Former US Secretary of State Colin Powell is reputed, in a book written by the BBC’s James Naughtie, to have called the key figures surrounding George W. Bush in the run-up to his invasion of Iraq “f***ing crazies”. Mike Pence, Trump’s Vice-President, certainly has a track record that places him squarely in the same camp as the main targets of Powell’s ire, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz. But what are we to make of Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, who previously peddled his alarming views about the need to confront “expansionist” China and the “global threat” posed by Islam from the ultra-right wing “fake news” website Breitbart? Bannon is now empowered to attend all meetings of the National Security Council, in contrast to the Director of National Intelligence and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who only attend when issues directly pertaining to their area of responsibility are discussed.
Allowing a political figure to attend NSC meetings is not completely unprecedented, but Bannon is deeply driven by ideological convictions that make it less likely that he will heed the advice of the intelligence services and military, let alone those tasked with advising the government on what is acceptable under national and international law. The Trump administration is not just about the return of the “crazies” as we have known them. The president himself and key figures in his immediate entourage seem to be “crazies plus”. They have already demonstrated two rather scary things. They don’t care about details and consequences, and they don’t care much about the rule of law and the constitution, that is, the institutions and checks and balances that many claimed would force Trump to exercise restraint. Nor do they care about human rights as defined by international conventions (to some of which the USA has always refused to subscribe).
This is already apparent in the case of the executive orders banning people from seven selected Islamic countries from entering the United States on the pretext that these countries are “associated with terrorism” (unsurprisingly, the list does not include Saudi Arabia). For example, in a series of recent reports, the journalists of The Intercept have produced evidence of deep concern amongst some Homeland Security officials about the likelihood that the policy would increase anti-American sentiment and the likelihood of new terrorist attacks, expressed through the State Department’s official internal “dissent channel”. Responding to a leaked dissent memo, White House Press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters that: “I think that they should either get with the program or they can go.” This despite the apparent irrationality (as well as cruelty) of destroying the family lives of Iraqis who have worked for the US as an occupying power. But consular officials also expressed their concern on simple humanitarian grounds about arbitrarily denying entry to people who posed no threat — for example, the case of an Iranian couple who had hoped to care for a son dying of cancer in the United States in his final days.
Not waiting for adequate intelligence seems to have been responsible for the fall-out from Trump’s first murderous intervention in Yemen. Trump did not hesitate to approve a Special Forces raid that led to the death of eight years old Nawar al-Awlaki, an American citizen and daughter of Anwar al-Awlaki, killed in a drone strike ordered by Obama in 2011. It is quite true that Trump is simply continuing Obama’s strategy, which had a heavy cost in terms of civilian casualties. Obama also killed Nawar’s sixteen years old brother in another operation. The British government is fully complicit in the carnage and war crimes that have accompanied Saudi Arabia’s bloody intervention in Yemen, continuing a longstanding tradition of furthering our imperialist interests in the country through violence. So this is not just a Trump problem in itself. What is a problem for Trump is that, as The Guardian reported today, both the New York Times and Reuters “carried quotes from unnamed military officials that seemed to shift blame for the mission to Trump and his inner team. It would be an extraordinary development for a president, who is commander-in-chief, to be briefed against in such detail”. Reports of civilian casualties, including women and children, were at first denied and then accepted as a probability by the military. One Navy Seal also died in the raid and an aircraft was lost because of engine failure. The dead girl’s grandfather denied that this village was an Al-Qaeda stronghold, claiming its sheikhs were pro-government, fighting against the Iranian-backed Houthis, but in any event it was clearly heavily fortified and defended. The Special Forces were sent in without adequate intelligence.
Given that the leading lights of the Trump team seem intent on renewing confrontation with Iran and do not seem to baulk at entering into a military confrontation with China either, this kind of unthinking reaction to a situation is deeply disturbing. The US war machine and deportation machine was already a grave cause for concern before Trump, and Hillary Clinton was justly condemned as a warmonger. But maybe she wouldn’t have surrounded herself with quite so many crazies.
Trump’s persecution of Mexico is another escalating problem. In the latest twist to the endless series of denials that the Mexican government feels obliged to issue after every report of the telephone conversations that the new US President has with his Mexican counterpart, it is denied that Trump humiliated Peña Nieto and threatened to send US troops into Mexico to sort out the “bad hombres”. Trump was reported as saying that the Mexican army hadn’t done a very good job of “knocking out” said bad guys. If he were the kind of politician interested in academic analysis of solid data, rather than the perfect exemplar of a post-truth era, he might be interested in perusing a recent study from the CIDE (Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económica) that analyses the ratio between dead and wounded in military engagements with organised crime during Felipe Calderón’s US-backed “war on drugs”. The low relative numbers of wounded to fatally injured suggest that the Mexican security forces are actually pretty good at exterminating “bad hombres” (y mujeres), plus, in many documented cases, totally innocent people. What this US-sponsored disaster shows us is that the kind of policies that Trump favours simply increase levels of violence, undermining society and the state. Trump’s economic measures against Mexico seem very likely to have drastic political as well as social consequences.
But consequences are not relevant to the calculus of the “crazies plus” (beyond the mutual business opportunities that Trump and Carlos Slim may have discussed in their recent encounter over a nice dinner). Whether or not Trump does finally outmatch Obama’s dismal record on deportation and breaking up families, the irony of his economic persecution of Mexico and Mexicans is that its effects are increasing the flow of migrants northwards again as the peso devalues, against a previous pattern of net reduction. This still leaves more than eleven million US-resident Mexicans hostages in Trump’s populist games, not to mention the suffering men, women and children of Central America seeking northwards to escape the disaster US power has inflicted on their own countries (and suffering the abuse of Mexican criminals and corrupted security forces en route, because Obama’s Washington insisted that Mexico should do its dirty work). Not much can be expected from a Mexican elite that has long dedicated itself to selling its people and national resources to the United States. Even if real regime change does finally occur in Mexico, it will not be easy for the country to follow Evo Morales’s advice and start “looking South”, because of the ties that more than a century of migration and neoliberal economic dependency have built. But as the issue of the wall, punitive tariffs on Mexican exports, and renegotiation of NAFTA move on, perhaps the crazies will make the previously unthinkable happen, without ever really understanding what they are doing. Whatever happens, however, we can be sure that the human costs for working people will be very high indeed.