Interview: Even under Trump, 'American isolationism' is a myth

Interview: Even under Trump, 'American isolationism' is a myth
Interview: Contrary to popular belief, US policy is not isolationist. It is characterised by permanent military interventions, just like the Obama administration. Andrew Bacevich talks to Sylvain Cypel.
9 min read
27 Feb, 2018
The president appears oblivious to the complexities of Middle East politics, says Bacevich [AFP]
Andrew Bacevich is professor emeritus of history and international relations at Boston University. He is a former colonel in the United States army, and the author of "The Limits of power: The End of American Exceptionalism", and "The New American Militarism: How Americans are seduced by wars". 

Sylvain Cypel (Orient XXI) Is there a difference between Trump's policy and Obama's policy on foreign military interventions?

Andrew Bacevich - The difficulty with answering this question lies here: Is there such thing as 'Trump's policy'?

When it comes to understanding the actual views and intentions of the United States today, how much weight should we assign to the president's scripted remarks, whether it's when using a teleprompter, tweeting or his spontaneous comments? 

And when the president's expressed views differ from those of his subordinates, like Defense Secretary James Mattis, who should we credit with actually articulating US policy? I don't have a good answer to these questions. And my guess is that neither do leaders in Beijing, Tokyo, Moscow, Berlin, or Paris. The resulting uncertainty is one of the factors that make this an especially dangerous time.

With regards to military interventionism, what we can say is this: The so-called 'isolationism' that formed an ostensible theme of Trump's campaign does not in any way describe administration policy.

The promiscuous willingness to use force that has characterised the last several administrations continues.

Trump had promised to win American wars, or to get out. He will merely continue them

Trump had promised to win American wars, or to get out. He will merely continue them. That's clear in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Somalia. My guess - and it's only that - is that the ratcheting up of US military involvement in these places reflects the predisposition of the generals occupying senior positions in the administration, rather than Trump's personal preferences.

How does the conduct of American wars differ today from what it was under Obama? The biggest difference is a greater emphasis on using air power with less concern for causing civilian casualties. The biggest measure of continuity is that this administration, like the last, has no stomach for substantial US casualties. We want others to do the fighting and dying.

SC Trump led an ambiguous campaign, advocating a reduction in US interventionism across borders and at the same time a strengthening of US military power. A year after coming to power, can we discern a coherent global international strategy?

AB - There continues to be plenty of talk in Washington about increasing US military spending, without anyone offering a clear explanation for why that is necessary. For the moment, the various ongoing crises - especially the controversies related to the Trump campaign's alleged collusion with Russia - make it difficult for Congress to engage in a reasoned debate over basic national security policy.

While the White House has released a 'national security strategy' and the Pentagon a 'national defense strategy,' both documents are long on rhetoric and short on specifics.

Each document made a tiny splash when released and then almost instantly disappeared. My sense is that this administration, more than most, is consumed by near-term considerations at the expense of longer-term issues. If an agreement or initiative promises immediate substantive benefits to the United States, the Trump administration is for it.

US Secretary of Defense James Mattis (L) and US Vice President Mike Pence (C) listen while US President Donald
Trump speaks to the press before a meeting in the Pentagon on 18 January, 2018 in Washington, DC [AFP]

If an agreement or initiative implies incurring near-term costs, with benefits promised only further down the road, then the Trump administration is against it.

If the administration has introduced a theme into the present-day discussion of global affairs, that theme is expressed in the phrase 'great power competition'. This seems to centre on treating Russia and China as adversaries.

Of course, Russia is by many measures a declining power and China is America's biggest trading partner. My own sense is that Washington would have a more realistic appreciation of the US situation if it acknowledged that ours is now a multipolar order in which categories like 'ally' and 'adversary' do not apply.

SC Trump seeks to embody both of the great traditional stances in American foreign policy: Isolationism and imperialism. In reality, does one take precedence over the other?

AB - I don't agree with the premise of the question. 'Isolationism' is a fiction. The United States of America did not go from being a weak and puny republic in the 1780s to becoming the world's richest and most powerful nation in the 1940s, by walling itself off from the world.

The central theme of US policy from the outset has been opportunistic expansionism - seizing opportunities as they presented themselves, to become bigger, richer and more powerful. For two centuries, though there were various missteps along the way, the approach worked brilliantly.

When the Cold War ended, many in America imagined that the United States had achieved permanent supremacy, with history itself having 'ended'. This was the height of folly. Our problem today, I believe, is that expansionism has been pushed off the agenda. But we haven't devised an alternative strategy, nor are there any signs that the Trump administration will do so.

SC - Do you see a consistent Trump strategy in the Middle East? If yes, what are its foundations?

