Donald Trump’s election after a comical and combative presidential contest, carried America’s politics from the farcical side of the Rubicon to its tragic shore, straight into the arms of the country’s Radical Right. Marx’s famous dictum that history is repeated first as tragedy, and then as farce, may have been turned right-side-up. Somewhere up there, Hegel must be terribly amused. What is equally amusing is the outrage of Hillary Clinton’s supporters and their claim that Russia meddled in America’s elections and paved the way for Trump’s victory. These claims are hard to prove; but let’s assume that they are right and the Russians did meddle in America’s internal affairs. If they did, they did no more than what the United States has been doing around the world for a very long time. Russian interference, in other words, is a bit of America’s own medicine.
American administrations —both Democrat and Republican— have a long history of meddling in other nations’ elections. Countries from Latin America to Asia and from Europe to Africa have experienced the bloody side-effects of America’s intrusion into their political processes. In her memoirs, Hard Times (2014), Mrs. Clinton acknowledges the U.S.’s interfering with the Iranian elections of 2009, and writes: “Behind the scenes my team at the State Department stayed in constant contact with activists in Iran and made an emergency intervention to prevent Twitter from shutting down for maintenance, which would have deprived protesters of a key communications tool” (p. 423).
Instances of America’s interference with the domestic affairs of countries throughout the world are too well known to require documentation. These activities have gone far beyond spying on the confidential communications of political parties. According to The Guardian, in Cuba alone, the number of American assassination attempts against Fidel Castro’s life exceeded six-hundred. More recently, in Libya, Hillary Clinton promoted the overthrow of the government, which destabilized North Africa and created a serious refugee problem for Europe. Following Qaddafi’s capture and murder by a band of rebels who were supported by NATO, she laughingly said in a TV interview: “We came, we saw, he died.” In her channeling of Julius Caesar, she failed to mention that Qaddafi’s captors gruesomely murdered him, sodomizing their prisoner by a blade, and subsequently posting the photos on the Internet. Qaddafi’s grisly execution took place during Obama’s “Democratic” administration, when Clinton was his Secretary of State. Therefore, whatever the Russians may have done to Clinton in the recent U.S. elections pales in comparison with the barbarity of what Clinton and the Obama administration facilitated in North Africa and elsewhere.
The present chaos in Syria, the bombing of Yemen, and the destabilization of Libya and large regions of North Africa are all Obama’s own contribution to the raging bloodshed in these areas. In the two wars that he inherited from George W. Bush, Obama revived U.S. involvement in Iraq and upped the ante in Afghanistan. In fact, in drone warfare and Special Forces operations that usually result in large numbers of civilian casualties, he actually broke George W. Bush’s record, even bragging: “I’m really good at killing people,” (Washington Times). This brings me to the implications of Donald Trump’s election for U.S. policies in Western Asia, especially for Iran.
Trump has not been in power long enough to do any real damage beyond what Bush and Obama have already done. It is likely, however, that he will continue the destructive policies of his predecessors because the foreign policy of the United States is not determined by the country’s President alone, but by a “foreign policy elite,” whose members rotate between government, think tanks, and the academy. This elite operates on two basic assumptions. The first assumption, best known as “American Exceptionalism,” posits that the U.S. is a special country that has a responsibility to lead the world, and that the world would be worse off without its leadership. The second is the assumption that America’s military might is the main means of resolving foreign policy issues.
The first idea, the myth of American Exceptionalism, is deeply rooted in the American psyche. In 1630, drawing on a phrase from Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden” (Matthew 5:14), John Winthrop (1587-1649), the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, said in a sermon of his own: “We shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us” (Pfaff, The Irony of Manifest Destiny 2010, p.23). This idea of uniqueness of the American experience, as Professor Bacevich points out in his American Empire (2002, p.43), was expressed by one of America’s most iconic literary figures, Herman Melville (1819-1891), in the 1850s:
... We Americans are driven to a rejection of the maxims of the Past, … There are occasions when it is for America to make precedents, and not to obey them … Escaped from the house of bondage, Israel of old did not follow after the ways of the Egyptians. … And we Americans are the peculiar, chosen people—the Israel of our time; we bear the ark of the liberties of the world. … God has given to us, for a future inheritance, the broad domains of the political pagans, that shall yet come and lie down under the shade of our ark. God has predestined, mankind expects, great things from our race; and great things we feel in our souls. The rest of the nations must soon be in our rear. … Long enough have we been sceptics with regard to ourselves, and doubted whether, indeed, the political Messiah had come. But he has come in us, if we would but give utterance to his promptings. And let us always remember that with ourselves, almost for the first time in history of earth, national selfishness is unbounded philanthropy; for we cannot do a good to America, but we give alms to the world (White Jacket or The World in a Man-Of-War, 1922, p.189).
More than a hundred and fifty years later, President George W. Bush’s advisor Carl Rove was quoted in the New York Times Magazine, expressing similar sentiments: “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. … We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you will be left to just study what we do.” Of course, this type of arrogance is not limited to Republican politicians. Madeline Albright, President Clinton’s Secretary of State, conveyed the same idea on NBC’s Today Show (February 19, 1998). She said: “If we have to use force, it is because we are America. We are the indispensable nation. We stand tall. We see further into the future.” As recently as January 27, 2017, Richard Haass, the president of the influential Council on Foreign Relations and a former special advisor to President Bush, Sr. and to Colin Powell, said in a TV interview that the world is better off with America’s leadership and as proof, he pointed to the “Middle East,” saying, imagine how terrible the conditions would be without the United States. Apparently Mr. Haass believes that the United States had nothing to do with the destabilization of the region or with the creation of ISIS. However, those of us who live on this side of the proverbial looking glass, have read of America’s role in facilitating the creation of terrorist organizations in Western Asia. In an ironic twist of fate, Haass said this on Bill Maher’s comedy show.
