North Africa, West Asia

The ‘mafia principle’ and godfather Trump

Donald Trump is not an aberration. He is the extreme manifestation of an existing foreign policy doctrine - the ‘mafia principle’ – and he is determined to release the whole potential of its violent core.

Amir Ahmadi Arian
10 March 2017

U.S. President Donald Trump. Picture by Pool/ABACA/ABACA/PA Images. All rights reserved.In his first few weeks in office, Donald Trump issued executive orders the way he has been sending out tweets. For a reason: being an active user for years, he has learned from it how to distract. He knows that the best way to cover up a provocative tweet is to issue a dozen more irritating, more brazen, more insane tweets, and people forget about the first one. We all have been with him on this rollercoaster dashing down to the bottom of the abyss, and the speed is such that we hardly get to pause and look around. Sometimes, however, the formula fails, and Trump’s move is so disturbing that people can’t move on. The first travel ban, issued on January 27, was that kind of moment.

The new travel ban came out in March 6, seemingly better articulated and fixed. However, fundamental questions are still in place, and the removal of Iraq from the order, while bringing deserved relief to Iraqi travelers, throws up new ambiguities. Now that the order is ‘updated’, it is timely to take a look at it again, in order to, in Donald Trump’s eloquent words the first time he raised the ban on Muslims, ‘figure out what the hell is going on.’

Behind the selection

While signing the first order, Trump mentioned the lessons he learned from 9/11 and pentagon, omitting the fact that the ban initially included Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Somalia, and Yemen, and none of the hijackers on that day were from those countries. In an interview with David Muir on ABC, he added San Bernardino on the list, carried out by a Chicago born man radicalized in Saudi Arabia, which is not on Trump’s list. Unsurprisingly, Muir let him off the hook without pressing for a less absurd answer.

The Trump administration has demonstrated mind-blowing imperviousness to facts

The Trump administration has demonstrated mind-blowing imperviousness to facts, but dismissing facts don’t make them go away. We know that the post-9/11 terror attacks motivated by radical Islamism were mostly carried out by either American born radicalized young men, or immigrants from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and UAE. In none of the major attacks on American soil since the 1970s (San Bernardino, Fort Hood, Boston, etc), was a single citizen of the banned countries involved.

Why singling out the countries that have caused no harm? The simplest explanation is that Trump put the ban on countries where he has no business ties. That perfectly fits his character, and his idea of presidency as, among other things, a means to protect and boost his brand. But still, there are 50 Muslim majority countries in the world, and Trump has business only in a few of them.

Donald Trump is so off the known spectrum that many tend to look at him as an aberration, an exception to an otherwise consistent, sensible foreign policy. However, we understand this chaos better if, all his shenanigans notwithstanding, we look at him in the context of the US foreign policy as a whole. Without that perspective, we may well put all emerging controversial policies down to his chaotic style of governance, and miss the chance of understanding it for what it is. After all, those seven countries were first selected by Obama as ‘countries of concern’. The continuity is stronger than it seems.

The mafia principle

One place to go for making sense of this executive order is a book Noam Chomsky published in 2010, where he proposed the notion of ‘mafia principle’ in US foreign policy.

Like any other mafia organization, nothing riles up the godfather more than defiance

The idea is rather simple: like any other mafia organization, nothing riles up the godfather more than defiance. Apart from hurting his ego, successful defiance might be noticed by other discontented parties, and embolden them into action. So when someone defies in that world, the godfather does not suffice to put them down. He tries to make a lesson out of them, so that, as Iranians say, others keep their swords in the sheath. The history of US invasions comes down to this mentality: Japan, Vietnam, Iraq, all were punished, not because any of them posed a threat to US national security, but for their stubborn disobedience.

As to the travel ban, if one thing holds the banned countries together, it is their defiance to the US hegemony in the world in different periods: Islamic republic in Iran, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Assad family in Syria, Omar al-Bashir in Sudan, Yemen after Houthi resurgence. Some of them have already been severely punished: the US army decimated Iraq and turned Libya into a failed state, Sudan and Iran have suffered the most brutal economic sanctions in history. They have little else in common, and none has ever been a direct national security threat to America.

The leniency towards Iraq in the updated version should be understood in this context: fighting ISIS as reason for the exemption makes no sense, because in that case Iran would have been off the list too. What distinguishes Iraq is the way the Iraqi government negotiated over the ban: first, Iraqi prime minister Haidar Al-Abadi in a phone call ensured Trump that his country remains neutral in regional conflicts, and then Iraq agreed to hand over private information of its citizens to the US for background check. In other words, one of the rebels in the mafia world comes around and makes up with the godfather. Exemption from punishment is his reward.

Capone-style sentimentality

American governments, democrats and republicans alike, have displayed a discernible style of breaking defiance: a strange mix of massive brutality at start, and ensuing sentimentality, poured lavishly on villains when they are on their knees. Take Japan and Vietnam: when the godfather makes sure that the villain is devastated, he comes over, give the defeated a pat on the back, helps them up, and calls them allies. No wonder that, of all candidates, Al Capone grew to become the mythical figure of American mafia: a man at ease with murdering everyone he deemed enemy, while eager to help out the families of the victims and contribute to charities.

Now the American voters have elected the closest thing to an actual mafia godfather into office

Now the American voters have elected the closest thing to an actual mafia godfather into office: a brutal billionaire with a checkered past who, to mention only one attribute he shares with a mafia godfather, hides his tax record in his vault. He seems like a gangster boss straight out of a Martin Scorsese film: vulgar, ruthless, dishonest, thin-skinned. He has already shown incredible penchant for revenge, and huge eagerness for mafia-style retaliation.

In that context, Donald Trump is not an aberration. He is the extreme manifestation of an existing foreign policy doctrine - ‘mafia principle’ – and he is determined to release the whole potential of its violent core. The ban is only the beginning: the new godfather on the block will go out of his way to crack down on all forms of defiance, domestically or internationally.

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