Where US–Canada relations were concerned, as well as Trump’s trade strategy, NAFTA was the leading event opening the month of October.
The US–Mexico–Canada Agreement (USMCA)
On Monday, October 1st, came the striking news that at the last minute the US and Canada signed a new agreement which, together with Mexico, would replace NAFTA.
While Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau declared that it was “a good deal for Canada,” he certainly sounded little like a winner, looking sombre, sounding toned down, the impression was of one who had just been humiliated. Canadian dairy farmers openly disagreed with Trudeau, and condemned the deal. Also not a “good deal” for Canadians were the increased healthcare costs that would result from higher drug prices, thanks to new provisions of the deal. The Canadian strategy was a conservative one to begin with—it was mainly aimed at preserving the status quo. As a result, part of the status quo was preserved, but the Canadian government had to concede other parts, which means a net loss for Canada. Quebec’s leading politicians denounced the deal as a disgrace and harmful to Quebec. In particular, the dairy industry in Quebec was expected to suffer. The government of Ontario also announced it would exert pressure on the federal government to compensate Ontario for the industries thrown “under the bus” in the new agreement. That Trudeau’s government was already speaking about compensation, on the first day, indicated it was by definition a negative deal. Editorials that tried to put a happy face on the deal, grudgingly admitted it was not the “win-win-win deal” that had been promised for 13 months. Driven by fear of new US tariffs, that were apparently “averted,” it was realized that Canada caved in significantly. It would now be up to provincial legislatures to ratify the trade deal, and with opposition coming from the two giants—Ontario and Quebec—things looked murky. In the US, there would be no congressional vote on the USMCA until the new year. Also, Canadian opinions of the US fell to a record low, unsurprisingly.
Donald Trump, on the other hand, sounded victorious as he hailed the outcome. He now called Trudeau a “good person” who was doing a “good job”—when just a few days earlier he claimed that he refused to meet with Trudeau. Much of what Trump wanted, Trump got. There were also some US concessions, especially on trade dispute resolutions (US courts would not have the first and last say on matters) and on protecting Canadian cultural industries. On the other hand, Canadian copyright law would now match US law which is exceedingly restrictive in what it allows to enter the public domain and when. Thus only the US side won anything new from the deal, which appeared a net loss for Canada. The deal also allows the US (and Mexico) to review any Canadian free trade deal with a “non-market economy” (i.e., China)—which could terminate Canada’s membership in the USMCA. This is interpreted as a way for the US to lock Canada and Mexico into the US orbit. In one particular case (infant formula), the USMCA appeared to block Canada from increasing exports to China.
Tariffs, and counter-tariffs, on steel and aluminum products remained in place. Canadian media such as the state-owned CBC, had little to share in the way of concrete details about the agreement.
In some respects, the deal contained advances as it annulled the infamous investor-state dispute settlement chapter that permitted corporations to sue governments in special tribunals. Auto workers would also benefit from higher wages, and more business would be generated in North America by increasing the North American content of automobiles manufactured by the three nations. In other, more complicated respects, it was a win for Canadian wine producers, seeking to market their products in Canada itself. Also, while Canadians were lectured at about the virtues of free trade, online shoppers experienced little of it directly—now, they will no longer pay duties on their online purchases, up to $150. Fortunately, the deal is not permanent: it is open to review in six years’ time, and can expire in 16 years. In addition, any of the members can walk away from the USMCA at any time, for any reason, with just six months’ notice.
Further on in October, Canada announced new steel tariffs, directed against countries seeking to dump steel in Canada for re-export to the US. This was apparently done to placate the US which accused Canada of serving as a backdoor to the US market. Nevertheless, tariffs between the US and Canada remained intact, despite the USMCA, and seemed likely to continue. The Canadian government also promised to pay refunds to Canadian corporations that paid tariffs on imported steel or aluminum products from the US. Separately, Canadian dairy farmers blasted Trump for massively distorting the facts about US–Canada dairy trade, and said the problem for the US was rooted in its overproduction of milk which caused it to become desperate to find foreign markets to dump its products, while also charging exorbitant tariffs on Canadian dairy products. The US has a massive $600 million surplus in its dairy trade with Canada (the number is closer to $650 million), despite Trump’s cries of injury.
Was China Really Losing the Trade War?
Defying predictions that China would feel a big bite from the US trade war, China instead expanded its exports to the US by more than 13% over a year earlier (before the trade war). September, which saw a Chinese surplus of $34.1 billion, “marked the second straight record Chinese monthly trade surplus with the United States after August’s $31 billion”. Meanwhile, China’s imports from the US slowed down. China’s currency also fell in value, making its exports much more competitive, and it experienced accelerated growth in its exports overall. Just after these facts were reported, Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, gave a hair-raising interview in which he listed a range of US responses that bordered on war with China. The latter possibility seemed to become more real as it was reported that just a month before, a Chinese and US warship came within 45 yards of each other in a near collision.
Seemingly in response to US actions, China sold a mere $3 billion in sovereign dollar bonds, “only the third such move by Beijing in the last 14 years, and the first involving bonds with a 30-year maturity”. Some news media tried to spin this as a “warning shot,” a kind of preview of greater actions China might take—and though China may be the single largest owner of US debt, it is quite far from owning a majority of US debt by itself. In actuality, it is unlikely that this was a sign of things to come, and even if China tried to unload all of its holdings of US securities, it’s not clear how much of a negative effect that would have on the US, or China itself.
On the other hand, offering support for Trump’s claims to be having an impact on China, other reports painted a different picture of China by looking at different numbers—such as the biggest drop in China’s economic growth since the global financial crisis. Even China’s growth in exports was explained as a momentary response, where firms were front-loading their shipments in advance of stronger US tariffs. It would be in the new year when we might see the actual impact of US tariffs on China’s rate of exports.
Meanwhile there were reports suggesting that countries like Russia, China, and members of the European Union, were working to create an alternative world reserve currency, that would seriously challenge US financial hegemony.
On the political and military sides, the US’ Cold War with China seemed to be entering a new and more dangerous phase. The US accused China of interfering in US elections, ramping up the new Cold War with China. As for continuing US wars, such as the US in Afghanistan, retired Army Colonel Larry Wilkerson warned of the dangers of such perpetual wars. He asked if the US military was really in Afghanistan just to apply pressure on China, and if so, then level with American citizens and especially those who serve in battle.
The New Cold War with Russia
The Russian government claimed that the US side repeatedly rejected a Russian offer of a pact of mutual non-interference in the internal affairs of either country.
In addition to working on the creation of an alternative world reserve currency (see above), Russia also announced that it had liquidated nearly all of its holdings of US debt, and invested the money in gold instead. Russia thus announced that it was making efforts to “de-dollarize” its economy, as a matter of national security. Russia was also working on an agreement to de-dollarize trade with China.
President Trump announced that the US would unilaterally withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Trump complained that Russia was in breach of the treaty, which Russia denied, and he then complained that China was not part of the treaty. In fact, Trump made any revival of the agreement contingent upon China becoming a signatory, which lent weight to interpretations that Trump’s move was really meant to target China, since it had developed a range of intermediate nuclear-capable weapons that were not subject to any treaty. This move of course sent relations with Russia into another, more dangerous downward spiral, with Russia promising an “immediate and mirror-like” response. Russia promised to target all European nations hosting any US intermediate range missiles. Russia also accused the US of violating the INF treaty, and explained how. Former Trump adviser, Carter Page, warned that the end of the INF should be something that scares Americans. The clock had seemingly been turned back to the early 1980s, with the threat of a new arms race as part of this new Cold War. It did not help that Trump himself boasted to the media that the US had a lot of money and was willing to launch a new arms race.
