Even with Donald Trump,“American isolationism is a fiction”

Contrary to popular belief, the American administration’s policy is not isolationist. It is characterized by permanent military interventions, in continuity with that of the Obama administration.

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis speaks with Saudi Army Gen. Abdulrahman bin Saleh Al-Banyan, Chief of the Joint Staff, at King Salman Air Base, Saudi Arabia, April 18, 2017.
Brigitte N. Brantley, serg. of the US Air Force Tech/Jim Mattis on Flickr.

Professor emeritus of history and international relations at Boston University, Andrew Bacevich graduated from West Point and from Princeton University. He is a former colonel in the United States Army and served in Vietnam in 1970-1971. He is the author, among others, of The Limits of power : The End of American Exceptionnalism (Metropolitan Books, 2008) and of The New American Militarism: How American are seduced by wars (Oxford University Press, 2005). He writes regularly for The American Conservative magazine and for TomDispatch.

Sylvain Cypel.Is there a difference between Trump’s policy and Obama’s policy on foreign military interventions?

Andrew Bacevich. — The difficulty with answering this question lies here: Does something called “Trump’s policy” actually exist? When it comes to understanding the actual views and intentions of the United States today, how much weight should we assign to the president’s scripted remarks, i.e., when he uses a teleprompter, and his tweets or spontaneous comments? And when the president’s expressed views differ from those of his subordinates like defense secretary James Mattis, who should we credit with actually articulating U.S. policy? I do not have a good answer to these questions. And my guess is that neither do leaders in Beijing, Tokyo, Moscow, Berlin, or Paris. The resulting uncertainty is one of the factors making this an especially dangerous time.

With regard to military interventionism, what we can say is this: The so-called “isolationism” that formed an ostensible theme of Trump’s campaign does not in any way describe administration policy. The promiscuous willingness to use force that has characterized the last several administrations continues. Trump had promised to win American wars or to get out. He will merely continue them. That’s clear in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Somalia. My guess—and it’s only that—is that the ratcheting up of U.S. military involvement in these places reflects the predisposition of the generals occupying senior positions in the administration rather than Trump’s personal preferences.

How does the conduct of American wars differ today from what it was under Obama? The bigger difference is a greater emphasis on using air power with a reduced concern about causing noncombatant casualties. The biggest measure of continuity is that this administration like the last has no stomach for substantial U.S. casualties. We want others to do the fighting and dying.

S. C.Trump led an ambiguous campaign, advocating a reduction in US interventionism across borders and at the same time a strengthening of US military power. A year after coming to power, can we discern a coherent global international strategy?

A. B. — There continues to be plenty of talk in Washington about increasing U.S. military spending, without anyone offering a clear explanation for why that is necessary. For the moment, the various ongoing crises—especially the controversies related to the Trump campaign alleged collusion with Russia—make it difficult for Congress to engage in a reasoned debate over basic national security policy. While the White House has released a “national security strategy” and the Pentagon a “national defense strategy,” both documents are long on rhetoric and short on specifics. Each document made a tiny splash when released and then almost instantly disappeared. My sense is that this administration, more than most, is consumed by near-term considerations at the expense of longer-term issues. If an agreement or initiative promises immediate substantive benefits to the United States, the Trump administration is for it. If an agreement or initiative implies incurring near-term costs, with benefits promised only further down the road, then the Trump administration is against it.

If the administration has introduced a theme into the present-day discussion of global affairs, that theme is expressed in the phrase “great power competition.” This seems to center on treating Russia and China as adversaries. Of course, Russia is by many measures a declining power and China is America’s biggest trading partner. My own sense is that Washington would have a more realistic appreciation of the U.S. situation if it acknowledged that ours is now a multipolar order in which categories like “ally” and “adversary” do not apply.

S. C.Trump seeks to embody at the same time the two great traditional inclinations of American foreign policy: the isolationist propensity and the imperial propensity. In reality, does one take precedence over the other?

A. B. — I don’t agree with the premise of the question. “Isolationism” is a fiction. The United States of America did not go from being a weak and puny republic in the 1780s to becoming the world’s richest and most powerful nation in the 1940s by walling itself off from the world. The central theme of US policy from the outset has been opportunistic expansionism—seizing opportunities as they presented themselves to become bigger and richer and more powerful. For two centuries, not withstanding various missteps along the way, the approach worked brilliantly.

When the Cold War ended, many in America imagined that the United States had achieved permanent supremacy, with history itself having “ended.” This was the height of folly. Our problem today, I believe, is that the expansionist inclination no longer pertains. But we haven’t devised an alternative strategy. Nor are there any signs that the Trump administration will do so.

