Our three most recent Presidents were elected on relatively non-interventionist platforms but became decidedly more hawkish once in office. Although much is made of the exceptionalism of Donald Trump’s presidency, like George W. Bush and Barrack Obama before him, he is now bending to the will of America’s Deep State.
Although the term “Deep State” has been politicized, it remains a good moniker for the evolving cast of security and foreign policy officials (mostly unelected), pundits and contractors that advocate for and benefit from aggressive US foreign and security policies. This group has solidified its control over major news media to the point at which anyone opposing the endless stream of sanctions, expansions of surveillance powers and military actions emanating from Washington is either muzzled or dismissed as a traitor.
Few now remember that George W. Bush called for a humbler foreign policy and spoke out against nation building during the 2000 campaign. Unfortunately, Bush chose Dick Cheney – then the CEO of defense contractor Haliburton – as his running mate and hired neoconservatives for key foreign policy roles in his Administration. After 9/11, Bush, Cheney and the necons used the disaster to justify a foolish regime change operation in Iraq costing thousands of American lives and trillions of dollars in military and VA spending – not to mention the widespread death and destruction visited upon Iraqis.
As an Illinois State Senator, Barack Obama addressed a demonstration against the Iraq War. During the 2008 campaign, he spoke eloquently about the need to negotiate with our enemies and was even awarded with the Nobel Peace Prize in the early months of his Presidency.
But, as President, Obama failed to end the Afghanistan War (now in its second decade) and authorized the disastrous intervention in Libya. Although Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi was a despot he had recently given up his weapons of mass destruction and was trying to make amends with the international community. His overthrow turned Libya into a failed state in which extremists killed US diplomats and ISIS found a haven. Obama’s evolution from peace activist to regime changer was the work of so-called humanitarian interventionists, like Samantha Power and Susan Rice, who played key foreign policy roles in his Administration.
Even Obama’s withdrawal of US troops from Iraq was much less of an achievement than advertised. Before leaving office, Bush had signed a Status of Forces agreement with Iraq which called for a complete withdrawal of US troops at the end of 2011. The Obama White House tried to revise the agreement to continue the occupation but gave up when the Iraqi government refused to guarantee legal immunity to US troops (an understandable position given the outrages Americans perpetrated at Abu Ghaib).
To Obama’s credit, he did liberalize relations with Cuba (an achievement largely reversed by Trump) and secured the Iran Nuclear Agreement. The latter accomplishment was especially notable given the barrage of criticism the President faced from Congress, think-tank intellectuals and media pundits. It was a very rare victory over the Deep State in the 21st Century, but one that has already been largely undermined and risks being fully reversed under Trump.
As a private citizen, our 45th President was a consistent critic of US intervention in Syria. And, as late as a few weeks ago, he was still calling for a withdrawal of US forces from that unfortunate nation. Those calls ended after a reputed chemical weapons attack in Douma. Trump yielded to bipartisan pressure to start bombing even before the UN Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons documented that an attack occurred, echoing Bush’s ill-fated decision to invade Iraq before UN inspectors had finished their work.
But the Deep State long predates the current century. Back in 1961, President Eisenhower warned us of the Deep State under its original name: the military industrial complex. Back then, Deep State actors concocted the phony missile gap between the Soviet Union and the US on which John F. Kennedy ran and later conned him into supporting the hapless Bay of Pigs invasion after he was elected. Under Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, Deep Statesmen hyped the Gulf of Tonkin incident as a pretext for sending half-a-million American soldiers into the swamps of Vietnam.
The end of the Cold War was a major setback for the Deep State, but Middle Eastern instability and Islamic extremism soon emerged as new pretexts for US interventionism and its attendant spending. The hawks rarely acknowledge that many of the Islamic World’s pathologies are rooted in such failed American policies as the overthrow of Iran’s secular democratic government in 1953, arming Saddam Hussein with chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq War and funding Osama bin Laden’s Mujahedeen in Afghanistan during the 1980s. Somehow, the next intervention will make everything better, or will at least show that the US can’t be kicked around anymore.
America’s muscular foreign policy doesn’t materially benefit most of us. Indeed, it is adding greatly to our unsustainable public debt while compromising our civil liberties. In Trump country, it claims lives and destroys the mental health of those who fulfill the combat roles required by this approach. Unfortunately, most Americans are unable to see through the disadvantages of Deep State ideology. They have been conditioned to view foreign policy through the prism of team sports and professional wrestling: whatever is bad for such heavies as Russia, China and Iran must be good for our side, and so we should do whatever it takes to “win”.
Three men clever enough to win the Presidency realized the folly of this thinking when they were outside the Washington bubble. But once on the inside, these Presidents have proven unable to overcome the Deep State’s web of connections and media control. Those of us who pray for peace and relish fiscal sanity are massively overmatched; we will need new tactics and considerably more financing to stand up to the Deep State.