If the New York Times took on human form, with its proposals for a foreign policy of disaster-making masquerading as disaster management, sowing terror as counter-terrorism, and its matchless ability to sell war to liberals as peace, it would look like Hillary Clinton. What paper, on the other hand, could possibly be incarnated as Donald Trump? Bereft of his trademark orange burnish, but only occasionally emitting complete sentences, he turned in a performance that will be sure to further convince Clinton-supporting coastal liberals that he is a buffoon.
Coastal liberals are not the majority, however, of this country’s inhabitants, and Trump’s foreign policy—an impossible and idiosyncratically American confection of isolationism and mow-them-down brutality—will probably go down better than Clinton’s detached celebration of torturing Iran into surrender and well-thought-out but clearly impossible proposals for defeating the Islamic State group through restricting its web access.
The first presidential debate opened with Trump issuing a helter-skelter array of accusations against Clinton for her support for the NAFTA trade legislation which scraped empty the Midwest’s and New England’s industrial belt, turning it into a hollow ruin of spectral cities and quieted factories. The fact that Trump’s accusation that Clinton has been “fighting ISIS (her) entire adult life” made no sense probably means less than his unanswerable statement that “we spent US$6 trillion in the Middle East, we could have rebuilt our country twice” with that sum, referring to recent estimates of the amount of money spent on the war on Iraq and elsewhere.
Beyond that pretty effective blow, Trump’s ideas of what should be done about—or to—the Middle East shift somewhere between those age-old U.S. traditions of wiping it off the map and letting it sort out its own.
Clinton’s comments came out most markedly in several exchanges. The first was the reaction to a hypothetical cyber attack against U.S. interests. After discussing Russia’s supposed cyber attacks against U.S. organizations, she accused Russia, China, and Iran of “wreaking havoc,” and pointed out that the U.S. has much “greater capacity.” Iranians know this very well, having been the victim of cyber-warfare from the U.S. and its offshore military-development lab, Israel. They combined to attack Iranian centrifuges using the STUXNET virus.
Clinton also spoke of the latest incarnation of Middle East Muslim bogeymen organizations—the Islamic State group. She spoke of intensifying the U.S.’s airstrikes against the Islamic State group—illegal sorties using smart bombs which fall far too often on Syrian villagers. The U.S. also has a targeting problem when it goes after the Islamic State group, most recently hitting a Syrian military outpost which had been static for several years and which was actually in direct confrontations with the terror group.
Trump’s remark that Clinton has been fighting the Islamic State group her entire adult life was pure and deliberate silliness, but jabbing her for the marked ineffectiveness of U.S. airstrikes was on point. The U.S.’ total ineffectiveness in interdicting Islamic State group troop movements and supply convoys across open deserts is not passing unnoticed.
Clinton’s performance also included some awkward fumbling over how, exactly, the Islamic State group gets its men and fighters: “They have foreign fighters coming in, foreign weapons.” The solution Clinton proposed was to “take out their leadership … we need to do everything we can do disrupt their propaganda efforts online.”
A former Turkish chief of counterterrorism offers other perspectives on how Turkey, fully enfolded into the U.S. regional military and strategic apparatus, has viewed such foreign fighters: “The Erdogan government has consistently turned a blind eye to tens of thousands of ISIS supporters using the Istanbul airport and porous Turkish border to cross into Syria to join ISIS.”
American Democracy Is a Shitshow
Russia, which gets along less well with Turkey and is also part of Clinton’s newly christened triumvirate of havoc, has had more success smashing Islamic State group oil smuggling convoys.
Trump, unfettered by party machinery and the straightjacket of scripted answers, also could bumble a bit closer to root causes. He noted that the Islamic State group emerged amid the chaos of post-war Iraq (although he did not mention the role of Saudi petrodollars and the Wahhabi ideology which they produce, and which mentally prepares Islamic State group recruits for regional warfare; never mind who, exactly, pays the salaries).
While Trump’s geopolitics are often wacky—he suggested that if “we had taken the oil, ISIS would not have been able to form”—his isolationism trumps Clinton’s interventionism, engineered chaos, and performative damage control any day. Clinton was unable to retreat from her support for the wars on both Iraq and Libya, shattering their political institutions, while Trump was able to plainly say: “they shouldn’t have gotten in(to)” Iraq, going on to name Libya as “another of her disasters.” That’s a win for Trump and an appeal to exhausted and poor swing voters baffled by endless and repeated “mistakes” in the Middle East that seem to only breed further war.
Trump, still, seemed only somewhat less eager to inflict his own disasters on the region. Although he called the Middle East “a total mess,” indicting Clinton for much of it, he did urge “NATO to go into the Middle East with us, to knock the hell out of ISIS”—a strategic plan which might knock hell out of more than ISIS given NATO’s tendency to mistake wedding parties for militants.
Each candidate also competed for who could celebrate the carefully calibrated economic strangulation of Iran with more joy. Trump noted that before the deal, “Iran was choking on sanctions,” whereas now, he claimed, it is again only some years from a nuclear device. Clinton, on the other hand, announced that she voted for “every sanction against Iran when I was in the Senate … we drove Iran to the negotiating table,” and added that she had put “a lid on Iran’s nuclear program without firing a single shot.” True, except for the illegal cyber-warfare, the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists, and planes plummeting from the sky due to the structural violence imposed through the sanctions regime.
Trump is a terror. There can be no doubt. But if the debate is any indication—and it is plenty indication—the choice is between one candidate who never met a moment of U.S. foreign aggression she did not like, and one who appeals, Janus-faced, to segments of the U.S. population who both want to smash the Middle East to smithereens and those more content to simply bring the armed forces home, come what may. Who will be the more effective evil remains to be seen. The silence on the U.S. role in destroying Syria is indicative of the degree to which the concerns of humanity remain largely off the agenda. For those living in countries south and east of the Mediterranean, the zone which is the unfortunate recipient of endless kinetic violence from the military one of these two will helm come January, neither option looks very good at all. And from here, too, it looks like we will all be the losers not just of last night’s debate, but the election as well.
Max Ajl studies development sociology at Cornell University and has been published widely, including in Middle East Report, Historical Materialism, and the Guardian's Comment is Free. He is a contributing editor at Jacobin and co-editor of Jadaliyya's OIL Page. He is on Twitter at: @maxajl.