PLO a poorer place, headed by a power hungry Abbas, and in desperate need of reform’, Al Araby, 11 December 2020).
Ashrawi is much respected by many Palestinians, even from within the ranks of the Hamas rivals, and is seen by many as the conscience of the PLO, and her resignation may serve as a wake-up call. Whilst Abbas might stake the fate of Palestine on the supposed better intentions of a Biden administration and dreams of a return to benign-sounding ‘road maps’ originating in Washington, the steadfast Palestinian masses will come to their own conclusions about the way forward for the struggle and what will be required for its successful prosecution.
To conclude, efforts by the incoming presidency to revive the halcyon days where Obama could sign off candidates for drone assassination and still be heralded by left liberals as a beacon of progress will not work. Trump’s iconoclasm will prove irreversible, and in the long run its biggest victim will be American hegemony itself.