Cover Story

Trump on the rampage

Print edition : May 12, 2017

U.S. President Donald Trump at the Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland, on April 13. Photo: JIM WATSON/AFP

U.S Defence Secretary James Mattis (left) and Central Command Commander Joseph Votel take part in a briefing at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., on April 11. Mattis said the U.S. had “no doubt” that the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was responsible for the previous week’s chemical attack on a rebel-held town that left dozens dead. Photo: AFP

U.S. and South Korean soldiers, foreground, and North Korean soldiers (background) stand guard near the meeting rooms that straddle the border between the two Koreas in the truce village of Panmunjom, which has separated the two Koreas since the Korean War, in the demilitarised zone in Paju, South Korea, on April 17. Photo: Bloomberg

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence looks at the North Korean side from Observation Post Ouellette in the demilitarized zone near Panmunjom, which separates the two Koreas, on April 17. Photo: AP

Yemenis search under the rubble of houses in the UNESCO heritage site in the old city of Sana’a on June 12, 2015, following an overnight Saudi Arabia-led air strike. Photo: AFP

The world is being pushed to the brink by the Donald Trump administration, which is recklessly ordering the use of missiles and other lethal weapons in the American armoury against the designated enemies of the United States.

THREE months after Donald Trump took over the presidency, the United States finds itself deeply enmeshed in the conflicts in other countries that his predecessors in office had left unresolved. On the campaign trail, Trump had railed against the U.S.’ military involvement abroad and military alliances such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). He had promised that if elected, he would ensure that the U.S. would stop playing the role of a self-appointed “global cop”. In his short inaugural speech on January 20, his main emphasis was on putting “America first” and improving the nation’s economy and crumbling infrastructure. Senior U.S. officials told the media that they were reconciled to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad staying in power.

However, nobody mistook Trump for a peacenik. During campaigning, he had repeatedly stated that he would “bomb the shit” out of Islamist groupings such as Al Qaeda and the Islamic State (Daesh) and reintroduce the practice of “torture” of political detainees. Trump started fulfilling many of his hawkish pledges immediately after taking office. His administration, dominated by former military men, gave the military a carte blanche to use maximum force against suspected terrorist targets. In the last week of January, Trump approved the dispatch of elite U.S. Navy Seals to Yemen to kill or capture a high-ranking leader of the Al Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The military mission resulted in the death of more than 30 civilians, among them an eight-year-old girl. The AQAP militant was nowhere to be found. It was later established that he had defected to the Saudi Arabia-led coalition that has invaded Yemen. Ironically, the Trump administration is backing the Saudi invasion to the hilt by providing military intelligence and sophisticated arms. Yemen has been plunged into anarchy as a consequence of the civil war instigated by Saudi Arabia and this has dramatically increased the presence of Al Qaeda and Daesh there.

Yemen, one of the most impoverished countries in the Gulf region, is on the brink of an all-out famine. According to the United Nations, nine million of the 27 million Yemenis are on the verge of starvation and 3.3 million have been classified as acutely malnourished, the majority of them children. Saudi Arabia has used the weapons supplied by the U.S. and its allies to ruin the country’s infrastructure, specifically targeting the port of Howeida, through which Yemen imports most of its food. Yemen imports 90 per cent of its food. As the war crimes, including the targeting of hospitals, schools and wedding parties, became hard to ignore, the Barack Obama administration mildly rebuked the Saudi monarchy. But, the first thing Trump did on succeeding Obama to the office was to send a clear signal to the Saudi-led alliance that it could continue bombing Yemen.

General Joseph Votel, the head of the U.S. Central Command, said Washington had “vital interests” in Yemen. The U.S. has huge military bases in Qatar and Bahrain and smaller ones in Jordan and Kuwait. A Saudi victory in Yemen would give the U.S. control over the strategic Bab-el-Mandeb Strait. But a victory is nowhere in sight as the alliance of Yemeni forces led by the Houthi insurgency has forced a stalemate. The U.S. Defence Secretary, James “Mad Dog” Mattis, said during a visit to Riyadh in the third week of April, that the U.S. was considering direct intervention in the war in Yemen on behalf of its Gulf allies. “It has gone on for a long time; we see Iranian supplied missiles being fired by the Houthis into Saudi Arabia and this is something, with the number of innocent people dying in Yemen, it has simply got to be brought to an end,” Mattis said.