S. C.Specifically, do you see a consistent Trump strategy in the Middle East? If yes, what are its foundations?

A. B. — I hesitate to answer any question that includes terms like “consistent” and “strategy” as pertains to the current administration. The president appears to be oblivious to the complexities of Middle East politics. Nor is he inclined to master them. The announced move of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem was a gesture to Trump’s political base and one that created a moment of drama where Trump himself was the central player. It means nothing. Anyone who thinks that Trump thereby killed the “peace process” hasn’t been paying attention. The “peace process” died years ago. Netanyahu has been playing Washington for years.

As for Trump’s romance with the Saudi royal family, I find it inexplicable. We don’t need Saudi oil—the US once more becoming the world number one producer of crude oil. We certainly don’t have a stake in the Saudi-Iranian rivalry or in the dispute between Shia and Sunni Islam. No good will come from the pro-Saudi tilt in U.S. policy. Let me amend that: no other good than the many billions of dollars of arms sales that will benefit the U.S. military-industrial complex.

S. C.After the announcement of the extension of the US military presence in Afghanistan, doesn’t Trump’s policy lead now to a US presence lasting also for a long time in Syria?

A. B. — Yes, of course, it does. What’s interesting to me is that the announcement of U.S. troops remaining in Syria indefinitely went almost unnoticed by my fellow citizens. The point can hardly be overemphasized: The United States is now permanently at war and the American people are not the least bothered by that reality—at least they are not bothered so long as the great majority of those being killed are not Americans. This describes the “new American way of war,” pioneered by Obama and now brought to a state of perfection under Trump: continuous military action with minimal U.S. casualties and negligible political achievements.

S. C. Why did Trump choose to make Iran its number one enemy in the Middle East, and even on a global scale?

A. B. — It seems clear that General Mattis and Lieutenant General McMaster are Iranophobes, their attitudes traceable to their experiences in the Iraq War, when Iran supported anti-U.S. militants. That the U.S. gave Iran reason to act by a) declaring Iran part of an “axis of evil;” b) articulating a policy of preventive war; and c) invading Iraq, a country in which Iran can reasonably be said to have vital interests, somehow does not figure in the calculations of people like Mattis and McMaster. Iran policies have not been benign, but they have been rational. (Saudi policies, by comparison, have been neither benign nor rational). This is a clear illustration of this administration’s inability to play a longer game.

S. C. You have raised in your books the idea of a “new American militarism” that has been shaped after the cold war. How does Trump relate to this “new militarism”?

A. B. — American militarism persists despites the almost unbroken record of failure and disappointment resulting from U.S. interventions since the end of the Cold War. Militarism has woven itself into contemporary American culture. It manifests itself in virtually all public events. Expressing fealty and support for “the troops” has become part of—perhaps the most important part of—our civic religion. As with most religions these days, the hypocrisy quotient tends to be high. We support the troops from afar, not paying all that much attention to where they are, what they are doing, and why.

S. C. You also mentioned the idea of the US being a country “in a state of permanent national security crisis,” where the idea of “being at war” has been constant since 9/11. Does the United States always need an “enemy,” real or fantasized?

A. B. — Some time after World War II, Secretary of State Dean Acheson famously remarked that Great Britain had lost its empire and not yet found a role. Today the United States faces an analogous predicament. The era of America Ascendant has ended. The international order is changing in astounding ways—not simply with the emergence of a new roster of great powers, but with the rise of a new problem set including challenges like climate change. What is the proper role of the United States in this new order? We don’t know. And the Trump administration is singularly ill-equipped to provide an answer.

Would a Hillary Clinton have done any better? I doubt it. Clinton embodies an establishment that remains mired in a past that no longer exists. When it comes to foreign policy, Washington itself has become an intellectual dead zone.

S. C.Does the Iranian issue potentially lead to the possibility of a war in the Middle East in which the United States would be directly or indirectly involved? And what do you think of the idea that Trump could launch a war if he was put in trouble on the domestic political ground?

A. B. — Trump himself is obviously impetuous, even in matters relating to the use of force. Recall the air strike he ordered against a Syrian air field no long after he became president—apparently a decision made because he had seen disturbing televised images of Syrian children who had been gassed. When he gave that order, the U.S. military complied. If acting on his own volition Trump gave an order to a preemptive attack against Iran or North Korea, would the generals obey? My guess is yes. But my hope is that cooler heads would intervene to talk the president down. But this clearly is a real concern.