What Trump Understands About War

Donald Trump’s militarism is even worse than Biden’s. But he’s keeping relatively quiet on Israel-Palestine, probably because he knows the public doesn’t like war.

In the 2016 election cycle, Donald Trump surprised some commentators with his forthright condemnation of the Iraq War. In a Republican debate, Trump said the war was “a tremendous disservice to humanity”: 

“The people that have been killed, the people that have been wiped away — and for what? It’s not like we had victory. It’s a mess. The Middle East is totally destabilized, a total and complete mess.”

At the time, Matthew Yglesias noted how unusual it was for “the current polling [Republican] frontrunner” to say that “the main foreign policy undertaking of the previous Republican administration was a multitrillion-dollar waste.” In the general election, Trump attacked Hillary Clinton over her hawkishness as secretary of state, including her firm support for Bush’s criminal war. Pointing to the “total catastrophe” that followed U.S. military intervention in Iraq and Libya, Trump said that Clinton’s foreign policies had produced “only turmoil, suffering and death” and branded her “trigger-happy.”

The press was quick to point out that at the time of the Iraq War, Trump himself had suggested he was in favor of it. But he was certainly right about Clinton. He was also right when he told Jeb Bush that his brother’s war was “a big, fat mistake” and noted that “They lied, they said there were weapons of mass destruction. There were none and they knew that there were none.” For many Americans, it was surely refreshing to hear the war denounced this fiercely, with Bush and Clinton being called to account for the worst crime of the 21st century. Most Americans eventually came to see the Iraq War as a mistake, and so Trump was giving voice to public opinion. It is impossible to know, but it may be that if Clinton had not supported the Iraq invasion, she would not have lost to Trump, because it was an important issue she was genuinely vulnerable on, and on which his criticisms of her rang true.

Trump’s seemingly “anti-war” candidacy convinced a lot of people, to the point where some left-leaning commentators have even managed to convince themselves that Trump is a kind of “anti-imperialist.” As Elias Khoury has shown for this magazine, this is nonsense. Trump “portrays himself as being bravely opposed to a warmongering political establishment,” but it’s “empty posturing.” In office, Trump supported human rights abusers around the world, expanded the military budget, ripped up arms control agreements and the Iran nuclear deal, illegally assassinated an Iranian general, abetted Saudi war crimes, threatened to sanction Iraq if it refused to keep U.S. troops there, escalated drone killings of civilians, and even considered invading Venezuela. Donald Trump is not anti-war or anti-imperialist.

But Donald Trump does understand the politics of war. He knows that the American people have a post-Iraq version of what was once called the “Vietnam syndrome,” i.e., a weariness of war and a reluctance to get involved in another one. (In fact, it’s not a pathology but a sign of moral maturity.) Trump knows that Iraq and Afghanistan were, to use one of his favorite phrases, “big disasters.” And he’s canny about capitalizing on public disapproval of those disasters. Yet at the same time, he bashes the military-industrial complex while building it up or claims to worry about nuclear war while threatening to start one

Since Oct. 7 and the beginning of Israel’s war on Gaza, you may have noticed that Donald Trump has been oddly quiet about the issue. Most Republicans are fanatically pro-Israel, to the point of being outright genocide advocates. Trump’s policies were uniformly pro-Israel in office, including allowing Israel to further seize Palestine, moving the American embassy to Jerusalem, cutting a “peace deal” that left nothing for Palestinians (thus setting the stage for the Oct. 7 attack and the present war), and leading Benjamin Netanyahu to call him “the greatest friend that Israel has ever had in the White House.”

But as was noted at the time, Trump was not so much pro-Israel as pro-Trump, and he turned on Benjamin Netanyahu the moment Netanyahu evinced disloyalty by recognizing Joe Biden as the legitimate president of the United States. So it shouldn’t be too surprising that his support for Israel hasn’t been full-throated in the recent war. 

The New York Times recently reported that two right-wing Israeli journalists met with Trump and were “shocked” by what he told them. They thought Trump would be full of praise for Israel, but instead he told them that “Israel was losing public support for its Gaza assault, that the images of devastation were bad for Israel’s global image and that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should end his war soon — statements that sounded far more like something President Biden might say than the kind of cheerleading Mr. Netanyahu has come to expect from Washington Republicans.” “We have to get to peace,” Trump reportedly said. “We can’t have this going on.” A few months back, I suggested online that Trump might run to Biden’s left on Israel-Palestine, and this is precisely what the Israeli journalists now accuse him of doing, saying that he “effectively bypassed Biden from the left.”

Now, I don’t actually think the right-wing Israelis have too much to worry about here. As I’ve noted, Trump’s “anti-war” politics is almost entirely fake. I’d expect a second Trump term to be (somehow) even worse for Palestinians than Biden has been—if the plans of those adjacent to Trump are any indication. Already, Jared Kushner has floated the idea of expelling Palestinians from Gaza and salivated about its beautiful “waterfront property.” Trump’s former ambassador to Israel believes Israel should just swallow up the entire West Bank and Gaza and either expel the Palestinians or keep them all in permanent subjugation. The Biden administration, meanwhile, pretends to care about getting humanitarian aid to Gazans, even as it defunds the U.N. relief agency and sends Israel bombs to drop on aid convoys. I doubt Trump would even pretend to care about the humanitarian fallout and would be vastly more concerned with getting the war “over with” than with how many Palestinians die. The Biden administration is subject to pressure from its base on this issue, including from Arab Americans in Michigan who could swing the election. Republicans couldn’t care less about Palestinian lives or Arab American opinion. I realize that it may be hard to envision how a president could possibly be worse than Biden on Israel-Palestine, given that Biden is literally circumventing Congress to keep arming Israel. But I expect that Trump would be indifferent to attempts to outright expel Gazans from the strip, while the Biden administration technically opposes this. It’s a small difference, but one that may end up determining whether Netanyahu is able to outright “cleanse” Gaza of its inhabitants. 

But Joe Biden is kidding himself if he thinks that pro-Palestinian voters will obviously support him over Trump. As a candidate, Trump is highly savvy about how to discuss war. He knows that if he condemns Biden over the “disaster” of a war in Gaza, a lot of people critical of Israel may think Trump is more correct in what he’s saying, even if they suspect his policies would actually be far worse. In the general election campaign, maybe Trump will be more pro-Israel than Biden. But maybe he won’t, and he’ll mostly condemn the “mess” that he insists Biden has made.

There’s something of a parallel here with the 1968 election, where Lyndon Johnson was responsible for a catastrophic war in Vietnam. The war was so unpopular that Johnson was forced to drop out, which it looks like won’t happen to Biden. But Richard Nixon ran on the platform of ending the war. In fact, he expanded the war once in office, and even secretly tried to prolong it in order to get elected, because Nixon was a shameless liar and a deeply evil man. But running against an unpopular war is effective politically. The recent alarm shown by Israeli journalists about Trump suggests that he might well understand that the Gaza war can be used politically against Biden, even though Trump himself has zero regard for the well-being of Palestinians. Joe Biden’s support for this horrific war is opening him up to precisely the kind of criticisms that Trump made against Hillary Clinton—which were highly effective. If Biden loses, it may well be because he tied himself to Benjamin Netanyahu’s genocidal slaughter, while his opponent wisely kept a safe distance. 

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