‘Do we get to win this time?’: Trump foreign policy appeal based on revenge for Iraq War failure

US Politics
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Writing on resistance to the Vietnam War near the end of 1967, Noam Chomsky commented briefly on the “significant domestic repercussions” that were likely to follow the end of American occupation. “It is axiomatic that no army ever loses a war,” Chomsky observed; “its brave soldiers and all-knowing generals are stabbed in the back by treacherous civilians. American withdrawal is likely, then, to bring to the surface the worst features of American culture, and perhaps to lead to a serious internal repression.” Chomsky’s prognosis has relevance today as we confront the causes and meaning of the Donald Trump-for-president phenomenon. Trump’s popularity is commonly understood with reference to domestic factors: nativist opposition to immigration, populist hostility to so-called free trade, ideological rot within the conservative movement (expressed as overt racism and xenophobia). But the candidate himself tells a slightly different story, and close attention to his rhetoric and positions suggests that Trump’s appeal has a significant foreign policy component. Specifically, he has found a way to resolve the problem posed by the Iraq War to U.S. ideology.

In a victory speech on Tuesday, Trump summarized the story of his campaign so far. “We came down the escalator,” he began, referring in his habitual way to the ostentatious announcement of his candidacy, “and it was about trade, and it was about borders. And what happened is pretty quickly after that, we shot right up, I shot right to the top of the polls and have been leading in the polls almost from the beginning, without fail.” But there was still higher to go, and what Trump said boosted him to the next level was something that took place thousands of miles away:

So, we started and something happened called Paris. Paris happened, and Paris was a disaster. There have been many disasters but, it was Paris, and then we had a case in Los Angeles, it was in California [i.e. San Bernardino], where fourteen young people were killed, and it just goes on and on and on. And what happened with me is, this whole run took on a whole new meaning. Not just borders, not just good trade deals… And the meaning was very simple: we need protection in our country, and that’s going to happen. And all of a sudden the poll numbers shot up, and I’m just very proud to be a part of this…

It’s true that Trump glossed Paris as illustrating the terrorist threat to what’s called the homeland, and that his solution was the infamous proposal to ban all Muslims from entering the country—two domestic-minded notions. But Trump didn’t mention his Muslim ban on Tuesday; he did mention ISIS, and the need to escalate military operations in the Middle East. “More than anything else,” Trump vowed, “this country is going to start winning again. We don’t win anymore. We don’t win with our military, we can’t beat ISIS. We’re going to knock the hell out of them.”

On national security, Trump has tried to position himself as the candidate taking the hardest line. He has pledged to “take out” the families of ISIS members and said he would bring back waterboarding as well as “a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.” The intention seems to be to outflank Ted Cruz, who has called repeatedly for ISIS to be carpet-bombed but also expressed wishy-washy opposition to torture. At the same time, Trump has harshly criticized the Iraq War, which he called “a big, fat mistake.” He has even alluded to the causal relation between the decision to invade and the rise of ISIS: “George Bush made a mistake. We can make mistakes, but that one was a beauty. We should have never been in Iraq. We have destabilized the Middle East.” (This was in February; Trump had previously hewed to the Republican line that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were responsible for creating ISIS.) Trump has gone so far as to pretend he opposed the war before it began, claiming to have predicted its deleterious effects: “[Bush] went into Iraq. He started something that destroyed the Middle East. And I said, ‘Don’t go in because you’re going to ruin the balance in the Middle East, you’re going to have a total imbalance; you’re going to have Iran taking over Iraq.’ Everything I said turned out to be true.”

