Columnist Vijay Prashad: Will there be a war before the election?

  • A U.S. soldier sits in an armored vehicle on a road leading to the tense front line with Turkish-backed fighters, in Manbij, north Syria in 2018. AP

Published: 8/24/2020 7:52:42 PM

Conventional wisdom suggests that when a U.S. president goes to war — or even conducts a bombing raid — against another country, support for the president goes up; this often translates, in an election period, into a bump in the polls and in the eventual election outcome. This is called the “rallying around the flag effect.”

Polling data now indicates that U.S. President Donald Trump is behind not only in national polls, but in the key polls in swing states. If these trends hold, and there is no guarantee that they will hold, then Trump can be certain that his presidency will only last a term. Apart from his general toxic demeanor, Trump has truly failed to marshal the resources in the country to properly manage the COVID-19 pandemic, and his flippant attitude suggests that he will be incapable even now of doing anything serious to break the chain of the infection.

Hybrid war

Would Trump eagerly get swept into the temptation for war? Thus far, the United States has prosecuted a series of hybrid wars against countries such as Iran and Venezuela. A hybrid war is a war that does not necessarily require the full arsenal of the U.S. military to come into force; it is a war fought through the control of information, through the control of financial flows, and by illicit means such as sabotage.

The sanctions policy against Iran and Venezuela fit perfectly into the definition of a hybrid war. So the war, as far as the Iranian and Venezuelan people are concerned, has been ongoing for a long while; but this is not the kind of war that raises the polling numbers of a beleagured U.S. president.

Wag the dog

Remember when Bill Clinton felt pressured by the Monica Levinsky revelations? He decided that the perfect antitode to that political scandal was not to answer her claims honestly and not to speak clearly to the U.S. public, but he decided to bomb Afghanistan and Sudan. The U.S. cruise missiles that struck Sudan — for no good reason — destroyed the country’s main phramaceutical factory; the name of the factory was Al-Shifa, or healing in Arabic. The absence of a domestic phramaceutical manufacturing unit continues to harm Sudan’s people.

That was the most cynical use of U.S. power in our times; it was done in August 1998, just months after Barry Levinson’s film “Wag the Dog” showed a U.S. politician use war to divert attention from a domestic scandal. Life imitated art, which imitates life.

Iran, Venezuela, China

To run his hybrid war against Venezuela, Trump chose Elliot Abrams, who had been found guilty of lying to Congress over the Iran-Contra affair. Abrams is Trump’s special representative on Venezuela, and he has brought to this job every dirty trick he ever used in the administration of Ronald Reagan (including a hallucinatory story that the government of Venezuela is involved in drug trafficking, when it is clear that cocaine comes from Colombia, not Venezuela).

Now, Abrams has been given charge over Iran — and there is fear that he will redouble U.S. attempts to create a cause for a U.S. bombardment of that country. Trump will be happy if he can bomb either Caracas or Tehran; he’s not picky, since any war will make even Trump a “wartime president.”

Then there is China, an important country in the world that has a military capacity to defend itself. A ridiculous trade war against China before the pandemic has now intensifed since Trump has — without cause — sought to blame China for the novel coronavirus. The trade war already rattled the global economy, and new noises of war have further paralyzed any hope of a proper global recovery as the chain of infection breaks in many parts of the world. But Trump is not satisfied with the trade war. He would like a shooting war.

Warlike mountains

U.S. warships have increased their patrols in the South China Sea, threatening Chinese vessels and making warlike mountains over diplomatic molehills. Every issue of dispute — Hong Kong, Taiwan — has been elevated to a dangerous status, with diplomats withdrawn and hypersonic cruise missiles tested. The sensibility that conflict is now inevitable seems to be more commonplace in both diplomatic and military circles in the United States and China.

Any mistake in the South China Sea would result in a clash, which can escalate out of control. The increased presence of U.S. warships is the real threat there, a threat that is barely being reported inside the United States.

The peace movement in the United States is far too weak and disorganized. It has been trying to raise the alarm, but no one seems to be paying any attention. This is all to the advantage of Trump. If there is a war, Biden and the Democrats will be forced to rally behind Trump, and that would be that. The 45th president would have a second term.

Vijay Prashad, who lives in Northampton, was born and raised in Kolkata, India. He is the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research.

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