So President Donald Trump, after precipitously pulling out U.S. troops from northern Syria, sent a letter on October 9 to Turkish President Erdogan urging him to “not be a fool” by invading the Kurdish-occupied area. Trump, sounding more like the game show host Monty Hall of “Let’s Make a Deal” than the presumptive “leader of the free world”, said this in the letter:
“Let’s work out a good deal! You don’t want to be responsible for slaughtering thousands of people, and I don’t want to be responsible for destroying the Turkish economy — and I will! . . . I have worked hard to solve some of your problems. Don’t let the world down. You can make a great deal.”
Not exactly eloquent or persuasive, is it? It makes the prose of Ronald Reagan read like Cicero.
According to the BBC, Erdogan, enraged at this juvenile petulance, threw the letter in the wastebasket. There was never any doubt about the genocidal assault by the Turks against the Kurds after Trump’s abrupt and rationale-free retreat. The angel of history will look back at this with horror and tears.
I have lived in The United States of America for all my life. I have tried to be patriotic. It has my sincere allegiance. I want the best for it. I have tried to balance its good traits — and they are plentiful — with its sins and crimes and, above all, the self-satisfied self-righteousness infusing the air we breathe. There have been worse episodes in American history than the catastrophe of Trump administration — chattel slavery, civil war, white supremacism, capitalist mammon-worship, the genocide of the First Nations. But I think that this letter, if anything, is a kind of klaxon-blast to the rest of the world that the USA has collapsed under the weight of its own pretentions. If a nation can elect a man like this, and, having shown that he meant exactly what he said when he was a candidate, not take quick bipartisan steps to remove this narcissistic and power-mad ignoramus from office, it has alienated itself from the community of just and legitimate nations that dot the surface of the globe. It has chosen to act as a pariah, and deserves to be treated as one.
The United States has a lot to answer for regarding its imperial ambitions over the years, whatever its official rhetoric concerning liberal democracy. It had long taken on the unjust role of “the world’s policeman”, and had no business unilaterally throwing its weight around in the Middle East, a region it ill understands, from the coup against Mossadegh in Iran to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Its blunderbuss approach has destroyed any hope for a just and stable peace in the region for the foreseeable future. But having inserted itself into Syrian politics, and having created a delicate set of incentives and deterrences for the other military players, it incurred obligations to its allies, in this case the Kurdish forces engaged with the USA in the fight against Islamic State. By withdrawing his support and abandoning the Kurds to their grisly fate (for reasons we do not know and which presumably exist on that super-secure telephone server in the White House), the President has deliberately made himself, and the country he represents on the world stage, an accessory to a war crime. His excuse, that he was doing this to follow-up on a campaign promise to disengage, is nonsense, as he is also in the process of sending US troops to Saudi Arabia on the pretext of helping this murderous despotism defend itself against Iran. He further undercuts his excuse through his Iran policy. He has confounded the quest for peace in the area by quitting the Iran nuclear treaty and leaving its allies holding the bag of damage-control. It makes US engagement in war more, rather than less likely. Trump gives bullshit a bad name.
I would like to be confident that the powers of the federal government, as clearly expressed in a written Constitution and its amendments, would prompt elected officials to leap into immediate and decisive action. But I am not holding my breath. While “national security” Republicans are disturbed by the Syrian withdrawal, it is unlikely that they will be moved to change their minds about the current Executive administration. There are tax cuts involved, and debts to be paid to a plutocracy which does not really mind much what happens abroad unless and until it cuts into the money to be made, and which is not bothered by any President as long as he is Republican. And Republican Congresspersons are scared to death of right-wing nationalist constituents who love Donald Trump and will abruptly end their careers should they veer from the obsequious path they have so far trod. So they will make noise, and Senator Lindsay Graham, second in sycophantic command after Vice-President Mike Pence, will issue indignant sound-bites, and then quiet down and conduct business-as-usual. And as for the Democrats, well, what more can be said? Fecklessness is as fecklessness does.
The main problem, however, and I regret having to say this, lies with the American body politic. In 2016 the electorate was given a clear choice between a hawkish neoliberal and a mendacious, nationalistic con man. A “lesser of two evils” dilemma, I grant you; and one that needn’t have happened if Democratic centrists weren’t so convinced of their wisdom, and Republican “centrists” weren’t so timid. (I placed scare-quotes around “centrists” because the Republican “center” has moved drastically to the Right since 1980) But in a “lesser of two evils” situation there actually is a lesser evil to choose, and the citizenry chose the greater, with a little help from Russian bots and market-driven electronic media. The entire country is reaping the whirlwind now.