This combination of extreme hawkishness on ISIS and excoriation of the Bush administration is unique among presidential candidates. And it works because it reconciles a deep conflict in the public psyche. On the one hand, people largely think the invasion was a mistake. A June 2014 NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that “a huge majority” regretted the war, with 71% saying it “wasn’t worth it”; “Just 22 percent now believe the 2003 war effort was worthwhile.” Interestingly, Gallup reported one year later that antiwar sentiment was at 51%, down from 57% by its reckoning in 2014. “These most recent findings rank as one of the most ‘positive’ assessments of the Iraq war since September 2006, when the country was evenly divided on this question,” the polling firm reported. What had changed? “U.S. military involvement,” Gallup noted, “could be characterized as on the rise, or at least not on the wane. This week, President Barack Obama announced the deployment of an additional 450 troops to Iraq to aid in the fight against the militant group Islamic State, bringing the total number of troops sent since June of last year to 3,550. Obama made good in 2011 on a campaign pledge to withdraw all American troops from Iraq, though he has since had to reverse course as the Islamic State group overran portions of the country.” Reflexive support for the troops, and revulsion at deliberately provocative ISIS propaganda, probably accounts for the change in attitudes.

This brings us to the other hand. Though the public may feel burned by what was undeniably a wasteful war launched on trumped-up pretexts, withdrawal is always unacceptable, on patriotic grounds—a sentiment at least as old as the overseas U.S. empire. (“American valor has easily triumphed in both sea and land,” declared Senator David Hill, an advocate of annexing the Philippines, in 1898, “and the American flag floats over newly acquired territory—never, as it is fondly hoped, to be lowered again.”) The advent of ISIS compounded this problem, mocking official claims that American arms had achieved some measure of progress in Iraq. The resultant agony was epitomized by a January 2014 New York Times story, “Falluja’s Fall Stuns Marines Who Fought There“: completely ignoring Iraqi suffering, the reporter rendered vividly the anguish of veterans at the city’s takeover by Sunni insurgents, which left them “transfixed, disbelieving and appalled,” and was “a gut punch to the morale of the Marine Corps and painful for a lot of families who are saying, ‘I thought my son died for a reason.'”

So what is to be done? If invading Iraq was a costly mistake, how can we keep fighting there? But if we paid so dearly for it, how can we not?

Trump shrewdly navigates this cognitive impasse by playing on people’s feelings of regret as well as their desire for revenge. Iraq may have been a mistake, he suggests, but we can right this wrong by smashing ISIS—a vacuous proposal that carries the usual advantage of casting Obama as feckless. “We have a president who just doesn’t get it,” Trump told CNBC shortly after the Paris attacks. “He’s weak and ineffective.” Such clichéd criticism serves to temper Trump’s savaging of Bush, which could alienate some conservatives; it also supplies a kind of dolchstoßlegende, preserving the military’s honor by placing the blame for ISIS on the president. “In all fairness,” Trump has argued, anatomizing the collapse of regional order, “Bush made the decision… And Barack Obama—Barack Obama, as bad as he is, and he’s bad—but he got us out the wrong way. He should have left people there. And he should have done it differently. And he shouldn’t have said, ‘We’re getting out at a specific time.'” Thus Chomsky’s axiom of history is fulfilled: our soldiers didn’t fail to provide security for Iraq, they were simply sold out by a calculating politician. This is also the meaning of Trump’s pledge to rebuild the military, as well as his professed concern for “our veterans,” whom he laments “are treated so badly“: it’s all part of a general betrayal of the troops by their civilian masters.

It may be that, for voters, the country’s economic fortunes are not so separate conceptually from its global stature. People surely recognize, particularly Trump’s older base, that the postwar “golden age of capitalism” coincided with the apogee of U.S. power; both came to an end during the presidency of Richard Nixon, when the Bretton Woods system collapsed and U.S. forces withdrew from Vietnam. A clear connection existed in that case, as the cost of the Vietnam War proved a huge strain on the economy; with the added impact of the oil embargo the result was stagflation, which Jimmy Carter proved unable to fix, even as he failed to secure the release of U.S. hostages in Iran. The public’s response then was to elect a performer-politician promising a return to national greatness, an obviously ominous precedent. The administration of Ronald Reagan proceeded to dismantle the progressive aspects of economic policy, inaugurating the era of extreme inequality, while conducting a savage campaign of repression in Central America under the guise of anticommunism. The national mood was perhaps suggested by a famous line from the 1985 film Rambo: First Blood Part II, in which the title character returns to Vietnam in search of POWs: “Sir, do we get to win this time?” (Today, with respect to Iraq, Trump’s answer is a hyperbolic yes.)

