America First means Nuclear War
Dear new subscribers: Welcome! I had mixed feelings when I woke up and saw that yesterday’s guest post by El Anti-Pozolero was the most widely-read item, by far, in the history of this newsletter. I’m delighted you found it interesting. Indeed, it was interesting, wasn’t it? That’s why I published it.
On the other hand, I didn’t write it. I don't know anything about Mexico.
But if you want to know whether Erdoğan’s really going to build the Bomb, read on.
First, though, I keep forgetting that I need to ask for money in every newsletter, several times. Believe it or not—well, I guess you’ll probably believe it, it’s not so surprising—there’s a direct relationship between the number of times I post the link to my PayPal account, the visibility of the “Pay” button, and the number of people who contribute.
Actually, I guess that’s just “Online marketing 101.” But as a literary and aesthetic matter, I think “asking for money” has to be cleverly integrated into the text, you can’t just suddenly interrupt
Anyway, recall the wisdom of Dr. Johnson. “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”
We now return to our regularly-scheduled programming
The US just deployed a battalion of troops and dozens of tanks to Lithuania, at their request. The six-month rotation is “unprecedented.” Good.
Headlines like this? Not good.
Ben Hodges, the former US Army commander in Europe, has says it’s a “manifestation of American commitment to continued deterrence along NATO’s eastern flank.”
“Nobody, including the Russians, should be confused by the Americans’ commitment to NATO despite what was I think a mistake of pulling out of Syria,” Hodges said.
But they are confused. You don’t have headlines like that unless there’s massive confusion.
It’s going to take a lot more than this to restore confidence in America’s commitment to NATO.
This is clear in every conversation I have with anyone in Europe. I spoke to a Polish workman in my building yesterday. He said what everyone else does. “We just don’t know anymore.” And he said, of course, the obvious: “Some people” back in Poland are asking whether they now need the Bomb. He said this shaking his head. How crazy the world has become.
But this is where “America First” leads. It’s the natural logic of it.
If you’ve ever walked through any small town in Europe, you’ll have seen the memorials, however small the town. Every single time, you’ll be struck dumb at the catastrophe that befell this continent.
For Americans, the memories of these wars are fading. But they can’t fade here. The wounds are too deep, there’s too much blood in the soil.
I feel confident in saying that if the American nuclear umbrella is in doubt—and it is—then it is a matter of time, and not much of it, until every nation in Europe insists upon an independent nuclear deterrent. Because they will never, ever, go back to that.
I say this based on fact. There is discussion of it in the European media, previously unthinkable. But also based on introspection. Consider the reaction I had to the news recently. It wasn’t a rational one, but it I suspect it was a common one.
You may recall that there was a ghastly ISIS attack—as if there’s any other kind—in France in 2016. The terrorists slit the throat of an elderly priest, Father Jaques Hamel, during morning mass, in Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray.
It was an attack meant not just to terrorize, for its own sake, but to desecrate, as it did, and it was part of a deliberate strategy to radicalize the French public. ISIS hopes attacks like this will result the massive repression of France’s Muslim population, which will in turn encourage Muslims to join their cause.
This is explicitly detailed in their strategy documents. In Abu Bakr Naji’s Management of Savagery. (The pen name of a strategist from the Mesopotamian wing of al-Qaeda that became ISIS.) ISIS explicitly reiterated this strategy in Dabiq, their online magazine, in an article titled “The Grey Zone.”
The Muslims in the West will quickly find themselves between one of two choices, they either apostatize and adopt the kufrī [infidel] religion propagated by Bush, Obama, Blair, Cameron, Sarkozy, and Hollande in the name of Islam so as to live amongst the kuffār [infidels] without hardship, or they perform hijrah [emigrate] to the Islamic State and thereby escape persecution from the crusader governments and citizens... Muslims in the crusader countries will find themselves driven to abandon their homes for a place to live in the Khilāfah, as the crusaders increase persecution against Muslims living in Western lands so as to force them into a tolerable sect of apostasy in the name of “Islam” before forcing them into blatant Christianity and democracy.
