Is anyone else disturbed by how the decision of the USA to drop a Massive Ordnance Air Blast on Afghanistan has disappeared from the news?
A week later (20 April 2017), Malcolm Turnbull said of Donald Trump and the Republican administration: ‘I trust the judgement of the American government… I trust the judgement, the wisdom, of the president’. That is a verbatim quote. How could anyone trust the judgement of President Trump; or surmise he has wisdom?
Even to a hardened politics watcher like me, waking up to the MOAB news on Good Friday was so shocking I spent much of easter scrolling through Trump tweets seeking clues. It is worth noting in this context that Trump will host Palestinian President Abbas at the White House on 3 May. This may be consistent with the observation that Trump’s domestic rhetoric is isolationist, while if anything he is escalating American military interventionism.
War hardware and war software: Bombs and propaganda
The MOAB is horrendous in scale. The Pentagon says it is the largest non-nuclear weapon in the US arsenal. It sucks the oxygen from the air and sets the rest on fire. It weighs 10,000 kilograms. It flattens everything within a one-mile radius in every direction. It costs US$16 million just to build. Like most such monstrosities, it was ‘originally’ built ‘as a deterrent’.
‘The goal is to have the pressure be so great that Saddam Hussein cooperates,’ said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in 2003.
Predictably, US and other western news sites fawned breathlessly over its size and power; and dutifully reproduced the White House message about precision and firsts (in combat, was the claim) and avoiding civilian casualties.
But the reasons offered were entirely vacuous. Not just strategy-free, like the 59 missiles dropped on a Syrian air-base near Homs on the chemical weapons pretext. The chemical weapons ‘red line’ at least had a history of failed multilateralism and Putin-Obama negotiations. It was anchored in something of substance. In contrast, the two reasons put forward for detonating the MOAB were entirely without substance.
‘The US takes the fight against ISIS seriously’ said White House press secretary Sean Spicer. Well, yes, but our leaders have been saying that for years, with no apparent thought to how this plays for ISIS. But what had changed in Afghanistan? Nothing anyone was telling the public. The case is empty. Caves and tunnels. An American soldier was killed in the area last week.
One soldier? ISIS-K? Caves and tunnels?
Who outside of foreign policy circles had heard of ISIS-K before now? It is apparently two years old and operates in country bordering nominal American ally Pakistan. The same ally who sheltered bin Laden and for its trouble saw a US Forces raid on the bin Laden compound in Abbottabad, complete with extra-judicial assassination and reported dumping of the body at sea. The same bin Laden who video-taped his ramblings in those caves and tunnels when they were populated by Taliban fighters, like the caves and tunnels fitted out by the CIA courtesy of the American public.
So the usual dishonest and violent American interventionism is present.
But the MOAB is not just another American mess, a real-life scene out of Team America: World Police, the one where Gary the actor is kidnapped in Egypt and US Forces swoop in and blow up half of Cairo, knocking the head off a sphinx. The MOAB is more than disproportionality, a war crime, although it is that. The MOAB is ‘use of force’ so out of all proportion as to be in another category of crime, on another level of wrongness.
There are echoes of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but without the preceding 6-year global bloodbath. That is not to deny the extent of slaughter America brought to Afghanistan and Iraq, but to point to the sheer scale of this horror at this time. Even in the world of an American president who rarely says what he means or means what he says, the MOAB drop seems incomprehensible.
Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai called out Trump for using Afghanistan as a bomb testing ground. While Karzai is not of clean hands when it comes to brinkmanship, on this occasion he articulated the major issues associated with such an extreme and destructive weapon. Unlike the breathless bomb-porn that dominated coverage in the west, Karzai pointed to Afghani sovereignty – imagine how America would respond to such an attack on its soil – and to the soil itself, to the environmental and inter-generational consequences.
This was an inhuman act, a brutal act against an innocent country, against innocent people, against our land, against our sovereignty, against our soil and against our future… A bomb of that magnitude has consequences for the environment, for our lives, for our plants, for our water, for our soil – this is poison – Former Afghani President Hamid Karzai, 16 April 2017
We could use more truth like this over the endless ‘analysis’ from the no-choice-but-to-bomb school of war journalism, an inherently biased approach which showcases the violent views of military ‘experts’ while ignoring conflict resolution approaches and peace scholars.
