Instead of cheering US resort to increasingly robust use of military firepower as the first response to international crises, Western leaders should be ring-fencing Trump’s instinct to reckless behaviour in order to avoid a catastrophe.
Going by his instant, unqualified and uncritical support for the US cruise missile strikes on Syria, our prime minister’s loyalty to our major ally calls to mind a campaigning line from the great anti-nuclear days of the 1980s in New Zealand. Malcolm Turnbull will faithfully promise to follow Donald Trump to the end of the world, and Trump promises to do his very best to bring about the end of the world.
Three questions are worth asking:
- Given their respective known traits, why has the Trump narrative on Syria’s chemical weapons incident been believed rather than that of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin?
- Why should we entrust world peace in the quality of Trump’s rather than Putin’s decision-making?
- For most countries, which breach of international law and norms is worse: use of chemical weapons by either party inside Syria, or the unilateral use of military force by a major power against a sovereign state?
Trump and Putin are the leaders of countries with 14,000 nuclear weapons – 94 per cent of global stockpiles. About 4,000 of these are deployed, including 1,800 ready for instant launch on presidential authorisation. Both leaders pursue ‘America First’ and ‘Russia First’ policies respectively to make their country great again. But only one of the two countries has a string of military bases and hundreds of thousands of troops deployed in distant hotspots encircling the globe. Over the past two decades, only one has threatened, bombed, attacked, invaded – and forcibly removed leaders of – many other countries. (In the decades after 1945, by contrast, the former Soviet Union was the main menace to world peace while America built and sustained the liberal international order and its normative architecture.)
Between Trump and Putin, only one is widely believed, including by his own citizens, to be paranoid, volatile, erratic, inconsistent, bombastic, vulgar, shallow, and a morally compromised individual. He can be moved by TV images of suffering children to bomb a country but bans their people, the same suffering children, from coming to his own country as desperate refugees. Only one – but not the same one – pursues a coherent foreign policy informed by long-term strategic purpose.
This raises a key puzzle. Both countries are engaged in the Syrian conflict, albeit on different sides, that is a tangled mess of internal, regional, and global conflict parties and patrons. They offer contrasting narratives of heinous incidents. Chemical weapons were used in an attack on Khan Sheikhun on 4 April. Trump blamed the Syrian air force. Putin dismissed this as self-serving fabrication and claimed that chemical weapons stored on a rebel-held base were released after a Syrian strike.
Putin called for an independent international investigation to establish facts and culpability. Instead Trump hit Syria with almost five dozen cruise missiles. Western leaders largely backed the US strikes, Americans were jubilant at throwing off the Barack Obama-era strategic restraint, and most Western analysts bought into the Trump narrative of enforcing international law against the use of chemical weapons, with the US once again setting the world’s moral compass. When Fareed Zakaria gushed that in this one act ‘Trump became president’, he was not doing irony to indicate that bombing other countries has become a necessary rite of passage for a modern American leader. Zakaria was expressing genuine adoration of Dear Leader.
Could the discrepancy be greater between what most Americans believe about Trump’s leadership credentials and individual morality, and their support of him as the champion of international law and global norms? Or between the record of recent US international behaviour and Western support of America being the international law enforcement sheriff?
The long history of US presidents dissembling about confused incidents to launch or escalate wars includes the notorious 1964 Tonkin Gulf incident in the Vietnam war and allegations of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) to invade Iraq in 2003 and capture and execute Saddam. In Syria itself, with respect to the chemical weapons attack in a Damascus on 21 August 2013, investigative journalist Seymour Hersh concluded that Obama, like Bush in Iraq in 2003, had cherry-picked facts and intelligence, presenting assumptions as facts and omitting important intelligence pointing to jihadists’ capability to mount a chemical weapon attack. Trump effectively followed the template of bomb first, prove later – exactly the sequence George W. Bush adopted in Iraq in 2003 to commit the greatest geopolitical blunder since the Second World War.
The requirement for proof before punishment doesn’t have an opt-out clause. Incomprehensibly, Trump of all people – with his known penchant for making up facts – is exempted from providing rock solid proof of Assad’s culpability. As in murder mysteries, it is always worth asking: who benefits? For the regime, the risks of provoking US intervention by using chemical weapons in an inconsequential battle far outweighed any possible military gains. Andrew Wilkie, who as an intelligence analyst famously questioned the dominant narrative on Iraq’s WMD in 2003 and is now an independent MP, asks why Assad would use chemical weapons. For rebels, the risk-reward calculus is reversed in provoking US intervention. Such cynicism is usually a better guide than naïve credulity to understanding Middle Eastern politics.
Former UN chief weapons inspector in Iraq Richard Butler is unequivocal: ‘No evidence for the US claim that Syria bombed Khan Sheikhun with chemical weapons has been provided’. Until such evidence is provided, ‘it is not possible to accept the claim. And, there are abundant reasons, from past experience, and a good deal of logic to support skepticism about it. The action by the US was an act of aggression, violating international law’.
BBC News lists Trump’s dizzying record of policy flip-flops and u-turns within 24 hours. Longer term major policy reversals include warning Obama in 2013 not to attack Syria. We cannot even be confident that Trump’s current cabinet personnel will still be in office next year. This “mercurial” president can on an unchecked whim fire almost a thousand nuclear weapons at any country within minutes. The surge of popularity following strikes on Syria will embolden him to choose robust military action over caution and strengthen his disdain for constitutional fetters on using military force, let alone any restraints of international law.
And Western leaders – who, unlike Trump, are mostly responsible leaders – have welcomed this turn of events. Go figure.
The majority of Western leaders could do with a crash course in Geopolitics 101 and Nuclear Politics 101. On the first, every country has a core of vital interests over which it will go to war. The vital interests of major powers include territory and friendly regimes in neighbouring countries. China will not tolerate a potentially hostile regime on its border with Korea. America would not tolerate one in Canada or Mexico, or Russia along its immediate borders with Europe.
On the second, unlike wars using conventional weapons, with nuclear wars not just the conflict parties but the whole world will be totally destroyed. So why exactly is the Western world cheering the transformation of Trump into a wartime president who can indulge his authoritarian instincts to the fullest “to amass, consolidate and concentrate power”?
The self-interest of all countries – UK, Europe, Canada, Japan, Australia included – requires them to counsel caution and restraint, not applaud adventurism based on gut instincts; to encourage policy consistency and reliability, not erratic unpredictability; to strengthen legal restraints and institutional enforcement mechanisms to check unilateral, aggressive, and other norm-violating behaviour by all major powers; and to require investigation and evidence before action is taken, not afterwards.
During last year’s US presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton famously asked of Trump if a man so easily baited by tweets could be entrusted with his fingers on the nuclear button. The question was heard loud and clear around the world. Now Tomahawk missiles have rained down on Syria, the Mother Of All Bombs has been dropped on Afghanistan, and a task force has sailed into East Asian seas with the explicit threat that if China fails to solve the North Korean problem even as Pyongyang is reported to be preparing for another nuclear test, the US will do so on its own. It’s as if Dr Strangelove is the national security adviser and General Curtis LeMay has been given free rein to use all available military firepower to attack anyone and any country that refuses to kowtow to Trump’s alternative reality show.
And we are part of the cheering squad on the sidelines instead of worrying that the sum of all our fears could soon be realised.
Ramesh Thakur is professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University.