I’m not providing links because they can spread their own damned propaganda. The point is that this particularly gruesome attack was meant to have a particular psychological effect; their hope is to bring a government to power that will so indiscriminately punish Muslims that it will radicalize more than it represses.
That was when President Hollande declared that France was “at war” with the Islamic State, which it is.
In the chaos of our sudden withdrawal from northern Syria and Turkey’s incursion, an unknown number of ISIS fighters, predictably, managed to escape. Among those who may have escaped—no confirmation yet—were Adrien Guihal and Thomas Barnouin. The former is the so-called Voice of ISIS. He’s part of the Artigat network, which includes Mohammed Merah, who shot up a Jewish school in Toulouse in 2012. Guihal claimed responsibility for the attack in Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray, as well as the infamous truck massacre in Nice, as well as the killing of a police officer and his wife in Magnanville. They were murdered in front of their toddler. French counter-terrorism officials were negotiating to have them both extradited to France. It’s not clear what role, precisely, Guihal played.
As Libération delicately put it, the French services sought to “neutralize” these terrorists in Syria. The number of captured prisoners made this, I presume, a bit delicate.
I don’t know anything about the negotiations that were underway, and neither do you, but I’m sure they were complex, and I am 100 percent certain that France was not indifferent to their fate.
Trump didn’t warn Macron, no less discuss with him, his decision to withdraw American troops and wave Turkey in. Macron learned about it from Trump’s Twitter feed.
Contrary to Trump’s belief, he didn’t end an endless war. Those troops aren’t coming home. ISIS has not been defeated, a fact acknowledged by everyone in the world but the President, so Defense Secretary Esper has been in frantic negotiations with the Iraqi minister of defense, trying to work out a plan to reposition US forces in western Iraq so they can keep doing the thing they were there to do. Fight ISIS.
But their job has now become much more difficult:
Fighting IS from Iraq will be “more dangerous,” a senior US official told Al-Monitor, because American forces will cede access to territory won in the four-year campaign to Russian, Syrian and Turkish forces, leaving American troops to conduct “infrequent” cross-border raids.
“IS will grow and those [forces] will not stop them,” the official said. “And this will spread back into Iraq.”
It was not immediately clear how many US forces left the region on Sunday. A senior US official said the withdrawal was believed to be the “majority” of approximately 1,000 American troops in northern Syria, though cloudy weather was making American air cover less effective. The Kobani facility “remains open to facilitate the additional movement of troops and equipment outside of Syria,” said Caggins.
So not only was this a betrayal, and a horrific and ghoulish one; not only was this a gift to ISIS; not only is a gift to Russia and Assad, but it puts those troops in even greater danger.
This headline is a joke, but it’s not far from reality:
So, obviously, we also put French special forces who were working with us in the region at similar risk.
The American media landscape is now so polarized and partisan that it’s possible to be an American who doesn’t know this. The rest of the world knows it. The French know it.
I don’t know whether these terrorists have in fact escaped, but the possibility they had was widely reported in France. I’m sure you can imagine the effect that had on Nice.
When I realized what Trump had done, I felt betrayed. I have, of course, been immensely critical of decisions made by any number of American administrations in foreign policy. I’ve sometimes thought they were bad, even terrible, for our national security. But I’ve always trusted the United States to be sincere in its desire to keep Americans safe. Not necessarily competent, but really very sincere.
A state exists to provide for the common defense. That’s why you have a state. That state has one job. This was not a good faith screw-up. This was not, “a catastrophic error in judgment, but one I can understand, if I look at it through the eyes of the people making the decision at the time.” The president simply did not care.
There’s no other way to understand it. His advisors told him, “If you do this, ISIS will regroup, and obviously, because this is what they do, they will kill innocent people, among whom will be US citizens. And no one will ever trust the US again.” Trump heard that, nodded, and decided, “Yeah, well, screw it.”
