December 2019 – January 2020


Peace with dishonour

By Richard Cooke
Image of US troops in Syria

US troops in Syria, 2019. © Ahmed Mardnli / EPA

On the West’s Trump-led exit from the wreckage of the Middle East

On October 15, 2019, two US Air Force F-15E fighters discharged their modest payload of laser-guided bombs onto a cement factory near the north Syrian city of Kobanî. It was, according to Operation Inherent Resolve spokesman Colonel Myles B. Caggins III, a “pre-planned precision airstrike” designed to “destroy an ammunition cache and reduce the facility’s military usefulness”. The mission was not especially devastating, and afterwards, satellite photos showed only a rank of latrines had suffered real damage. The legacy of this sortie, if it is remembered at all, will be symbolic rather than tactical. America was trying to destroy its own former command post, from which the fight against ISIS had been planned and conducted.

The factory, named Lafarge Cement Syria, was itself a monumental folly to Western ambitions in the Middle East. It cost $1 billion to build, making it the largest piece of non-oil-related foreign investment in Syrian history. Completed in 2010, on the eve of the Syrian Civil War, this untimely overinvestment would make its French backers pay: they were compelled by the vast sunk costs to keep the place running in a warzone, which meant negotiating first with the Assad regime, then ISIS affiliates, and finally Kurdish rebels (this orgy of bribing and triple-dealing culminated in criminal charges for Lafarge executives). At one point, the plant’s Norwegian risk manager had to balance the interests of 20 different Free Syrian Army factions, in a town of only 100,000 people. As late as 2014, when the factory was overrun by ISIS, Lafarge privately lobbied the US government not to bomb it, in the hope its cement could still furnish Syria’s postwar reconstruction. As a result, ISIS’s network of tunnels developed a distinctive feature: sophisticated concrete reinforcement.

This accidental repurposing – “reconstruction” materials used for terrorist fortifications; having to bomb your own headquarters after declaring victory – is familiar from war satires. In Catch-22, it is the war profiteer Milo Minderbinder who bombs his own base, for a fee. He is head of a mercantile outfit called “the syndicate” that knows no sides apart from payer and payee. He accepts a lucrative German offer to turn American attack planes onto their own parked squadrons, and leaves only the landing strips unscathed, so the traitors can touch down once they’re finished. “Look, I didn’t start this war,” he tells the book’s hero, Yossarian. “I’m just trying to put it on a businesslike basis. Is there anything wrong with that?” The Wire writer David Simon was not alone in drawing a link from Minderbinder’s mindset to the thinking of Donald J. Trump.

It was Trump’s sudden drawdown from Syria that had precipitated the Lafarge bombing: when an American retreat from northern Syria was announced, to the surprise of senior US military command, Turkish­-backed paramilitaries flooded the region immediately, making no secret of their affiliations as they advanced. Kurds, many of them civilians, were killed or captured, and ISIS fighters were freed. US Special Forces on the ground expressed dismay to their former comrades-in-arms, and to the media. “I am ashamed for the first time in my career,” a military trainer told Fox News. He said he was witnessing atrocities. Brett McGurk, Trump’s former envoy in the fight against ISIS, resigned in protest at this abandonment, and began broadcasting public criticism of his former boss. “Donald Trump is not a Commander­in-Chief,” he tweeted. “He makes impulsive decisions with no knowledge or deliberation. He sends military personnel into harm’s way with no backing. He blusters and then leaves our allies exposed when adversaries call his bluff or he confronts a hard phone call.”

While more than 60 nations contributed to the coalition against ISIS in the Syrian Civil War, the nationless Kurds paid the dearest price: in the definitive effort to defeat the self-styled caliphate, the US Special Forces took six casualties; the Kurdish Peshmergas suffered 11,000. The tail-turning US Forces were pelted with rotten vegetables as they left. “Thanks for US people, but Trump betrayed us,” read one sign waved at a departing convoy. At first glance it was the standard Trumpian betrayal – jilting creditors – only this time they had paid in blood. In this part of the world, betrayal was a national tradition too. By one count, this is the eighth time the United States had betrayed the Kurds in a century, and, according to Foreign Policy, Turkey knew it could rely on parts of “the US professional bureaucracy, the analytic community, and members of Congress to offer specious arguments about the strategic partnership with the United States to ensure that there would be few costs to rolling over US allies in northern Syria”.