Turkey–Saudi Arabia–US: A Realignment?
Strange events unfolded in October involving what had become an increasingly bellicose relationship between the US and Turkey (with tariffs and sanctions, and counter-tariffs and counter-sanctions) and what had been a continued long-standing alliance between the US and Saudi Arabia’s ruling monarchy. The turning point appeared to be the torture and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi resident in the US as an exile, who wrote for The Washington Post and was fairly critical of the Saudi rulers—but was not the liberal democrat that some made him out to be. Saudi “explanations” changed dramatically and rapidly, from total denial and asserting that Khashoggi had left the consulate, to saying that Khashoggi got into a fist fight with consular staff and was overpowered and died accidentally, to then confirming that it was a deliberate murder (by supposedly “rogue” elements).
As was seen in the skirmish between Saudi Arabia and Canada, the Saudis—though claiming to be “reformist”—would at first not accept even a hint of criticism, and lashed out when they felt they had the upper hand, and probably felt empowered by Trump’s glowing praise for the Saudi monarchy. It seems that now they had gone too far—while Saudi forces were slaughtering thousands of civilians in Yemen, and had abducted and beaten the Prime Minister of Lebanon forcing him to resign, it took the murder of just one US resident to galvanize US legislators into demanding the severest possible punishment, short of direct military confrontation with Saudi Arabia. Some critiqued the “moralistic BS” of the foreign policy establishment and the media, that had long glanced past the charnel house which Yemen had become under the Saudis, and fixated on one man instead (who happened to be a colleague).
US weapons manufacturers were alarmed by the outcry, and tried to pressure Trump not to halt what was reported as over $100 billion in US arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Trump himself seemed little interested in the option of halting arms sales, claiming this would hurt the US more than the Saudis, and benefit Russia and China.
While initially reluctant to accept that Saudi Arabia was guilty of any wrongdoing, and willing to buy Saudi denials, Trump soon admitted that he thought Khashoggi had indeed been killed, as was later confirmed by the Saudis themselves. Trump then found the Saudi explanation for the killing, once the Saudis admitted to it, to be “inadequate”. Turkey provided evidence that Khashoggi had been detained in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, never left, and was tortured and murdered, and claimed to have video evidence of a Saudi hit squad that had arrived in Turkey. The Saudis initially denied the claims but could not prove that Khashoggi ever left the consulate—they claimed he left, but his fiancé, waiting outside, never saw him leave. More information came out that showed the Saudis tried to cover up the murder, by having a body double in Khashoggi’s clothes leave the consulate through the back entrance, and disposing of the body in a forest. Another account detailed how the Saudi who ran social media for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salmanfor, Saud al-Qahtani, supervised the killing of Khashoggi live via Skype, giving orders for the brutal acts that were committed.
At the same time as these events unfolded, Turkey decided to release US evangelist Andrew Brunson, which had itself become a “last straw” that had apparently broken US–Turkish relations. Brunson appeared next to Trump within a day. While it seemed likely that the US would now repair its ties with Turkey (in fact, that seemed to be part of the deal to release Brunson), it was the alliance with Saudi Arabia that was in extreme jeopardy.
Turkey appeared to be making the most of this event to embarrass both the US and its Saudi ally, and the relationship between them. Turkish authorities kept speaking of audio or other recorded evidence, without actually releasing it, and prolonging the suspense and the inevitable discussion even further. In addition, it was obvious that Turkey was spying on the diplomatic missions of close US allies, even while it is a NATO member itself.
Trump was obviously dragging his feet on taking any action—though he had instantly slammed Russia with sanctions, and expelled several dozen Russian diplomats, with far less evidence of a crime, not even committed against a US citizen or resident. However, when it came to Saudi Arabia, Trump was suddenly quite open to accepting denials at face value, reminding Americans that the person affected was a Saudi citizen. The Skripals were Russian citizens, and Sergei Skripal was a spy, but none of that mattered to Trump. Saudi Arabia was being held to a very different standard. In fact, despite Trump’s vague promises to somehow punish or penalize Saudi Arabia, US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin met with the Crown Prince in Riyadh, at the opening of an investment conference that Mnuchin previously said he would no longer attend. Mnuchin had not even announced the Saudi stop as part of his Middle East tour.
For once, it seemed that the US (apart from Trump) might cease to operate with convenient double standards, and selective, opportunistic outrage, by applying similar measures to Saudi Arabia. The effort, however, was driven more by Senators than the reluctant White House. Turkey and Saudi Arabia are rivals in the Middle East, and Turkey was manoeuvring skilfully in driving a wedge between the Saudis and the US. The US is relying on Saudi Arabia as a bulwark against Iran, which is itself allied with Turkey. Any significant realignment of relations on this front would introduce a major change in US foreign policy. It therefore seemed unlikely that Trump would take any serious steps to punish the Saudis at this point. Indeed, none materialized in 2018.
Iran: The Costs of Trump’s Policy
As October opened, everyone noticed the surging price of oil. Prices were set to skyrocket as Saudi Arabia was unable to offset the drop in the world supply of oil, thanks to US sanctions on Iran, with the sanctions only set to become even more severe in November.
Iran scored a major legal victory against the US in early October, through a ruling by the International Court of Justice—which the US once again promptly dismissed, and derided, then moved to cancel a consular and economic relations treaty that the US has had with Iran since 1955. The ICJ demanded that the US lift sanctions which were affecting “humanitarian goods” and civil aviation. The ICJ considered that US sanctions were in fact a “danger to health and life” of Iranians. (The US also withdrew from the “Optional Protocol” of the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, in order to counter a separate challenge, from the Palestinian government.)
Liberal Imperialists Lose their Champions: First, Nikki Haley, then Dina Powell
Long championed by Fox News, and earning the praise of liberal media like The New York Times, it was a refreshing change for Trump’s anti-interventionist supporters to see the sudden departure of Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN. Long a pro-war hawk, Haley was closely affiliated with the branch of liberal imperialists dubbed “neoconservatives”. Soon after the announcement, Fox News (with the sole exception of Tucker Carlson), rushed to push the name of Dina Powell to the forefront, one who was employed by Goldman Sachs, and had significant ties with Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Foundation, and was likely to continue Haley’s counter-Trump parallel foreign policy. Powell apparently dropped out, or was dropped, as a frontrunner to replace Haley. Among Haley’s most notoriously belligerent statements, was her expression of certainty that Russia had “absolutely” meddled in the elections in Binomo—the only problem being that Binomo does not exist. Falling prey to prank callers, Haley revealed that the US’ top ambassador, to the UN no less, was not familiar with world geography and the names of the member states of the UN. This fact seemed to escape any significant commentary in the US media.
The Migrant Caravan
President Trump threatened to terminate US aid to Honduras if the Honduran government failed to stop a caravan of migrants leaving for the US. On the one hand, the demand was as illogical as it was illegal: the Honduran government cannot transform the country into a giant prison camp at the behest of the US, and prevent citizens from exercising their right to travel. It is up to the US to prevent entry; it is not up to Honduras to illegally arrest and indefinitely detain all citizens. On the other hand, seeing matters from a slightly different perspective more in line with Trump’s sentiments, if US aid does not actually do anything to better the lives of Honduras’ people, then it is hard to justify continuing it. However, one response to that position might be that the aid is either insufficient in amount, poorly managed or targeted, or all of these, in addition to arguments that explain that aid itself is ineffective as a method of poverty alleviation. (This last point could itself be used to advance the end-the-aid argument.)
