By Jonathan Power*
“The best lack all conviction”, wrote the Irish poet, William Yeats, “while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” Is this not true of America today?
Some of the “best” are working to bring down President Donald Trump, yet are they ready to cut to the chase? He has cards up his sleeve. He came to power partly because he won the support of working class and lower middle class whites who were prepared to vote against their economic interest for the sake of the nationalism that Trump espoused. Neither Keir Hardie nor Franklin Roosevelt nor Bernie Sanders were their leader. It was Trump.
I don’t find it difficult to imagine how Trump could play the nationalist card that would rally his electorate. The “best” would be against this, but how many would be convinced enough to go out on the street, French style, and demand Congress impeach him? I doubt if the Harvard professors would or journalists from the New York Times, business men, school teachers, doctors, civil servants or airline pilots.
Of course, as with the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam War protests, there would be students in the front row. Then there would be clergy, a few professors from the University of Wisconsin, novelists, Senator Sanders and at most 50 members of Congress. The police would easily face them down and disperse them.
“Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel”, said Samuel Johnson. So is extreme confrontation, or even war. What follows is not my scenario. It is that of Philip Gordon, writing in the current issue of the respected “Foreign Affairs”. He was Barack Obama’s Special Assistant for the Middle East, North Africa and the Gulf regions. Those who have dormant passionate intensity in their bones should read it and act now before it is too late. Events can move fast. “A week is a long time in politics”, said the former British prime minister, Harold Wilson.
Trump could begin his diversionary tactics with Iran, his arch-enemy during the campaign. Gordon says, let’s suppose that a dozen Americans are killed in an attack in Iraq by an Iranian-supported militia. Two days later, Trump imposes further sanctions on Iran, effectively torpedoing the de-nuclearisation agreement negotiated by Obama. Iran continues to test its missiles. It steps up its support for the Syrian government. Later in the year, the situation having deteriorated further, Iran announces it will resume prohibited nuclear activities, including testing advanced centrifuges and expanding its stockpile of low-enrich uranium.
Frustrated by continued Iranian support for the Houthi rebels in Yemen, the Pentagon steps up patrols in the Strait of Hormuz and loosens the rules of engagement for U.S. forces. When an Iranian patrol boat aggressively approaches a U.S. cruiser, the ship fires and kills 25 Iranians. Revenge is swift and 6 more American soldiers in Iraq are killed. In return Trump authorises a cruise missile attack on the Islamic Revolutionary Guard. Nationalist fervour increases in Iran, and also in America. Iran lets its nuclear scientists off the leash. Next, U.S. bombers destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities. A good chunk of the U.S. electorate cheers him on. Anti-Trump congressmen feel that they couldn’t continue with their effort to impeach him while America was in such a serious situation.
Experts later called the confrontation with China the most dangerous one since the Cuban Missile Crisis that almost erupted into nuclear war. The president’s advisor, Steve Bannon, said at the beginning of the Administration: “We’re going to war in the South China Sea in five to ten years.”
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, pushed by Trump, warns that China’s access to the islands there “is not going to be allowed”. At the same time North Korea tests another long-range missile capable of reaching the western sea-board of the US. Trump demands that China pressure North Korea to stop the provocation or it would go to war with the North.
China is worried about the mass of refugees that would pour into China if the regime collapsed. Also it doesn’t want U.S.-backed troops to advance to its border with the North. It refuses Trump. Trump then says the days of placating China are over. Sanctions are imposed. President Xi Jinping feels he has to retaliate. He imposes a 45% tariff on imports and sells $100 billion of U.S. Treasury bonds.
Next follows an incident in the South China Sea, a clash between American and Chinese naval boats. Each side’s carriers are rushed to the region. There is a military stand-off that looks like stretching into the distant future. U.S.-China relations are in ruins. But Trump is off the hook for the rest of his term.
During the next election? Perhaps war with North Korea. [IDN-INPS – 13 June 2017]
*Note: For 17 years Jonathan Power was a foreign affairs columnist for the International Herald Tribune. He has forwarded this and his previous Viewpoints for publication in IDN-INPS. Copyright: Jonathan Power.