The usual efforts were made to pin the blame on Putin, Erdoğan and the other strongmen Trump has such admiration for. “Don’t Be a Tough Guy. Don’t Be a Fool!’ the president wrote to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan after the incursion, a letter that, though leaked with apparent White House approval, pushed credulity. Erdoğan read it and threw it into the bin, a fact confirmed to BBC Turkey by his staff, making it a public insult as well as a calculated one. The more bellicose elements of the trans-Atlantic press, who had once castigated Obama for his weakness and dithering, seemed either too chastened, or too indulgent of Trump’s style, to call the snub what it was: peace with dishonour. What happened next was someone else’s problem.

“I have a little conflict of interest, because I have a major, major building in Istanbul,” Trump, then still a candidate, told Breitbart radio in 2015. “It’s called Trump Towers. Two towers, instead of one. Not the usual one, it’s two. And I’ve gotten to know Turkey very well.” Turkey has got to know Trump very well too, and whether this conflict of interest is decisive or coincidental is almost immaterial: for Trump it makes no difference. In a private speech in Miami, John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser, told those present, according to NBC, that he believes “there is a personal or business relationship dictating Trump’s position on Turkey because none of his advisers are aligned with him on the issue”. If true, this means leveraging the multi-trillion dollar foreign policy of the United States costs only a few million dollars in hotel real estate, or golf resorts, or clothing brand trademarks.

“It may be dangerous to be America’s enemy,” Henry Kissinger once said, “but to be America’s friend is fatal”, and in Europe, Asia and across the Middle East, multilateral partners feel more uncertain of their American ties than at any time since World War Two. An unnamed official of a US-allied government told The Atlantic that “allies and partners worry that decreasing US leadership and influence around the world might spark regional conflicts”. America’s competitors were gaining “more power and influence” and seeking to “fill the vacuum created by US ignorance and isolationism”.

In East Asia, there were reports from diplomats that Japan had been asked for an additional $8 billion to keep US troops stationed in the country. Trump also proposed a fivefold increase in the cost of keeping American troops on the Korean peninsula, a price hike that left Seoul openly questioning the value of the alliance. The centre-left Hankyoreh newspaper said the offer “brings to mind the ancient practice of hiring mercenary armies”.

Saudi Arabia is already treating US forces like a mercenary army. Three thousand additional troops are being positioned in the kingdom, part of a regional response to Iranian agitation. Asked how this squared with his long-term goal of a withdrawal from the Middle East, Trump again spoke in financial terms. “The relationship has been very good,” he told reporters on the South Lawn. “They buy hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of merchandise from us, not only military equipment … But are you ready? Saudi Arabia, at my request, has agreed to pay us for everything we’re doing. That’s a first.” He had previously boasted that they paid “cash”.

The admission of US troops to the Arabian peninsula bookends the War on Terror. It was just such a deployment that first provoked Osama bin Laden to send a fax to the Saudi royal family entitled “An Open Letter to King Fahd On the Occasion of the Recent Cabinet Reshuffle”. Bin Laden wrote that “your alleged kingdom … in reality is nothing else but an American protectorate governed by the American Constitution”. It was one of the key documents in the foundation of Al Qaeda, and amounted to a declaration of war. This war, which would entrain the United States and ultimately dozens of other countries, was between competing strategies as well as opposed ideologies. One, expressed in the Bush administration and its coalition managers of Iraq, was a variation on Wilsonian idealism: a century-long, evangelical enterprise to remake parts of the world in America’s image. The other, implemented by Al Qaeda and then its rivals and affiliates, was a series of provocations and outrages to induce American overreach, and American overspending.

This design was publicly explained by the jihadis. “Two Nokia phones, $150 each, two HP printers, $300 each, plus shipping, transportation and other miscellaneous expenses add up to a total bill of $4200. That is all what Operation Hemorrhage cost us,” an article in an Al Qaeda magazine explained after a failed bombing originating in Yemen. “On the other hand this supposedly ‘foiled plot’, as some of our enemies would like to call [it], will without a doubt cost America and other Western countries billions of dollars in new security measures.” This “thousand cuts” strategy aimed at the West’s finances was more successful than not. A Brown University tally of the War on Terror’s cost put it at $6.4 trillion, when accounting for ongoing veteran healthcare liabilities. By their reckoning, it has also caused at least 801,000 deaths.