Apart from this, it would seem that Guatemala and Mexico would be under increased pressure to serve as US buffer states, preventing or otherwise impeding entry to Hondurans, which would in turn work against Central American integration and create regional tensions. As Trump ordered the military to the southern border, the US also announced that it had reached a deal with Mexico designed to impede the caravan, which involved the UN High Commission for Refugees to process all refugee claims within Mexico itself. The Honduran organizer of the caravan was detained by Guatemalan authorities. While at one point it seemed that half of the migrants had turned home, the caravan later grew in size even as it stalled on the border between Guatemala and Mexico. However, as Mexican authorities felt overwhelmed by the numbers, and potential for violent confrontations, Mexico reversed course and began to allow the Central American migrants to travel to the US border, which Trump threatened to “shut down”.
Politically, there were dubious arguments that deserved further critique. Even the migrants would have needed to explain how it was that the US, under Trump, was so attractive to them rather than a neighbouring country. If Trump was really ruining the nation the way his opponents frequently claim, were the migrants not instead giving the US their vote of confidence? As for the Democrats in the US, in preparation for the mid-term elections consultants and think tanks aligned with the party advised candidates to say as little as possible about immigration. This is presumably because the Democrats’ ostensible pro-open borders approach to illegal immigration is not a winning proposition with most Americans, and particularly not with “swing voters” in key electoral “battleground” states.
“Social” Media are US Media: Waking Up to Contemporary Cultural Imperialism
Further events transpired in October that one might hope would awaken more people to the fact that they had voluntarily made themselves into artificial hostages of US social media companies, developing a relationship of forced dependency on entities that have now become quite brazen in practicing political censorship. What is being created in the US are “social” media bubbles, with a regulated uniformity in the range of authorized expressions and permissible perspectives.
By mid-October, Facebook went as far as purging around 800 pages and accounts, associated with elements of both the political right and left. The “authoritarian censorship” that US activists routinely complained about when it occurred overseas, had finally come home. Facebook targeted entities that had millions of followers, who will now have to use other means for distributing their content (not a difficult chore). In the end, all that Facebook really achieved was to cement the fact that liberalism is in practice very illiberal, intolerant, and anti-democratic, and in place of a multiplicity of perspectives that occur in reality, Facebook would rather offer users a virtual world of pretend hegemony.
Google also discussed its own censorship practices, in what it frankly acknowledges as censorship. Google has decided that free speech on the Internet is “no longer viable”. Google executives, in leaked internal discussions, also made it clear that they were guided by an anti-Trump, anti-populist political bias. Google has also developed a censored search engine for China, just to underline where it stands on free speech. The Google leak also attested to the fact that US social media such as Facebook and Twitter, plus Google, control the majority of online conversations.
In an apparent celebration of the kind of censorship that upholds the status quo and the dominance of discredited mainstream media, the CBC ran a story about a very green journalist working as a “fact checker” for Facebook, writing articles that “debunked” stories that did not meet the official standard of permissible truth. The article consisted of bland generalities and statements of the obvious, with little explored beyond the surface and few of the terms ever being defined, not to mention the most inane “tips” for “spotting fake news”—a clear sign of the kind of “journalistic quality” that is being defended, and the infant brigade leading the charge. What the CBC did not uncover was the fact that many of these same “fact checkers” were abandoning Facebook, especially since it became a purveyor of “fake news” in its own right.
Top Articles for October
On Zero Anthropology this month:
- “Syria: The New Terra Nullius,” October 6.
- “‘Cocaine Cowboys: Reloaded’ (2014): Reversing Empire and the 1980s’ Drug War,” October 28.
Top articles of the month:
- “The Grievance Studies Scandal: Five Academics Respond,” Quillette Magazine, October 1.
- “The USMCA keeps Canada in America’s thrall,” David Moscrop, Macleans, October 1.
- “Could Trump Take Down the American Empire?” Gareth Porter, Truthdig, October 2.
- “The Grievance Studies Scandal Isn’t Just A Problem For Academia,” John Daniel Davidson, The Federalist, October 4.
- “The military-industrial-humanitarian complex: Spreading Western hegemony under the guise of virtue,” Tomasz Pierscionek, RT, October 4.
- “What an Audacious Hoax Reveals About Academia,” Yascha Mounk, The Atlantic, October 5.
- “‘Identity’ by Francis Fukuyama,” Max Diamond, Real Clear Books, October 8.
- “What the media aren’t telling you about Jamal Khashoggi,” John R. Bradley, Spectator, October 11.
- “‘White Women’ Becomes a Disparaging Term,” Kyle Smith, National Review, October 14.
- “Economic security is national security,” Peter Navarro, The Washington Times, October 17.
- “How Trump broke through the moralistic BS of American foreign policy,” Damon Linker, The Week, October 17.
- “UK press riddled with spooks, conduits for intelligence agencies keen to score one for the Empire,” John Wight, RT, October 18.
Coverage for November is once again uneven and partial, since this was another research period and attention was inevitably concentrated on other matters.
Trump Consolidates Power
As the month progressed, it seemed like little new would be happening on the US foreign relations front, especially as the US became consumed with its mid-term elections. Those elections saw little of the much touted Democratic “blue wave,” even after two years of the most consistent, uniform, anti-Trump hysteria in the mainstream media added to an FBI investigation of imagined “collusion” between the Trump campaign and Russia. That all of the hyperbole, conspiracy theories, and incessant fear-mongering led the Democrats to only gain control of one-half of one-third of the US government, would seem to be an indictment of their strategies and inchoate narratives. Trump, allegedly very unpopular, did not witness the worst loss for an incumbent party, and the Republicans increased their lead in the Senate, which also increases their ease in confirming any (likely) new nominee to the Supreme Court. No wonder then that Trump sounded victorious—it was with some justification, and that fact seemed to drive the media quite mad. On the other hand, others read the results quite differently, and noted that Republicans lost key battleground states that were vital to Trump’s 2016 victory: in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, with three senate races and three gubernatorial races, Democrats won all six.
Nevertheless, with a divided Congress, any failure by Trump to achieve his legislative aims will be blamed squarely on the Democrats, giving a perfect alibi as he runs for re-election. In addition, the Democrats’ in-fighting over who would be the Speaker of the House of Representatives meant that for a while their supposed gain would divide them. Trump further consolidated his position by firing Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who had recused himself from matters dealing with the Russia conspiracy allegations, and replacing him with a stalwart critic of the investigations. What all of this amounts to on the foreign policy front, is the gradual dissolution of the Russiagate hoax. Whether that will amount to improved relations with Russia remains to be seen. However, by the end of the year all of the talk was about alleged “campaign finance violations,” not “Russia collusion”.
The US and Saudi Arabia: No Realignment in Sight
If the Khashoggi murder by Saudi Arabia, and the role played by Turkey in highlighting it, suggested a possible change in the power dynamics between the US and Saudi Arabia, Trump put an absolute end to any such possibility with some remarkably deceptive hyperbole that vastly inflated the importance of the Saudi kingdom to the US and world economy. Remarkably, Trump thanked Saudi Arabia for lower oil prices—but if anything, Saudi Arabia prevented oil prices from dropping further since it decided to cut oil supply, along with other OPEC members. Decreased demand from a slowing world economy was primarily responsible for the momentary fall in prices, not Saudi generosity toward Americans.
