Politics & Policy

Still Waiting on a Peace Dividend

U.S. Army troops in Uruzgan Province, Afghanistan, in July. (Reuters photo: Omar Sobhani)
Endless war is the new normal.

It’s just never going to happen for us, is it? It seemed like there were a few weeks of peace dividend in the 1990s. They must have happened sometime between withdrawing from Mogadishu and accidentally bombing the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. Maybe it was the week Princess Diana died, and that’s why it seemed so short to me.

Since then, of course, we’ve elected three consecutive presidents who campaigned on promises of withdrawing America from needless conflicts of choice. Bush’s humble foreign policy. Obama’s end to the “distraction” in Iraq, so we could finish the job in Afghanistan. And then Donald the Dove.

The last one was always a bit of a myth. What Trump offered was a sale-job. If the last decade and a half has inclined you toward more foreign-policy restraint, Trump spoke for you in the primaries when he asked,

What do we have now? We have nothing. We’ve spent $3 trillion and probably much more — I have no idea what we’ve spent. Thousands and thousands of lives, we have nothing. Wounded warriors all over the place who I love, we have nothing for it.

But if you were a hawk who thought that the U.S. was fighting with one hand tied behind its back, Trump promised to bring back things “worse than waterboarding.” He upheld the fictive example of dipping bullets in pigs’ blood when fighting Muslims as sound military strategy. He promised not to take the nuclear option off the table as Americans dealt with . . . Europe.

In any case, what have those peace presidents brought us? We got the doctrine of pre-emptive war. Bush’s humble foreign policy turned into a promise to set “fire to the minds of men” around the world. Instead of setting fire to their minds, we’ve mostly set fire to their skulls in Obama’s endless drone warfare and American munitions being handed off to any Islamist who can pretend to be a “moderate rebel.” More recently, Donald the Dove gave us the Mother of All Bombs and a threat of fire and fury in Korea.

My colleague Ramesh Ponnuru is right. What President Trump offered at the U.N. was largely a defense of the American-led internationalist status quo. It was, however, wrapped up in Trumpian rhetoric: Hysterical threats to North Korea; a few mentions of sovereignty; a little preparation for the cancellation of the Iran nuclear deal. But Trump’s alteration is insufficient. He offered bombing with more bombast than usual.

Most of my friends cheered Trump’s seriousness of purpose when it came to the Iran section of his speech. Iran hides a dictatorship behind a sham democracy, Trump said. He called the Islamic Republic “an economically depleted rogue state,” chiefly exporting “violence, bloodshed, and chaos.” Its victims are its own people. It uses oil profits to fund terrorists and radicals. Respectfully, I dissent. Trump’s rhetoric is the same drift toward another unpopular war, in a country that American soldiers cannot reform on their own.

Respectfully, I dissent. Trump’s rhetoric is the same drift toward another unpopular war.

But I can’t get over the hypocrisy. Over the years, I’ve gradually devolved from an Iran dove to a mere whataboutist. Trump is correct on every point about Iran. But every single item on which he charges the Iranians could be justly aimed at Saudi Arabia. Except for the “guise of democracy” part; the Saudis don’t even pretend to be anything other than a family despotism.

Those who receive Iran’s patronage terrorize Israel. Those who receive Saudi patronage terrorize Israel and just about everyone else besides. Saudi Arabia turned the Arab Spring into the West’s ongoing nightmare. Almost every recent terrorist attack in Europe can be traced back to a conflict in the Middle East that the Saudis stoked, or a radical mosque they funded in Europe. Or both. Is no one else exasperated by this special relationship? Our leaders would laugh in Teresa May’s face if she asked us to help her bomb and starve Sinn Fein out of Belfast. But the Saudis can ask for us to do just as much to Houthis in Yemen, and we do it.

President Trump inherited conflict in half a dozen wars in Islamic nations. And the safe bet is that if he is president for two terms, he’ll hand on conflict in that many to his successor — and probably more. Endless war abroad. Endless contraction of liberties at home. Endless cant from our commander in chief. Watch Trump, and you’ll see it too. There is no return to normalcy coming. That’s the new normal.

    READ MORE:

    Thoughts on Donald Trump’s UN Speech

    In Afghanistan, Enough

    What Kind of War is Trump Threatening with North Korea

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