President Donald Trump has positioned himself in this election as the defender of “law and order” against a scary and violent left. But on foreign policy, at least, he is sounding like a leftist hero.
In a rambling press conference on Monday, Trump accused former Vice President Joe Biden, his Democratic opponent, of sending “our youth to fight in these crazy endless wars.” Then he mused: “I’m not saying the military is in love with me. The soldiers are. The top people in the Pentagon probably aren’t because they want to do nothing but fight wars so that all of those wonderful companies that make the bombs, that make the planes and everything else, stay happy.”
In that outburst, Trump was making a radical argument: that the U.S. military is not a force for peace but is addicted to war. It is the profit motive of defense corporations — not a desire to deter aggressors, protect allies or uphold international law — that has driven decisions to use military force.
The figure most associated with this kind of thinking is Noam Chomsky, the famous linguist who emerged during the Vietnam War as an anti-war prophet. In his book “Manufacturing Consent,” Chomsky argues that not only does the military have an interest in perpetual war — but that the media is in on it, too. Major networks and newspapers go along with military efforts to demonize foreign leaders who do not acquiesce to American might.
A cruder version of this argument was made in the 1930s, as fascists gathered strength in Europe and Japan, by a retired Marine general named Smedley Butler. “War is a racket,” he wrote in the opening chapter of his book of the same name. “It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives.” Butler would later gain fame after he alleged a coup against President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, claiming corporate plotters had approached him to lead the putsch.
It’s doubtful that Trump knows or understands any of this history. His remarks, which followed a brutal article in The Atlantic that cited anonymous sources quoting him calling U.S. soldiers who died in combat “losers” and “suckers,” should nonetheless come as no surprise. Trump’s rhetorical themes about a “deep state” and endless wars are all echoes of a far-left critique of American power. In this world, institutions such as the Central Intelligence Agency and the U.S. military are themselves forces against U.S. democracy and, more generally, world peace.
For the most part, this view is nonsense. Most modern generals have proved to be cautious. Colin Powell, for example, had to be cajoled and pressed into being the public face of the Iraq War in 2003, when he was secretary of state. He also famously opposed sending U.S. peacekeepers into the Balkans in the 1990s. More recently, Trump’s top military advisers opposed his decision to withdraw the U.S. from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal in part because they worried that, without it, a shooting war with Iran would be more likely.
In this respect, Trump’s own policies refute his rhetoric. He has increased defense spending every year he has been in office. He has withdrawn from not only the Iran deal but also a treaty with Russia regarding intermediate-range nuclear forces. And he has authorized the killing of Iran’s most important general as well as limited air strikes against Syrian targets. And yet his top military advisers have not tried to persuade him to launch a new war.
That said, Trump is trying to end the wars he says are endless. In this respect, he fails to understand why U.S. forces remain in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. To the president, it’s all “a rip off.” The U.S. trains armies and police forces, and builds up infrastructure, and what does it get in return?
This is the wrong way to look at what Trump calls “endless wars.” The reason America keeps supporting weak, corrupt governments in Baghdad and Kabul is because their collapse would lead to more war, more terrorism and more suffering.
Nineteen years ago today, when a plot hatched in war-ravaged Afghanistan felled the World Trade Center and destroyed part of the Pentagon, the U.S. learned this lesson. Trump’s foreign-policy message for 2020 is an attempt to persuade Americans to forget this history.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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