Trump’s position effectively granted the Saudis impunity, and it cast a shadow on Trump’s claims to be a nationalist who defended “America First”. Commenting on Trump’s published statement, affirming that the relationship with Saudi Arabia was unshakeable and essential, and that the real enemy was Iran, Senator Rand Paul said the statement spoke of “Saudi Arabia First, not America First,” and that he heard John Bolton in Trump’s words. Rand called Bolton, “the king of the swamp”. In the Congress, even allies of Trump vowed to take actions to sanction Saudi Arabia and halt arms sales. In this episode, Trump came across as a puppet of US military contractors and the Saudi kingdom, rather than a fearless and dominant actor. Trump also diverged from the CIA, saying that he instead believed that the Saudi royal family played absolutely no role in ordering the killing of Khashoggi. In what was ostensibly a move meant to dampen US Congressional criticism, the Saudis released the US from aiding with refuelling Saudi jets engaged in bombing Yemen.
On the other hand, there were those who were critical of the criticisms of Trump, arguing that any serious move over Khashoggi would have been hypocritical. Some reminded their readers that Khashoggi had defended the Saudi kingdom and its repressive policies in the past, and had been a promoter of the Muslim Brotherhood, and had personally entertained warm relations with Osama Bin Laden. Moreover, not only had Khashoggi initially supported the Saudi invasion of Yemen, “Khashoggi also remained steadfast in his support of the ‘moderate’ Islamist rebels in Syria, who did to thousands of innocents precisely what the Saudi regime did to him”.
Turkey—hardly a neutral and disinterested party in this affair, having much to gain from diminished Saudi influence—dismissed Trump’s comments on Saudi Arabia as “comic”. Turkey also accused Trump of turning a blind eye to the Saudi’s atrocities.
Iran: Preparing for War?
Turkey also criticized US sanctions on Iran, calling them dangerous and counter-productive. Turkey, though a NATO member and US ally, imported a third of its gas from Iran.
Since at least May, Iran’s leadership had been sounding the alarm about the heightened bellicosity of the Trump administration. In November, they reminded the Americans that several key US bases stretching from the Gulf to central Asia, were in the reach of Iranian missiles. Iran said the same about US aircraft carriers in the region, and sounded as if they were ready for any escalation.
That Iran’s leaders should perceive the situation in such stark terms is at least partly explained by the nature of the threats coming from the Trump administration. Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, opted for blood-thirsty language that relished imposing collective punishment on all Iranians, saying that US sanctions would “squeeze” Iran “until the pips squeak”. Bolton predicted that the Europeans would eventually fall in line with US policy—which is not unlikely. In addition, the thrust of US policy, impacting on Iranians’ ability to even eat, is clearly designed to push for regime change, and this is an almost certain recipe for war. However, the reality is likely to be one where Iran suffers a recession, but nothing like collapse. Iran’s leaders know this, and this partly explains why they remain loudly defiant.
Iran has given no sign of bending to the US’ capricious attitude. The Iranian foreign minister pointedly asked, “Why should we resume another talk just because somebody doesn’t like it? Just because somebody hates his predecessor? That’s not the reason you engage in diplomacy”. Iran’s foreign minister also reassured his listeners that Iranians knew how to survive sanctions, and would do so again. Certainly, without the backing of international law, and in clear violation of an international agreement, the US would find it difficult to convince states and companies that relations with Iran, even surreptitious ones, were beyond thinkable. The US was already aware that numerous countries were preparing alternatives for dealing with US sanctions on Iran. The failure of sanctions, and the polarization of disagreement between the US and Iran, might thus become yet another force pushing towards war. While it is unlikely that Trump will start a new war just before the presidential elections, it seems more likely that he will do so if he wins a second term.
The US and North Korea
The US Defense Department confirmed that military exercises planned for the following year in South Korea would be scaled back in order not to harm the diplomatic initiative with North Korea. It was also revealed that the US and South Korea were in a disagreement about the pace of improved ties between the South and the North. It sounded as if the US was worried that peace would get out of hand, as it tried to maintain international sanctions that now had diminished support.
Early in the month, analysts reported that North Korea was continuing development of its nuclear weapons program, which would make sense in the absence of any substantive change on the Americans’ part. In addition, North Korea postponed new talks with the US Secretary of State. Meanwhile Russia formally protested to the UN that international sanctions were causing humanitarian damage to North Koreans, while the US accused Russia of trying to lift banking restrictions.
The US Trade War with China
Reports were still coming in that China had experienced continued growth in both exports and imports, seemingly defying predictions of a negative impact of Trump’s trade war. However, these reports now suggested that the numbers were deceptive, in that they reflected increased orders before the US tariffs hit, and that the coming months would be the ones in which a decline in China’s trade growth would become apparent. Even now China’s trade surplus was smaller than expected.
After the Democrats won a majority in the House of Representatives, some reports suggested that this would not diminish Trump’s trade war against China—instead, it was likely to amplify it.
The Continued Trade War with Canada
Showing just how much Canada had surrendered, in return for signing the USMCA (NAFTA’s replacement), Prime Minister Justin Trudeau confirmed that Canada would still sign the deal though US tariffs on steel and aluminum remain in place. In other words, in return for a free trade deal Canada was prepared to let go of free trade. On the other hand, some would argue that none of these agreements are about really “free” trade, given the extent of regulations, limits, and controls that they prescribe.
GM Plant Closures in Canada and the US
In the closing week of November stunning news came out that General Motors was shutting down five of its plants (four in the US, one in Canada). On the first day of the news there was some media speculation that perhaps Trump’s steel tariffs had cost Americans their jobs—indeed, while steel tariffs may have accounted for a billon dollar loss for GM, the company was cutting about $6 billion in production and 15% of its workforce, far in excess of any effect of the tariffs. Instead a wide variety of other factors explain GM’s decision to cut plants and jobs. Those jobs were being cut despite GM’s profits. Labour unions and politicians on both sides of the Canada–US border strongly criticized GM’s decision, and President Trump sounded as if he was exercising direct pressure on GM to remedy the situation, even making threats to punish GM. To a certain extent, GM’s plant closures directly went against Trump’s many boasts about jobs retained in the US, and the resurgence of US manufacturing—and some of the plants being closed are situated in key electoral battlegrounds vital to Trump’s re-election, two in Michigan and one in Ohio. In both Canada and the US, GM had benefited from massive taxpayer-funded bailouts during the 2008 financial crisis, and from unions making concessions, so this hardly seemed like a fitting return on investment, an “investment” in GM that was forced on the public and extracted from GM workers. In addition, as highlighted by the union representing GM’s workers, the company was maintaining production at full output in Mexico, with no announced reductions there—instead, GM production has been rising significantly in Mexico. The problem with the partisan spin on the plant closures is that their arguments focus exclusively on blaming Trump, forgetting that the largest plant to be closed, in terms of number of workers, is in Justin Trudeau’s Canada. It makes little sense to blame politicians for corporate decisions made autonomously of party politics. However, one thing that can be said is that clearly the renegotiation of NAFTA, and agreement on the USMCA, has not put an end to the kinds of flows of jobs out of both Canada and the US and into Mexico.