The navies of the U.S. and its Gulf allies have blockaded Yemen. Even planes chartered by the United Nations are not permitted to land in Yemen. Ships bringing food and essential supplies from Iran are not allowed to reach Yemen. The U.S. Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, recently said that Iran’s “provocative actions threaten the United States, the region and the world”. The statement came just after the Trump administration reluctantly acknowledged that Iran had fully complied with the terms of the nuclear agreement it had signed with the U.S. and the P5+1 (permanent five members of the U.N. Security Council—the U.S., the United Kingdom, France, China and Russia—plus Germany).

The humanitarian crisis in Yemen is said to be worse than that prevailing in Syria. More than 10,000 civilians have been killed and more than three million displaced in the civil war.

The U.S. military industrial complex will be able to make more profits selling lethal weapons like “daisy cutter” and “cluster” bombs to the rich Gulf states. The U.S. sold weapons worth more than $130 billion during the eight years of Obama’s presidency. The Trump administration has decided to sell precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia. Its “shock-and-awe” military campaign in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia has already resulted in hundreds of civilian casualties. The Trump administration has lifted the restrictions imposed on the U.S. military by the Obama administration. In one single incident, a U.S. aircraft targeted a residential building in western Mosul, Iraq, on March 17, killing more than 200 non-combatants, many of them children and women.

Trump took a U-turn on his position on Syria in early April after the “chemical weapons” incident. Assad was no longer a potential ally in the fight against extremism but was put back officially on the regime-change list. Trump has also radically reversed his position on NATO. His latest position is that NATO was not only relevant but was a critical component of the Western military alliance. His main motivation for reversing his long-held positions was to show his critics and the American people that he was in no way indebted to the Kremlin. The mainstream media in the U.S. have stopped criticising Trump as a “puppet” of Russia. Instead, the media and influential think tanks are hailing him as a decisive leader of the “free world”.

Trump has ordered an increase in the number of U.S. special forces operating in north-eastern Syria. The U.S. has been backing the Syrian Kurds in their efforts to carve out an independent enclave within Syria. Unlike the Russian forces, U.S. troops are in Syria without the permission of the Syrian government. The Trump administration wants to ensure that the Syrian Kurds are in the vanguard of the forces that will take control of Raqqa, the capital of the so-called Islamic State.

In early April, American “friendly fire” killed many allied Syrian Kurd fighters. This was after Trump ordered the firing of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles into a small Syrian airbase after sanctimoniously blaming Syria for using “sarin gas” on Khan Sheikhoun town in the rebel-controlled Idlib province. The town is under the control of the Jabhat al-Nusra, an Al Qaeda affiliate.

Bashar al-Assad has vehemently denied the charge of using poison gas on his own people. He and Russian President Vladimir Putin have been demanding a speedy international probe into the alleged chemical attack, but Trump preferred to rush into judgement like a television reality show judge, which he was in an earlier avatar. Within days after the massive missile attack on Syria, Trump gave the go-ahead to use America’s “mother of all bombs”, weighing 10,000 kilograms, over a remote part of Nangarhar province in Afghanistan, bordering Pakistan. The bomb, officially called the Massive Ordnance Air Blast Bomb (MOAB), is the biggest and most powerful weapon since the two nuclear bombs the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. The bomb, according to the Pentagon, can obliterate anything within a 1,000 yard (915 metres) radius as its explosive compound is much stronger than the explosive material trinitrotoluene, or TNT. Many civilians would have most likely perished despite the U.S.’ claims that only militants were killed. Washington has justified the use of this weapon of mass destruction. The Pentagon spokesman said it was done at the request of the Afghan government, whose forces were engaged in a battle with Daesh in the region.

The U.S. Commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John Nicholson, said the decision to use the most powerful non-nuclear weapon in the U.S. military’s arsenal was his call but he had informed the Afghan President, Ashraf Ghani, about the decision. The bomb was used against a motley group of Daesh fighters, numbering around 200, which had withstood attacks from a combined force of the Afghan army and U.S. Special Forces. A U.S. Special Forces officer was killed in Nangarhar a week before the MOAB was dropped. The U.S. military claimed that more than 90 militants were killed in the attack. However, Daesh denied that it suffered any casualties. The price tag of a single MOAB is $20 million. The use of the MOAB in Afghanistan and the simultaneous launch of 59 Tomahawk missiles against Syria were apparently a signal to the enemies of America such as North Korea and Iran that the Trump administration would not think twice before resorting to extreme measures, including the nuclear option.