One other disturbing observation is that the MOAB has all but disappeared from our airwaves and newsfeeds. The (predicted) North Korean missile ‘test’ (explosion, detonated by North Korea), the Turkish referendum which Erdoğan could only have scheduled for Easter Sunday well in advance, eclipsed the horror in Afghanistan.
Less than a week later, the Pentagon is claiming that ISIS used a ‘chemical attack’ on an Iraqi contingent that included US and Australian ‘advisors’ in Mosul – but they are all unhurt. What even is this? Did the MOAB not warn ISIS off using chemical weapons, then? Oh no, that’s right, that was Assad? Will Trump bomb Mosul back to the stone age too? Oh no that’s right, he bombed caves and tunnels – stone age technology – back to the stone age.
How to make sense of it all?
My instinct was to return to Trump’s words and deeds. Trump is Commander-in-Chief. It is Trump with whom the buck stops for the MOAB, no matter what is reported as to which general gave what order. If Trump really did delegate that level of authority to someone else, that is an abrogation of his responsibility, but it is still his abrogation and his responsibility.
The most obvious Trump characteristic is that his decisions appear largely random, or, if there is any method at all, his decisions tend to further his personal rather than the national or global interest. How to test whether Trump is issuing orders at random? Does he just like blowing up people and their lands, their homes? The record is opaque, and we must assume deliberately so, given the conventions Trump has flouted, the rules he simply ignores, the failure of institutional checks and balances to curb his excesses.
This is not to suggest that Trump is some kind of evil foreign policy genius. Quite the opposite. It is to observe that Trump is doing what he has always done: operating in the interests of Donald Trump.
Abridged Timeline: on Twitter and in real life
It is a truism that the Trump Twitter timeline is as good a window as any into the thinking of the President. I do not follow either his personal or POTUS account, but trump Twitter, and reporting about Trump twitter, is impossible to avoid.
The first thing I noticed was the contrast between domestic and foreign policy tweets.
In the past fortnight, Trump has met with Egyptian President Al Sisi (4 April), Jordanian King Abdullah (6 April), Chinese President Xi Jinping (9 April) and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg (12 April). Given the general purpose of such meetings, there would be some agenda with individual countries, and some with the relevant region. In other words, Trump here is skirting around Syria, North Korea, and Turkey.
Each foreign policy tweet is interspersed with what in Australia is called feeding the chooks, although in Trump’s case he is feeding the Fox [News]. These domestic nonsense tweets contain shallow statements, heavy with exclamation marks. Each bears the hallmark of Trump self-expression: his unquantifiable relationship with truth. Trump is less reliable than the proverbial stopped clock: he might be right twice a day, but he might not. Whether he is being serious – whether he means X or will change his mind on Y – is so randomised that it is impossible to tell with any confidence.
But those are the domestic tweets.
The tone and spacing of the foreign policy tweets indicate some oversight. There is a whiff of daughter Ivanka about it (see this by Anne Summers on her role). Her husband, Jared Kushner, continues to be promoted. According to the not-credible source Eric Trump, it was a ‘heartbroken and outraged’ Ivanka who persuaded dad to order the 59-missile attack on a Syrian air base. Certainly the missile attack near Homs lacked strategic coherence – the calls for Trump to ‘reveal his strategy’ assume he has one, or one he would reveal to the media and the public. Meanwhile, Jared headed off to Iraq wearing a flak jacket over his Ivy League uniform outfit.
The only real certainty is that Trump is not operating according to conventional priorities. As mentioned, he is in all likelihood operating according to self-interest rather than global or American interests. This is not to say that a Cheney- or Rove-style Washington Consensus is a force for good in the world; only that it is knowable in a way that Trumpism is not.
It was the 6.5 minute Trump speech addressing King Abdullah from the Rose Garden podium – the link posted to Twitter at around 5:00pm on 5 April – that contained the most chilling clues to the MOAB drop. The speech is irredeemably awful, repetitive and garbled. It is also – with hindsight, of course – quite chilling. It is worth analysing even in retrospect, I think, because we now know that the failure to take Trump seriously, to really listen to the meaning of his words, was a major factor in his electoral success.
Annotated transcript, Trump speech addressed to King Abdullah of Jordon.