Reinforcing the US Border with Mexico
Bolstering previous decisions to send US troops to defend the border with Mexico against what the US government saw as an illegal incursion of thousands of migrants organized in a march on the border, the Defense Department indicated it would take actions to defend border agents, up to and including the use of lethal force. Already at least 5,800 troops had been deployed, with occasional talk of several thousand more waiting to be sent. Some US engineering troops had already erected fences across parts of the border, and this opened an opportunity for the Trump administration to use US troops, and the defense budget, to launch the building of his border wall—an opportunity which remained open at least to the end of the year.
In exceptionally hard language, even for Trump, the US president announced that if necessary the entire border with Mexico would be shut down to prevent the illegal entry of the migrant caravan. Trump reiterated the position that US troops could use lethal force, primarily to defend themselves. Trump also lambasted the migrants as irrational, volatile criminals who are prone to fistfights without provocation. The threat to close the border, which would mean shutting down overland trade with Mexico, would effectively kick the ball into the Mexican court, leaving Mexican authorities to decide whether to support the migrants or support their trade revenues from the US.
Early in the month, Trump signed an executive order denying asylum to those entering the country illegally. Later in the month, this order was challenged by a judge, forcing Trump to escalate the legal battle possibly as far as the Supreme Court (which the Republicans control). As with the failure to stop Trump’s travel ban in the past, this would likely delay rather than end Trump’s order. In addition, Trump challenged the principle of citizenship by birthright, which threatened to open a constitutional battle.
In light of these events, it was interesting to hear Hillary Clinton advise European politicians to “get a handle” on immigration in order to stem the rise of populist parties, not that she nor any of the other eminent participants in interviews with The Guardian were able to explain the rise of such movements and their electoral successes. What is interesting is that Clinton is partly going back on her pro-immigration narrative of 2016, as brief as that lasted, a pro-immigration narrative that had ample contradiction from both her past statements and the policies pursued by the Obama administration which in fact differed little from Trump’s.
In an ill-advised attempt to crash the US border, a group of migrants attempted to storm the border crossing from Mexico into San Diego on November 25, resulting in US customs and border patrol firing tear gas in self-defense against volleys of stones and bottles thrown at them by the migrants. In response, Mexico deported 100 of the migrants who were involved. The liberal media persisted in its failure to explain a glaring contradiction: why would so many people be so desperate to migrate to Trump’s America, when so many liberal celebrities had themselves promised to move to Canada after Trump won the 2016 election? Liberal journalists, such as CNN’s Jim Acosta, were clearly also wrong in denying—presumably on the basis of some special clairvoyance—that the migrant caravan was “not an invasion” and that the migrants would not be climbing over the border fence nor engaging in violence. Clearly the media were once again proven to be wrong, which helps to explain why Trump has a higher trust rating than the media. While the media were generally filled with outrage over the tear gassing at the border, the same media had little to say back in 2013 when under the Obama administration a similar crowd was repelled from the border by agents using pepper spray.
Nationalism or Patriotism?
Few are the academics who would notice much of the “intellectual heavyweight” in either Emmanuel Macron or Angela Merkel, who are not known for their scholarly dissertations on abstract concepts. They are technocrats. They speak the language of policy, not philosophy, and they trade in partisanship. Yet these were the people who led the neoliberal corporate media in rousing chants that “nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism,” “the exact opposite of patriotism,” and even that “nationalism is treason”—leaving the rest of us to wonder if these people had ever heard of synonyms, or understood what a synonym was, or had ever familiarized themselves with the meaning of nationalism. In most dictionary definitions, such as this one, patriotism is a defining element of nationalism:
- spirit or aspirations common to the whole of a nation.
- devotion and loyalty to one’s own country; patriotism.
- excessive patriotism; chauvinism.
It works in the reverse direction too of course, where patriotism is logically defined as loyalty to one’s country, i.e., nationalism:
- devoted love, support, and defense of one’s country; national loyalty.
Yet media from CNN to the New York Times and Der Zeit could not stop crowing about this imaginary point that was scored, this fatal blow, this towering insight that nationalism is somehow a betrayal of patriotism. Re-examine the definitions above, and one can honestly judge whether the media, and the politicians they echoed, were not producing “fake news”. If it is not deception, it is certainly a failure to inform and educate the public, and an assault on language.
At the very least, this is an instructive example of what happens to knowledge when one lets partisan ideological combat take the lead. In an effort to be “opposed to everything that is Trump,” Macron, Merkel, and their media amplifiers thought they could steal Trump’s ball, and run with it. Instead they tripped over their long tongues and tied themselves up as purveyors of meaningless gibberish.
Blaming “America First isolationism” as the “root” of WWI and WWII, has to be one of the most egregious examples of historical revisionism to be aired in recent times. Macron likewise failed to understand that what he calls “patriotism” is instead liberal cosmopolitanism.
Beyond all of this, this was a glimpse into the kind of chasm that has opened up between the US and western Europe. This became especially evident after Trump developed cheerful relations with Macron, praising the latter warmly, only to rebuff him abruptly when Macron lobbied Trump to remain in the Iran nuclear agreement and to also avoid a trade war with Europe. Obviously, relations between the two had to sour. Just a few weeks later, Trump would repay the favour, in obvious public gloating over the massive protests that shook France and were aimed at Macron and his policies. Trump declared:
“Maybe it’s time to end the ridiculous and extremely expensive Paris Agreement and return money back to the people in the form of lower taxes? The U.S. was way ahead of the curve on that and the only major country where emissions went down last year!”
Even before that, Trump made the following comment:
“The Paris Agreement isn’t working out so well for Paris. Protests and riots all over France. People do not want to pay large sums of money, much to third world countries (that are questionably run), in order to maybe protect the environment. Chanting ‘We Want Trump!’ Love France”.
In response, France’s foreign minister would suddenly rediscover nationalism and demanded that Trump “leave our nation be”.
Russia, Ukraine, and the G20
After Russia seized three Ukrainian navy vessels which entered its territorial waters without permission, in what the Russians legitimately perceived as a provocative act of aggression, Trump left it unclear as to whether he would meet with Putin at the upcoming G20 meeting in Argentina (November 30–December 1, 2018). Leaders speaking to each other, a key element of diplomacy, was apparently open to sacrifice in order to make a symbolic protest of no consequence. The Ukrainian provocation, which resulted in Russian aircraft firing on the vessels and wounding several crew members, was conveniently timed right before the start of the G20 summit, and for the start of election campaigning in Ukraine, thus the president imposed martial law allegedly in response to Russia seizing Ukrainian vessels. Mere moments after a new plea agreement between Trump’s former lawyer and the Mueller investigation, Trump reversed course: earlier in the morning of his departure to the G20 he affirmed he would meet with Putin, but once on the plane he tweeted that no meeting was possible until Russia returned the Ukrainian vessels. Once again it appeared that domestic politics played a dangerous role in undermining diplomacy with a key international actor that exerts considerable influence in areas the US has defined as being of strategic interest.
Fake News and the Russiagate Conspiracy Theory
A particularly striking example of “fake news” was presented courtesy of The Guardian, which falsely alleged that Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, held three secret talks with WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange, in his place of asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. Contacted by the author of the article for comment, Assange flatly denied the rumour as false—his response was not included in the article. The article has no known sources and has not been corroborated. On top of that, after Assange’s bet—$1 million and the editor’s job—The Guardian has made repeated edits to the article, softening and diluting the piece, written by a particularly discredited “reporter”. WikiLeaks is now raising money to sue The Guardian for libel. Manafort also absolutely denied the story, and called it libelous. Manafort’s own passports show he could not have met Assange in the years alleged by The Guardian’s Luke Harding, since his passport stamps reveal no visit to the UK. There was some speculation that, in conjunction with events surrounding the Mueller investigation in the US, this might be a means for the US to indict Assange. This episode further underscores the reality that the media are purveying ludicrous conspiracy theories in support of Russiagate, continuing to erode any remaining public’s confidence in their willingness to report the news fairly and accurately. It’s an own goal.
