Editorial

Anne Joyce, February 21, 2017

Events have moved almost at light speed in the first month of Donald Trump's term, making it difficult to assimilate relevant data points and analyses (see our tireless newspapers of record; there are too many to rehearse here). The centerpiece of the period was the resignation/firing of Michael Flynn, the president's national-security adviser. Flynn had allegedly reassured the Russian ambassador in Washington (over an FBI-monitored phone, no less!) that the Trump administration would alleviate the sanctions President Obama had imposed on Russia the day before, for having supposedly used electronic hacking to help Trump win the election (check Google for details).

Flynn's recent book, The Field of Fight, co-authored by Michael Ledeen, is our lead review in this current journal. When Flynn was ushered out the door, I considered pulling it, despite the excellent analysis by Augustus Richard Norton of Boston University, a household name in our field. After a moment's reflection, I realized the Flynn case would retain its salience far into the future. He has apparently lied to the FBI, a felony if proven, and will be called to testify before numerous investigative panels before his fate is ultimately sealed. Besides, the major scandal in the case concerns Donald Trump's relationship with Russia, and that of those he has chosen to place at the apex of his campaign and administration.

Ledeen deserves special mention, although he and his neoconservative cohorts have been frozen out of the Trump White House. Ledeen was part of the extremist faction that led the Reagan administration to trade arms for hostages back in the 1980s (a.k.a. the Iran-Contra scandal). In 2003, he and the Bush II brain trust of Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz et al. contrived to make possible the invasion and destruction of Iraq. They made bogus claims about connections between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda and about a nonexistent Iraqi nuclear threat in order to rearrange the Middle East and bring down its strongmen. Uprisings in the Arab world followed, culminating in the slaughterhouse of Syria. The neocons have not apologized, though a few of their followers have admitted to errors in judgment. Most of them are blaming Obama for leaving Iraq too soon, though the exit was negotiated by the Bush administration before Obama had a chance to weigh in.

The role of Ledeen in influencing Flynn is tantalizing, particularly as it involves his interest in Italian fascism, a topic examined in serious depth by the New York Times (Sunday, February 12). The writer Julius Evola was profiled, with his aristocratic background and anti-modern Viking/Celtic ideas on tradition, heroism and religion. The movement burgeoned after World War I, when atheistic, egalitarian, materialistic communism was sweeping across Europe; Russia had been won in 1917, and Germany was thought to be vulnerable. The postwar commune in Munich lasted a year, resulting in a period of unrest that produced Hitler's rise to power a decade later. Those were dark days; Europe was wrecked, revenge was being meted out, and the middle class was pauperized through two depressions. Scapegoats were identified, violence was tolerated, and civil rights were subordinated to centralized state power.

This is far from "Make America great again." As Marx wrote, "History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce." The Cold War is over and the existential threat gone. Despite the horrors of our policy in the Middle East, we are, as Juvenal said of the late Roman Empire, "suffering the evils of a long peace, luxury more savage than arms." It would be wise to stop overdramatizing the current political moment, although the Trump strategy is, as Michael Gerson of the Washington Post writes, "disturbingly ambitious." He quotes the description by Gen. Michael Hayden (former head of both the CIA and the NSA): "A systematic effort to invalidate and delegitimize all the institutions, governmental and nongovernmental, that create the factual basis for action … so they won't push back against arbitrary moves." Hence his attempt to neutralize not only the media and the federal courts, but the departments of environment, education, energy, labor and so forth, by appointing administrators who despise the work of their own agencies.

A Trump campaign pledge to "do something" about terrorism and immigration has been a debacle. The Trump administration has been prevented from barring travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries, none of which have done harm to the United States. A federal judge and a three-judge oversight panel ruled against the ban. We have Rudy Giuliani to thank, in part, for the ruling. He had bragged in a TV interview about contriving an excuse for its acceptability. It was a ban, not on Muslims, but on "danger," Giuliani explained. Trump had tasked him with finding a way to bar entry to Muslims legally, and he thought he had found one, until the courts intervened. The order is apparently being rewritten to include non-Muslim bad actors in the list.

Another apparent faux pas occurred at Trump's press conference with Benjamin Netanyahu, when the U.S. president broke with longstanding precedent and declared that he could "live with" either a two-state or a one-state "solution" to Israel's conflict with the Palestinians. Jaws dropped. He gave Bibi a bit of unwelcome advice too, indicating he would like it if the settlement building slowed down a bit. A few days later, Trump's UN ambassador, Nikki Haley, voted with the majority to endorse the two-state plan. Perhaps she hadn't gotten the memo. Or her boss had come to his senses. If there is now going to be only one state, what does that mean for Palestinians? Equal rights? Citizenship? One person, one vote? It sounds daunting for the Israelis. As John Whitbeck has often said, to get two states, promise one. Israelis will run screaming from the thought (see Deets on non-territorial governance in Israel, p. 108).

In this issue we are pleased to be able to bring to a wide readership the work of six scholars who participated in Chatham House's Syria and Its Neighbors Policy Initiative, a "multiyear research and convening project" (see the complete description inside, p. 35). Britain's prestigious think tank is more than welcome in these pages, and we look forward to further cooperation.

Anne Joyce
February 21, 2017