However, both Al Qaeda and ISIS were unsuccessful in their grander ambitions. Bin Laden’s belief that Muslims in the Middle East would answer his call to jihad and overthrow the “near enemy” – secular, US-aligned autocrats – proved fruitless. The attempted capture and subsequent suicide of the spiritual leader of ISIS, Abū Bakr al-Baghdadi, provided a coda to these dreams of such a theocratic entity. In October he was chased into a drain by military dogs and then killed himself and three of his young children with an explosive vest. Trump luxuriated in (and partly fabricated) the details of the terrorist leader’s death, describing him as “whimpering”, though the surveillance drone feed of the operation had no audio, and at least six officials with close familiarity disputed this detail. Dying “like a dog” had the tell-tale cinematic flourish of many of the president’s fibs – he has, for example, described the US–Mexico border as a place where prayer rugs are discarded in the desert, immigrants outrun police in souped-up cars, and trafficked women have their faces duct-taped, all details unknown to border authorities, but all plot points in Sicario 2: Day of the Soldado. There was, in al­Baghdadi’s death, a Hollywood-style ending to this chapter of fighting: we got the bad guy.

The relationship between this event and Trump’s impending impeachment trial was largely discussed in terms of optics. It was, according to Bloomberg, “a political boost just when he [Trump] needed it most”, a win that “provided the president at least a brief respite from the House’s accelerating impeachment inquiry, and also served as a measure of redemption after a messy retreat of US forces in Syria that had drawn criticism from both parties”. The link between Trump’s impeachment and the War on Terror is far deeper, and there is a continuity between bin Laden’s fax and Trump’s impeachable insistence that Ukraine investigate his political opponent, Joe Biden, to obtain foreign aid. There have been petty presidents before, especially when it comes to dealing with domestic adversaries (Nixon once ordered every photo of John F. Kennedy be removed from White House staffers’ desks), but Trump co­opting the whole of American foreign policy machinery to re-prosecute his presidential campaign is new.

As befits his character, Trumpian foreign policy is contradictory and impulsive. It lurches from tweeted threats to handshake diplomacy with American adversaries (in September, a set of secret negotiations with the Taliban at Camp David was called off at the last minute). Some non-interventionists are sceptical that Trump is isolationist at all, pointing to meddling in Venezuela and Bolivia, and increased bombing and drone strikes elsewhere. But these are legacy conflicts for the most part, and share Trump’s pattern of manufacturing crises and then seeking made-for-TV moments that resolve them, or appear to.

The national interest has been replaced by his personal interest. This is not an accident, or a charade, but a response to the breakdown of American foreign policy since September 11. Cynical and grubby, it is still a brand of realpolitik, in which Trump’s role as deal­maker-in-chief plays out in a reactive and performative form. “Winning” the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan may have been impossible, so instead a shrunken president, in a shrunken presidency, seeks temporary, televisual victories that he can claim as his own on behalf of his bruised and war-weary nation. American failure in the Middle East did not make a Trump presidency inevitable. But it did make a Trump-like president unavoidable.

The film Wag the Dog popularised the idea of cynical leaders bombing their way out of a scandal – it took its inspiration from Bill Clinton bombing both Sudan and Iraq while he ran the gauntlet of impeachment. And as The Week suggested, in an article titled “Why Trump Might be Tempted Into War”, recent American history also tells us that “the quickest way for a president to create a short-term burst in his approval ratings is to send troops into battle”. But unlike his predecessors Trump has not been tempted so far. His sadism masks the fact he has killed fewer people than most US presidents, and his mercenary approach seems to regard new fighting as a cost-ineffective bad deal.

This is consistent with Trump’s campaign promises. In April 2016, during the speech that became his clearest articulation of a Trumpian foreign policy, he struck the most isolationist note for a future US leader in decades. His worldview was couched in the same transactional terms. “Businesses do not succeed when they lose sight of their core interests and neither do countries,” he said. American foreign policy, he believed, had “veered badly off course” since the Cold War. Mistakes in Iraq, Egypt, Libya and Syria “helped to throw the region into chaos, and gave ISIS the space it needs to grow and prosper”.

Wilsonian idealism was to blame. “It all began with the dangerous idea that we could make Western democracies out of countries that had no experience or interest in becoming a Western democracy,” Trump said. “We tore up what institutions they had and then were surprised at what we unleashed. Civil war, religious fanaticism; thousands of American lives, and many trillions of dollars, were lost as a result. The vacuum was created that ISIS would fill. Iran, too, would rush in and fill the void, much to their unjust enrichment.” There was little to take issue with. America would look after American interests. “We are getting out of the nation­building business, and instead focusing on creating stability in the world. Our moments of greatest strength came when politics ended at the water’s edge.” It was a message that persuaded Republican voters, and ultimately the party.