Top Articles for November
- “The Left Case against Open Borders,” Angela Nagle, American Affairs, November.
- “Racism, Revised,” William Voegeli, Claremont Review of Books, November 6.
- “One Nation, Indivisible,” Richard W. Porter, Real Clear Politics, November 8.
- “Russian diplomacy is winning the New Cold War – Stephen Cohen,” RT, November 22.
- “Why Trump is right to stand by Saudi Arabia,” John R. Bradley, Spectator USA, November 20.
- “Trump Is Right About Saudi Arabia,” Christian Whiton, The National Interest, November 21.
- “Trump’s Odd Definition of ‘America First’,” Jonah Goldberg, National Review, November 22.
- “How everything became the culture war,” Michael Grunwald, The Week, November 22.
- “Did 1968 Win The Culture War?” Victor Davis Hanson, Investor’s Business Daily, November 23.
- “US, Europe & NATO risk all-out war by backing unhinged Kiev regime,” Finian Cunningham, RT, November 27.
Pausing the US–China Trade War?
By the end of the G20 summit in Argentina that began on November 30, China and the US announced a 90-day “truce” during which China promised to purchase more US goods and remove some tariffs on US automobiles, while the US would not impose new tariffs of 25% on $200 billion worth of Chinese goods. Some news media, not those usually supportive of Trump, congratulated Trump on important gains. As a truce, however, there is no resolution to the basic lines of conflict between the US and Chinese governments. Also, statements released by China and the US, when placed side by side, showed significant differences of interpretation of the truce. This is likely to be an issue that will continue to feature prominently in 2019.
Perhaps the most important feature of this G20 was increased recognition of the fact that both the G20 and the WTO, have essentially ceased to play a decisive role in international affairs. In fact, at Trump’s insistence, the final communiqué of the G20 called for “reform” of the WTO, while none of the positions that most irk Trump were mentioned. A former director general of the WTO, Pascal Lamy, had many serious criticisms of Trump’s trade war strategy, his understanding of the roots of the US trade deficit, his approach to the WTO, and the US’ illegal imposition of extraterritorial sanctions.
Just a day after the announcement of a US–China truce, President Trump tweeted that he was still a “tariff man”: he claimed that the tariffs maximized US economic power, generating billions in revenues, and that in any case trade with the US is a privilege. Seemingly in response, at least the way liberal media constructed it, stock markets went into a deep nosedive. There was little to no discussion of the many other factors that could have induced the sell-off. Among those was that it became even foggier as to what China and the US had agreed on at the G20, with Chinese media making no mention of any reduction in Chinese tariffs, or even that the truce would last 90 days.
Exacerbating tensions between the US and Chinese governments was the arrest (in Canada) of Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Huawei. She was to be expatriated to the US, for Huawei’s alleged violation of US sanctions against Iran, sanctions that prohibit the export of US technologies (such as those purchased by Huawei) from being re-exported to Iran. China’s government was angered, and demanded her immediate release. The CFO was arrested at the same time as Trump and Xi Jinping were meeting in Buenos Aires, and China was likely to see this as an act of bad faith on the Americans’ part. Then the US accused China of orchestrating the years-long hack of the Starwood hotel chain, in what looked like the conversion of a trade war into a cold war. Responding to growing US alarm about China, the South China Morning Post advised Americans to look in the mirror, and stop seeing shadows of imaginary empires elsewhere.
While some saw China as suffering the costs of its own tariffs on US soy beans, Trump seemed to grow more sensitive to the possible short-term economic damage of a trade war with China, and he sounded increasingly eager to boast of his excellence in negotiating deals. As one writer saw it, if Trump failed to negotiate a new deal with China, a recession would set in and likely damage Trump’s chances for re-election, putting Trump’s electoral chances in the hands of China. The same argument could be made with reference to North Korea, placing Trump in a possible lose-lose situation there.
Against the US’ Forever War in Afghanistan
Whether by design or coincidence, articles appeared in December (as they had appeared throughout the year) that criticized continued US warfare in Afghanistan. Most saw it as a fool’s errand, and had praise for Trump’s “instincts” on withdrawing US troops from combat in Afghanistan. While these articles tended to acknowledge that Trump had said that he deferred to “the experts” in the military on continuing US intervention, they also suggested that actual experts were coming to a very different consensus, and they criticized the advice given to Trump. An article in The National Interest by Jerrod A. Laber noted how “intervention begets more intervention” (as argued, and demonstrated, in Slouching Towards Sirte). Such interventionism generated hubris, and continued US intervention in Afghanistan was now more about saving face, according to Laber. Another pointed out the long list of US failures in Afghanistan, that in some ways made it a quagmire worse than Vietnam.
For strong arguments against what seemed like another permanent occupation in the making, in Syria, see: “When Will Trump Bring Home U.S. Forces from Syria?”
North Korea and the US: Who is on Top Now?
There was news in early December that presented evidence of North Korea’s expansion of a key missile site, one that would house precisely the sorts of missiles capable of striking the US mainland. If correct, this would show that North Korea is not as terrified by sanctions as imagined. More than that, it might reflect a very shrewd political calculation on the North Koreans’ part: either Trump eases or eliminates sanctions, or he faces major embarrassment when he goes up for re-election. Trump boasted of the success of his summit with Kim Jong-un, and even praised the North Korean leader—it would be a major loss of face for Trump to now admit failure, and that maybe he is not the master of the “art of the deal” as he likes to claim. Having done so much to turn North Korea into a focal point of his foreign policy, Trump is inevitably married to the outcomes of this relationship. On the other hand, reports that the Trump administration insisted that negotiations with North Korea were “working,” despite evidence of North Korea ramping up its defence program, were credible in the sense that continued talks were happening, a fact more reported in South Korean than US media. Both sides are adjusting their positions in an ongoing process, so it need not be the case that North Korea is a landmine in the path of Trump’s re-election.
It’s also correct that North Korea never agreed to cease missile production and development. There is no signed agreement to that effect, so the US cannot hold North Korea to any such commitment right now. In order to achieve such an outcome, the US would have to make concessions as well. As one report summarized, North Korea “has suspended all nuclear and long-range missile tests, released three U.S. citizens imprisoned in North Korea, demolished [its] only known nuclear test site and razed a missile test stand at one of [its] main testing facilities….the U.S. has refused to lift sanctions or upgrade the 1953 ceasefire agreement to a full-fledged peace treaty”.
It would be one of the most striking of ironies if Trump, who campaigned against globalism, were to lose his next electoral campaign thanks to the impact of foreign forces, regardless of whether they are China, North Korea, Iran, or others. On the other hand, it should serve as a reminder that as long as US presidents style themselves as “war presidents” or “foreign policy presidents,” then it should be expected that they will be vulnerable to the influences of developments beyond their borders. And it’s a fitting outcome, given the extent to which the US interferes in other nations, and even presumes to tell economic giants with whom they can and cannot trade.
