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The Political Perils Of A Wartime Presidency

The new coronavirus has been one of the worst moments of Donald Trump’s presidency. A crisis erupted, and he spent weeks downplaying and dismissing before finally conceding the urgent need for action. If things go badly, he will get a lot of the blame for his tardy, ineffectual response.

But in some ways, the pandemic puts him in the position he always imagined the office would be. He gets to stand in front of the cameras every day, issuing directives, invoking emergency powers and commanding a platoon of subordinates who praise his inspiring leadership. It’s a Hollywood image of a president in action.

Trump had an air of satisfaction in declaring himself a “wartime president.” But this is the same guy who in 2015 insisted, “I know more about ISIS than the generals do, believe me.” Once in office, he mused, “I think I would have been a good general.”

In fact, Trump has been a wartime president since he arrived, but he had reservations about the military conflicts he inherited, which lacked strong popular support. With COVID-19, he obviously hopes the citizenry will rally behind him in the sort of national unity seen during previous wars.

He is not the first president to see the upside of such challenges. President Bill Clinton, noted Todd Purdum last year in The Atlantic, “sometimes lamented that he was serving in times of broad peace and prosperity, because true presidential greatness was granted only to those leaders who governed in war or crisis.” Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, Clinton knew, owe their heroic reputations largely to the critical wars they fought — and won.

George H.W. Bush saw his approval rating soar to 89 percent after the coalition victory in the 1991 Gulf War. George W. Bush attained a 90 percent approval rating after standing in the rubble of the World Trade Center and vowing to strike back at “the people who knocked these buildings down.”

It’s not hard to believe that Trump sees this as his chance for the public to see him as the hero he admires in the mirror. On Wednesday, he channeled FDR: “To this day, nobody has ever seen like it, what they were able to do during World War II. Now it’s our time. We must sacrifice together, because we are all in this together, and we will come through together.”

Those words lacked any stirring quality, though, because they are so at odds with his habit of smearing his critics and inflaming his supporters with venomous rhetoric. Even now, he can’t put aside his petty, bitter resentments.

Trump’s appeal for common sacrifice came on the same day he tweeted: “95 percent Approval Rating in the Republican Party, 53 percent overall. Not bad considering I get nothing but Fake & Corrupt News, day and night. ‘Russia, Russia, Russia’, then ‘the Ukraine Scam (where’s the Whistleblower?)’, the ‘Impeachment Hoax’, and more, more, more….”

You can’t ask people to come together when your chief concern is how popular you are with the 30 percent of Americans who identify with your party. You can’t expect solidarity when your favorite political strategy is stoking division. If you want citizens to rise above their selfish concerns, you need to do likewise. Trump is incapable.

A president who expects to get credit for taking steps that help in a crisis has to be accountable for mistakes as well. But Trump has said, “I don’t take responsibility at all” for the administration’s failures in preparing for this outbreak. As for the charge that he closed the White House office that dealt with pandemics, he suggested that others were to blame, claiming, “I don’t know anything about it.”

When I asked presidential historian Richard Norton Smith (who is currently writing a biography of Gerald Ford), about Trump’s posture, he had a tart response: “He wants to take credit for D-Day without accepting responsibility for Pearl Harbor.”

Trump, with his notorious ignorance of history, also fails to see the perils of being in charge during a crisis. He has made no effort to learn from Lyndon Johnson, whose fortunes fell so low that he abandoned his 1968 reelection campaign during a losing war. As Smith says, Johnson failed “in large part because of the gross discrepancy between what he was claiming and what people were seeing every night in their living rooms.”

Trump thinks the coronavirus pandemic will be his World War II. It may be his Vietnam.

Steve Chapman blogs at http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/chapman. Follow him on Twitter @SteveChapman13 or at https://www.facebook.com/stevechapman13. To find out more about Steve Chapman and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

VIDEO: US Forces Still Fighting ISIS As Trump Claims ‘100% Victory’

Within hours of the Trump administration declaring that ISIS had been “100 percent” defeated in Syria, CNN aired live video showing American forces in a new firefight with ISIS in Syria.

Aboard Air Force One, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders made the premature announcement about the supposed defeat. As part of the propaganda effort, she handed reporters a map purportedly showing that the territorial holdings of ISIS in Syria had been completely eliminated.

But ISIS apparently didn’t get the memo.

Within a few hours of Sanders’ statement, CNN aired live video of reporter Ben Wedeman, who is in eastern Syria.

“The White House now says ISIS is 100 percent defeated, is that what you’re seeing?” asked anchor Brianna Keilar.

“No,” replied Wedeman, “For the last two and a half hours we’ve seen airstrikes, repeated air strikes, and these of course are American airplanes.”

