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Leaving stings in the wounds of others: Donald Trump and American foreign policy

If you are from the Middle East, Donald Trump is a sad reminder of virtually all the mainstream politicians you have lived under, often supported by the US government.

An Iraqi boy runs through a field covered with ammunition in the city of Al Dejeel, about 70 km north of Baghdad, May 5, 2003. Picture by DPA DEUTSCHE PRESS-AGENTUR DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved. The bizarre behavior of Donald Trump during the presidential campaign defined the strategy of the Clinton campaign: they abandoned in-depth discussions of the ‘issues’, and focused on Trump’s outlandish behavior. Democrats believed that if they highlighted the flaws of Trump, the voters would understand the threat he poses to the world, and eventually run away from him.

Donald Trump would be a sad reminder of virtually all the mainstream politicians you have lived under

Now he is the president, and the rhetoric has not gone away. A deep sense of fear and frustration aroused by his words and action, coupled with typical western self-absorbedness that equates the potential end of the west as we know it with the end of the world, has spawned innumerable doom-and-gloom scenarios.  

You are less likely to buy into this scenario if you hail from other parts of the world, the Middle East in particular. For you, Donald Trump would be a sad reminder of virtually all the mainstream politicians you have lived under. People like him, often worse than him by any measure, have come and gone, and none of them has brought about the end of the world. You may also recall that many of those people were thoroughly supported by successive US governments, which may make you think, no wonder a man of their ilk ultimately made it into the White House.

The disturbing familiarity of Donald Trump

Let’s look at what makes him supposedly unique. Donald Trump has Kleptocratic proclivities, especially of nepotistic nature. In the campaign, he was constantly flanked by his children, their mothers absent from the picture, as if Trump has given birth to his children by himself. That fits his self-image as a deity of sorts. The family makes no bones about its plans for the future: long before the dad was inaugurated, Ivanka Trump put the bracelet she wore at 60 minutes interview up for sale, the sons tried to make up to one million dollars out of a fishing opportunity with him. More importantly, his son-in-law is appointed as a senior advisor to the president, and the family seems to continue to be involved with highly sensitive decisions.

Brazen nepotism might be shocking to Americans, but it is run of the mill in the Middle East. Saddam Hussein’s younger son was appointed to the head of the entire Iraqi armed force, and the older one controlled TV, radio, newspapers, and had the last say in the result of sports games. Hosni Mubarak’s sons led the army and the main political party in Egypt. Saudi Arabia and other gulf countries are run by royal families, nepotism by definition. So was Iran under the Shah.

There is an overwhelming fear on the part of the media that Trump will crackdown on freedom of press. During the campaign he frequently threatened to sue journalists, open up libel laws, even suggested that freedom of press hampers the fight against terrorism. In his first press conference as president-elect Trump essentially harassed the media, and after the inauguration Sean Spicer, the new press secretary, threatened to retaliate if the media refused to toe the line.   

The governments that engaged in all those Trump-like activities were thoroughly and unequivocally supported by successive US administrations

It would be stating the obvious to list what the press has endured in the Middle East. A quick visit to Reporters Without Borders website shows that, in recent history, all the major countries of the Middle East have been sticking to the bottom of the freedom of press rankings. Jailing, beating up, torturing, and murdering journalists for doing their jobs routinely happen in that corner of the world.

One issue seems to have rankled democrats the most: Russian interference with the election. The US intelligence services have concluded that the Russians influenced the US presidential election by engaging in cyber warfare to the benefit of Donald Trump. The US political establishment regard it as the flagrant meddling of a hostile foreign power in the most important political event in the country.

For many others around the world, it is hardly unprecedented. The great Chilean author, Ariel Dorfman, wrote eloquently about how this story reminds him of the 1973 coup that overthrew Salvador Allende. Many Guatemalans must be feeling the same. So do Iranians, who live, to this day, with the catastrophic consequences of the 1953 coup, which nipped their nascent democracy in the bud.

The examples given are only a sample of the gamut. The same atrocities, sometimes in larger scale and brutality, have been carried out in Syria, Iran, Libya, Yemen, to mention a few. The examples above are chosen deliberately: the governments that engaged in all those Trump-like activities were thoroughly and unequivocally supported by successive US administrations. As for foreign intervention in election results, the aforementioned coups were all staged by CIA, and it is a very small fraction of the American interference with elections in other countries.

The falsity of American exceptionalism

Donald Trump is the logical extension of the US foreign policy, the domestic incarnation of what American governments wanted for many other nations over time.

Over time, the term ‘American exceptionalism’, which initially meant to underline democracy and equality, has come to imply military power, or worse, a sort of muscle-flexing about how America is the only nation that can do whatever it wants around the world and get away with it. And it is not only the hawkish republicans that relish this military might. In a speech during the campaign, Hillary Clinton talked about America as an ‘exceptional nation’ with ‘great military power’, as if they were the same. Ironically, Trump seems to dislike the term, probably because he wants to take credit for making it happen ‘again’.

America, however, is no exception in terms of the consequences. What you do to others will happen to you, it is only a matter of time. Donald Trump is the logical extension of the US foreign policy, the domestic incarnation of what American governments wanted for many other nations over time.

Comparisons with unpleasant political systems in the world abound in the US media after the election. Fareed Zakaria argues that the US has become a new illiberal democracy, the term he coined in 2007 to explain the political map of the world at the time. Paul Krugman fears that America is turning into a Trumpistan, referring to the central Asian political systems based on cult of personality. Absent from those analyses is often the fact that successive American governments have aided and abetted the vast majority of those illiberal democracies and ‘stans’. When you do something for such a long time, it unavoidably seeps in, and becomes a part of who you are.  

There is no comprehensive account of the rise of Trump without discussing how the Iraq war,

Without taking account of foreign policy, and regarding it as central to the rise of Trump, a large piece of the puzzle remains missing. The foreign/domestic dichotomy is false and misleading. When Thomas Friedman of the New York times says that Trump presidency is ‘a moral 9/11, only 9/11 was done to us from the outside, and we did this to ourselves,’ he is missing the big picture. There is no comprehensive account of 9/11 without discussing the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the Gulf war, which made the Mujahedin shift their hatred from communists to the US, which was their initial foster father. There is no comprehensive account of the rise of Trump without discussing how the Iraq war, justified by the biggest lie in recent history of politics, shattered confidence in political institutions, and opened the door to cynics and con artists. None of those events could be understood in isolation from the US foreign policy. The line drawn between what ‘we’ did to ourselves, as opposed to something ‘they’ did to us, produces little more than gross simplification.

In one of Aesop fables, a queen bee ascends to Olympus to ask Jupiter for ‘sting’. She wants a weapon to defend her hive against the invaders. Jupiter, a big fan of honey, agrees, under one condition: ‘If you use your sting, it shall remain in the wound you make, and then you will die from the loss of it.’

America’s military power is a set of stings bestowed upon it by the gods of twentieth century, whoever they might be. America has used them recklessly, inattentive to the consequences. She has left her stings in the wounds of Vietnam, central America, the Middle East, depleting itself out in the process, turning itself into a husk of what it was. That recklessness paved the way for Donald Trump: a hollow man who arrived at the right moment to take over a hollow body.

About the author

Amir Ahmadi Arian is an Iranian novelist and journalist, the author of two critically acclaimed novels and a book of nonfiction in Farsi, short stories and essays in English. He holds a PhD in comparative literature from The University of Queensland, Australia. He is currently enrolled at NYU writing program, and lives in New York City.


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