I know it’s bad form to say anything positive about President Donald Trump. But his decision to call off a planned air strike against Iran last month should be applauded.
The decision was made, according to the New York Times, with planes already in the air and targets picked out. John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser, urged the strike to retaliate against Iran for shooting down an American surveillance drone. The easy thing for Trump to do would have been to let the generals blow things up and kill people.
Trump explained in a tweet thread that he canceled the planned attack after being informed by a general that roughly 150 people would die in the assault. He decided that the possible loss of life was “not . . . proportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone.”
In the corporate press, there was some recognition that Trump’s calculation might be correct—the downed drone was not worth 150 lives and a potential new war in the Mideast. Yet the New York Times editorial board expressed concern with Trump’s “chaotic decision-making process,” finding it “strange and disturbing” that Trump would have considered the “possible death toll only at the last minute.”
While I don’t endorse chaotic thinking about foreign policy, it is worth recalling what normal-thinking foreign policy looks like. Past wars in the Mideast were professionally sold to the American people with massive propaganda campaigns run through the press. Normal presidents first dehumanize the enemy, then ignore civilian casualties.
In 1990, when Iraqi troops led by Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, a PR campaign was launched to convince Americans to send our troops halfway around the world to defend the oil-rich fiefdom. We were told again and again about babies torn from incubators by Iraqi soldiers. Years later, it was quietly reported that the incubator story was a lie told by a member of the Kuwaiti royal family who’d been coached by the PR firm Hill & Knowlton. Corporate media sanitized its coverage of the war, known as Desert Storm, almost entirely ignoring the human cost.
The campaign of lies and propaganda that got us into the second war against Iraq in 2003 is well known. Besides false reporting about mobile chemical weapons labs and shipments of uranium from Africa, we were fed more reports of brutality, rape, and torture by Saddam’s sons Uday and Qusay.
The two Iraq wars combined were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi troops and civilians, and thousands of American soldiers.
The same pattern was repeated in 2011 by the Obama administration to get us geared up for the NATO war in Libya. There, the official lies were that Muammar Gaddafi was supplying his troops with Viagra to encourage mass rape, and that he was planning to massacre civilians in Benghazi. The NATO bombing plunged Libya into a humanitarian disaster, killing thousands of people and displacing hundreds of thousands more, transforming Libya from the African country with the highest standard of living into a war-torn failed state.
Today, Democrats are raising questions about Trump’s authority to bomb Iran without getting authorization from Congress. In response, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says that Trump can use the 2001 AUMF—the Authorization for Use of Military Force passed after 9/11—as justification for a new war with Iran.
Democrats dispute Trump’s reading of the AUMF, which only authorizes attacks against the terrorists who attacked us on September 11, 2001. But their position is weakened by the fact that President Obama used the AUMF 19 times to justify new bombing campaigns in Pakistan, Yemen, Syria, Libya, and Somalia, all without any action by Congress. Obama even used the AUMF to justify the killing of a U.S. citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, in Yemen in September 2011. Then ten days later, another drone strike killed al-Awlaki’s 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, also an American citizen. No justification has ever been given for the attack on the boy.
The perpetual war machine is a bipartisan creation, fed by Republicans and Democrats alike. It is the inevitable result of a capitalist system that lets private companies profit from killing and war coupled with a political system that allows our national leaders to take campaign checks from these same war merchants. The result is a vicious cycle of wars that can never end because they are designed to spread violence and chaos. Then later, more military spending and war are required to deal with the new dangers created by the past wars.
Under this dysfunctional system, the main job of a commander in chief is to maintain enough conflict zones around the globe to keep the war machine funded to the tune of about a trillion dollars annually. On June 19, the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives passed a nearly $1 trillion appropriations bill, the vast majority of which was for defense funding.
Trump deserves credit for at least acknowledging the influence of the for-profit war industry on his foreign policy. “Don’t kid yourself,” Trump told Fox News, “you do have a military industrial complex. They do like war.”
As an example, why are we helping Saudi Arabia and its murderous Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman fight its cruel and brutal war in Yemen, targeting civilians, bombing hospitals, factories, mosques, schools, using starvation and disease as weapons of war? Trump will tell you why. We do it for the weapons contracts with the Saudis. But Obama, the president who got us into the war in Yemen, while he also negotiated huge weapons contracts with the Saudis, never offered any coherent explanation.
Accepting that you have a problem is the first step to changing course. Remember, Trump won the White House promising a noninterventionist foreign policy. “Look, I said I want to get out of these endless wars, I campaigned on that, I want to get out,” he told reporters in the Oval Office on June 20. Normal thinking about foreign policy has produced a cycle of endless wars for corporate profit. Chaotic thinking may be what it takes to break that cycle. v
Leonard C. Goodman is a Chicago criminal defense attorney and co-owner of the newly independent Reader.