Drums of War Resonates Across America
Ambassador Curtis A. Ward
(14 April 2017) — What’s next for America – War or Peace? Will the Drums of War grow louder, or will diplomacy and peace triumph? While there is hope, the future doesn’t look so good for peace. It appears from statements by President Donald Trump that U.S. military leadership is in total control of how, when and where a military response is used in furtherance of U.S. geopolitical and geostrategic objectives. Antithetical to this new reality is that the State Department is being sidelined, and diplomacy will be a postscript when military intervention fails.
There is stark contrast in the political responses to President Donald Trump’s military response to the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons to that of President Bill Clinton’s to the terrorist bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa on August 7, 1998. Clinton responded to the almost simultaneous terrorist bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar-Es-Salaam, Tanzania by bombing a pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum, Sudan in which it was claimed Osama bin Laden had an interest and which was suspected of manufacturing VX, a deadly chemical gas. There has been no definitive proof the factory was actually producing WMDs. Clinton also launched cruise missiles at al-Qaida terrorist targets in Afghanistan.
Members of the Republican political leadership were in unison in criticism of Clinton’s military response, claiming it was a diversion from his domestic problems arising from the Monica Lewinski affair. However, lest we forget the 1998 East Africa terrorist bombings in Kenya and Tanzania claimed the lives of some 224 innocent people, including 12 Americans in Nairobi, injured over 5,000, and caused considerable destruction of property. The planning for these attacks took place in the Sudan and al-Qaida later claimed responsibility. It also didn’t matter that the pharmaceutical factory, whether or not owned by bin Laden, had the capacity to manufacture chemical weapons; and Iraq had a role in the construction of the factory. Iraq itself had WMDs at the time, and terrorists had openly sought to obtain weapons of mass destruction, chemical weapons included.
It seems that when there is a Republican president in the White House, the Republican political leadership can be expected to support the drums of war. When it is a Democrat in the White House Republicans withhold their support. Despite the obvious motivation to distract attention away from his domestic problems, Republican leaders have been falling over each other to praise Trump for his Mohawk Missiles attack on Syria in response to the chemical attack on the Syrian people. These same Republican leaders denied support for President Barack Obama in 2013 to respond militarily to an even worse chemical attack on the Syrian people.
Trump’s response to Syria and his threatening statements to North Korea are reminiscent of the immediate post-9/11 period. The Cheney-led neo-cons in President George W. Bush’s administration led America into invading Iraq in March 2003 on a lie to the American people there were WMDs in Iraq. The build up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq included a briefing of the UN Security Council by then Secretary of State General Colin Powell on the presence of WMDs in Iraq. While sitting in the Council gallery, at the time as an expert adviser to the UN Counter Terrorism Committee, I offered my opinion on the briefing to a colleague. I noted the brilliance of his presentation but cautioned that its contents were not factual. I chose to trust the Hans Blix-led UN Iraq WMDs inspection team which had presented preliminary findings to the Security Council to conclude there were no WMDs in Iraq. Hans Blix’s findings led to Powell’s failure to gain the Security Council’s imprimatur for the U.S. invasion of Iraq. It was learnt later that Powell himself opposed the war and doubted the intelligence on Iraq’s WMDs.
The U.S. Congress, Republicans and Democrats alike, voted overwhelmingly to authorize President Bush’s invasion of Iraq. Very few U.S. legislators and few in the American media questioned the veracity of claims by the Bush administration of WMDs in Iraq. History has absolved those who doubted the veracity of the claims and who had the fortitude to oppose the Iraq war from the very outset. One of those quite vocal opponents of the Iraq war was then Illinois State Senator Barack Obama, whose anti-Iraq war stance helped propelled him into the White House.
In drawing parallels with the thinking behind the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the current thinking of the Trump administration on Syria, and even more so on North Korea, first, I refer to Bob Woodward’s exposition in his book Plan of Attack. According to Woodward, the months after the 9/11 attacks “was a time of both great danger and intoxication for Bush, his war cabinet, his generals and the country.” The U.S. military had seen early success in the war in Afghanistan. Aided and abetted by Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and other neo-cons in the administration the President was on a collision course with Iraq. Woodward described Cheney’s “intense focus” on Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, what some of his colleagues called a “fever” that was “even a disquieting obsession.”
My second reference is to Michael Scheuer, a 22 years CIA veteran, writing as Anonymous, who described in his book Imperial Hubris – Why the West is Losing the War on Terror” how America’s decisions to go to war is driven by a misunderstanding of the enemy as it is due to imperial hubris.
There is no question America is the most powerful country in the world but history has shown that when America’s military power is used unwisely it betrays U.S. national security interests at home and abroad and contributes to global instability. Early indications are that President Trump may be, or become “intoxicated” by being in command of America’s awesome military power, and may have “a disquieting obsession” to project it globally. His bellicose campaign rhetoric when referring to terrorist groups suggests that his actions will be governed by “imperial hubris” unlike the deliberative and cerebral character of his predecessor, President Barack Obama.
There are lessons of which the U.S. military should be cognizant. Firing rockets on the enemy or dropping powerful bombs on them will not win wars. Failure to understand the enemy and what happens the day after the bombs fall is a tragedy waiting to happen. There is no good exit strategy once the war starts. The tragedy of Vietnam is fading in the distant past, but Afghanistan and Iraq are current history. What’s next for Syria? North Korea is a far greater problem that will not be solved by military might or threats. U.S. military leaders know this; former presidents knew this; does the current president know it?
Ambassador Curtis A. Ward