The day after the 2016 Presidential election, Irish senator Aodhán Ó Riordáin delivered a speech to the Irish Seanead lambasting the congratulatory response the Irish government and P.M. made to the then President-elect:
I can’t believe the reaction from An Taoiseach and from the Government and I don’t use the word fascist lightly but what else would you call somebody who threatens to imprison his political opponents? The best we come out with is a phone call to say is it still okay to bring the shamrock . . .
I was heartened when I read this back then and disheartened by the muted tone of other leaders in the world outside America’s parochial borders. There has been a lot of pontificating over the past 2½ years over whether Trump is or is not a “fascist”, and there are decent arguments both pro and con. But at some point quibbling over semantics needs to give way to practical response. Haggling over whether apartheid was “fascism” or “political racism” was kind of moot: whatever term fit, it was evil and demanded opposition. Same thing here.
South Africa was a pariah nation and deserved to be treated as such. It responded to international pressure, in the form of boycotts and disinvestment, over time: whatever political evils plague the Republic of South Africa nowadays, its original tragedy has been put behind it. Here and now, at the moment, the whim of a deranged and depraved President has opened the door to genocide, has scuttled a nuclear arms treaty that gingerly kept Iran in check, has set up the equivalent of concentration camps on its southern border, has dismissed climate change as a fraud, and has as a general principle set himself up as the Lord of Chaos. If this is not the moral equivalent of apartheid, it is fast approaching it.
The American citizenry has been buffered from global outrage by its unique geographic and economic position. Other than the murderous attacks on Pearl Harbor and 9/11, it has escaped the horrors of war on its own territory since the end of the Civil War. This is a blessing for which all Americans should be thankful. But it is a blessing that comes with a cost. We have come to think that the consequences of our collective actions end with our immediate field of vision, and we have come to take our insularity for granted. We shouldn’t. Something needs to shake up the complacency of the American people — the prospects of global climate change certainly are not doing it, the mess at the southern border isn’t doing it, the endless death in the Middle East isn’t doing it. Perhaps tough love from the allies that the United States has treated as disposable assets, from a time that long antedates the Trump regime, might do the trick.
Start small by a cultural boycott. Stop visiting the United States of America. Stop participating in academic conferences or cultural events until the current regime ends, and until the damage it has done to the world and its own people starts to be reversed. If this does not work, ramp it up as necessary. Divest from American businesses. Refuse to buy any non-necessary American product (I add “non-necessary” because many Americans working in agriculture and manufacturing have suffered mightily under Trump’s erratic tariff policy. But I think I can safely say that Hollywood movies or music CDs or clothing all fall under the “non-necessary” banner.) Refuse to participate in American-led adventures promoted under the banner of “defense” or “free markets.”
I realize that by entreating the community of legitimate states to treat my own homeland as a pariah-nation I might seem to be unpatriotic. That isn’t the case. Patriotic South African activists actively sought the boycotts and sanctions that eventually brought down the regime, even as they suffered under their weight. The anti-apartheid measures were understood to be a tactical burden that brought about a strategic gain. The federal government of the USA and the respect for the rule of law has crumbled under the combined weight of an ascendant plutocracy, a resurgent white nationalism, and the ballast of indifference in the citizenry at large. A bucket of political ice water might be needed to wake that citizenry up from its self-involved torpor, and by confronting us with the cold truth of things, the international community might just awaken us from our patriotic sleep.
UPDATE 10/17/2019 01:07PM EDT: Just a few minutes ago, White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney announced that the 2020 G7 summit will be held at — wait for it! — Trump’s Doral Resort in Florida. Mulvaney went on to say that of the many locales vetted for the summit, Doral was clearly the best! and that the President will not profit from it. This beggars belief. Any boycott should at least START with the G7 summit. I would go further, however. In 2014 the G8 members cancelled the summit to be held in Sochi, Russia, on account of the annexation of Crimea, and temporarily suspended its membership. While Trump’s griftery does not match the Russian invasion of sovereign Ukrainian territory, it does when coupled with his precipitating the Turkish invasion of Kurdish Syria. The dominoes have to start falling sometime, so why not now?