The ghost of Vietnam was finally exorcised by overwhelming victory in the Persian Gulf War, or so it initially seemed: “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all,” declared George H. W. Bush on March 2, 1991. But that war turned out to be only the opening phase of a (so far) twenty-five year campaign; by the close of his son’s presidency, the disease had returned, once again twinned with economic disaster. (Though causation is far less clear in this case, the argument has been made that the financing of Operation Iraqi Freedom triggered the credit boom in the U.S., hence the asset bubble and eventually the crash.) Anemic recovery from the Great Recession for working people, combined with an ambivalent sense of national retreat, created an atmosphere hospitable to Trump’s incoherent and fanciful demagogy; but we shouldn’t imagine that the ideological basis is something new, or restricted to the right. When Trump warns—after relating a legend from the U.S. war against Muslim insurgents in the Philippines—”We’ve got to start getting tough and we’ve got to start being vigilant and we’ve got to start using our heads or we’re not gonna have a country, folks,” we ought to hear an echo of Lyndon Johnson in 1966: “There are three billion people in the world and we have only 200 million of them. We are outnumbered 15 to 1. If might did make right they would sweep over the United States and take what we have. We have what they want.”

About Eamon Murphy

Eamon Murphy is a journalist in New York City. Follow him on Twitter @epmurph.

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24 Responses

  1. Citizen
    March 21, 2016, 4:15 pm

    Trump is appalled as he increasingly learns just what our Tweedledee-Tweedledum successive regimes have done in this Century, both at home and abroad. At 545PM EST tonight, he will speak at the AIPAC Conference. He met very recently with a bunch of congress folks, including Israel First lackey Cotton, who didn’t endorse him. This morning, Hillary blasted him to 18,000 AIPAC attendees–because he said he would be a neutral broker in negotiating the I-P peace process. She claimed she would never negotiate Israel’s security, which is not negotiable. Cute framing, eh? She also framed Israel as the little guy, standing up to the bully. Tune in to see what he will say about her choice of words. Might be hard to find on main cable TV news shows. If you have cable tv, go to the JLTV channel, which resumes AIPAC live coverage at 5PM EST tonight.

  2. Citizen
    March 21, 2016, 4:20 pm

    MSNBC is now interviewing Rabbi David Paskin who is leading the anti-Trump protest by rabbis and Jewish leaders. Hundreds may walk out as soon as Trump takes the stage. Paskin says he wants Trump to say US benefits from relation with Israel.

    • Mooser
      March 21, 2016, 6:53 pm

      “Paskin says he wants Trump to say US benefits from relation with Israel.”

      Doesn’t Rabbi Paskin know Trump is a great ‘deal-maker’? Deal-makers do not say what AIPAC doesn’t wish to hear. Can’t make a deal that way.
      Trump has to “engage”. I don’t think Paskin has to worry. And if that is the only reason he is protesting Trump, I think the Rebbe can relax. I’m sure the good Rabbi can’t think of any others.

    • Mooser
      March 21, 2016, 8:15 pm

      Well, I’m sure Rabbi Paskin is feeling just a little foolish about now.

    • traintosiberia
      March 21, 2016, 11:28 pm

      Nick Cohen has asked Guardian readers to show any proof of the power Jews might have .
      Nick Cohen is learning first time in life that racism exist . It did not ,according to him until he “became Jews” .

      He also searches for evidence among Saudis and Dreyfussian and Nazi brigade that Israeli controls “the world” but doesn’t try to look into not in British and US government not in British and US media,treasuries ,defense ,academia and polices .