AB - I hesitate to answer any question that includes terms like 'consistent' and 'strategy' as pertains to the current administration. The president appears to be oblivious to the complexities of Middle East politics, nor is he inclined to master them.

The announced move of the US embassy to Jerusalem was a gesture to Trump's political base, and one that created a moment of drama where Trump himself was the central player.

Read more: Israel's attack on Syria just killed the Obama doctrine

It means nothing. Anyone who thinks that Trump thereby killed the 'peace process' hasn't been paying attention. The 'peace process' died years ago. Netanyahu has been playing Washington for years.

As for Trump's romance with the Saudi royal family, I find it inexplicable. We don't need Saudi oil - the US is once more becoming the world's number one producer of crude oil.

We certainly don't have a stake in the Saudi-Iranian rivalry or in the dispute between Shia and Sunni Islam. No good will come from the pro-Saudi tilt in US policy. Let me amend that: No good, other than the many billions of dollars of arms sales that will benefit the US military-industrial complex.

SC After the announced extension of US military presence in Afghanistan, doesn't Trump's policy now mean a long-lasting US presence in Syria?

AB - Yes, of course, it does. What's interesting to me is that the announcement of US troops remaining in Syria indefinitely went almost unnoticed by my fellow citizens.

Ours is now a multipolar order in which categories like 'ally' and 'adversary' do not apply

The point can hardly be overemphasized: The United States is now permanently at war and the American people are not the least bothered by that reality - at least they are not bothered so long as the great majority of those being killed are not Americans.

This describes the 'new American way of war,' pioneered by Obama and perfected under Trump: continuous military action with minimal US casualties, and negligible political achievements.

SC - Why did Trump choose to make Iran its number one enemy in the Middle East, and even on a global scale?

AB - It seems clear that General Mattis and Lieutenant General McMaster are Iranophobes, their attitudes traceable to their experiences in the Iraq War, when Iran supported anti-US militants.

That the US gave Iran reason to act by a) declaring Iran part of an 'axis of evil'; b) articulating a policy of preventive war; and c) invading Iraq, a country in which Iran can reasonably be said to have vital interests, somehow does not figure in the calculations of people like Mattis and McMaster.

When it comes to foreign policy, Washington itself has become an intellectual dead zone

Iran's policies have not been benign, but they have been rational. (Saudi policies, by comparison, have been neither benign nor rational). This is a clear illustration of this administration's inability to play a longer game.

SC - In your books you have raised the idea of a 'new American militarism' that emerged after the Cold War. How does Trump fit into this 'new militarism'?

AB - American militarism persists despites the almost unbroken record of failure and disappointment resulting from US interventions since the end of the Cold War.

It has woven itself into contemporary American culture. It manifests itself in virtually all public events. Expressing fealty and support for 'the troops' has become part of - perhaps the most important part of - our civic religion.

As with most religions these days, the hypocrisy quotient tends to be high. We support the troops from afar, not paying all that much attention to where they are, what they are doing, and why.

SC - You also mentioned the idea of the US being a country 'in a state of permanent national security crisis,' where the idea of 'being at war' has been constant since 9/11. Does the United States always need an 'enemy,' real or imagined?

AB - Some time after World War II, Secretary of State Dean Acheson famously remarked that Great Britain had lost its empire and not yet found a role. Today the United States faces the same predicament. The era of America Ascendant has ended. The international order is changing in astounding ways - not simply with the emergence of a new roster of great powers, but with the rise of a new problem set, including challenges like climate change.

Clinton embodies an establishment that remains mired in a past that no longer exists

What is the proper role of the United States in this new order? We don't know. And the Trump administration is singularly ill-equipped to provide an answer.

Would a Hillary Clinton have done any better? I doubt it. Clinton embodies an establishment that remains mired in a past that no longer exists. When it comes to foreign policy, Washington itself has become an intellectual dead zone.

SC - Does the Iranian issue potentially lead to the possibility of a war in the Middle East in which the United States would be directly, or indirectly involved? And what do you think of the idea that Trump could launch a war if he was put in trouble on the domestic political ground?

AB - Trump himself is obviously impetuous, even in matters relating to the use of force. Take the air strike he ordered against a Syrian air field not long after he became president - apparently a decision made because he had seen disturbing images of Syrian children who had been gassed.

When he gave that order, the US military complied. If acting on his own volition Trump ordered a pre-emptive attack against Iran or North Korea, would the generals obey? My guess is yes. But my hope is that cooler heads would intervene to talk the president down. But this clearly is a real concern.

This is an edited translation of an article  from our partners at Orient XXI

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.