Wittingly, or, as seems increasingly likely, unwittingly, Trump is gearing up to start a war that his advisor Steve Bannon hopes will decide the fate of the world in a conflagration between Christian Capitalism and Islam.
Some of the preparation has been big in the news. They’re cutting the budget of the State Department, whose operations have already been crippled by the so-far incompetent Rex Tillerson and the refusal to fill key positions. Likewise, Trump’s proposed budget looks for an almost ten percent increase in the Defense Department’s year-over-year spending, giving it a larger proportion of the government’s discretionary cash than it had even during the Reagan administration.
Some preparations have been a little less-well publicized, like the way that almost a thousand American marines moved into Syria and may be coordinating with Russian forces there. And while Trump’s now saying that he might not torpedo the nuclear deal with Iran, he’s been pretty good so far about coming through on campaign promises, and that was one of them.
Now it might seem absurd, imagining that Trump, Bannon, and Co could conjure a war out of nowhere, but our last two major wars were made exactly that way, sui generis. We experienced a terror attack on 9/11, yes, but we didn’t invade Saudi Arabia, where the attackers were from and from where they received much of their funding. Instead, we attacked first Afghanistan and then Iraq, neither of which had launched 9/11. The Taliban had hosted al-Qaeda, sure, but so had, to a greater extent, Pakistan, and a goodly number of other countries. Iraq, meanwhile, had no connection, and we’ve still got troops there 14 years later. I don’t want to re-litigate the Bush wars, but just to point out that even on September 12th, 2001, a foreign war, let alone two, and against those particular countries, would have sounded just as nuts as it does now.
In the same way that there were people in the Bush White House talking about a war in the Middle East even before 9/11, the first or second most influential man in America, Steve Bannon, has been talking about a new world war since at least 2014, when he gave a speech at a conference of the deceptively named Human Dignity Institute.
We’re at the very beginning stages of a very brutal and bloody conflict, of which if the people in this room, the people of the Church, do not bind together and really form what I feel is an aspect of the Church militant, to really be able to not just stand with our beliefs, but to fight for our beliefs against this new barbarity that’s starting, that will completely eradicate everything that we’ve been bequeathed over the last 2,000, 2,500 years.
To be fair, the first two threats that Bannon lays out are crony capitalism and unrestrained libertarianism. To continue being fair, though, a combination of those two strains is what has shaped both Trump’s millionaire and billionaire appointments and his spending proposals, the ones that will rob healthcare and programs from his constituents in a Paul Ryan-Ayn Rand wet dream. To finish being fair, Bannon also offers no solutions for the economic problem, while offering up some much more actionable advice as to the second:
Now that…converges with something we have to face, and it’s a very unpleasant topic, but we are in an outright war against jihadist Islamic fascism. And this war is, I think, metastasizing far quicker than governments can handle it…we have to face a very unpleasant fact. And that fact is that there is a major war brewing, a war that’s already global. It’s going global in scale, and today’s technology, today’s media, today’s access to weapons of mass destruction, it’s going to lead to a global conflict that I believe has to be confronted today. Every day that we refuse to look at this as what it is, and the scale of it, and really the viciousness of it, will be a day where you will rue that we didn’t act.
Let’s unpack. First, before we go anywhere else, because I’m a Catholic and Bannon claims to be, if you want to find a strain of Catholicism that works to deradicalize people in the developing world and give them something to live for, it’s called Liberation Theology, and it already exists. Creating some kind of anti-Muslim Church militant will work about as well as it did in the Crusades.
Second, we’ve got to take a look at framing, because the way Bannon frames this picture is both important and deceptive. Bannon says we’re (and by we, he means the Judeo-Christian and implied-white West) in a global war against Islam already, and his evidence is ISIS attacks and Twitter accounts.
The US is indeed at war with ISIS and with other Islamic fundamentalist groups, almost entirely confined to the Arab world. It is emphatically not at war with the other 1.6 billion Muslims who make up 25% of the world’s population—a fact that Bannon’s both aware of and hungry to change. Likewise, if you put together all of the ISIS and otherwise terrorist Twitter accounts, they don’t make much of a war. And callous as it sounds, if you add up all the deaths from terrorist attacks since 9/11 in the west—less than 700 and almost entirely in Europe—they don’t make much of one either. Most importantly, a group of Iraqi army officers didn’t march off into the Syrian desert and then pick a fight with the US. We invaded, we fired them, we created to circumstances for ISIS to arise. And the hundreds of thousands of dead in Iraq and Afghanistan kind of give the lie to Islam’s war on us, right?
Bannon’s fantastic world war for civilization isn’t scariest for how it distorts what’s going on in the world right now, but in what it says about his plans for the future.
For all that they were engendered by hawkish incompetence and greed, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were run by men with limited economic and political objectives, not ideological ones, besides empty platitudes about the spread of democracy. I don’t know if you remember, but George W. Bush himself spoke to the American people about how Muslims were not the enemy in the wake of 9/11.
