US president Donald Trump has said an April 4 chemical weapon attack on Khan Sheikhoun in Syria’s Idlib province that killed more than 70 people with air strikes against Syrian military targets.
Written days before the Idlib atrocity and the US air strikes, The Intercept co-editor Glenn Greenwald looks at Trump’s escalation of the “war on terror” in the region.
From the start of his presidency, Donald Trump’s “war on terror” has entailed the seemingly indiscriminate slaughter of innocent people in the name of killing terrorists.
In other words, Trump has escalated the 16-year-old core premise of US foreign policy — that it has the right to bomb any country in the world where people it regards as terrorists are found. In doing so, has fulfilled the warped campaign pledges he repeatedly expressed.
Death toll rising
The most recent atrocity was the killing of as many as 200 Iraqi civilians from US airstrikes in Mosul on March 17. That was preceded a few days earlier by the killing of dozens of Syrian civilians in Raqqa province when the US targeted a school where people had taken refuge. This was preceded a week earlier by the US destruction of a mosque near Aleppo that also killed dozens.
And one of Trump’s first military actions was what can only be described as a massacre carried out by Navy SEALs in Yemen, in which 30 Yemenis were killed. Among the children killed was an 8-year-old US girl (whose 16-year-old American brother was killed by a drone under Barack Obama).
In sum: Although precise numbers are difficult to obtain, there seems little question that the number of civilians being killed by the US in the Middle East — already quite high under Obama — has increased precipitously during the first two months of the Trump administration.
Data compiled by the site Airwars tells the story: The number of civilians killed in Syria and Iraq began rising in October under Obama, but skyrocketed in March under Trump.
What is particularly notable is that the number of air strikes actually fell in March, even as civilian deaths rose. This suggests that the US military has become even more reckless about civilian deaths under Trump than it was under Obama.
This escalation of bombing and civilian deaths, combined with the deployment by Trump of 500 ground troops into Syria beyond the troops Obama already deployed there, has received remarkably little media attention.
This is in part due to the standard indifference in Western media discourse to US killing of civilians compared to the language used when its enemies kill people. Compare the muted and euphemistic tones used to report on Trump’s escalations in Iraq and Syria to the frequent invocation of genocide and war crimes to denounce Russian or Assad regime killing of Syrian civilians.
It is becoming clear that Trump is trying to liberate the US military from the minimal constraints it has observed in order to avoid huge civilian casualties. Trump explicitly and repeatedly vowed to do exactly this during the campaign.
He constantly criticised Obama — who bombed seven predominantly Muslim countries — for being “weak” in battling ISIS and al Qaeda. Trump regularly boasted that he would free the US military from rules of engagement that he regarded as unduly hobbling them.
Trump vowed to bring back torture and even to murder the family members of suspected terrorists — prompting patriotic commentators to naively insist that the US military would refuse to follow his orders.
Trump’s war frenzy reached its rhetorical peak of derangement in November 2015, when he roared at a campaign rally that he would “bomb the shit out of ISIS” and then let its oil fields be taken by Exxon — whose CEO is now his secretary of state.
Trump’s “solution” to terrorism in his presidential campaign was as clear as it was simple, in short: “1) more bombing; 2) Israel-style police profiling; 3) say “radical Islam”.
The clarity of Trump’s intentions regarding the war on terror was often obfuscated by anti-Trump pundits due to a combination of confusion about, and distortions of, foreign policy doctrine. Trump explicitly ran as a “non-interventionist” — denouncing, for instance, US regime change wars in Iraq, Libya, and Syria (even though he at some points expressed support for the first two).
Many commentators confused “non-interventionism” with “pacifism” — leading many of them, to this very day, to ignorantly claim that Trump’s escalated war on terror bombing is in conflict with his advocacy of non-interventionism. It is not.
‘America First’ traditions
To the extent that Trump is guided by any sort of coherent ideological framework, he is rooted in the traditions of Charles Lindbergh (whose “America First” motto he stole) and the free trade-hating, anti-immigration, uber-nationalist Pat Buchanan.
Both Lindbergh and Buchanan were non-interventionists: Lindbergh was one of the earliest and loudest opponents of US involvement in World War II, while Buchanan was scathing throughout all of 2002 about the neo-con plan to invade Iraq.
Despite being vehement non-interventionists, neither Lindbergh nor Buchanan were pacifists. Quite the contrary: Both believed that when the US was genuinely threatened with attack or attacked, it should use full and unrestrained force against its enemies.
Lindbergh opposed US involvement in World War II on the ground that it was designed to help only the British and the Jews. Buchanan, on the eve of the Iraq invasion, attacked neocons who “seek to ensnare our country in a series of wars that are not in America’s interests”.
The anti-Semitism and white nationalistic tradition of Lindbergh, the ideological precursor to Buchanan and then Trump, does not oppose war. It opposes military interventions in the affairs of other countries if it risks American lives and resources for the benefits of “others”.
Each time Trump drops another bomb, various pundits and other assorted Trump opponents smugly posit that his doing so is inconsistent with his touted non-interventionism. This is just ignorance of what these terms mean.
By escalating violence against civilians, Trump is, in fact, doing exactly what he promised to do — and exactly what those who described his foreign policy as non-interventionist predicted he would do: namely, limitlessly unleash the US military when the claimed objective was the destruction of “terrorists”. If one were to reduce this mentality to a motto, it could be: Fight fewer wars and for narrower reasons, but be more barbaric and criminal in prosecuting the ones that are fought.
Trump’s campaign pledges regarding Syria, and now his actions there, illustrate this point very clearly. Trump never advocated a cessation of military force in Syria. He advocated the opposite: an escalation of military force in Syria and Iraq in the name of fighting ISIS and al Qaeda.
Indeed, Trump’s desire to cooperate with Russia in Syria was based on a desire to maximise the potency of bombing there (just as was true of Obama’s attempt to forge a bombing partnership with Putin in Syria).
What Trump opposed was the CIA’s years long policy of spending billions of dollars to arm anti-Assad rebels (a policy Hillary Clinton and her key advisers wanted to escalate), on the ground that the US has no interest in removing Assad. Nothing Trump has thus far done is remotely inconsistent with the non-interventionism he embraced during the campaign.
Barbaric, amoral and criminal
Trump’s reckless killing of civilians in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen is many things: barbaric, amoral and criminal. It is also, ironically, likely to strengthen support for the very groups — ISIS and al Qaeda — that he claims he wants to defeat. Nothing drives support for those groups like US slaughter of civilians (perhaps the only competitor in helping these groups is another Trump specialty: driving a wedge between Muslims and the West).
But the dark savagery guiding US military conduct in that region is precisely what Trump expressly promised his supporters he would usher in.
[Abridged from The Intercept.]