Does an “America-First” Foreign Policy Actually Mean?
the U.S. Military First, Second, and Third
What does an “America-first” foreign policy
look like under President Donald Trump? As a start, forget the
ancient label of “isolationism.” With the end of
Trump’s first 100 days approaching, it looks more like a
military-first policy aimed at achieving global hegemony, which means
it’s a potential doomsday machine.
Candidate Trump vowed he’d make
the U.S. military so strong that he wouldn’t have to use it,
since no one would dare attack us -- deterrence, in a word. The
on-the-ground (or in-the-air)
reality is already far different. President Trump’s
have begun to unleash
that military in a manner the Obama administration, hardly shy about
or surging, deemed both excessive and risky to civilians. Last
week, 59 U.S. cruise
missiles (value: $60
million) pummeled an airbase in Syria, a
profligate response to a chemical weapons attack in that country
which may yet lead to further escalation.
Meanwhile, U.S. weapons are to
be sold to Sunni monarchies in the Persian
Gulf with less concern than ever for human rights abuses, and the
Saudis will be provided with yet more of the support they demand for
their devastating war on civilians in Yemen. Doubtless further
military interventions and escalations across the Greater Middle East
are on that classic
“table” in Washington where “all
options” are supposedly kept.
Most Americans believe the spin that
the U.S. military is all about deterring and preventing attacks on
the homeland, especially those orchestrated by “radical Islamic
terrorism.” Sold as a deterrent, Washington’s
national security state has, in fact, exploded
into something that increasingly resembles a mechanism for permanent
of the most basic military strategy, impulsive and bombastic, its
present commander-in-chief is being enabled by bellicose
advisers and the men he calls “my
generals,” who dream of ever bigger
budgets. (Even Trump’s promise of a $54 billion boost to
Pentagon spending this coming fiscal year isn’t enough
for some senior military officers.)
The Realities of Trump’s
New Era of Winning
Welcome to Trump’s new era
of winning. It’s not really about
ending wars, but exerting “global
reach/global power” while selling
loads of weaponry. It promises to
spread or prolong chaos in Iraq, Yemen, and possibly Iran,
among other countries. In the Greater Middle East, U.S.-led
efforts have produced a war-torn Iraq that’s splitting at the
seams. U.S. drone strikes and support for an ongoing Saudi air
campaign have left Yemen lurching toward famine.
Syria remains a humanitarian disaster, torn by war even as
additional U.S. troops are deployed there. (The Pentagon won’t
say how many, telling us instead to focus
on “capabilities” rather than
boots on the ground.) Further east, the never-ending war in
Afghanistan is, in Pentagon-speak, “stalemated,”
which means that the Taliban is actually gaining ground as a new
Washington surge-to-nowhere looms.
Looking west and south, Africa is the latest playground
for the U.S. military’s special ops community as the Trump
administration prepares, among other things, to ramp up operations in
To Trump and his generals, an
“America-first” approach to such problems actually means
putting the military
first, second, and third. It helps that
they can’t imagine the actions of that military as
destabilizing. (Possible future headline: Trump
Syria in order to save it.)
According to General Joseph
Votel, head of U.S. Central Command, for
instance, the country that poses
“the greatest long-term threat to stability” in the
Middle East is Iran, a sentiment seconded by retired general James
Mattis, the secretary of defense.
You might excuse the Iranians, as well as the Russians
and the Chinese, for thinking differently. To them, the United
States is clearly the most destabilizing entity in the world. If you
were Chinese or Russian or Shia Muslim, how might U.S. military
activities appear to you?
* Expansionist? Check.
* Dedicated to dominance via colossal military spending
and global interventionism? Check.
* Committed to economic and ideological hegemony via
powerful banking and financial interests that seek to control world
markets in the name of keeping them “free”? Check.
Wouldn’t that be a logical, if
unsavory, assessment? To many outsiders, U.S. leaders seem like
the world’s leading armed meddlers (and arms merchants), a
perception supported by soaring military action and sinking diplomacy
under Trump. Serious
cuts in funding loom at the State Department,
even as the Pentagon budget is being boosted (yet again). To
outside observers, Washington’s ambitions seem clear: global
dominance, achieved and enforced by that
very strong” military that candidate
he’d never have to use, but is already employing with gusto, if
Never Underestimate the Power
of the Military-Industrial Complex
Why do Trump’s “America-first” policies
add up to military first ones? Why is the Pentagon budget,
along with actual military operations, surging on his watch?
