What will go down in history as the “Rocket man” speech underscores the confusion, the contradictions, the dangers, and even some of the virtues – however attenuated – of the Trump presidency.
Despite the flamboyant rhetoric – or, perhaps, because of it – it’s hard to take Trump’s threat to “destroy” North Korea seriously. Trump knows, as his generals surely do, that the destruction of Pyongyang would be accompanied by the annihilation of Seoul – a city of over ten million people. Aside from that, however, the hysterics amongst us failed to note that Trump’s threat was conditional: “if we are forced to defend ourselves or our allies.” There was much hand-wringing about how such an act would be a “war crime,” and this is undoubtedly true. Yet our historically ignorant – or is that willfully blind? — punditariat seems not to realize that we already “totally destroyed” North Korea. By 1951, the US had leveled every North Korean city to the ground – eighty to ninety percent destroyed.
Why do you think Kim Jong-un wants a nuclear deterrent?
In any case, Trump isn’t going to attack North Korea unless the North Korean leader strikes first – and despite Trump’s characterization of Kim as being on a “suicide mission,” the little despot is way ahead of the game by maintaining a stalemate with the United States.
Trump’s sustained attack on the Iran deal also has many quite nervous, despite the fact that nothing he said at the UN is any different than what he told us during the 2016 presidential race. As is the case with the “rocket man” rhetoric, this is just Trump doing what he likes to do best – listening to the sound of his own voice as he sends shockwaves through the media. Yes, he said it’s a “bad deal,” the “worst deal,” and a “disgrace,” but nowhere did he say he’s going to nullify it – because it cannot be nullified. Oh, sure, the US could “decertify” Iran’s compliance with the terms of the agreement, but so what? The sanctions that would supposedly “snap back” would not be recognized by any other country that does business with Iran: the effect would be close to null.
Trump knows this: so do the Iranians. But none of this has anything to do with Iran, or our actual policy: it’s all about Israel and domestic politics. Trump is sidling up to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the vain hope that something will come of the Trumpian pledge to make a breakthrough on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. And of course the Israel lobby is a powerful force in Washington, where the President has few friends.
In both of the above cases any US action is high risk with a low probability of success, but there is some real danger posed by Trump’s presidency when it comes to Venezuela. “The United States has taken important steps to hold the regime accountable,” said Trump. “We are prepared to take further action if the government of Venezuela persists on its path to impose authoritarian rule on the Venezuelan people.”
So here is a concrete albeit vague threat, one that seems more solid than his rantings against Iran and North Korea because there is no down side, either internationally or domestically. And the vagueness of the threat dissipates once we recall the storied history of US intervention in Latin America, which has ranged from outright invasions to covert CIA operations aimed at regime change. The Maduro government has no friends in Washington, no major allies internationally, no lobby to protect its interests, and no real defenders on either side of the political spectrum except for a few isolated far-left types. So why not move on Maduro, if only to prove he’s not an “isolationist” to the McCain-Graham wing of the GOP?
In any case, what the US is currently doing to undermine the Maduro regime in Venezuela is no doubt merely a continuation of what the Obama administration and Hillary Clinton’s State Department were doing: subsidizing and directing the right-wing opposition. The added sanctions are more of the same.
Trump’s UN speech has all the earmarks of having been written by a committee – a committee with weirdly clashing views. On the one hand, we have the boilerplate “isolationist” “America First” rhetoric – America will “lead by example,” renunciation of any desire to tell the world how to live – and on the other hand we have “rocket man,” threats (most of them empty), and praise for none other than Harry Truman and the Marshall Plan – the latter being the perfect example of self-sacrificial internationalism.
The effects of Trump Derangement Syndrome on the analytical abilities of the foreign policy community are painfully obvious: it distorts perceptions and confirms biases. First Trump was supposed to be a dangerous “isolationist” who would destroy the oh-so-sacred liberal international order and give Alaska back to the Russians. Now we have none other than Jacob Heilbrunn opining that Trump has gone full neocon. All this in the space of a few months!
The truth is that neither of these extreme views have the slightest relationship to reality: they are impressionistic, fact-challenged, and purely speculative.
To be sure, there is plenty in Trump’s UN speech to dislike: for example, he had the nerve to mention the Yemen war while blaming it on Iran, a marginal player, when the real culprit is Saudi Arabia, which is bombing Yemeni cities, killing civilians, and causing a famine that will kill untold thousands. The Saudis – the principal financiers and ideologues of radical Islamic terrorism – get off scot-free, while the relatively pacific Iranians are pilloried. To anyone who knows anything about how radical Islamism is spread and by whom, this is a grotesque inversion of the truth.
If we dissect Trump’s UN speech, what we find is that seventy-five percent of it is pure rodomontade – a word that has gone out of fashion, but may be coming back with this presidency. It means boastful bragging empty bluster. The remaining portion consists of sops thrown to various interest groups, including his own “isolationist” nationalist supporters as well as GOP regulars and the Zionist lobby.
It is, in short, nothing to get too excited about – not that that will reassure the pearl-clutching sky-is-falling partisan Democrats and their virtue-signaling libertarian and far-left allies in #TheResistance.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.
I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.