      He wonders why people believe that Jews fuel radical Islamism. He excoriates Corbyn for having exchanged words with 911 truther
      He lambasts Margot Wallström, “who sees herself as a feminist rather than a racial conspiracist, explained recently, Islamist attacks in Paris were the fault of Israeli occupiers in the West Bank.”

      He is sad because “But even if a chastened Labour expels this or that antisemite or disciplines the Jew-baiters at the Oxford University Labour club, I do not see how its leaders can challenge the conspiratorial world-view they shared for decades. They would be renouncing everything they once believed in.

      As someone who warned in the 00s about the growing darkness on the left, I am pessimistic about the chances of change” http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/mar/19/why-i-am-becoming-a-jew-and-you-should-too

      How did he miss his own moral of the story? Can a Hamas write so visibly about the Israeli governments ,settlement or PNAC?

      How did he miss the CNN footage where Trump was asked if he would still be neutral on I-P conflicts after the death of an American but when not a word was asked effects of the death of Rachel Corrie and a few other on US towards Israel ? Nick ! doesn’t it show where the power belongs !

      Nick like other fellow travelers is twisting the story .He is twisting the real story behind Margaret, Oxford and behind Corbyn .Here in US the neo cons are doing same on Trump by focusing on “illegal immigration”and banning of all muslims” when the real fear is dissociation from war and possible even handed approach on I-P. The last if accepted can come as racism to Nick . That last has been a violation of some secret masonic code or hidden 1776 constitutional gem according to the liberal and conservative neo cons

      Nick is doing it because it works .Nobody will give time and read Margaret or Corbyn -what they actually said and what was the narrative . Trump also will not get a fair hearing until he bows and kowtows .

  3. Citizen
    March 21, 2016, 4:29 pm

    Just read a tweet which says Bernie will be making a speech on foreign policy in Salt Lake City tomorrow–the same speech he would’ve made at AIPAC conference.

    • Kris
      March 21, 2016, 6:11 pm

      Here’s Bernie’s letter, which would have been his speech to AIPAC: https://berniesanders.com/sanders-outlines-middle-east-policy/

      It’s also posted on the Jews for Bernie facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/jewsforbernie/

      • echinococcus
        March 21, 2016, 6:23 pm

        Nothing new. The same “unconditional recognition by all of Israel’s right to exist… end to attacks of all kinds against Israel” and the maximum illegality of “Israel’s right to defend itself”, i.e. the same shhhh he was selling to justify the Gaza massacre in 2014.

      • eljay
        March 21, 2016, 6:25 pm

        || Kris: Here’s Bernie’s letter, which would have been his speech to AIPAC: link to berniesanders.com ||

        Thanks for posting it. I skimmed through it, and it was a good (if quick) read. Although he didn’t use the term “Jewish State”, his pro-Israel bias is undeniable. That said, the overall tone of the letter seemed very reasonable. If I could, I would vote for Sanders.

      • kalithea
        March 21, 2016, 7:26 pm

        As I stated repeatedly, there will be no political messiah to deliver the Palestinians from the scourge of Zionism and to steer us completely out of the disastrous course of perpetual war and destruction for millions in the Muslim world, but having read Bernie’s letter that reeks of Zionism is places, I still say that he is the choice that will have the least destructive impact on the cause for justice of Palestinians and our own efforts to help them achieve it and on the rest of the world.

        Therefore, given the threatening, extreme and disastrous alternatives, I suggest that everyone do everything in their power to ensure that Bernie succeeds in defeating Hillary; as there is still time, because otherwise, folks, we’re all doomed.

        Time should not have been wasted trying to discern the speck of difference or bull neutrality that Trump pretended for a split second on the issue of the bogus deal.

        Trump has been crystal clear to me from day ONE; he’s a fascist and extremely dangerous and so are Hillary and Cruz dangerous. So this is a critical time and turning point; and Sander’s supporters who are protesting out there are RIGHT and courageous to do what they’re doing. Everyone should take to the streets and the ballot in droves because we are facing a very dark era if we don’t do something now to turn the tide for Sanders.

        We must defeat Trump and Hillary or there will be great suffering ahead.