More than half a century ago,
sociologist C. Wright Mills offered answers that still seem as fresh
as this morning's news. In his 1958 essay,
“The Structure of Power in American Society,” he
dissected the country’s “triangle of power.”
It consisted, he explained, of corporate leaders, senior military
men, and politicians working in concert, but also in a manner that
merged corporate agendas with military designs. That
combination, he suggested, was degrading the ability of politicians
to moderate and control corporate-military imperatives (assuming the
latter even wanted to try). The
[U.S.] military order,” Mills wrote, “once a slim
establishment [operating] in a context of civilian distrust, has
become the largest and most expensive feature of government; behind
smiling public relations, it has all the grim and clumsy efficiency
of a great and sprawling bureaucracy. The high military have gained
decisive political and economic relevance. The seemingly permanent
military threat places a premium upon them and virtually all
political and economic actions are now judged in terms of military
definitions of reality.”
For him, the danger was plain enough: the
“coincidence of military domain and corporate realm strengthens
both of them and further subordinates the merely political man. Not
the party politician, but the corporation executive, is now more
likely to sit with the military to answer the question: what is to be
Consider the makeup of Trump’s
administration, a riot of billionaires and multimillionaires.
His secretary of state, former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, may not
be much of a diplomat. Indeed, he seems uninterested
in the advice of career State Department personnel, but he does know
his way around corporate boardrooms. Trump’s national
security adviser and his secretaries of defense and homeland security
are all either serving generals or recently retired ones. In
Trump’s inner circle, corporate executives do indeed sit with
senior military men to decide what is to be done.
Soon after Mills issued his prophetic
critique of America’s power
elite, President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned
about the growing dangers of a military-industrial
complex. Since then, Ike’s complex has only expanded in
power. With the post-9/11 addition of the Department of
Homeland Security and ever more intelligence agencies (seventeen
major ones at last count), the complex only continues to grow beyond
all civilian control. Its dominant position astride the
government is nearly unchallengeable. Figuratively speaking,
it’s the king of Capitol Hill.
Candidate Trump may have complained about the U.S.
wasting trillions of dollars in its recent foreign conflicts,
invasions, and occupations, but plenty of American corporations
profited from those “regime changes.” After you flatten
political states like Iraq, you can rearm them. When not
selling weapons to them or rebuilding the infrastructure you blew up,
you can exploit them for resources. Seemingly never-ending wars
in Iraq and Afghanistan are an illustration of what happens when
corporate interests merge with military imperatives.
While both Mills and Eisenhower warned
of such developments, even they might have been startled by the
America of 2017. By now, the post-draft,
“all volunteer” professional military has become
remarkably estranged, if not divorced, from the wider populace, a
aggravated by an ongoing cult of the warrior
within its ranks. Not only are Americans increasingly isolated
from “their” warfighter
military, but from
America’s wars as well. These continue to be waged
formal congressional declarations and with next to no congressional
oversight. Combine this with the Supreme Court’s Citizens
United decision, which translated
corporate money directly into political activism, and you have what
is increasingly a 1% governing system in which a billionaire
president presides over the wealthiest
cabinet in history in what is now a war
capital, while an ever-expanding corporate-military nexus embodies
the direst of fears of Mills and Eisenhower.
America’s runaway military machine has little to do
these days with deterrence and much to do with the continuation of a
state of permanent war. Put it all together and you have a
formula for disaster.
Deterring Our Way to Doomsday
Who put America’s oil under all
those Middle Eastern deserts? That was the question antiwar
with a certain grim humor before the
invasion of Iraq. In Trump’s oft-stated opinion, the U.S.
should indeed have just taken Iraq’s oil after the 2003
invasion. If nothing else, he said plainly what many Americans
believed, and what various multinational oil companies were
essentially seeking to do.
Consider here the plight of President
Jimmy Carter. Nearly
40 years ago, Carter urged Americans to scale back their appetites,
start conserving energy, and free themselves from a crippling
dependency on foreign oil and the unbridled consumption of material
goods. After critics termed it his "malaise" speech,
Carter did an about-face, boosting military spending and establishing
the Carter Doctrine to protect Persian Gulf oil as a vital U.S.
national interest. The American people responded by electing
Ronald Reagan anyway. As Americans continue to enjoy a
consumption-driven lifestyle that gobbles up roughly 25%
of the world’s production of fossil fuels (while representing
only 3% of the world’s population), the smart money in the
White House is working feverishly to open ever more fuel taps
globally. Trillions of dollars are at stake.
