Reading slowly from the glass TelePrompTers surrounding his presidential podium as he stood before a packed audience of military personnel, Donald Trump on Monday night announced what he hoped would be a popular strategic shift in U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and South Asia. He disavowed the Bush Doctrine.
“America will continue its support for the Afghan government and the Afghan military as they confront the Taliban in the field,” the president declared, wading decisively for the first time into the sixteen-year-old war in Afghanistan. As part of this purportedly new program in the U.S.-decimated South Asian country, Trump called for “additional troop and funding increases” from congress, as well as from NATO allies.
Trump’s stay-the-course approach, coupled with military escalation, is nothing new. Neither was his claim, “We are not nation-building again. We are killing terrorists.” Rather, the big change was one of branding.
Previous presidents Obama and especially Bush festooned their foreign policy speeches with paeans to “freedom” and “democracy” as justifications for installing U.S.-style bourgeois regimes. If terrorism was borne of poverty and deprivation, they reasoned, the way to fight it was by introducing neoliberal economic reform paired with “democratic” elections. Trump, by contrast, had little use for such grandiose visions, and appealed to a more visceral desire – evident among his supporters in Charlottesville two weekends ago – to subdue what he called “thugs and criminals” and to defeat “losers.”
A key moment came when Trump concluded that the U.S. government would “no longer use American military might to construct democracies in faraway lands or try to rebuild other countries in our own image. Those days are now over.” Hoping to signal a substantive policy shift from his immediate predecessor, he continued, “Instead, we will work with allies and partners to protect our shared interests.”
Just several weeks removed from the appointment of General John Kelly to Chief of Staff, the announcement was a rare moment when President Trump seemed at pains to present a carefully prepared political case. It showed how aware the administration was of the U.S. working class’s impatience with large-scale imperial projects at a time when their own life prospects were eroding at an alarming pace.
Trump, however, seemed unaware that what he decried as “nation-building” was not just the extension of prior administrations’ supposed wishes to spread democracy. It was the necessary result of the imperial policy of creating pliant regimes in semi-colonial countries where the development of nationalist sentiments has trailed well behind the post-WWI drawing of state boundaries.
The result has been the fracturing of artificial political entities constructed around different ethnic and sectarian identities. The regimes that previously held together these peoples maintained order through large-scale nationalizations and the concomitant fostering of patronage networks that offered a large enough economic cushion to soften the inter-communal hostilities. But with Washington’s single-minded focus on imposing new political rules premised on economic liberalization, such economic cushions – along with the governments networks that often took decades to cultivate – are rapidly being destroyed.
In their place has arisen sectarian bloodletting of staggering proportions. Iraq in 2003, Libya in 2011, and Syria in 2011 all demonstrate that imperialist destabilization – or what Trump euphemistically called “protect[ing] our shared interests” – will require new states to be built. Afghanistan, plagued by proxy warfare and intransigent semi-feudal elements, has rarely if ever had a stable capitalist state. In all these contexts, lacking national unity or even the space from imperialism afforded before 1992 by a bloc of Stalinized workers’ states, the only way new states can be built successfully is through the ascendance of a force that binds together the majority of all these populations: the working class.
That class is the only progressive class of the current epoch. Having no national allegiances, it must stand opposed to all nationalist ideologies and bourgeois-nationalist development programs – not least of all those that are imposed or encouraged by imperialist powers. Such working class independence points to the need for revolutionary leadership by the sharpest, most advanced proletarian edge—the most politically far-sighted elements of the working class. Only through a revolutionary party for socialism can workers of the world achieve lasting success in fighting imperialism, ending sectarian bloodshed, and combatting Trump’s policies.