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Can Trump Survive Syria, Mattis, Stock Market Fall, & Friedman’s ‘Watershed Moment’?

25 Dec

Can Trump Survive Syria, Mattis, Stock Market Fall, & Friedman’s ‘Watershed Moment’?

 

I have long believed that the three red lines in Washington that no elected president can significantly transgress without being ejected from the Oval Office are unwavering support for the priorities of Wall Street, the Pentagon, and Israel. With the announced withdrawal of American troops in Syria (and their 50% cut in Afghanistan), transgressed one of these red lines. What is more, he upset what the mainstream media has been calling ‘the last adult in the room,’ the Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, who made the country critically ponder Trump’s transgression by his thinly veiled rebuke in the form of a letter of resignation that has been treated as scripture by such hegemonic media outlets as CNN and the NY Times. It has become clear that Trump transgressed two of the three red lines, a reality further aggravated by the Christmas shutdown of the Federal Government and his babyish tantrum about financing his wall.

 

And even Israel, the only untransgressed red line, visibly shuddered in response to the Syria announcement, evidently worried by the way it was abruptly done without consultation. Probably even more worrisome to its leaders was what might follow from this withdrawal, which hinted at the possibility of a further American political disengagement from the Middle East. Given Trump’s contention that now that ISIS had been defeated, a conclusion contested within the Beltway, further steps along these lines might soon occur. I am sure Trump watchers in Tel Aviv are aware that he tends to double down when under attack, and the 50% cut in the Afghanistan combat force may be regarded as a step in this direction.

 

Trump has long developed a formidable reputation for managing to cross red lines without suffering adverse consequences. It was a surprise to me that he got away with attacking the service record of Senator McCain, the most celebrated name among recent American war heroes, deriding the Bush family, and even mocking the sacrifice of a gold star family whose son had died in Iraq. Beyond these personal slurs, Trump had undermined the rule of law, overcome an array of challenges to his business empire, and even publicly insulted and berated such hallowed public institutions as the FBI and CIA. His private life should have shocked his Evangelical base, but it seems that his support for right to life judicial appointments was enough to earn him a free pass with respect to gambling, beauty shows, and even hush money handed out to throw a blanket of denial over his promiscuity.

 

Yet has he gone too far this time? We will find out early in 2019. Perhaps he can mend fences by finding ‘an adult’ to replace Mattis at the Pentagon, escalate the war-mongering rhetoric directed at the UN and Iran, reaffirm his undying commitment to Israel backed by taking some concrete initiative, and explain the stock market decline as the dirty work of the Democrats and some treasonous behavior in the back rooms of the financial mavens who run Wall Street. If he so acts, the Republicans at least will be inclined to forgive. After all their options have been limited ever since Trump’s base made it clear that their adoration of Trump is an absolute, and their support for the Republican Party is relative in all respects, and would vanish altogether the minute Trump is thrown under the nearest bus.

 

Tom Friedman, the self-anointed arbiter of establishment moods has portentously called the Syrian imbroglio ‘a watershed moment’ in which he decided for himself that it was no longer tenable to wait out Trump’s four years, and then go all out to defeat him in 2020 with a centrist candidate. Friedman now puts a ball of urgency in the court of the Republican Party, calling for a family intervention, therapy style, in which Trump is read the riot act and told that unless there is “a radical change in how he conducts himself,” even Republicans will have no choice but to press for his resignation, and if that fails, then impeachment. [NY Times, Dec. 24, 2018] 

 

There are ironies present. When Trump makes a demilitarizing move he is under severe attack by the liberal establishment and representatives of the national security elite. This contrasts with the applause he received when he launched an air strike against Syrian targets in April 2017 after an alleged chemical weapons incident. The bipartisan consensus that sustained the Cold War for more than four decades has never reconciled itself to geopolitical peace, and has closed its eyes to any prospect of peace ever..

 

In revealing ways this pattern is not new. When Ronald Reagan, a president beloved by American conservatives and military hawks, returned in 1986  from a high profile summit at Reykjavik, Iceland with the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, with signs of a breakthrough with respect to getting rid of nuclear weapons, even he was subjected to attack as ‘unprepared’ and not to be trusted with the protection of America’s strategic interest. Of courtse, the liberal establishment joined in supporting the chorus of national security voices marginalizing. To embark upon a path that might produce nuclear disarmament was viewed with alarm in Washington, and the defenders of the militarist red line stepped forward. Under these pressures Reagan retreated to his comfort zone, which meant resuming the posture of being a hawkishf Cold Warrior. At this point those who spoke for the established order breathed sighs of relief and reaffirmed Reagan as an inspirational leader/

 

Further back, in the early 1950s, when the notorious Senator Joe McCarthy attacked the Army, he transgressed, and soon had his wings clipped. This ability to destroy those who would weaken support for militarism and the American commitment to uphold global security has remained unassailable ever since World War II. It has been manifest in what has been dubbed ‘the forever war’ by H. Bruce Franklin borrowing from Joe Haldeman’s celebrated science fiction classic. [See his fine book, Crash Course: From the Good War to the Forever War(2018) and it has made the existence of a peacetime economy and military budget a political impossibility. Some thought the Soviet collapse at the end of the Cold War might change this outlook, but in retrospect any such hope was never realistic, out of touch with how militarism had restructured the American state since 1945. After the Cold War ended, the war planners conjured up new threats and pursued strategic ambitions with undiminished zeal, and the world responded in kind.

 

If Trump manages to get away with these transgressions without either retreating or resigning, he might hang around for a long time, especially with the Democratic Party poised to adopt a losing centrist strategy for 2020. As Yeats reminded us generations ago, under quite different circumstances, ‘the center cannot hold, mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” Only a progressive alternative has a chance of meeting the true challenges facing the American people and indeed, the world. If we as a people sleep through the Trump ordeal and the urgencies of climate change, inequality, and nuclearism, then doomsday gurus will soon be hailed as visionary prophets with fires of discontent burning ever brighter all around us, the planet ablaze.

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