  4. Citizen
    March 21, 2016, 5:15 pm

    ON CNN, Trump just told Wolf Blitzer he would move Israel’s capital to Jerusalem; he ran the litany on how Palestinians are taught to hate Jews. He will assure Israel’s security. He doesn’t want white racist support, and doesn’t need it.

  5. kalithea
    March 21, 2016, 6:51 pm

    I’m listening to Trump’s speech to Aipac and I’m so glad that I predicted all along how disastrous Trump will be for the cause of Palestinian justice; I’m so glad some people around here will finally get rid of their hopeful euphoria over Trump; I’m so glad some will eat crow, because I was right on about Trump all along.

    I’m not easily fooled; remember that. I knew all along what to expect with Trump; he’s a dictator folks; he’s a supremacist and a fascist and he’s proving with his speech that he’ll be a dictator when it comes to imposing Zionism on the Palestinians.

    Now, can we once and for all DUMP TRUMP around here??? Can we please DUMP TRUMP and his stinking fascism!

    • rugal_b
      March 21, 2016, 7:35 pm

      If you want to rally against Trump, do it elsewhere. Phil won’t appreciate you or anyone else mocking his hero and savior here on his own site. So what if Trump is a worthless bigoted scum gaming millions of even more worthless folks to support him, he isn’t an anti-semite and he’s too rich to be beholden to Jewish money. Plus his pseudo-alpha male charade is kinda charming to Phil.

      • Mooser
        March 21, 2016, 8:11 pm

        Gosh, Mr. “rugal_b”, you sure don’t talk like any social justice advocate I’ve ever known.
        But I can see, you’re a real outreacher.

  6. amigo
    March 21, 2016, 7:33 pm

    Trump fellates multiple zionist donkeys.

    Here is some of the twaddle he came out with.

    “Third, at the very least, we must hold Iran accountable by restructuring the terms of the previous deal. Iran has already – since the deal is in place – test-fired ballistic missiles three times. Those ballistic missiles, with a range of 1,250 miles, were designed to intimidate not only Israel, which is only 600 miles away but also intended to frighten Europe, and, someday, the United States.

    Do you want to hear something really shocking? As many of the great people in this room know, painted on those missiles – in both Hebrew and Farsi – were the words “Israel must be wiped off the face of the earth.”

    http://time.com/4267058/donald-trump-aipac-speech-transcript/

    • Bandolero
      March 21, 2016, 10:45 pm

      amigo

      “Trump fellates multiple zionist donkeys.”

      LOL. The best line I read so far to summarize Trump’s performance as a Bibi imitator. It made my day.

  7. JLewisDickerson
    March 21, 2016, 11:58 pm

    RE: The resultant agony was epitomized by a January 2014 New York Times story, “Falluja’s Fall Stuns Marines Who Fought There“: completely ignoring Iraqi suffering, the reporter rendered vividly the anguish of veterans at the city’s takeover by Sunni insurgents, which left them “transfixed, disbelieving and appalled,” and was “a gut punch to the morale of the Marine Corps and painful for a lot of families who are saying, ‘I thought my son died for a reason.’” ~ Eamon Murphy

    MY COMMENT (for the families saying ‘I thought my son died for a reason.’): Take heart, your son(s) did die for a reason! *

    * THE REASON YOUR SON(S) DIED: “Bush’s Shocking Biblical Prophecy Emerges: God Wants to ‘Erase’ Mid-East Enemies ‘Before a New Age Begins'”, by Clive Hamilton, CounterPunch.org, 5/22/09
    Bush explained to French Pres. Chirac that the Biblical creatures Gog and Magog were at work in the Mid-East and must be defeated.

    [EXCERPT] The revelation this month in GQ Magazine that Donald Rumsfeld as Defense Secretary embellished top-secret wartime memos with quotations from the Bible prompts a question. Why did he believe he could influence President Bush by that means?

    The answer may lie in an alarming story about George Bush’s Christian millenarian beliefs that has yet to come to light.