Globalists Take a Hammering: Canada, France
In Canada, where the Liberal Party suffered major defeats in two successive provincial elections, in the provincial giants Ontario and Quebec, the federal government under Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau faced a serious backlash on two fronts: tariffs and immigration. On the latter, Trudeau’s government is planning to sign the UN Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, an agreement that is loaded with serious implications for Canadian sovereignty and a free media. Trudeau seems to have underestimated the degree of public opposition on this issue. Recently however, Trudeau has been forced to make concessions to Quebec in acknowledgment of the high costs produced by the recent influx of asylum claimants entering via the US—and Trudeau’s meeting with the leaders of the provinces failed to produce agreement on issues pertaining to climate change and illegal immigration. Already the new government of Quebec has followed through on its campaign promise to reduce immigration into Quebec by 20%. Unemployment persists, as do low wages for service workers, yet Quebec employers claim there is a “labour shortage,” and have asked for more temporary foreign workers. What they mean is that there is a shortage of labourers willing to accept wages that do not allow them to subsist above the poverty line. On the question of Trudeau’s failure to win an end to steel and aluminum tariffs imposed by the US, as a condition for signing the agreement to replace NAFTA, opposition parties in parliament are uniting in their condemnation and demanding answers. The CBC as usual worked to provide what little cover it could to Trudeau, suggesting Canada had ways of maybe getting around Trump (why had it not done so yet?). Trump may not want Trudeau in office, and getting Trudeau to sign the USMCA without any US concessions on tariffs makes Trudeau look exceptionally ineffective as a national leader (which he does not want to be), with general elections around the corner.
Meanwhile in France, the massive revolt of the “Yellow Vests” was provoked by Emmanuel Macron’s imposition of a new carbon tax on fuel as a supposed way of addressing “climate change”. The days of burning revolt, by hundreds of thousands of mostly working-class protesters over five consecutive weekends (at the time of writing), helped to put the spotlight on growing popular outrage over the transfer of tax burdens to workers, who have already suffered enough from “austerity”. In a weak response, Macron’s government promised a six-month moratorium on the imposition of the new tax—thereby admitting there is a problem with the tax, but doing nothing to resolve the problems that provoked weeks of revolt. Far from over, the revolt has attracted anywhere from 68% to 84% support of all French citizens, depending on the poll. Macron has been completely exposed as a representative of arrogant, distant, disconnected, “cosmopolitan” elites (with more financial backing for his election coming from British sources [likely bankers], than France’s regions combined). On the other hand, all the talk of Macron’s arrogance is what permitted some, such as The Economist, to opine that in the end Macron’s problem was more one of presentation than policy thus allowing it to praise exactly the kinds of policies at the root of France’s protests.
That Macron’s policies were problematic was admitted to by none other than Macron himself, in a televised speech to the nation on December 10. Nevertheless, what Macron promised were small-scale or temporary measures, while his reforms were meant to be long-term, large-scale, even permanent—all this while claiming that France was in a state of “economic emergency”. The problem was not just with presentation (which itself was not too credible), but with inherently flawed policy. Judging by the reaction in France to Macron’s speech, the speech generally appeared to fall well short of quieting protest.
Macron has entertained ambitions of becoming globalism’s world champion, only to repeatedly fail to produce results. Macron went as far as criticizing Trump’s policies and nationalism, in front of the US Congress and in November at an international gathering in France. While Macron was winning the applause of the liberal US media and politicians, he was clearly losing any leg to stand on at home. Right now Macron is behind Marine Le Pen’s National Rally as France gets ready for the May 2019 European elections. Macron is such an unpopular leader at home that, by comparison, he has less than half of the approval rating of Trump, whose positions on the Paris climate agreement Macron has unwillingly helped to validate. Even three years after 175 states signed the Paris climate agreement, global CO2 emissions are increasing, and China, India, and some African nations are building new coal plants—not even the signatories seem to take the agreement seriously.
Yellow Vest protests spread across France, and beyond. There were Yellow Vest protests in Belgium, and as far away as Canada, with protests in Edmonton and Calgary (Alberta) and Ottawa. Donald Trump also relished the prospects of a populist revolt in France, saluting the protesters in a series of Twitter messages—in response the French foreign minister suddenly found his nationalism and demanded that Trump “leave our nation be”. Beyond this, organized opposition to carbon pricing plans have spread internationally as well.
There appeared to be a mix of arrogance and indifference on the part of globalist elites such as Macron and Trudeau, combined with a strange new determination to proceed with the same sorts of policies, defended with the same attitudes, that helped to propel the populist movement in both Europe and all of North America. As one columnist put it, France witnessed a “politics of gestures” at the expense of people who can least afford such gestures.
The media for their part, particularly in North America, did their best to hide or obscure the fact that the “fuel tax” was tied to government plans to address climate change through carbon pricing. There were rare exceptions at first.
Ever since UK citizens, exercising the right to determine their own affairs, voted in support of Brexit, it seems that almost everything conceivable has been done to frustrate its realization, either by political leaders at home and certainly by the leading technocrats of the EU. In December matters seemed to reach a climax when UK Prime Minister Theresa May, fresh from the final negotiations with the EU over the terms of the UK’s exit, faced such opposition in parliament that she herself refused to put the deal to a vote. Then came a vote of no confidence in her government, badly fractured as it was with many key Brexit supporters having departed her cabinet. May had also suffered a drubbing at the polls, transforming the Conservatives hold over parliament from a majority to a minority government. However, May survived the no-confidence vote. May also promised to put the deal before a vote in parliament on or by January 21, 2019. The EU refused to renegotiate the deal, and it now seemed likelier that Britain would exit without a deal in place, which would be very costly for the UK.
Farewell Terra Nullius? The Withdrawal from Syria and Imperial Grief
“This, then, is one of those moments those of us not fond of death and destruction can once again celebrate that Hillary Clinton – who championed the Libya campaign, wickedly joked about Gaddafi’s murder and supported regime change in Syria – never made it to the White House.”—John R. Bradley
In late December it was interesting to note how one of the analytical connections made in “Syria: The New Terra Nullius,” received what looked like validation from the White House itself. On the very same day that the Republicans forced Trump’s hand into accepting defeat on his demand for funding for the border wall, Trump turned around and announced the US withdrawal from Syria. If the US cannot occupy its own border, then it won’t be occupying Syria either.
We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 19, 2018
This time, Trump was not bluffing, as the actual withdrawal of forces had begun and Trump gave his generals 30 days to complete the withdrawal. It’s not clear that he was bluffing back in March, as much as giving the military a six-month extension, which has now expired. Those claiming to be “surprised” do so as part of their oppositional rhetoric, for what little it’s worth. (Reuters repeats the word “surprise” four times in a short article—in case you missed the point that what Trump signalled years ago, and again this past March, is a “surprise”. Then Reuters added another article, all about the “surprise” of it all.)
It was amusing to see Trump’s “friends” at Fox News easily breeze through news that there would be no government shutdown over “the wall”, and then slow down, grow visibly concerned, voices lowering, as they called in their “experts” to “talk to us” about the Syria withdrawal—the “experts” of course were the usual retired military officials working as lobbyists for defence industries and militarist think tanks. The next day Fox News kept up its attempt to pressure the president, by hosting a series of pointed lectures from neocons some of whom had once belonged to the “Never Trump” camp. Fox also allowed time for military supporters of Trump’s order of withdrawal, a cornerstone of his campaign (it was Obama who put US forces in Syria)—at the same time, Fox interviewers often used these opportunities to reinsert their pro-interventionist narrative, identical to the one found on CNN where Jake Tapper endorsed the view that it was a victory for Russia. Vladimir Putin, for his part, was sceptical that the US would actually withdraw. US forces would in fact remain in neighbouring Iraq, where their numbers have been much larger. France asserted its (very few) forces would remain in Syria, though clearly without US protection, and at the mercy of much larger Syrian and Turkish forces. Elsewhere the French confirmed as much, noting how “the coalition doesn’t work without the US”.