“…before we begin let me say a few words about recent events. Yesterday chemical attack, a chemical attack that was so horrific, in Syria against innocent people including women, small children and even a beautiful little babies their deaths was an affront to humanity. These heinous attacks by the Assad regime can not be tolerated…”
Trump then gets back on script, although it seems unlikely the author included quite so much repetition, notably of these terms:
- Very very
- Many many
- I can tell you that
- Believe me
He also co-opts the King into his implied future actions several times. Can we assume the King agreed to this beforehand? That the King knew this co-option would later include dropping the largest non-nuclear US bomb on Afghanistan? For example:
“Your majesty, Jordanians are known …and I have to say this, for their fighting ability. And you are a great warrior, and we appreciate it, thank you.”
Trump goes on: “[The US] has looked to Jordan as a valued partner, an advocate for the values of civilisation, and a source of stability and hope.” This is standard western chauvinism, where civilisation has long signalled the ‘othering’ of the East (or the ‘Orient’), and implies a range of imageries especially barbarism, going back to at least the crusades.
“As you know”, says Trump, “the Middle East and the entire world is faced with one of its gravest threats in many many years. Since the earliest days of ISIS Jordan has been a staunch ally and partner and we thank you for that.”
This is standard wartime propaganda but Trump is also locking Abdullah into a pro-American corner. He goes further:
“In King Abdullah, America is blessed with a thoughtful and determined partner. He is a man who has spent years commanding his country, special forces. He really knows what being a soldier is that I can tell you. And he knows how to fight… The King has been a leader in calling for a plan to defeat ISIS once and for all. And I am with you on that, we’re both leaders on that, believe me. That’s what we speak about today and that is what we are going to do. And it will be a shorter fight than a lot of people are thinking about believe me we’ve made tremendous strides as we discussed.”
These are the key MOAB hints. Trump then brings together the tropes and the hints: “We will destroy ISIS [pause] and we will protect civilisation. We have no choice. We will protect [pause] civilisation. King Abdullah and I also discussed measures to destroy the evil, and ideology, that inspires ISIS and plagues our planet.”
Unless it is referring to an actual disease outbreak, plague is always a red flag term, long used by génocidaires.
Trump then uses the opportunity to speak to his domestic audience: “we also acknowledge the vital role that Jordon has played in hosting refugees from the conflict in Syria. We’ve just announced that the United States will find additional funds to Jordan for humanitarian assistance. This funding will help countries like Jordan host refugees until it is safe for them to return home the refugees want to return home I know that from so many other instances they want to return back to their home and that’s a goal of any [emph] responsible [emph] refugee policy.
Here, Trump is telling his voters that violent raids on undocumented migrants in the US will continue, and that is what the undocumented migrants – ripped from their homes, children left without parents – want.
Jordon is not only host to an enormous number of Syrian refugees. It has a huge Palestinian refugee population, and has had since 1948. This is how Trump segues onto his next chilling hint:
“Finally, as we discussed, to advance the cause of peace, in the Middle East, including peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and I’m workin very very hard on trying to finally [emph] create peace between the Palestinians and Israel. And I think we’ll be successful, I hope to be successful I can tell you that. The king is been an entire, a really tireless advocate for a solution. He is gonna help me with that, at the highest level, and we will be consulting with him very closely in the days ahead.”
Trump separates the words ‘finally’ and ‘solution’ by a single sentence.
“King Abdullah I wanna take this opportunity to thank you for your partnership, working together, the United States and Jordan can work together, to help bring peace and stability to the Middle East and in fact the entire world and we will do that. Thank you very very much for being with us.”
Not that this analysis is especially revelatory. The US has brought violence and war to bear on the Middle East for as long as I can remember. We already knew Trump is aggressive and dangerous; that he is limited in his thinking, that his central organising principle is self-interest, that he is reckless and highly susceptible to being manipulated by less public characters.
But I am saying this: while the tone and syntax are quite similar, there is a sharp contrast between shallow Trump messaging on domestic policy (Jobs! I won! MAGA!) and his apparently garbled, but deathly serious, pronouncements on foreign policy. As the new week dawned, confirmation of US military aircraft intercepting Russian planes off Alaska was being reported by all major outlets.
The emphasis on confirmation is for a reason. As CNN notes in the first four sentences of its online report – above the fold, as it were – ‘Fox News first reported the intercept’. Maybe Fox just got the scoop, who knows. But I suspect that rather than looking for strategy on missile strikes, this is closer to what Trump strategy looks like.