In an age in which the Administration is fighting week in and out for a Muslim travel ban and hordes of ignorants on the right—from the White House and the Congress on down—take to Twitter daily to howl about the threat of ‘radical Islamic terrorism’ like a mantra, an open-ended war on the Muslim world at large is far from impossible.
That’s what Bannon was proposing in 2014 and it’s what he’s now in a position to effect. What might be even worse than its total insanity is its plausibility.
Let’s talk about Yugoslavia. Despite that it happened not too long ago, we as a people don’t know much about what went down in the Balkans in the 1990s. Very simplified, Yugoslavia was a multi-ethnic state patched together after the fall of the Austrian Empire, with several different national groups and sects of Christianity and Islam sharing the same space. In the 1990s, that arrangement fell apart, with Serbs under Slobodan Milosevic eventually perpetrating genocide against their former neighbors:
In 1991, Yugoslavia began to break up along ethnic lines. When the republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina (Bosnia) declared independence in 1992 the region quickly became the central theater of fighting.
The Serbs targeted Bosniak and Croatian civilians in a campaign of ethnic cleansing. The war in Bosnia claimed the lives of an estimated 100,000 people and displaced more than two million.
The height of the killing took place in July 1995 when 8,000 Bosniaks were killed in what became known as the Srebrenica genocide, the largest massacre in Europe after the Holocaust.
Initial political science analysis had to say what it had always had to say up to that point about similar conflicts: that while ethnic hatreds and religious rivalries may lie dormant for a time, they’re always seething under the surface, waiting for an opportunity to spring bloodily forth. And that seems about right, right? Just like with the Middle East—Muslims have supposedly been fuming about the Crusades for centuries, and now they’re finally acting out those dreams of global jihad.
Well, a professor of mine named Stephen King (no relation) was one of the first political economists to turn that old idea on its head. Far from being a potential hotbed of unrest, Yugoslavia up until the conflict had actually played host to high levels of inter-ethnic intermarriage. It had been, to that point, a total bury-the-ancient-hatchet success story.
So what happened? After Josip Tito died and his strong unifying hand was off of Yugoslavia, its various constituent republics began moving towards autonomy and a permanent split. While those moves started out politically, it was not long before ethnic nationalist and irredentist groups sprang up and began deliberately fomenting ethnic strife. Not for any legitimate ‘historical’ reason but because they, like Southern US politicians or the Nazis, had realized that stirring up pride in being Serbian and hatred of Albanians or Kosovars or Croats or Slovenes was much easier and more compelling than trying to win people over by reasoned argument, especially if they were committed to the then-still-solid state of Yugoslavia.
And what Professor King found was that if you took a village in Yugoslavia, half Serb and half Croat, happily intermarried and co-existing, and you gave it a visit from one of those radical groups, you could very quickly turn it into a religious battleground. How? Well, you start shooting Serbs or you start shooting Croats, and you make it very clear that you’re shooting them because of what they are.
Now imagine in that village that you’ve got a young man who happens to be Croat and a Muslim but who’s never thought of himself as such. Maybe he thinks of himself as a Yugoslav first, or as a villager or farmer, or even as a MeFite or a gamer. Well, it turns out, if you shoot his parents dead and tell him you did it because they were Croats or because they were Muslims, then suddenly he’s very ready to put that at the forefront of his identity, and, at the extreme, start shooting other people because they’re Serbs or they’re Christians.
Yugoslavia didn’t devolve into violence and then ethnic cleansing because it had always been ‘ready’ but because a very small number of ideologically motivated people can use violence to spread, crucially, not their ideology, but its opposite. That is that Serbs didn’t have to convince other Serbs to kill Croats. They just killed Croats and let reprisals take care of the rest.
This should be starting to sound uncomfortably familiar to you.
It might surprise you to learn that terror against the US on the part of Muslims was non-existent before the 1950s. Crazy, right, with the US being the most powerful heir to the European-descended Crusader throne. You’d think that Muslims the world over, still quietly fuming about the Siege of Jerusalem would immediately target the nation that had the most freedoms to hate.
In fact, it was only after the US fomented a coup against a democratically elected prime minister in Iran, after it lent support to Iraq, after it backed the Israelis against the Palestinians, after it militarily intervened in Lebanon, after it propped up the as-brutal-as-his-son Hafez al-Assad, after it put bases in Saudi Arabia and Turkey, after it supported the Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak—that is to say, after it started killing people in the Middle East—that anybody began thinking about committing an attack on the USA.
Skullduggery and sanctions and ‘limited military support’ throughout the last century built up bad feeling, and George Bush’s wars blew it wide open. Hatred, real hatred for the US before the 2000s was limited to extremist groups like al-Qaeda and countries that we’d really fucked with, like Iran.
The US’s activities and Afghanistan, and especially in Iraq, where a poorly thought out war and a protracted occupation, punctuated by scandals like Abu Ghraib, the devastation of a civil war, and air and drone strikes that indiscriminately murdered hundreds and thousands of innocent civilians made hatred for the United States not just more widespread but more justified. It’s hard to blame any given Iraqi for taking up arms now, and it’s understandable, if not forgivable, when young men and women in the West, watching the devastation on TV and receiving their framing through ISIS or other propaganda, come to the same conclusions.
