No one knows what the foreign policy of President Donald J. Trump holds in store for the world. Who could have predicted the course of US foreign policy under Barack Obama or George W. Bush? Obama, it is true, went far toward fulfilling his pledge to withdraw US combat troops from Iraq, and he has scaled down the US war in Afghanistan as well (something he did not promise to do in 2008). He has failed, however, to consistently press for a closure of the extra-constitutional Guantánamo Bay detention facility for accused terrorists. The persistence of the US military presence in Iraq is largely due to the rise of Daesh, which Obama did not anticipate and which, basically, is traceable to Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq. That disaster, of course, was predicted by exactly no one in 2000, and it was only made possible by the shocking 9/11 attacks on America.
In light of this recent history, we can only expect the unexpected from foreign affairs during the coming four years.
From a peace perspective, the campaign of 2016 was rather dismal. The Democratic nominee for president, Hillary Clinton, was so hawkish — enamored of Henry Kissinger and proud of pressing President Obama toward armed intervention in Libya — that she allowed a right-wing nationalist, in the person of Trump, to campaign as the peace candidate. Trump cogently criticized the policy of armed overthrow of Middle Eastern dictatorships. Trump pledged to maintain Obama’s resistance to deeper US military intervention in the Syrian civil war. Trump astounded everyone by declaring, before the South Carolina Republican primary no less, that Bush had deceived the country by waging war against Iraq based on phony claims about weapons of mass destruction. He declared that the US would be better off with Saddam Hussein and Moammar Qaddafi still in power. The GOP voters of the Palmetto State rewarded Trump’s eerie echo of standard peace movement talking points with victory. Once he secured the Republican nomination, Trump had the antiwar lane all to himself. The corrosive effects of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars on the authority of America’s customary political elites have been more profound and widespread than many analysts understand. The collapse of confidence in US leadership has opened a path to power for a business tycoon who styles himself an outsider. Activists will mobilize to protest abuses of Americans’ rights and of the planet in the coming years. Whether they will need to protest new US wars is something we cannot know. If Trump turns his back on his antiwar campaign, he will spurn not only peace activists, but many who supported him as well. In that event, the peace movement will do well to reach out to disaffected Trump voters who inhabit the America where the wars of our century have taken a terrible toll.
Doug Rossinow is a former president of the Peace History Society and author of The Reagan Era: A History of the 1980s. He currently writes from Oslo, Norway