Trump echoed and endorsed the views of the Iraq War’s greatest critics, and his unilateralist approach has shaken the architecture of post-World War Two multilateralism. In November, French President Emmanuel Macron warned of prospective NATO “brain death”: “You have no coordination whatsoever of strategic decision-making between the United States and its NATO allies. None,” he said. “You have an uncoordinated aggressive action by another NATO ally, Turkey, in an area where our interests are at stake.” The keystone of the NATO treaty is article five, under which an attack against one member is considered an attack against all members. Asked if the article was still operational, Macron eschewed diplomacy. “I don’t know,” he said.

Responding to this incoherence has been challenging, and Australia’s response has been an incoherence of its own. Under Coalition governments it has been equally supportive of both the Bush doctrine and the Trump doctrine, even though they are in opposition. “As is the nature of alliances and friendships, you work through these issues together and you understand them together and you speak frankly to one another and you do that in the spirit of that relationship,” Morrison said of the Syrian withdrawal decision. The Kurds should be acknowledged, he said, but ultimately the United States would act in its national interest. Australia’s own former commitment to “the dangerous idea that we could make Western democracies out of countries that had no experience or interest in becoming a Western democracy” has been passed over in embarrassed silence.

Locally, the Iraq War’s former boosters have shown only hints of circumspection. “We’re not trying to build liberal pluralism in Iraq,” Tony Abbott said in 2014 of ongoing Australian military assistance. “We’re not trying to create a shining city on a hill, we are simply acting as part of the US-led coalition in support of the legitimate elected government of Iraq.” Yet that was exactly what we had been trying to do. It just hadn’t worked. Greg Sheridan, a typical supporter, had celebrated Saddam’s fall in The Australian with these soaring words: “The bald eagle of American power is aloft, high above the humble earth, and everything it sees is splendid. For as it soars and swoops it sees victory, power, opportunity.” And it was flying: like Icarus. The triumphalism soon vanished.

Abbott’s “city on a hill” comment is a well­chosen phrase. In the political context, it originates in John Winthrop’s famous sermon before reaching New England in 1630, the seeding of the idea that America would be both exception and example. Centuries later, the neoconservative project borrowed this conviction but added a contradiction: American exceptionalism could be made unexceptional. Neoconservatism combined many of the most hubristic elements of the American political tradition. It borrowed the racism and providentialism from Manifest Destiny. It took stewardship as a cover for interference from the Monroe Doctrine. The reconstruction of Iraq, such as it was, would be a libertarian retelling of the Marshall Plan: vast government expenditure, only dispensed via private contractors (not surprisingly, the result of this was a heist: between April 2003 and June 2004, $12 billion in cash was shipped to Baghdad on pallets; most of it disappeared).

The resulting chimerical philosophy had almost unprecedented scope and ambition. It advocated turning Saddam’s former kingdom into a functioning democracy in short order, while simultaneously dismantling its institutions, and then repeating this process throughout the Middle East. In many ways the Iraq War’s successes were more dangerous than its failures. It was designed to destabilise the Middle East – Syria in particular – and it did. It was supposed to serve as a homing beacon for Islamist militants from all over the world, and it did. It was supposed to send a message to other autocrats with weapons of mass destruction. State sponsors of terror were put on notice. The peoples of the region were invited to seek democracy and safety. A million would eventually seek it in Europe as refugees.

Amr Moussa, secretary-general of the Arab League, in 2004 told the BBC that a US invasion of Iraq “would threaten the whole stability of the Middle East”. The neoconservative journalist Mark Steyn responded: “It’s supposed to destabilize the Middle East.” Moussa’s comments “are so Sept. 10”, Steyn added.

Islamist militants did head to Iraq, answering George W. Bush’s maxim that “we will fight them over there so we do not have to face them in the United States of America”. Borders into Iraq were even left open deliberately, to better facilitate the influx of foreign fighters. “This is what I would call a terrorist magnet, where America, being present here in Iraq, creates a target of opportunity,” General Ricardo Sánchez told CNN in 2003. “But this is exactly where we want to fight them … This will prevent the American people from having to go through their attacks back in the United States.”

The intention was that declaration of jihad and the foundation of a self-styled caliphate would act as a selection mechanism, to prevent terrorism in the West. It would lure out latent militants with a propensity to violence, activate them, and then export them. This so-called “flypaper theory” assumed all the terrorists would be killed, or that they would be killed at a faster rate than they were created. What about jihadis who became battle hardened, only to remain alive and uncaptured? If the “flypaper” attracted militants from Western countries, what happened if they tried to return home? We found out.

