US President Donald Trump may be proving to have far more bark than bite – for which all must give thanks, so far. Trade war is not imminent and other Trumpisms are getting bogged down in Washington and the courts. But he is also backtracking on the one issue on which he might have started out in the right direction – the reluctance to buy into more actual or potential conflicts.
Syria/Iraq is the most obvious case in point. Given the multi-sided-nature of all the conflicts in this region, Sunni and Shia, Arab. Persian, Turk and Kurd, Daesh (IS) and the feudal monarchs, secular nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism, picking sides in one conflict is a recipe for losing allies in another.
Outrage about Assad’s chemical warfare and killing of many civilians is all very well but civil wars are unusually brutal and this one has long been no exception. Western hypocrisy on this issue is remarkable given the memory of the Vietnam War with its estimated 2 million dead civilians on both sides, as well as the complete aerial destruction of Pyongyang and other North Korean cities during the Korean war, or Nagasaki and Dresden in 1945.
Nor should one forget the huge number of civilian casualties in the liberation of Manila in 1945 – mostly caused by US bombardment –or the French civilian death toll in the 1944 liberation of Normandy.Modern, like much ancient warfare, often kills as many civilians as troops. In civil wars, there is scant distinction between the two. Ask the Bosnians, Croats and Serbs.
Trump’s response to Syria crossing a so-called “red line” would be acceptable if it were to have a lasting impact on Assad, but it seems more likely to make Russia even less willing to make concessions and agree to his eventual removal. It does the same for Iran.
Meanwhile largely forgotten is the US effort to back the Saudis in their relentless bombing of civilians in the huge part of Yemen that is occupied by Houthi rebels, headed by a long serving former president. Casualties from this are unknown but given that Yemen has been in an on and off civil war since the 1960s, western intervention looks like a futile gesture to encourage the Saudis to buy more weapons.
Almost nobody in the west seems to know or care that poverty-stricken Yemen has a bigger population (excluding foreigners) than Saudi Arabia and more secular ways. The Saudi kingdom, established by conquest less than a century ago, is a byword in religious extremism and extravagant spending. Yemen is not a situation worth supporting. (Back in the 1960s the west helped keep a civil war alive by backing a monarch against republicans backed by Egypt’s President Nasser. The republicans eventually won).
As ever driven by the primacy of Israeli interests, the common denominator in US policies is hatred of Iran. This makes absolutely no sense as Iran’s main interest is in Iraq, not Syria, and the US could use its cooperation there in defeating IS and making “liberated and democratic” Iraq a stable and relatively prosperous place – as it had been under Saddam Hussein till, with quiet western backing, he launched his disastrous invasion of Iran, failure of which eventually caused him to invade Kuwait, a small sheikhdom whose independence was only a result of British desire to control its oil. Cozying up to the Saudis and the sheikhdoms makes no strategic sense while China, Russia (and India) cultivate Iran, a real nation with the location, population, history and education levels of a middle-level power which will be around millennia after the Arabian peninsula and its deserts have been sliced and diced again.
Trump’s other loss of his original foreign policy direction is his sabre-rattling against North Korea. For sure, the North nuclear and missile tests are aggravating. For sure, Kim Jong Un is even more paranoid than his father and grandfather, despatching his uncle, half-brother and numerous other possible sources of opposition to early and gruesome deaths.
But threatening paranoids is much more dangerous than leaving them alone. Do not tempt them to lash out first. North Korea’s nuclear capability has been around for two decades. Yes, it now has better means of delivery but the Kims’ first and only goal has been their own survival. They are not suicidal. Given its economic situation, nukes and missiles are North Korea’s only conceivable defense strategy, as well as providing prestige forKim and his elite system.
Meanwhile China will, as in the past, promise to do more to reign in Pyongyang in return for US cooperation on other issues. This is always a net gain for China which cannot entirely abandon the North either to domestic chaos or takeover by the South. Yet in the longer run Pyongyang’s nuclear capability – which could be more than matched by the South at little notice – is more problem for Beijing than Washington or Tokyo. The one gain for the US, Seoul and Japan is cover for building air defenses which China sees as aimed itself.
The best that perhaps can be hoped from and from China is that it instigates a coup in Pyongyang which would bring a more amenable people to power while maintaining the state structure. However, given the mix of extreme nationalism and complete ruthlessness which rules in Pyongyang, China’s ability to pull strings is probably less than usually imagined.
So, Mr Trump, “Making America Great Again” needs neither isolationism nor more war planes but cool-headed realism driven neither by emotion or headlines.