I understand foreign policy screw-ups based on faulty intelligence, bad strategy, bad soldiering. I study these. I’m fascinated by the way they happen. These are human mistakes, not betrayals. This wasn’t a normal screw-up. This was a betrayal.
And if I—a United States citizen—felt this about the United States, how do you think French citizens felt?
How about the rest of Europe?
TRUMP: Well they are going to be escaping to Europe, that’s where they want to go. They want to go back to their homes. But Europe didn’t want them for months. They could have had trials, they could have done whatever they wanted, but as usual, it’s not reciprocal. ...
The only part of this that’s true is, “They are going to be escaping to Europe.” The rest is a lie, or an expression of a half-understood thing in a fashion such that it means the opposite. Some significant part of America believes it’s true, which makes me insane, because they’re the only ones in the world who think this.
The rest of the world is looking at the United States, and saying, “Wow. If the US doesn’t even care about the security of its own citizens, why would it care about ours?”
Here’s where a devout cadre of Trump’s supporters jump in on Twitter and say to me, “Great! All these freeloaders can start paying for their own defense!”
No. That’s not what’s going to happen. No single country can conceivably match the power of the full NATO alliance. That’s why we had it.
My first thought, when I realized what the President had done, was, “Thank God France has an independent nuclear deterrent.”
I’m sure I wasn’t the only person in France to think that. If the world is going to be chaos and anarchy from now on, and if America’s just handing whole regions over to Russia, then, damned straight, we are grateful to Charles de Gaulle for the foresight of insisting France have its own nuclear umbrella.
An alliance with the United States was so valued that when, on September 11, we were attacked by terrorist in Afghanistan, Albania volunteered to send 3,000 troops to Afghanistan to fight with us.
We are the only country ever to have invoked Article V. Do you think Albania sent its troops to Afghanistan because they thought it over carefully and concluded, “What a superb idea?” Albania, having only recently been liberated from the yoke of communism, was at the time findings its efforts to emerge from autarky and put the country on the path toward a market economy quite challenging. In fact, it resulted in so much chaos that the UN security council had to send an Italian-led multinational military and humanitarian intervention to stabilize the place. Former communists and state security members were busily trying to take back the state by force. They’d only just had the first election in their history judged by international observers to be “acceptable.” And they literally couldn’t feed themselves unaided. “But hell yes, our biggest challenge lies in … Afghanistan. Let’s go, men!”
No folks. That’s not what happened.
Albania sent 3,000 men to fight our war with us because it had just joined NATO.
It would be a catastrophe if every country with the ability to do it acquired the Bomb. Never mind whether they would use them in anger, it would multiply the risk of an accident, which we already know is insanely high.
But they’re going to to do it if we keep this up. Any American who owns a gun, even though rationally they grasp that fewer Americans would die if there were no guns in America, should understand the calculation other countries are now apt to make.
Is it a rational thing for the world to do? No. Rationally, the world will be, objectively, less safe if everyone acts on that impulse.
But the world isn’t a rational place. People want safety for themselves, even if it means putting the world at greater risk. The inevitable end point is uncontrolled nuclear proliferation. What “America First” means, in the end, is “Nuclear war.”
And so to yesterday’s article, on the front page of The New York Times:
Of course he does.
Post-script. An interesting interview with Edward Lucas on Brexit, Donbas, and Ukraine. Lucas is vice president of the Center for European Policy Analysis, a think tank dedicated to promoting the transatlantic relationship. Tough job these days.
Watch it all, if you have the time. For those who don’t, I transcribed a bit:
Interviewer: Ukraine now has also been dragged against its will into the center of this political scandal, political storm in the United States. Do you think that might have an impact on US bipartisan support to Ukraine? There are some fears in Ukraine that that might be the case.