Up to now, propaganda is what is has been. The US has made war on the third world, on upstarts and socialists, and on just about anybody who thought they could buck the American-led capitalist world order. We might have felt free to meddle in the Middle East on account of its people being brown and strange and Muslim, but we weren’t killing them because of those things.
Bannon aims to change that.
And it still seems farfetched. If we didn’t manage to spark a global conflagration after Iran in 1953 or again in 1979 and we didn’t manage it in Lebanon or in Afghanistan or Iraq, how could anybody in the Trump White House manage it now, especially since after 14 years of war, people in the US are much more awake to the possibility than they were in 2003?
Well, remember the Yugoslav kid, and remember that Bannon doesn’t want to go after one village but all the villages, up to and including communities of Muslims living in the United States.
In The Wretched of the Earth, Franz Fanon describes the moment when the hitherto complacent or even pro-colonial rural masses in Algeria realize that, no matter how well the colonial regime has treated them or talked to them to this point, they belong definitively on the side of the resistance, and that there is an unbridgeable divide between them and their ‘benevolent’ masters:
…machine-gunning from airplanes and bombardments from the fleet go far beyond in horror and magnitude any answer the natives can make. This recurring terror de-mystifies once and for all the most estranged members of the colonized race. They find out on the spot that all the piles of speeches on the equality of human beings do not hide the common place fact that the seven Frenchmen killed or wounded at the Col de Sakamody kindles the indignation of all civilized consciences, whereas the sack of the douars of Guergour and of the dechras of Djerah and the massacre of whole populations–which had merely called forth the Sakamody ambush as a reprisal–all this is of not the slight est importance.
For all that we compassionate liberals might hope that we appeal to the hearts and minds in the Middle East with our rhetoric or demonstrations or blog posts, we are in fact speaking as the West with one voice. A voice which says that an attack in Paris or London is a tragedy, but that a drone strike which kills four or five families in Yemen is business as usual and this is how this world of ours is run.
Now compare those to the next two:
As for our compassionate liberalism here at home, we’d like to think that the war hysteria and xenophobia that followed 9/11 could never happen again, that we are now too aware. But the brilliance of Bannon’s strategy, of those little groups in Yugoslavia, is that if you want a Christian or a Westerner or an entire country to make war on Islam, you don’t have to convince them. You just have to kill Muslims, and if you tell the survivors often and loudly enough that you murdered their families or their neighbors or their co-religionists because they were Muslims, eventually your victims will take care of the rest.
Til now, despite its racism and its hate crimes and even its killings, the US has been a comparative safe haven for Muslims in the West, but in Europe, with its thinly veiled ‘secularizing’ attacks on mosques and the veil and its marginalization of Muslim communities, this strategy has already born fruit. Attacks in Germany or France or Britain aren’t the result of ISIS propaganda or of a special Islamic proneness to violence, but of those countries making Muslims immigrants and citizens feel so unwelcome that they open themselves up to the idea that the West is making war on them. The dividends of the strategy aren’t the attacks, though; they’re the wave of fascistic, xenophobic politics that’s sweeping Europe and that very nearly missed taking over the Netherlands last week.
Trump and Bannon, with the enthusiastic support of the Republican Party, are doing what they can to replicate and double down on the European situation here in the US. The repeated attempts to enforce the Muslim ban are only the opening salvo. The VOICE office, set up to catalogue the crimes of immigrants in exactly the same way that National Socialist newspapers catalogued the crimes of Jews in Germany, is literally aiming to demonize immigrants the same way that Der Sturmer did the Jews.
Trumpian speeches about a Muslim fifth column in America serve their purpose whether or not they manage to keep a ban or any other law in force—they’re saying, “You might have thought you were one of us; you might have those those wars were for oil or capitalism or freedom; but you are not and they were not—they, and we, are coming for you.”
Once the first attack happens—and it will happen, not because Islam lends itself to violence but because any community pushed sufficiently far will resort at the last to violence—will show us who we are. Will show us if Democrats who are all stand-in-solidarity today will hold the line better than they did in 2003.
The scariest thing about it is that once it gets going, it may be impossible to stop. Something I try to hammer home on Safe for Democracy is that violence is stronger than non-violence. Hate is stronger than love, and war will win out over well-intentioned policy. It’s taken centuries of development to get the US to a place where it’s even a little bit welcoming to Muslims, and it will take years or just months to blow all that away with guns and riot shields and propaganda from the press room.
Extremists reinforce each other. The US hard line on Cuba is part of what made Castro so unassailable in his own country, which in turn made the hard line more palatable in Washington. When the Iranian Revolution took hostages, the point wasn’t to anger the US, it was to turn the US into an enemy in order to marginalize moderate elements in Tehran.
ISIS and al-Qaeda want exactly the same thing that Bannon does: an all-out war with the West. What they needed was somebody in the White House to take that last little step, from murdering Muslims to murdering Muslims because they are Muslim. Now they have their guy, and it’s only a matter of time before he acts.