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Illogic and the showman

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Illogic and the showman

Friday, 24 January 2020 | Bhopinder Singh

Illogic and the showman

The US under the Trump administration typifies the reckless decision-making of military imperatives without prior experience, counsel or professional advice

Traditionally, the US administration has benefitted from the military experience that resides in the “White House.” Prior to their political ascendancy, around 29 of the 45 US Presidents have held military experience. However, the incumbent President Donald Trump has been an exception. He has had a controversial past of medical deferment that purportedly kept him out of military enrollment during the Vietnam War. Post the World War II, in the midst of the cold war era, nine successive US Presidents were former combatants till the tenures of Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and now Trump. Even the US Congress and Senate have had a substantial presence of veterans (they represented more than half of Congress for much of the late 20th century), who have debated and drafted security policies in pursuance of national objectives.

Given that the post World War II period entailed bloody American military involvement in places like Korea, Vietnam, the Middle East, Somalia and Afghanistan as well as other covert wars and operations, the reassuring presence and understanding of the accompanying security sensitivities added the necessary nuance, steel and perspective on governance. But the last 12 years have seen a gradual reduction in the representation of veterans (till very recently) in both Houses. Trump though has displayed himself with misplaced enthusiasm for military trappings, bravado and parades to posit his own surrogate muscularity in pursuit of politics.

Most of his interventions, allusions and invocation with military imperatives have been high on instinctive showmanship and theatrics but have been low on efficacy. He started his tenure by appointing the iconic Marine Corps General James Mattis as the Secretary of Defence. The latter was found to be too rational, grounded and a well-read professional for Trump’s boorish and fickle preferences. The US President authorised the usage of the “mother of all bombs” (GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast, the most powerful non-nuclear explosive) in Afghanistan. Today, he is negotiating “peace talks” with the Taliban, which has already accounted for well over 2,000 US casualties. He got the US military to rashly rain 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles (each costing approximately a million and a half dollars) on a dilapidated airbase and then another hundred on an industrial site in Syria, among other military commitments. Today, most Syrian lands have been lost to his bête noire, Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian Government.

Units of the US Special Forces, in conjunction with allies — Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — conducted operations along with supporting militias in the Yemen theatre. As a result, a ragtag Army of Iran-supported Houthi rebels have been cocking a snook at the much larger, affluent and better armed forces of the US and its allies. While he did get to “take out” a past his prime Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and more recently the Iranian Commander of Quds Force, Major General Qassem Soleimani, the essential American foothold in the Middle East remains shaky and is desperately in need of a “pull-out” to limit further damage.

Taking militaristic decisions is inevitable for a superpower that is mired in protecting its hegemonic interests across the globe. However, recent decisions and the fate of the Trump-led US military’s involvement across the globe warrant serious introspection. It’s not that “team” Trump did not have competency but his impatience with reason and restraint has ensured that the likes of Mattis have left, got fired, joined his “echo chamber” or, as mentioned in the famously anonymous Op-ed in The New York Times, are part of the silent “resistance working within the Trump administration.” The Op-ed, authored by a senior person in the Trump administration, evocatively noted his leadership style to be “impetuous, adversarial, petty and ineffective.” Further, it went to express the conundrum of the hapless staff, who would “privately admit their daily disbelief at the commander-in-chief’s comments and actions.”

A thoroughbred professional, Mattis became a typical sufferer of Trump’s foolhardiness when he refused to carry out killing orders of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, to make war plans to attack Iranian facilities and opposed the decision of the US’ troop withdrawal from Syria. On Mattis’ resignation, the former combatant was hailed as the “last adult” in the Trump administration. Questions now abound if Soleimani would have been “taken out” today if Mattis was still around.

The decision to up the ante with Iran did have the backing of some veterans like four-star general Jack Keane and former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency David Petraeus among others. But as Congressman Adam Smith said, “Trump has no idea what he’s doing but isn’t afraid to do it.” This unheeding trait has led to multiple forms of military adventurism with little to show on the ground at a time when Trump is in the last leg of his first tenure.

The usual phenomenon of spectacular military actions, resulting in a bipartisan “rallying around the flag” and, thereby, bumping up the crucial presidential approval ratings, is an old hat (in all democracies). After the Gulf War, former US President George HW Bush’s approval ratings went up from 58 per cent to 89 per cent. His son, George W Bush’s invasion of Iraq got a similar spike from 58 per cent to 71 per cent.  Barack Obama’s elimination of Osama bin Laden took his ratings from 44 per cent to 51 per cent. But Trump’s Soleimani action did not result in any noticeable jump. He continues to languish in the mid-40 approval percentages. Clearly, Trump has politically abused the “military card” too often and it no longer resonates. On the contrary, his embarrassing description of “beautiful weapons” in the serious business of deploying the “last resort” responsibly diminishes the statesmanship and restraint required of his position.

What deliberately polarising politicians like Trump also achieve is that they dangerously “divide” perceptions within the veteran community, which is usually bipartisan on security matters and goes by military “facts.” This sort of brazen politics has alienated the likes of Trump’s fellow Republican and former combatant Senator John McCain, whose professional integrity as a soldier was affronted by usurpers like him.

Matters of military need to be spared from political appropriations. Else, the required institutional ethos and perceptions are weakened. Following this, the overall national security preparedness, too, would stand diminished.

(The writer, a military veteran, is a former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands)

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