Recent history has shown that bombs alone will not be able to subdue an enemy or a nation. The U.S. carpet-bombed North Korea during the Korean War in the 1950s and Vietnam in the 1970s. The Korean War ended in a stalemate and America lost in Vietnam. In Afghanistan, the U.S. had previously dropped 2,500-kg bunker bombs in a futile bid to eliminate the Al Qaeda leadership holed up in the mountains of Tora Bora. Trump and his advisers do not have a long-term strategy to defeat either the Taliban or Daesh in Afghanistan. In March, the U.S. forces carried out over 79 “counter terror” strikes against Daesh in Nangarhar and the neighbouring province of Kunar. The U.N. has expressed serious concern over increasing civilian casualties in the U.S. air campaign. The Trump administration has authorised further drone attacks in the “war zones” American troops are active in. The Taliban, which is at daggers drawn with Daesh, has been expanding its hold on Afghan territory. It now controls over one-third of the country.

Tensions in East Asia

In East Asia, the Trump administration has unnecessarily ratcheted up tensions to a dangerous level by issuing bellicose threats against North Korea. While in campaign mode, Trump had talked about “doing a deal” with North Korea. After taking over, he ordered the installation of the anti-ballistic Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) missile batteries in South Korea, despite objections from major opposition parties and adverse public opinion. China, too, had protested against the deployment of the sophisticated missiles systems, viewing it as a threat to its own national security. Trump has dispatched a carrier group led by an aircraft carrier towards the Korean peninsula.

Top U.S. officials have been repeatedly emphasising that “all options are open” to end the alleged nuclear and missile threat from North Korea. The U.S. media reported that the National Security Council presented Trump with options ranging from “putting nukes in South Korea” or “killing dictator Kim Jong-un”. U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, during a visit to South Korea in the third week of April, warned North Korea that under Trump “the shield stands guard and the sword stands ready”.

North Korea, never one to be outdone in the art of sabre-rattling, has threatened to retaliate with a full-fledged nuclear attack if the U.S. targets its territory.

North Korea has denounced the Trump administration’s “maniacal provocations”, including the deployment of the naval carrier group. The Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, has warned that “storm clouds are gathering” as the U.S., South Korea and North Korea “are engaging in tit for tat, with their swords drawn and bows bent”. The Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, has expressed his concerns about the alarming turn in East Asia. China and Russia have both said that they will try to restart talks with North Korea. Washington has been refusing to engage in meaningful dialogue with Pyongyang. The Trump administration has reiterated the previous administration’s position that talks are only possible if North Korea gives up its nuclear and missile capabilities. Pyongyang has said that given the prevailing circumstances and stories about Washington considering a pre-emptive strike, it will be foolish to give up its nuclear deterrent.

At the feverish pace with which Trump is ordering the use of missiles and other lethal weapons in the American armoury since taking office, it is only a matter of time before a real war breaks out with one or all of America’s many designated enemies. Two of them, Russia and China, are U.N. Security Council members, and the third, North Korea, possesses nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles. With the U.S. naval armada in the Korean peninsula, the threat of hostilities breaking out is being taken seriously. China has reportedly deployed 150,000 troops near the border with North Korea as a precautionary measure.

The Russian leadership, too, feels that the U.S. is preparing for war. The NATO expansion and build-up along the Russian border coupled with more aggressive moves such as building missile bases in Poland and the Baltic states gave Russia many reasons to fear about the West’s ultimate game plan. With Trump firmly under the control of military hawks, neoconservatives and liberal interventionists, all hopes for a detente between Moscow and Washington have all but vanished.

Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev has warned that the U.S. is “on the verge of a military clash with Russia” and that the relations between the two countries now are “completely ruined”. Russia and the U.S. control 90 per cent of the world’s nuclear arsenal. Trump is playing with thermonuclear fire. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has moved the “doomsday clock” even closer to midnight. “In 2017, we find the danger to be even greater, the need for action more urgent. Wise public officials should act immediately, guiding humanity away from the brink. If they do not, wise citizens should step forward and lead the way,” it said.

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