The reporter then pointed out, as it was visible on camera, that flares had been fired as part of the combat operations, along with tracer fire.

“There has been gunfire coming out of the ISIS positions,” he added. “The fighting is not over.”

Trump has repeatedly insisted that ISIS is completely defeated, seeking to take credit for the fight against the terrorist group that began long before he was sworn in. Pence echoed the claim on the same day ISIS-aligned forces claimed responsibility for an attack killing four American troops.

Military officials have also contradicted Trump’s claims.

“They are dispersed and disaggregated, but there is leadership, there are fighters there, there are facilitators there,” Gen. Joseph Votel, head of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), recently testified to Congress.

CENTCOM has authority over the Middle Eastern theater, and certainly has more operational knowledge of enemy actions and American military strategy than Trump and his public relations team does.

The American intelligence community has also said Trump’s claim is false. In the January release of their annual Worldwide Threat Assessment, intelligence officials said, “ISIS still commands thousands of fighters in Iraq and Syria, and it maintains eight branches, more than a dozen networks, and thousands of dispersed supporters around the world, despite significant leadership and territorial losses.”

ISIS “is transforming into an asymmetrical warfare force. And this, of course, is a threat,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently noted.

ISIS isn’t 100 percent defeated. And Trump and his administration are foolish to claim otherwise when ISIS is still firing at American soldiers on live television.

Published with permission of The American Independent. 

‘Our City Is In Ruins’: Crushing Wars Are Raging On In Syria And Iraq With No End In Sight

Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.

On 10 July 2017, Iraqi’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi arrived in the city of Mosul to declare it liberated from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). Brigadier General Yahya Rasool, spokesperson of the Iraqi forces, told Iraqi television, “Their fictitious state has fallen.”

Prime Minister al-Abadi has been a senior member of one Iraqi government after the other since the illegal US invasion and occupation of that country in 2003. He was dismayed by the privatization plans of the US Viceroy in Iraq, Paul Bremer, and he participated in the lawsuit against the US mercenary army – the private company called Blackwater. At the same time, al-Abadi participated in governments led largely by his Islamic Dawa Party (which he joined in 1967 at the age of fifteen). This party has overseen – with US aid and encouragement – the breakdown of Iraqi society. The brutality of the US invasion and occupation as well as the sectarian policies of the Islamic Dawa Party drove the creation of ISIS in 2006 and then its expansion by 2014. This is a man with a front-row seat for the unraveling of his country.

What did al-Abadi see when he looked across the expanse of Mosul, one of Iraq’s largest cities? He would have seen not only the violence visited by ISIS upon this historic city – including destroying a large part of its Great Mosque of al-Nuri – but also the destruction of the city by this current onslaught that has lasted nine months. A million civilians fled Mosul; many thousands of civilians have been killed. They live in nineteen emergency camps – each wanting in basic needs. “The levels of trauma we are seeing are some of the highest anywhere,” said Lise Grande of the UN’s Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq. “What people have experienced is nearly unimaginable.” The UN requested nearly $1 billion of the international community. It has received just over 40 percent of what is required. With oil prices down, Iraq simply does not have the revenue to rebuild this destroyed city. It will need help.

Humanitarianism wars are easier to fund than the humanitarian peace.

“Our city is in ruins,” said Ayman who lives in the western part of Mosul. “They have treated us like we are absolutely nothing.” Who is the “they” in Ayman’s statement? ISIS surely, but also the Iraqi military and its US allies.

Ayman’s statement appears in an Amnesty International report that was released on 11 July – At Any Cost: The Civilian Catastrophe in West Mosul. It is a careful report, but with a point that should not be ignored. Amnesty suggests that the United States and the Iraqi forces “carried out a series of unlawful attacks in west Mosul.” The report further says, “Even in attacks that seem to have struck their intended military target, the use of unsuitable weapons or failure to take other necessary precautions resulted in needless loss of civilian lives and in some cases appears to have constituted disproportionate attacks.”

The United States government attacked Amnesty for its conclusions. Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend said, in Washington, “I reject any notion that coalition fires were in any way imprecise, unlawful or excessively targeted civilians.”

Airwars, the group that studies aerial bombardment, shows – in a new report – that the US aerial bombardment of western Mosul increased by 21 percent in the past month, with the munitions concentrated on certain neighborhoods. This has led, Airwars says, to increased civilian deaths. Chris Woods of Airwars says, “The speed and intensity of these attacks – which the US now describes as a war of ‘annihilation’ – have placed civilians at far greater risk of harm. Heavy weapons also continue to be used on densely populated areas. The consequences are inevitable.” Lt. General Townsend has not commented yet on the Airwars report. The term “annihilation” is chilling.

