Some 20 years ago, Barry Levinson made a prescient film Wag the Dog, where spin doctors distract the electorate from the president’s sex scandal by creating a virtual war and flooding every available medium with fake reports and pictures.
Parallels with today’s situation are begging to be drawn. President Trump is in serious domestic trouble, if not of a sexual nature. Hence suspicions are voiced all over the papers that perhaps he wants to muffle the grand jury investigation by sabre rattling. There’s also the danger that he wants to swing the sabre, and neither possibility should be dismissed.
Trump may indeed be issuing bellicose threats with the cynical purpose of deflecting preoccupation with his Russian shenanigans, and he may indeed act on his threats for the same reason. However, if seen in the context of American history, Trump’s actions may appear in a different light.
Talking about the political chaos in Venezuela, the president said that “a military option is certainly something we could pursue.” Why? On what authority?
The riotous chaos in Venezuela constitutes no “clear and present danger” to the United States. There’s much violent turmoil there – yet it’s strictly internal, with little potential of spilling beyond the country’s borders or threatening the US.
That Maduro’s government, so beloved of Comrade Corbyn, falls short of the democratic purity demanded by Americans is undeniable. Equally obvious is America’s belief in her messianic mission to shove democracy down the throats of even the most unfit or reluctant nations.
Any hope that the country would learn the lesson of her disastrous 2003 attempt to inculcate the Middle East with democratic rectitude would be forlorn. Countries in general and the US in particular never heed history’s lessons, certainly not when they teach something contrary to the country’s ethos. America’s ethos is nothing if not messianic, and has been since the time Puritans first settled the Massachusetts Bay colony.
In 1630 their leader, John Winthrop, delivered an oration in which he alluded to Matthew 5:14 by describing the new community as a “city upon a hill”. Thus he implicitly equated it to the beacon that shone the word of God onto the rest of the world, whether or not it welcomed such elucidation.
When the colonies became independent, the new country began to parlay such proselytising intentions into a frankly imperialist policy, at first aimed at her own neighbourhood only.
The 1823 Monroe Doctrine was a statement of geopolitical intent, a quasi-legal justification of US domination over the Western Hemisphere. It was only quasi-legal for being unilateral: other countries both within and outside the Monroe Doctrine sphere never recognised America’s legal or moral right to police the hemisphere.
Thus, for example, when in 1895 the United States insisted on her right to mediate a border dispute between Venezuela and British Guiana, she was rebuked by Britain. Countering the US Secretary of State’s insistence that his country was “practically sovereign” in the Western Hemisphere, Britain responded that the Monroe Doctrine wasn’t international law.
All things considered, Trump’s ill-advised threats of military action against Venezuela spring not only from a transient political need, but also from the formative American ethos, combining elements of democratic proselytism and imperialism. The threats may not be empty: it’s not only its spots that a leopard can’t change, but also its compulsion to devour weaker animals.
The situation with North Korea is entirely different, and here Trump’s behaviour is unobjectionable. Yesterday the president said, speaking of Kim: “And if he utters one threat in the form of an overt threat… or if he does anything with respect to Guam or any place else that’s an American territory or an American ally, he will truly regret it…”
It’s hard to imagine any American president acting or talking differently in a similar situation. Kim Jong-un has issued several threats of missile attacks against Guam, which is an American territory. Also finding themselves on the receiving end of Kim’s threats are America’s allies, Japan and South Korea – not to mention the West Coast of the US proper.
It would be criminally irresponsible of Trump not to issue a stern threat of massive retaliation should any such attack occur. Acting irresponsibly here are the president’s numerous critics who accuse him of making threats he has no intention of acting on. This is nonsense.
Do they think that, if a North Korean missile hits Los Angeles or even Guam, Trump’s threats will remain empty? If so, they’re not only irresponsible but also insane. Of course, such an act of aggression will be met with overwhelming force – nothing else is imaginable.
Naturally, the best thing to do is not to respond to aggression but to deter it. And how do those critics fancy that can be done, other than by issuing a threat backed up by a demonstration of power, in this case B1 overflights?
By telling North Korea that the US nuclear deterrent is “locked and loaded”, Trump is doing just that, and we should all support him, while holding our breath in the hope that the stratagem works.
The issue of preemptive strike is more complex, but not by much. If intelligence reports prove that an enemy attack is imminent, the president is duty-bound to prevent it by every means at his disposal. The Six Day War showed convincingly that the aggressor isn’t necessarily the side that fires the first shot – it’s the side that makes firing the first shot the only feasible option.
China ostensibly refuses to adopt such a nuanced stance. Her communist leaders promise neutrality only if North Korea pushes the first button. They haven’t specified what they’d do in case of a preemptive US strike, and I for one am curious to know. Are they threatening war against Nato? Somehow I doubt it, and I’m sure Trump’s people are talking to Xi Jinping’s round the clock.
Meanwhile Frau Merkel treated us to one of her stock platitudes, to the effect that peace is better than war, and diplomacy is better than threats. Rebuking her, Trump bizarrely said that, although she’s Ivanka’s friend, she’d better be talking about Germany and not the United States. But then Trump can’t be easily confused with Demosthenes or Cicero.
Does Merkel seriously doubt that every diplomatic effort is being made to avert nuclear holocaust? But a credible threat of military chastisement is a time-proven tool of diplomacy, and Trump is absolutely right to wield it.
This is an interesting time, isn’t it? Actually, a bit too interesting for my taste.