One of the main complaints was that a US withdrawal would create a mythical “vacuum”—in the absence of US forces, nature apparently defaults to vacuums. It’s bad physics but it’s even worse as a continuation of colonial ethnocentrism and racism. This is basic terra nullius logic. Imagine your country being called a “void” when you live in it. In the absence of Americans, there is “no there, there”. Reuters was plainly just as guilty as the rest in repeating these imperial fictions.
In the US it’s still politically correct to be imperialist, even when it was imperialism that gave birth to racism, which itself is selectively deemed politically incorrect (but at home only).
Just as grief-stricken as Fox was, The New York Times in language that was almost identical bemoaned what it chose to characterize as an “abrupt” and “chaotic” move that “rattled” allies and caused “disarray”—these were not observations, just their own subjective assessments, and they reveal far more about the writers.
Yet this withdrawal was a longstanding promise on Trump’s part, and his failure to deliver thus far never won any of the opposite praises from the NYT, which never described any of Trump’s policies as “calm,” “systematic,” that “assured” allies and enforced “order”. Had Trump remained stuck in Syria, was the NYT prepared to endorse Trump as calm, orderly, and rational? As for allowing opposing views to be heard, the NYT permitted only two short paragraphs at the very end, from one single source.
Palpable thus was the grief expressed by “warmongers on the left and right,” the liberal imperialists that dominate the Washington establishment. Fox and CNN were not alone as even The Hill ironically seemed to complain that Trump’s decision was made “without consulting Congress”—forgetting that the intervention in Syria began without Congressional approval. What some in the US media would have is a president who requires no approval for war, but only for peace—classic warmongering. The media’s de facto Secretary of State, Senator Lindsey Graham, accused Trump of making an “Obama-like mistake,” which also ironically erased the fact that it was precisely Obama’s mistake to intervene in Syria in the first place. David Ignatius complained of the end of “successful wars”—because apparently the successful wars are the ones that should continue forever (like in Afghanistan?).
Finally, here are some of Trump’s other statements on the US withdrawal from Syria:
“I’m proud of the President today to hear that he is declaring victory in Syria.” Senator Rand Paul. “I couldn’t agree more with the presidents decision. By definition, this is the opposite of an Obama decision. Senator Mike Lee— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 20, 2018
Getting out of Syria was no surprise. I’ve been campaigning on it for years, and six months ago, when I very publicly wanted to do it, I agreed to stay longer. Russia, Iran, Syria & others are the local enemy of ISIS. We were doing there work. Time to come home & rebuild. #MAGA— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 20, 2018
Does the USA want to be the Policeman of the Middle East, getting NOTHING but spending precious lives and trillions of dollars protecting others who, in almost all cases, do not appreciate what we are doing? Do we want to be there forever? Time for others to finally fight…..— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 20, 2018
….Russia, Iran, Syria & many others are not happy about the U.S. leaving, despite what the Fake News says, because now they will have to fight ISIS and others, who they hate, without us. I am building by far the most powerful military in the world. ISIS hits us they are doomed!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 20, 2018
There was also video from Donald Trump at the White House, which indirectly could remind viewers that the lives of US troops are not to be freely expended to satisfy ideological whims on foreign adventures.
As the news unfolded, US Defense Secretary James Mattis confirmed that he too would be leaving the Trump administration, and it seemed to some that the withdrawal from Syria played a part in his justification (though his resignation made no mention of Syria).
Top Articles for December
On Zero Anthropology this month:
- “The War of the Public Intellectuals: A Review of ‘Best of Enemies: Buckley vs. Vidal’ (2015),” December 2.
- “Publicity or Marginality? On the Question of Academic ‘Silencing’ in Anthropology,” December 14.
Top articles of the month:
- “Intersectionality and Today’s Twitter Trotskyites,” Carl M. Cannon, Real Clear Politics, December 2.
- “In praise of the Gilets jaunes,” Brendan O’Neill, The Spectator, December 3.
- “France’s Fuel-Tax Protests Expose the Limits of Macron’s Mandate,” Rachel Donadio, The Atlantic, December 4.
- “What France’s Unrest Means,” Scott B. MacDonald, The National Interest, December 5.
- “France’s Combustible Climate Politics,” Bret Stephens, The New York Times, December 6.
- “Macron Fans the Flames of Illiberalism,” Pankaj Mishra, Bloomberg, December 6.
- “Will racial blending undermine identity politics? Let’s hope so,” Lionel Shriver, Spectator USA, December 6.
- “Silicon Valley Morphing Into the Morality Police,” Adriana Cohen, Real Clear Politics, December 7.
- “In France, les deplorables strike back”, Anne-Elisabeth Moutet, New York Post, December 7.
- “Why the French Protest,” Larry Kummer, Fabius Maximus, December 8.
- “Emmanuel Macron’s problems are more with presentation than policy,” The Economist, December 8.
- “Trudeau’s neglect of the nation has led us to this place,” Donna Kennedy-Glans & Don Hill, CBC News, December 8.
- “University of Sydney Professor Tim Anderson Suspended for ‘Criticism of War Propaganda against Syria, Iraq and Palestine’,” Tim Anderson and Jordan Baker, Global Research, December 8.
- “Why Economic Security Is National Security,” Peter Navarro, Real Clear Politics, December 9.
- “France protests and the ‘yellow vests’ deep anger reveal the hypocrisy at the heart of the green agenda,” Jarrett Stepman, Fox News, December 9.
- “When Will Trump Bring Home U.S. Forces from Syria?” Doug Bandow, The National Interest, December 11.
- “What’s ‘Immoral’ About Caring for America’s Poor First?” Betsy McCaughey, Real Clear Politics, December 12.
- “Why the American empire should stop worrying about the return of ‘imperial’ China,” Winston Mok, South China Morning Post, December 12.
- “Les Macronables?” Henry Olsen, American Greatness, December 12.
- “Will Uprisings Thwart Green Central Planners?” Veronique de Rugy, Reason, December 13.
- “Yes, America can Still Lead the World,” Jake Sullivan, The Atlantic, January–February 2019.
- “Ignore the hawks, Trump’s Syria withdrawal is bold and brave,” John R. Bradley, Spectator, December 20.
- “Syria withdrawal: Trump doesn’t want US to be Middle East policeman, spending lives & trillions,” RT, December 20.
- “Why Trump Is Right to Withdraw Troops,” Doug Bandow, The National Interest, December 20.
- “Trump is right to withdraw US troops from Syria. We’ve done our job by defeating ISIS,” Benjamin H. Friedman and Justin Logan, USA Today, December 20.
- “James Mattis’s Letter of Resignation,” The Atlantic, December 20.
- “Washington Melts Down Over Trump’s Syria Withdrawal,” Matt Purple, The American Conservative, December 21.
- “The Establishment Will Never Say No to a War,” Andrew Sullivan, New York Magazine, December 21.
- “Trump Is Smarter Than the Generals,” Christopher Roach, American Greatness, December 21.
- “The Syria Fairy Tale Lives!” Andrew C. McCarthy, National Review, December 22.
- “Donald Trump is a man of peace – his enemies are a war machine,” Daniel McCarthy, Spectator/USA, December 20.
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