After all, it wasnt Donald Trump who had the hubris, in the wake of 9/11, to declare a Global War on Terror against 60 countries (the swamp of that moment). It wasnt Donald Trump who manufactured false intelligence on the weapons of mass destruction Iraqs Saddam Hussein supposedly possessed or produced bogus claims about that autocrats connections to al-Qaida, and then used both to lead the United States into a war on and occupation of that country. It wasnt Donald Trump who invaded Iraq (whether he was for or against the invasion at the time). It wasnt Donald Trump who donned a flight suit and landed on an aircraft carrier off the coast of San Diego to personally declare that hostilities were at an end in Iraq just as they were truly beginning, and to do so under an inane Mission Accomplished banner prepared by the White House.
It wasnt Donald Trump who ordered the CIA to kidnap terror suspects (including totally innocent individuals) off the streets of global cities as well as from the backlands of the planet and transport them to foreign prisons or CIA black sites where they could be tortured. It wasnt Donald Trump who caused one terror suspect to experience the sensation of drowning 83 times in a single month (even if he was inspired by such reports to claim that he would bring torture back as president).
It wasnt Donald Trump who spent eight years in the Oval Office presiding over a global killlist, running Terror Tuesday meetings, and personally helping choose individuals around the world for the CIA to assassinate using what, in essence, was the presidents own private drone force, while being praised (or criticized) for his caution.
It wasnt Donald Trump who presided over the creation of a secret military of 70,000 elite troops cosseted inside the larger military, special-ops personnel who, in recent years, have been dispatched on missions to a large majority of the countries on the planet without the knowledge, much less the consent, of the American people. Nor was it Donald Trump who managed to lift the Pentagon budget to $600bn and the overall national security budget to something like a trillion dollars or more, even as Americas civilian infrastructure aged and buckled.
It wasnt Donald Trump who lost an estimated $60bn to fraud and waste in the American reconstruction of Iraq and Afghanistan, or who decided to build highways to nowhere and a gas station in the middle of nowhere in Afghanistan. It wasnt Donald Trump who sent in the warrior corporations to squander more in that single country than was spent on the post-second world war Marshall Plan to put all of western Europe back on its feet. Nor did he instruct the US military to dump at least $25bn into rebuilding, retraining and rearming an Iraqi army that would collapse in 2014 in the face of a relatively small number of Isis militants, or at least $65bn into an Afghan army that would turn out to be filled with ghost soldiers.
In its history, the US has engaged in quite a remarkable range of wars and conflicts. Nonetheless, in the last 15 years, forever war has been institutionalized as a feature of everyday life in Washington, which, in turn, has been transformed into a permanent war capital. When Donald Trump won the presidency and inherited those wars and that capital, there was, in a sense, no one left in the remarkably bankrupt political universe of Washington but those generals.
As the chameleon he is, he promptly took on the coloration of the militarized world he had entered and appointed his three generals to key security posts. Anything but the norm historically, such a decision may have seemed anomalous and out of the American tradition. That, however, was only because, unlike Donald Trump, most of the rest of us hadnt caught up with where that tradition had actually taken us.
The previous two presidents had played the warrior regularly, donning military outfits in his presidential years, George W Bush often looked like a GI Joe doll and saluting the troops, while praising them to the skies, as the American people were also trained to do. In the Trump era, however, its the warriors (if youll excuse the pun) who are playing the president.
Its hardly news that Donald Trump is a man in love with what works. Hence, Steve Bannon, his dream strategist while on the campaign trail, is now reportedly on the ropes as his White House counselor because nothing hes done in the first nearly 100 days of the new presidency has worked (except promoting himself).
Think of Trump as a chameleon among presidents and much of this makes more sense. A Republican who had been a Democrat for significant periods of his life, he conceivably could have run for president as a more nativist version of Bernie Sanders on the Democratic ticket had the political cards been dealt just a little differently. Hes a man who has changed himself repeatedly to fit his circumstances and hes doing so again in the Oval Office.
In the world of the media, its stylish to be shocked, shocked that the president who campaigned on one set of issues and came into office still championing them is now supporting quite a different set from China to taxes, Nato to the Export-Import Bank. But this isnt faintly strange. Donald Trump isnt either a politician or a trendsetter. If anything, hes a trend-senser. (In a similar fashion, he didnt create reality TV, nor was he at its origins. He simply perfected a form that was already in development.)
If you want to know just where we are in an America that has been on the march toward a different sort of society and governing system for a long time now, look at him. Hes the originator of nothing, but he tells you all you need to know. On war, too, think of him as a chameleon. Right now, war is working for him domestically, whatever it may be doing in the actual world, so he loves it. For the moment, those generals are indeed his and their wars his to embrace.
Honeymoon of the generals
Normally, on entering the Oval Office, presidents receive what the media calls a honeymoon period. Things go well. Praise is forthcoming. Approval ratings are heartwarming.
Donald Trump got none of this. His approval ratings quickly headed for the honeymoon cellar or maybe the honeymoon fallout shelter; the media and he went to war; and one attempt after another to fulfill his promises from executive orders on deportation to repealing Obamacare and building his wall have come a cropper. His administration seems to be in eternal chaos, the cast of characters changing by the week or tweet, and few key secondary posts being filled.
In only one area has Donald Trump experienced that promised honeymoon. Think of it as the honeymoon of the generals. He gave them that total authorization, and the missiles left the ships, the drones flew and the giant bomb dropped. Even when the results were disappointing, if not disastrous (as in a raid on Yemen in which a US special operator was killed, children slaughtered, and nothing of value recovered), he still somehow stumbled into highly praised presidential moments.
So far, in other words, the generals are the only ones who have delivered for him, big-league. As a result, hes given them yet more authority to do whatever they want, while hugging them tighter yet.
Heres the problem, though: theres a predictable element to all of this and it doesnt work in Donald Trumps favor. Americas forever wars have now been pursued by these generals and others like them for more than 15 years across a vast swath of the planet from Pakistan to Libya (and ever deeper into Africa) and the chaos of failing states, growing conflicts and spreading terror movements has been the result. Theres no reason to believe that further military action will, a decade and a half later, produce more positive results.
What happens, then? What happens when the war honeymoon is over and the generals keep right on fighting their way? The last two presidents put up with permanent failing war, making the best they could of it. Thats unlikely for Donald Trump. When the praise begins to die down, the criticism starts to rise, and questions are asked, watch out.
What then? In a world of plutocrats and generals, what coloration will Donald Trump take on next? Who will be left, except Jared and Ivanka?
This piece was originally published in TomDispatch. Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the cold war, The End of Victory Culture