Small wonder that, on becoming president, Trump acted
quickly to speed the building of new pipelines delayed or nixed by
President Obama while ripping up environmental protections related to
fossil fuel production. Accelerated domestic production, along
with cooperation from the Saudis -- Trump’s recent Muslim bans
carefully skipped targeting the one country that provided 15 of the
19 terrorists in the 9/11 attacks -- should keep fuel flowing,
profits growing, and world sea levels rising.
One data point here: The U.S. military
alone guzzles more fossil
fuel than the entire country of Sweden.
When it comes to energy consumption, our armed forces are truly
second to none.
With its massive oil reserves, the Middle East remains a
hotbed in the world’s ongoing resource wars, as well as its
religious and ethnic conflicts, exacerbated by terrorism and the
destabilizing attacks of the U.S. military. Under the
circumstances, when it comes to future global disaster, it’s
not that hard to imagine that today’s Middle East could serve
as the equivalent of the Balkans of World War I infamy.
Princip, a Serbian “Black Hand”
terrorist operating in a war-torn and much-disputed region, could set
the world aflame in 1914, why not an ISIS terrorist just over a
century later? Consider the many fault lines today in that
region and the forces involved, including Russia, Turkey, Iran,
Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United States, all ostensibly working
together to combat terrorism even as they position themselves to
maximize their own advantage and take down
one another. Under such circumstances, a political temblor
followed by a geo-political earthquake seems unbearably possible.
And if not an ISIS temblor followed by major quake in the
Middle East, there’s no shortage of other possible global fault
lines in an increasingly edgy world -- from saber-rattling contests
with North Korea to jousting over Chinese-built artificial
islands in the South China Sea.
As an historian, I’ve spent much time studying the
twentieth-century German military. In the years leading up to
World War I, Germany was emerging as the superpower of its day, yet
paradoxically it imagined itself as increasingly hemmed in by
enemies, a nation surrounded and oppressed. Its leaders
especially feared a surging Russia. This fear drove them to
launch a preemptive war against that country. (Admittedly, they
attacked France first in 1914, but that’s another story.)
That incredibly risky and costly war, sparked in the Balkans, failed
disastrously and yet it would only be repeated on an even more
horrific level 25 years later. The result: tens of millions of
dead across the planet and a total defeat that finally put an end to
German designs for global dominance. The German military,
praised as the “world’s best” by its leaders and
sold to its people as a deterrent force, morphed during those two
world wars into a doomsday machine that bled the country white, while
ensuring the destruction of significant swaths of the planet.
Today, the U.S. military similarly
as the “world’s best,” even as it imagines itself
surrounded by powerful threats (China, Russia, a nuclear North Korea,
and global terrorism, to start a list). Sold to the American
people during the Cold War as a deterrent force, a pillar of
stability against communist domino-tippers, that military has by now
morphed into a potential tipping force all its own.
Recall here that the Trump
administration has reaffirmed America’s quest for overwhelming
nuclear supremacy. It has called for a
approach" to North Korea and its nuclear
weapons program. (Whatever that may mean, it’s not a
reference to diplomacy.) Even as nuclear buildups and brinksmanship
loom, Washington continues to spread weaponry -- it’s the
greatest arms merchant of the twenty-first century by a wide mark --
and chaos around the planet, spinning its efforts as a “war on
terror” and selling them as the only way to “win.”
In May 1945, when the curtain fell on Germany’s
last gasp for global dominance, the world was fortunately still
innocent of nuclear weapons. It’s different now.
Today’s planet is, if anything, over-endowed with potential
doomsday machines -- from those nukes to the greenhouse gas emissions
that cause global warming.
That’s why it’s vitally important to
recognize that President Trump’s “America-first”
policies are anything but isolationist in the old twentieth century
meaning of the term; that his talk of finally winning again is a
recipe for prolonging wars guaranteed to create more chaos and more
failed states in the Greater Middle East and possibly beyond; and
that an already dangerous Cold War policy of “deterrence,”
whether against conventional or nuclear attacks, may now have become
a machine for perpetual war that could, given Trump’s
bellicosity, explode into some version of doomsday.
Or, to put the matter another way, consider this
question: Is North Korea’s Kim Jong-un the only unstable leader
with unhinged nuclear ambitions currently at work on the world stage?
A retired lieutenant colonel
(USAF) and history professor, William J. Astore is a TomDispatch
regular. He blogs at
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Copyright 2017 William J. Astore
Thanks to TomDispatch.com, where this article originally appeared - without the Trump photo.