The numbers put out by Airwars are deflated. “It is highly probable,” the report notes, “that the death toll is substantially higher than this Airwars estimate, with multiple reports referencing thousands of corpses still trapped under the rubble.” Reports from the ground suggest the use of illegal weapons – including white phosphorus (although the US has denied this) – as well as “horrific scenes of bodies scattering the streets.” It will take a great deal of investigation to piece together the full-scale of the human tragedy first in the ISIS capture of Mosul and then in the US-Iraqi assault on the city.

Al-Abadi would also know that ISIS was able to expand in 2013 and 2014 partly because the Iraqi government crushed any attempt by ordinary Iraqis to get a better deal. A major political uprising from 2011 brought together groups such as the Union of the Unemployed of Iraq with the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq. Their demands were for the recreation of their destroyed society, for an economy that benefits Iraqis and for a political project that unifies the people and does not tear open sectarian divides. The government did not listen to them. The path of nonviolent resistance was blocked in 2011, and then sent backwards when Iraqi security forces massacred peaceful protestors in al-Hawija in April 2013. After the massacre, ISIS scouts came into al-Hawija to recruit fighters. They said, “You tried the peaceful route. What did it bring you? Now come with us.” Many did. Al-Hawija remains in ISIS hands. In fact, after the apparent death of ISIS emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the emir of al-Hawija – Abu Haitham al-Obaidi – declared that he was the new caliph. His forces are arrayed in the western part of al-Hawija, ready for a major battle.

Little wonder that the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights – Zeid al-Hussein – said that “dialogue between communities needs to begin now to try to halt the cycle of violence.” Much water has slipped under the bridge. Not only the history of the brutality of the US invasion and occupation – which razed many of the cities in Anbar Province such as Fallujah and Ramadi – but also the ruthlessness of the Iraqi government as well as of the US-Iraqi war on Mosul. The way one fights a war suggests to the defeated the terms of the future. A brutal war can only mean that there will be no real “dialogue” to prevent precisely the “cycle of violence.”

ISIS fighters fled Mosul for other parts of Iraq as well as for Syria. The battle is far from over. US aerial assaults on the Syrian cities of Raqqa, Hasakah and Deir Ezzor continue, increasing with great ferocity. Airwars suggests that the number of civilian deaths from the US-led air war in Syria is at the highest it has been for a long while. What is most startling is the assertion by Airwars that “casualty events attributed to the [US-led] Coalition in Iraq and Syria outpaced those reportedly carried out by Russia in Syria” for the sixth consecutive month. That means that the civilian toll from US airstrikes has been greater than the casualty toll from the Russian strikes. Yet it is the latter that gets the attention by the Western media, while the former is largely – if not entirely – ignored. There is a theory, as I have written about previously, that Western bombing is benevolent, whereas Eastern bombing is malevolent. This seems to operate for the Western media.

US bombing in Raqqa has hit civilian infrastructure – including internet cafes and swimming pools, shops and mosques. There are reports of civilians being killed as they flee Raqqa. Lt. General Stephen Townsend, who derided Amnesty’s allegations about war crimes in Mosul, told the New York Times’ Michael Gordon a few days ago, “And we shoot every boat we find. If you want to get out of Raqqa right now, you’ve got to build a poncho raft.” This is a violation of the UN’s 1981 Protection of Asylum-Seekers in Situations of Large-Scale Influx.

Meanwhile, the de-escalation zones continue to be formed in Syria to the great relief of the population. It is the only glimmer of hope in the region. Most of these de-escalation zones are in western Syria, with the most recent declared along the Jordanian border, including the provinces of Dara’a, Quneitra and Sweida. The UN Refugee Agency – UNHCR – said that 440,000 internally displaced people have returned to their homes during the first six months of this year. Over 30,000 Syrians who had left the country have now returned home. Some of these ceasefires relied upon discussions between Iran and Qatar. It is clear that one of the reasons for Saudi Arabia’s annoyance with Qatar is that it has participated actively in the creation of these de-escalation zones. Expansion of this zone is essential for the well-being of the people.

It would be valuable if this example of the de-escalation zones would set the ethical foundation for peace-making in Iraq as well as in northeastern Syria. Total warfare wins battles, but it can often prolong the war.

Vijay Prashad is professor of international studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. He is the author of 18 books, including Arab Spring, Libyan Winter (AK Press, 2012), The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South (Verso, 2013) and The Death of a Nation and the Future of the Arab Revolution (University of California Press, 2016). His columns appear at AlterNet every Wednesday.