I think this is an absolute nightmare, because whatever you do, you offend someone very important. So if you cooperate with President Trump, you infuriate the Democrats, and you need the Democrats both in the future, because they might be in government, and right now because Congress votes the money through for you. But if you annoy President Trump, well, he’s the guy in charge, so it’s a lose-lose situation. I feel very sorry for Ukraine that you’re in this, and I don’t think you could have done anything differently. I think this is fundamentally not Ukraine’s fault. There’s no point you can say ‘Well that was a big mistake.’ You just got sucked into this.
What do you think Ukraine should do at this point? Should it just wait until the 2020 elections with its fingers crossed?
I would suggest that you rename the NATO operations center near Odesa as Fort Trump and try to attract President’s Trump attention with some bright shiny thing that he will like, or rename the…
You know there’s a cafe somewhere in Ukraine already named ‘Trump.’
Yes, I would rename the road from Boryspil Airport to Trump Highway. And just ... I mean you just have to try and play this game, and do something that will attract his attention.
Since you were so interested in El Anti-Pozolero’s views, I thought I’d publish some of your questions for him and his responses. I’ve taken the liberty of editing these to conform to the Claire Berlinski’s Invariably Interesting Newsletter’s in-house style guide, which this week has banned the use of semi-colons on the grounds that we don’t punctuate like wusses around here. I may change my mind; we’ll see.
All typographical errors are my fault. All names are pseudonyms.
Shulamith Feigen-Bogen y Santísima:
First of all, I want to thank your correspondent for an excellent article: both thought-provoking and extremely informative.
I am torn about the prospect of a flood of refugees moving north. My first reaction was optimistic: There will be a brain drain north as the best and brightest flee (I am in Germany now and can still see the contributions of the Huguenots from Frederick II’s time).
On the other hand, a failed state to our south will attract the mischief-makers in a way that will make Venezuela look benign.
But. I am confident that the US has very poor nation-building skills, and the urge to intervene will be irresistible to politicians.
A national effort in Mexico will consume all of our energy; by default, we will forfeit in Asia.
Does your correspondent have suggestions?
Interesting. We can handle Mexico and China at the same time in theory, given sound and competent strategic stewardship ... so maybe not.
My guess is that if this starts spilling over in a fashion such that Americans notice it, there will be indeed be an irresistible urge to intervene. Could we even conceivably do that competently?
My great fear is that an intervention goes two ways. We enter them, and therefore they enter us.
If we think American soldiers and lawmen are intrinsically less corruptible than Mexican ones have proven, we are mistaken. The difference between them and us has been our much stronger institutions—and you know how well those have been doing lately.
A local sheriff’s department bought by the Zetas—as actually happened in Hidalgo County, Texas, a few years back—is a survivable event. What if it’s an entire state National Guard though? What if it’s an entire FBI region? What if it’s a whole federal-court district?
In this light the metric of success or failure of our Mexico policy is the extent to which we do not intervene.
Ludwig X. Fensterwasser:
It’s amazing this article never mentions Trump’s instinct about why we need border security.
I don’t understand what this correspondent means.
This was fantastic.
Tell him if he really loves it he can donate to you.
Oh, yes, that’s true! Please do. I appreciate it so much.
Excellent read. We’ve been focused largely on Europe and Asia for so long, we’ve lost track of our own neighbors, and it will hurt us.
Very much so.
Against all expectation, Trump and AMLO seem to actually have a good relationship. This seems to be an opportune time for the USG to work with Mexico to head off possible military incursions 5-10 years from now. If that’s possible.
I actually think USG would do it. I don’t think MEXGOV would.
I’ve engaged in some study of Plan Colombia with great interest, given the unrest building directly to our south. Suspending reality for a moment and pretending we had leaders in both countries with the strategic vision and intestinal fortitude to execute a sort of Plan Mexico, is there some version of such a plan that could even work? To put it another way: is the bigger roadblock to a Plan Mexico the lack of a workable plan, or of the leadership required to make it happen?
Plan Colombia presumed and actually had a fully cooperative Colombian state ready and willing, though not at the outset able, to reassert its sovereignty.
I don’t think the Mexican state is there yet.