Empires have one historical constant: they fail.
President Trump likes deals and campaigned on his deal-making prowess. Negotiation requires parties who respect each other enough to bargain in good faith. It is a lost art in US foreign policy, replaced by imperatives: we tell you what to do and you do it. This makes the US government the world’s most hated institution. Negotiation poses an existential threat to a Deep State grown powerful and wealthy imposing US dominance on the rest of the world, and increasingly, the American people. Dominance implies unipolarity; negotiation implies multipolarity.
During his campaign, Trump resonated with voters and put the Deep State on alert, voicing two criticisms of unipolarity: its cost and its failures. Trump’s criticism of NATO, particularly of costs borne primarily by the US, should be an opening salvo in a wider war against the costs of US empire. The US has over 800 bases in over 150 countries. The annual expense of maintaining those outposts is substantial, and other personnel costs, high-tech weaponry, and foreign military interventions run into the hundreds of billions. (Foreign interventions are usually kept off budget by one of Washington’s beloved accounting tricks.) Total annual spending for the military and intelligence, including veterans benefits, is close to $1 trillion.
There is significant waste and corruption. The Defense Department has never passed an audit, and trillions of dollars remain unaccounted for. Most of the intelligence agencies’ budgets are “black box”—undisclosed—but waste and corruption on a comparable scale is probably a safe assumption.
All that money has bought multiple failures. The US has turned the Middle East and Northern Africa into a chaotic quagmire that has led to increased terrorism and refugee flows in the millions. Trump’s campaign adroitly played on popular fears of refugees and terrorism, but he’s maintaining the policies that produce them. More US forces are being sent to Iraq and Syria, and one special forces’ operation in Yemen has resulted in the first US military death (and the deaths of at least 10 Yemeni civilians) on Trump’s watch. He has shown no inclination to stop or curtail drone strikes, covert operations, or proxy warfare.
Trump’s military policy in the Middle East has been indistinguishable from Obama’s, and a subtle diplomatic shift demonstrates that US unipolarity, rather than multipolar “deals,” will continue to be the order of the day. Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran was a throwback to presidents Kennedy, Nixon, and Reagan, who negotiated arms control agreements with hostile powers. It has achieved its primary aim – nobody claims Iran is now developing nuclear weapons – yet Trump and team continuously criticize it. Iran has taken a substantial risk with the nuclear treaty. Muammar Gaddafi explicitly renounced nuclear weapons and terminated Libya’s embryonic program, while Saddam Hussein never had them, and the US violently deposed both of them. ( And US officials wonder why North Korea “clings” to its nuclear program!) Yet, Trump officials have put Iran “on notice,” called for renewed sanctions, and rattled the invasion sabers because Iran fired missiles that were not banned in the agreement.
An objective assessment of repressive “state sponsors of terrorism” in the Middle East would conclude that Saudi Arabia is at least as culpable, if not more so, than Iran. Saudi Arabia has supported al Qaeda offshoot ISIS (which Iran is fighting) in Syria and Iraq. It is waging war against its tiny, impoverished neighbor, Yemen, on the unproven contention that the Houthi rebels they’re fighting are an Iranian proxy force. Al Queda in Yemen has been the beneficiary of this Saudi campaign. The US has been helping the Saudis, providing weapons and other military and intelligence support. After a Saudi missile, bought from the US, struck a Yemeni funeral, killing over 100 people, Obama held up an arms sale, but Trump is reconsidering and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is pushing for it. Thousands of its citizens are dying of malnutrition, but relief convoys can’t get through because Saudi Arabia has bombed much of the infrastructure. Yet, nobody is putting Saudi Arabia “on notice.” Trump recently sat down with the Saudi deputy crown prince for a convivial lunch.
Yemen marks the latest in a string of American military adventures stretching back to Korea. These forays have increased the power and wealth of the US military-industrial-intelligence complex, but have not attained any concrete military objective, i.e., winning. In Washington, nothing succeeds like failure. Trump has promoted some of failure’s architects to prominent places in his administration, and he’s increasing the military’s already bloated budget, with no check on its spendthrift ways. Notwithstanding failure’s staggering costs in blood and treasure, substantial elements of the foreign policy, military, and intelligence establishment, (including Hillary Clinton), want to train their sights on Syria, Iran, North Korea, Russia and China. After sixteen years the US cannot win a war in Afghanistan, but they want to take on the world’s second and third largest military forces (and nuclear arsenals) and three of their allies.
Trump’s voters elected him to reject, not buy into, the establishment and Clinton’s absurdity. Russia and China do not have the economic or military strength to build empires. (Nobody does; empires dissipate, not increase, strength.) They recognize the multipolarity the US rejects, and are leading diplomatic, financial, and economic initiatives with nations stretching from Southeast Asia to Europe. Whatever noises Trump made about establishing better relations with Russia have fallen by the wayside in the wake of the Russian “election hacking” and undue influence allegations. His administration’s stance towards China has been nonstop bluster. Last week Tillerson told North Korea it had better shape up or else, the “else” being possible US military action (LINK). As Justin Raimondo has argued, the tense and highly militarized situation on the Korean peninsula requires negotiations between the US, the Koreas, and China; saber rattling could lead to Korean War II or worse.
Trash talk, gestures, and threats may play well to domestic crowds, but they don’t get you far in international relations. If Trump engages in skirmishes over the Deep State’s surveillance of him, but carries water for its disastrous policies, including its surveillance of the American people, then his election was a waste of time. He can recognize the evolving multipolar world and negotiate, compromise, and deal, or he can try to maintain the US’s fading dominance. If he chooses the former, he has a shot at greatness. If he chooses the latter, his presidency will fail with the US empire.