Let us stipulate that Donald Trump is a vulgar and dishonest fraud. Yet history is nothing if not a tale overflowing with irony. Despite his massive shortcomings, President Trump appears intent on recalibrating America’s role in the world. Aligning U.S. policy with actually existing global conditions — and ending our endless wars, starting in Syria — may prove to be his providentially anointed function. Go figure.
“Great nations do not fight endless wars.” So the president announced in his 2019 State of the Union address. Implicit in this seemingly innocuous statement is a radical proposal to overturn the U.S. national security paradigm. Tug hard enough on the dangling threads of that paradigm, and it could unravel.
To acknowledge the folly of this country’s endless wars calls into question the habits that Washington sees as the essence of “American global leadership”: (1) positioning U.S. forces in hundreds of bases abroad; (2) partitioning the planet into regional military commands; (3) conferring security guarantees on dozens of nations, regardless of their values or their ability to defend themselves; (4) maintaining the capability to project power to the remotest corners of the Earth; (5) keeping in instant readiness a triad of nuclear strike forces; (6) searching for “breakthrough technologies” that will eliminate war’s inherent risks; (7) unquestioningly absorbing the costs of a sprawling national security bureaucracy; (8) ignoring the corrupting influence of the military-industrial complex; and outpacing all other nations, in (9) weapons sales and (10) overall military spending.
Complementing this Decalogue is an unwritten 11th Commandment: Thou shalt not prevent the commander in chief from doing what he deems necessary. Congress has habitually deferred to an increasingly imperial presidency, treating the war powers specified in the Constitution as nonbinding.
This Decalogue-plus-one emerged early in the Cold War. During the 1960s, it was tested in Vietnam. While that didn’t go well, D+1 persisted, even after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Soviet Union, the threat that had prompted the creation of the Decalogue, had vanished, but a new rationale appeared: perpetuating American primacy.
Military activism surged. During the otherwise disparate presidencies of George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, the United States intervened in or attacked Panama, Iraq, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Sudan, Afghanistan (again), Iraq (again), Libya, Somalia (again), Yemen, Syria, several West African nations and, briefly, Pakistan.
Reticence regarding the use of force vanished; the 11th Commandment achieved a status comparable to the doctrine of papal infallibility. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, an open-ended Authorization to Use Military Force handed the commander in chief a blank check to “deter and prevent” terrorism anywhere and by whatever means necessary.
The “global war on terrorism” now centers on the Turkey-Syria border. Given media coverage of the president’s abrupt troop withdrawal there, you might conclude that the pivotal issue is the fate of the Kurds, with the United States military deemed uniquely responsible for their well-being. America’s abandonment of the Kurds undoubtedly qualifies as cruel and immoral. Yet what really matters to Washington insiders is the threat that any pullout from the Middle East poses to their cherished Decalogue.
Proponents of D+1 can point to a few achievements: Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Moammar Kadafi, both of them guilty of terrible crimes (although innocent of any direct involvement in Sept. 11) are gone. For the moment at least, the repressive Taliban does not rule in Kabul. And Al Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden and now Islamic State’s Abu Bakr Baghdadi are dead.
Yet widen the aperture and the outcome appears less impressive. Regime change in Kabul, Baghdad and Tripoli produced not liberal democracy but chronic instability, pervasive corruption and endemic violence. In Afghanistan, the Taliban never admitted defeat and today threatens the Western-installed Afghan government. If anyone can be said to have won the Iraq war, that honor must surely belong to the Islamic Republic of Iran. And despite hundreds of thousands of deaths and trillions of dollars spent, the United States has come nowhere close to fulfilling its declared political aims in the region.
Now the president of the United States, using the authority granted him by the 11th Commandment, says he wants to call it quits. In response, Democratic and Republican defenders of the Decalogue insist that Trump may not do what he declares himself intent on doing.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), typically the president’s most stalwart defender, took to the pages of the Washington Post to denounce Trump’s decision, insisting that “the post-World War II international system” that “has sustained an unprecedented era of peace, prosperity, and technological development” must be preserved.
If you believe that the world today resembles the one that existed in the wake of World War II — the U.S. economy dominant, Europe weak and vulnerable, China poor and backward, a climate crisis unimaginable — McConnell’s argument would possess merit. But that world no longer exists.
Sadly, Trump’s determination to blow the whistle on this charade doesn’t extend much beyond making noise. Even his troop withdrawals result in little more than repositioning. As a result, diplomatic initiatives that might actually open a pathway to ending endless wars — restoring normal diplomatic relations with Tehran, for example, or curtailing weapons sales (and giveaways) to nations that use U.S.-manufactured arms to create mayhem, or declaring a no-first-use policy on nuclear weapons — don’t even qualify for discussion.
The fears of the Decalogue’s defenders are not misplaced: Syria is a dangling thread. Give that thread a good yank and U.S. national security policy might become undone. But it will take someone with greater determination, consistency and strength of character than Donald Trump to complete this necessary task.
Andrew Bacevich is a contributing writer to Opinion. His newest book “The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory” will be published in January. A longer version of this essay appears at TomDispatch.com.