Those nations with weapons of mass destruction did take an example from Saddam Hussein’s fate. Though Iran is wracked by protests, the Axis of Evil is today in good health. Iraq has become a de facto ally of Iran, making the coinage more accurate than it was in 2003, when it constituted only a pick-and-mix of America’s armed enemies. Iran was scared into offering détente, twice. It made a disarmament approach in 2003, an entreaty that became known as the “grand bargain”: discussion of armed support for Hamas and Hezbollah, a role in the stabilisation of Iraq, and the prospect of giving up some of its weapons program. Vice president Dick Cheney rejected it out of hand, and so Iran “helped stabilise” Iraq by turning it into a proxy state.

North Korea also watched Iraq closely, and found Libya more instructive still. The Libyan president, Muammar Gaddafi, had been threatened and induced into giving up his weapons program in 2003. His reward was a NATO intervention in the Libyan Civil War eight years later, where he was stabbed to death with a bayonet. A North Korean official declared it “an invasion tactic to disarm the country”, and the oppressive state has since pursued a “madman theory” strategy par excellence. Its madman is now courted by Trump, for photo opportunities.

The Iraq War was supposed to make Iraq look more like Turkey: democratic, secular, Western-allied, and engaged with the world. Instead, an increasingly authoritarian Turkey looks more like the old Iraq, right down to its attacks on the Kurds. This local version of the War on Terror may be the war’s most regrettable legacy, and the pursuit of “terrorists” provides ideological and rhetorical cover for ethnic cleansing. Open support for torture and the doctrine of pre-emptive war has been followed closely, and America’s promotion of freedom, always hypocritical, has become untenable. The “drumbeat of Wilsonian idealism”, as Kissinger called it, has ceased.

Jacob Heilbrunn, author of They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons, wrote that:

If the administration fails in Iraq, many conservatives will endorse a kind of realpolitik that has not served the GOP well in the past. Neoconservatives won’t. It would be no small irony if the neoconservatives once again become a small faction, as they were in the early 1970s, uncomfortable in either the Republican or Democratic Parties. In a reversal of their long­standing intellectual role, they might even find themselves disputing more with conservatives than liberals in coming years.

This has come to pass, and much of the core of “Never Trump” conservatism is made up of spurned neoconservatives: Max Boot, Bill Kristol, the speechwriter David Frum (who coined the term “Axis of Evil”).

In Australia, this debate is oddly absent. The rest of the coalition partners, co-signees to this hubris, have had some measure of accountability, accidental or otherwise. Trump himself is part of the reckoning. In the United Kingdom, the prime minister, Boris Johnson, has repeatedly described the invasion as a war crime, endorsed the findings of the Chilcot inquiry, and once said that the “eel-like” Tony Blair would evade prosecution. Locally, these sentiments are a rarity on the right, and the process of press mea culpas undertaken by organisations like The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Economist never took place. Instead, as political scientist Rodney Tiffen put it, The Australian in particular became “increasingly querulous. Its view seemed to be that it had been wrong for the right reasons and the war’s critics right for the wrong reasons.”

Even Fox News has freshened its prime-time line-up in the meantime. After Iran shot down an American surveillance drone, it was Fox News host Tucker Carlson who dissuaded the US president from retaliating. Trump later explained his reasoning: “I thought about it for a second and I said, you know what, they shot down an unmanned drone … and here we are sitting with 150 dead people that would have taken place probably within a half an hour after I said go ahead. And I didn’t like it … I didn’t think it was proportionate.” This restraint reflects a shift in the Fox network’s rhetoric.

Yet Australia’s Iraq War cheerleaders are still bringing it on. More bored than chastened, they have simply moved on to talking about other things, resulting in an uncomfortable situation where right-wing Australian pundits continue to boost Trump’s approach regardless of how incompatible it is with their own previously held foreign-policy beliefs, and regardless of his corruption, weirdness or plain unsuitability for public office in a democracy. These bizarre spectacles are at least entertaining: Miranda Devine, angling for a Stateside career via the New York Post, entertained the possibility that former Australian foreign minister Alexander Downer might be a spy.