    In 2003 while lobbying leaders to put together the Coalition of the Willing, President Bush spoke to France’s President Jacques Chirac. Bush wove a story about how the Biblical creatures Gog and Magog were at work in the Middle East and how they must be defeated.

    In Genesis and Ezekiel Gog and Magog are forces of the Apocalypse who are prophesied to come out of the north and destroy Israel unless stopped. The Book of Revelation took up the Old Testament prophesy:

    “And when the thousand years are expired, Satan shall be loosed out of his prison, And shall go out to deceive the nations which are in the four quarters of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them together to battle and fire came down from God out of heaven, and devoured them.”

    Bush believed the time had now come for that battle, telling Chirac:

    “This confrontation is willed by God, who wants to use this conflict to erase his people’s enemies before a New Age begins”.

    The story of the conversation emerged only because the Elyse Palace, baffled by Bush’s words, sought advice from Thomas Romer, a professor of theology at the University of Lausanne. Four years later, Romer gave an account in the September 2007 issue of the university’s review, Allez savoir. The article apparently went unnoticed, although it was referred to in a French newspaper.

    The story has now been confirmed by Chirac himself in a new book, published in France in March, by journalist Jean Claude Maurice. Chirac is said to have been stupefied and disturbed by Bush’s invocation of Biblical prophesy to justify the war in Iraq and “wondered how someone could be so superficial and fanatical in their beliefs.”

    In the same year he spoke to Chirac, Bush had reportedly said to the Palestinian foreign minister that he was on “a mission from God” in launching the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and was receiving commands from the Lord.

    There can be little doubt now that President Bush’s reason for launching the war in Iraq was, for him, fundamentally religious. He was driven by his belief that the attack on Saddam’s Iraq was the fulfilment of a Biblical prophesy in which he had been chosen to serve as the instrument of the Lord.

    Many thousands of Americans and Iraqis have died in the campaign to defeat Gog and Magog. . .

    ENTIRE COMMENTARY – http://www.counterpunch.org/2009/05/22/bush-god-iraq-and-gog/

  8. JLewisDickerson
    March 22, 2016, 12:16 am

    RE: “We have a president who just doesn’t get it,” Trump told CNBC shortly after the Paris attacks. “He’s weak and ineffective.” Such clichéd criticism . . . supplies a kind of dolchstoßlegende, preserving the military’s honor . . . ~ Eamon Murphy

    Stab-in-the-back myth – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stab-in-the-back_myth
    The stab-in-the-back myth (German: Dolchstoßlegende, pronounced [ˈdɔlçʃtoːsleˌɡɛndə] was the notion, widely believed in right-wing circles in Germany after 1918, that the German Army did not lose World War I but was instead betrayed by the civilians on the home front, especially the republicans who overthrew the monarchy in the German Revolution of 1918–19. . .

  9. Marnie
    March 22, 2016, 1:28 am

    “So, we started and something happened called Paris. Paris happened, and Paris was a disaster. There have been many disasters but, it was Paris, and then we had a case in Los Angeles, it was in California [i.e. San Bernardino], where fourteen young people were killed, and it just goes on and on and on. And what happened with me is, this whole run took on a whole new meaning. Not just borders, not just good trade deals… And the meaning was very simple: we need protection in our country, and that’s going to happen. And all of a sudden the poll numbers shot up, and I’m just very proud to be a part of this… ”

    So, Trump’s campaign was plodding along, going down the escalator. Then Trump explains how he became Benjamin Netanyahoo. It was his a-ha! moment, what gave him the clarity of vision for campaign. In other words, the suffering and tragedy that befell Paris and San Bernadino was good for him. Just like Netanyahoo’s take on “9-11”.

  10. Boo
    March 22, 2016, 10:52 am

    I look forward to seeing Hair Drumph leading from the front lines in the coming war. Surely, now that he’s grown up to be so rash and aggressive, he’s left the reticence and timidity of his Vietnam years far behind him?

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