Last week, like millions of others across the globe, I emerged blinking and stumbling from my fallout bunker to assess the destruction wrought by World War Three. There were a few surprises in store. Nukes had failed to rain from the sky. Critical infrastructure remained intact. Rationing was not yet in force. People still weren’t going to see Cats. World War Three, historians will note, consisted of: an assassination, a poorly organized funeral, the histrionic launching of a few sketchy rockets, an Everest of bad tweets and the downing of a passenger plane.
But one thing remained as permanent as the second law of thermodynamics: all of this was Donald Trump’s fault. Musing on the crash of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 a couple of days ago, David Frum wrote:
‘President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama both flinched from doing justice to Soleimani, because they asked, “And what will happen next?” Trump did not ask that question. Families across half the world are now grieving a consequence that Trump’s ego forbade him to imagine or ponder.’
This is a frankly astonishing paragraph coming from David Frum. It’s loaded with all the piety and surpassing unction that characterized the speeches he wrote for his old boss, George W. Bush. Was Frum asking ‘And what will happen next?’ when he came up with the phrase ‘Axis of Evil’? Were Frum or his boss, or all the other busy pigheads in that administration really thinking through the consequences of sending Task Force Dagger through the sand berms on the Iraqi border?
Trump operates in a context that was designed and engineered for optimum mischief by some of America’s most credentialed morons. Thirty years worth of appalling foreign policy decisions brought down Flight 752 just as much as Iranian rocketry or the assassination of Soleimani did. Tocqueville wrote somewhere that democracies have enormous difficulties sustaining serious and long-term foreign policies. From today’s vantage he appears to have been half right. Since the end of the Cold War, and especially since 9/11, the United States has sustained a long-term foreign policy. But it wasn’t very serious.
This president, erratic and unorthodox as he is, is often presented as something more uniquely dangerous. A truly grotesque monster. A perfidious agent of foreign powers. An American fascist. But if we were to look at impact on world politics, Trump isn’t even the most consequential president of the century, and is not worthy of the pathbreaking radicalism his critics credit him with. Trump, as even David Brooks admits, ‘has used military force less than any other president since Jimmy Carter’.
What really was unique was the United States’s response to 9/11. Remember the Bush Doctrine? It has more crazy written out as bullet points than every tweet Trump has ever sent. The Bush doctrine applied the Monroe Doctrine to the entire world. It was a dream as impossible as the one Andy Williams once sang of. Bush reserved the right for the United States to launch wars unilaterally, to launch wars preemptively and to launch wars against any regime anywhere in the world it disapproved of.
The Bush Doctrine envisaged, then created, permanent war against ‘terrorism’, an abstract concept that no state in history has or ever will defeat. It was ‘the most radical innovation in national security policy in the history of the Republic’, according to Ian Shapiro. For John J. Mearsheimer, the ‘Bush Doctrine was a radical strategy that has no parallel in American history’.
On every count, other than creating permanent war, the Bush Doctrine failed. In the Middle East, Washington has sown mayhem and misery, rather than the ‘hope and progress’ Bush was promising in 2003. Globally, terrorism has increased since 9/11. The Bush policy of forcible regime change, slavishly followed by Barack Obama in Libya, Egypt and Syria, has given a major incentive to every tyrant in the world to acquire nuclear weapons. The pseudo-regimes that have been installed in Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt and Libya are deeply crooked. Trying to convince the peoples of these countries that liberal democracy is a regime worth having has been as vain as the efforts of Galileo to convince the Inquisition that the earth revolved around the sun.
The cost of this bitter harvest? Afghanistan alone has had more money pumped into it then all of Europe after the largest war in recorded history. The total cost of US wars in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan is $5.6 trillion. With a number that large it seems important to spell it out, so: five point six TRILLION dollars. For a trillion dollars you could pay LeBron James’s wages for the next 50,000 years. And for much less you could, for example, make JFK an airport people like using, rather than the dump it is currently.
Those who helped design this disaster, or sell it to the American people like Frum and a truly bipartisan coterie of journalists and thinkers — Ann Coulter, David Remnick, Jonathan Chait, Max Boot, Rush Limbaugh, Thomas Friedman, William Kristol, Sean Hannity, Ezra Klein and all the rest — are lucky they’re not Romans. They’d now be in exile, or worse. If they’d been around in Georgian England, most of them would’ve ended up like Admiral Byng. Instead half of them guilelessly condemn the Trump administration for the very things they’re guilty of.
In his memoirs, Bush recalls his feelings when the news of the third plane crash at the Pentagon, came through on 9/11. ‘My blood was boiling. We were going to find out who did this, and kick their ass.’ Nineteen years later, asses, like Soleimanis, are still being kicked. It seems likely for the foreseeable future, regardless of the party, or the president in charge, the United States will be kicking ass, until it has stumps for feet.