Downer’s own experience shows how far downstream we are. The man Mark Steyn called “my favourite foreign minister” helped pump the rhetorical vainglory of the War on Terror. In a 2004 National Press Club speech titled “Australia and the Threat of Global Terrorism”, he compared it to the fight against fascism in World War Two, a “test of resolve”, “a war to protect the very civilisation we have worked so hard to create – a civilisation founded on democracy, personal liberty, the rule of law, religious freedom and tolerance”. Australia’s government, Downer insisted, would not “retreat into isolationism”. Now that America has retreated into isolationism, his fortunes have changed. The outer bounds of conservative opinion think he’s a secret agent, acting on behalf of the Hillary Clinton Foundation.

In 2016, Downer had a gin and tonic in London with one of Trump’s foreign policy advisory panel, George Papadopoulos. This event, among others, resulted in the Mueller investigation: Papadopoulos told Downer that Russia had dirt on Hillary Clinton, and an alarmed Downer passed this information to American intelligence agencies. Here’s how Spectator Australia, a reliable importer of lunar-right talking points, records this event: according to “Downer’s express evidence, it was the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs that tacitly acted as agents of the Clinton campaign in order to communicate prejudicial information about Donald Trump to a US administration that was actively working to prevent his election”.

Australia was not expecting to investigate its own former foreign minister for espionage, but it has played along. In September, The New York Times reported that Trump had pressed Scott Morrison personally, “to help Attorney General William P. Barr gather information for a Justice Department inquiry that Mr. Trump hopes will discredit the Mueller investigation”. Days later Australia’s ambassador to the United States, Joe Hockey, wrote a letter promising assistance, though its exact nature has been uncertain. Morrison initially appeared enthusiastic, and then backtracked, announcing that the release of diplomatic communications “would be a very unusual thing to do”. The imbroglio was, according to the Times, a sign of “the president using high-level diplomacy to advance his personal political interests”.

In the United States, Morrison’s positioning became a case study for these new diplomatic realities. “What we see there is a leader [ Morrison] trying to be responsive to the things Trump gets worked up over,” Bruce Jentleson, a political scientist at Duke University, told The Christian Science Monitor, “even as he generally goes about pursuing his country’s interests.” It was, he said, evidence of a new “transactional” American foreign policy, where Morrison was mollifying Trump’s personal needs, ignoring their more serious implications, and at the same time pursuing Australian interests divergent to the United States. “Prime Minister Morrison happily accepted a state dinner at the White House last month that highlighted the US–Australia alliance,” the paper noted, “even as he ramped up military relations with China by welcoming a Chinese navy port call in Sydney.”

Take stock: in 2007, barely more than a decade ago, the primary purpose of American foreign policy was forging a democratic Middle East in the fires of war. In 2019, its function is mercenary and its primary purpose is protecting a former reality-TV show host from narcissistic injury. Trump’s obsession with re-prosecuting the 2016 election – an election that he won – has led to the apparatus of state being put to work proving conspiracy theories first baked on right-wing blogs. It has brought him to impeachment trial, where the witnesses are predominantly in the diplomatic sphere. In his phone calls with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Trump sought to have Joe Biden and his son, Hunter Biden, investigated not to harm Biden as a future political opponent, but a retrospective one.

Asking whether this is an impeachable offence is a secondary question. “Does America still have institutions capable of impeachment?” is more pressing and more uncertain. It is worth, past the headlines, looking at the chitchat in the Zelensky call. The Ukrainian president’s pandering is squirm-worthy: “I would like to confess to you that I had an opportunity to learn from you … We are trying to work hard because we wanted to drain the swamp here in our country … You are a great teacher for us and in that.” There is another, measly quid pro quo. “Actually last time I travelled to the United States, I stayed in New York near Central Park and I stayed at the Trump Tower,” Zelensky says.

Donald Trump is at the helm of the most powerful nation in history, but those dealing with him diplomatically feel his concern is a few bucks on a gauche hotel stay. They are right. In 2001, hours after the September 11 attacks, Trump was pilloried for allegedly boasting that his 40 Wall Street building was now the tallest in Manhattan. (Ever on-brand, Trump’s bragging turned out to be false, yet he had succeeded in a product placement.) A few years later, the architect of the Twin Towers attack explained its purposes once more, at a wedding. It was “easy for us to provoke and bait this administration”, bin Laden said. “All that we have to do is to send two mujahedin to the furthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written Al Qaeda, in order to make the generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic, and political losses without their achieving for it anything of note other than some benefits for their private companies.” There was no harm in telegraphing this strategy, he felt. America would be unable to stop itself.

Richard Cooke

Richard Cooke is The Monthlys contributing editor. 


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