History repeats. It can be uncanny, and it should be un-nerving.
September 2000 bears some similarities to that same month sixteen years later. Reliable, experienced Democrat Al Gore led inexperienced, shallow Republican George W. Bush by a relatively comfortable margin. A third term for Clintonism seemed likely. The Republican candidate appeared to be an imbecile.
As the 2000 federal election cycle reached its last few weeks, a neoconservative think-tank called ‘Project for the New American Century’ (PNAC), without fanfare, released a 90-page strategic document called ‘Rebuilding America’s Defenses’. What little interest the document garnered at the time was because the members of PNAC represented a who’s who of Neo-Conservatism, an extreme right-wing branch of the Republican party, hell-bent on taking it over and enacting their radical agenda.
10 of the 25 signatories to PNAC’s statement of principles would within weeks be installed at the highest reaches of the new Bush administration. These included Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz.
‘Rebuilding America’s Defenses’ broadly laid out a wish-list of American military and geo-strategic goals for the new millennium. Among other things, its authors called for a massive increase in America’s military budget, more international military bases, the abandonment of global arms treaties and the realignment of the Middle East, to include the removal from power of Saddam Hussein.
By themselves, these were not glaring outliers in terms of standard Republican goals. However, towards the end of the document was one sentence that has received a great deal of subsequent attention – ‘the process of transformation, even if it brings revolutionary change, is likely to be a long one, absent some catastrophic and catalyzing event – like a new Pearl Harbor’.
This was an odd thing to say – what lover of the United States would wish for a ‘new Pearl Harbor’? What is undeniable is that the document’s authors took control of America’s government soon after the its publication, ten months later came 9/11 (an event widely described as the new Pearl Harbor), and the reaction to that event allowed the Neo-Conservatives to implement many of their long-stated (and published) goals.
Whatever your feelings about 9/11, the attacks provided PNAC’s principals the excuse to do what they wanted. The intentions of Bush’s neocons had been there, in plain sight, for those who wished to see them.
This recent history should inform our view of the Trump administration’s intentions. There are some parallels – a feckless, stupid President surrounded by scheming idealogues, and a brief period without wars being actively waged, which nonetheless is accompanied by calls for dramatic increases in the military’s budget.
What I think is more interesting is the differences. George W. Bush surrounded himself with career Washington insiders, highly experienced stalwarts on America’s political scene, men (they were almost all men) who knew every way to manipulate and control the sprawling federal government and the military who serve it.
Donald Trump’s team are polar opposites. Take a look at the key names surrounding the new President – Bannon, Kushner, Miller, Conway, Priebus. Whether you agree with them or not, they are rank amateurs compared to Bush’s cronies. Only Mike Pence has any experience in government to speak of, and most of that was as Governor of Indiana, population six million. The differences could not be more stark.
Things have come to a pretty pass when incompetence can seem comforting, but in one way it should do, as those at the highest levels of George W. Bush’s team were able to ruthlessly enact their radical agenda, whereas the bumbling start to Trump’s presidency suggests that his administration may struggle to implement their own goals, mostly due to a lack of basic knowledge about how to run a government.
However, incompetence is a double-edged sword. When a crisis comes, we may wish for the golden age of Dubya. To choose just one, US forces began delivering THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) missile-defense systems to South Korea last week, in response to what is becoming a slow-motion crisis in the North. Kim Jong-un, already rattling the sabre in his dispute with Malaysia, is likely to view this attempt to shield Seoul from attack as nothing less than an act of war, and one diplomatic error could quickly take us to the brink of conflagration once more on the Korean peninsula.
I make the comparison between PNAC in 2000 and the Trump/Bannon agenda in 2017 in relation to a potential flashpoint for war. It is my strong contention that the Bush administration carried out the attacks of 9/11, and that America’s military-industrial complex (and Republican presidents in particular) requires an almost permanent national war-footing, for the political capital and attendant profits that this engenders. War might be bad for the rest of us, but for those at the top in America, it means money and power.
So although Trump’s team seems incompetent, I believe we should be extremely concerned about the President’s irrational character when combined with the incendiary agenda of Steve Bannon, who appears to be the closest non-relative to Trump’s impressionable ear, and was the man who showed Trump the report that turned into a dawn tweet-storm in which the sitting President accused his predecessor of tapping his phone lines.
Trump increasingly appears like a cornered animal, if anything more reckless and combustible than before. It is far from clear whether he can discern reality from fiction, and only a matter of time before he turns his tweeting attention away from inauguration crowds and fake news to something more serious. As the vultures close in around Trump’s ties to Russia, he may view an attack on Iran or North Korea as the ultimate ‘stick and move’ distraction. And that moment may be coming soon. A war will allow Trump to wipe the slate clean.
In ‘1984’, George Orwell wrote that ‘war is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength’. This may become Trump’s mantra.