America’s foreign policy is not driven by party affiliation. It is born of an ideology that is expressed in what is called “liberal hegemony” and is shared by the people who constitute its foreign policy elite. In an essay entitled “Liberation or Dominance? The Ideology of U.S. National Security Policy” (2007), Arnold A. Offner writes:
Ideology matters greatly in the formulation of national security policy. Americans have always been imbued with a sense of exceptionalism and mission, and their leaders have often summoned them to make the world safe for democracy or promote freedom globally. Presidents have also proposed that the United States become the “great arsenal of democracy,” establish a permanent preponderance of power, and maintain credibility long after political-military undertakings have been shown to be misguided or hopeless. (See Offner’s essay in The Long War, A New History of U.S. National Security Policy since World War II, edited by Andrew J. Bacevich, 2007, p.40).
Nothing demonstrates the continuity of this brutal tradition better than the fate of the Arab-American family of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen born in Arizona from Yemeni parents in 1971. He was assassinated in 2010 by a drone strike that was ordered by President Obama. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sued president Obama on the grounds that Mr. al-Awlaki was deprived of due process before being extrajudicially murdered. The lawsuit was dismissed. Two weeks later, al-Awlaki’s 16-year-old son Abdurrahman, a second generation American citizen, was also murdered in a separate CIA drone strike in Yemen. A number of other innocent civilians also died as a result of the strike. In a “hideous symbol of the bipartisan continuity of U.S. barbarism,” writes the investigative journalist and lawyer Glenn Greenwald, Anwar al-Awlaki’s 8-year-old daughter was killed during a Seal Team 6 raid on a compound in Yemen on Sunday January 29th. Some 30 other people, including 10 women and children were also murdered during this raid that was authorized by President Trump.
The notion that Donald Trump would be recklessly dangerous in foreign policy because he is reckless and radical in domestic policy is not necessarily true. Nor is the notion that a Democrat president is less likely than a Republican chief of state to get involved in wars or to threaten the safety of other nations. America entered both World Wars when Democrats Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924), and Franklin Roosevelt (1882-1945) respectively, were in office. It dropped two unnecessary atomic bombs on Japan during the presidency of another Democrat, Harry S. Truman (1884-1972), and the Vietnam War really got going during the Democratic administration of Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973).
The “Carter Doctrine,” i.e., the doctrine that declares America’s willingness to go to war over the Persian Gulf, was formulated during the democratic administration of President Jimmy Carter. Andrew Bacevich has shown that confronting threats before they emerge, namely the idea of preemptive war, or the “Bush Doctrine,” did not appear out of thin air, but “might be a bastard child of the Carter Doctrine” (America’s War for the Greater Middle East 2016, p.245). And finally, it was President Barack Obama who overthrew the Qaddafi regime, helped launch the Syrian blood-bath, has been facilitating the Saudis’ genocidal war against Yemen, and has intensified America’s use of drones and Special Forces operations to unprecedented levels.
At least since the disintegration of the Soviet Union, America’s wars around the globe have been wars of choice. Protected on its flanks by two great oceans that act as its “moats,” and lodged between two friendly and weak allies on its northern and southern borders, the United States hardly faces any existential threats. President Bush’s claim that “we fight them there so that we don’t have to fight them here” is as meaningless as Israel’s pretense of being “existentially” threatened by its weak Arab neighbors, in spite of its prodigious nuclear arsenal.
Chances are that once Trump gets used to being a president and is talked down from his hysterical reaction to everything, the change in the U.S. foreign policy toward Western Asia in general (and Iran in particular), will probably be in nuance rather than in substance. In this region of the world, the policies of a President Donald Trump would not be noticeably different from those of a President Hillary Clinton. Indeed, a case may be made that Clinton, as Professor Foad Izadi has already observed, would have been more successful in creating international alliances against Iran. Even allowing for the hawks that he has gathered around him, Trump, by contrast, would be less likely to succeed in such an undertaking because of his character and erratic behavior. In fact, several European leaders have already shown their impatience with the way that he conducts himself and have publicly stated their opposition to his recent executive order banning citizens of several Muslim countries from entering the United States. Being appealing to American rednecks does not necessarily translate into acceptability in the eyes of European leaders. For old or new sanctions against Iran to be effective, Trump needs the full cooperation of the Europeans. Chances are that he will not get it. But what of the so-called Nuclear Deal between Iran and the 5+1? How will it fair under Trump?
Donald Trump’s election was something of a gift to the Iranian diplomats who negotiated the Nuclear Deal with the 5+1 countries. Shortly after the signing of the agreement, Americans began to renege on the deal. The United States Congress passed a number of anti-Iranian bills and the Obama administration began to make new and unacceptable demands about Iran’s various military tests and capabilities. Trump is likely to either continue or intensify his predecessor’s policies by sticking to his campaign promise of rejecting the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPA). If so, the Europeans may be reluctant to go along with him, and without them, the sanctions regime will largely collapse. Therefore, if one of the goals of Iranian diplomacy was to drive a wedge between the U.S. and its European allies, that goal would have a better chance of realization under a Trump administration than it would with Hillary Clinton in the Oval Office.
Mahmoud Omidsalar obtained his Ph.D. in Persian Literature from the Department of Near Eastern Studies, University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of "Iran's Epic and America's Empire" and "Poetics and Politics of Iran's National Epic, the Shahnameh".