Trump Has Stolen the Anti-War Mantle. Here’s How to Get It Back.
His claims about wanting to “end endless US wars” are lies—but they’re effective, because the massive anti-war movement that we need is missing in action
(November 4, 2019) — Donald Trump has stolen the mantra of the anti-war movement. His constant claim that he’s “ending endless wars” is not only demonstrably false; it’s also turning way too many anti-Trump politicians and pundits (and plenty of others too) into supporters of war, just because Trump says he’s against it.
Right now, public opinion polls show that Americans really do want to end these endless wars. But too many people in power—from mainstream media editorial writers to elected officials at every level, especially Democrats—ignore that reality, and end up focusing more on Trump’s fake words than on his real actions.
Right now, we should have broad, deep, and vibrant movements across this country challenging US support for Saudi Arabia’s ongoing massacre of civilians in Yemen. We should see teach-ins on every campus and in every house of worship on the threat of a US war against Iran resulting from Trump’s rejection of diplomacy and abandonment of the nuclear deal. And we should be cheering as every progressive social movement—supporting everything from the Green New Deal to Medicare for All to free college education to a new jobs program—is demanding that the bloated military budget be slashed to pay for those big-idea projects.
But we’re not seeing that yet. And part of the reason, it seems, is that Trump’s false claim of being against war has made it especially difficult for real opposition to war to take center stage.
We need to be clear: There is no evidence that this president is actually doing a thing to end these endless US wars. To the contrary, Trump is escalating troop deployments and continuing or even escalating the drone attacks, airstrikes, and Special Forces assassinations that have come to characterize what George W. Bush called the Global War on Terror 18 years ago.
In the past few weeks, a huge cry of outrage has erupted in response to Trump’s announcement that he was withdrawing the 50–100 troops stationed on the Syria-Turkey border. That small contingent served as a political/military tripwire preventing a Turkish assault on the Syrian Kurds.
The passionate opposition has been extraordinary—outrage sparked largely by the awareness that the United States had so unjustly forsaken the Kurds. But that betrayal could not have been unexpected, given the long history of Washington’s cruel embrace-then-abandon treatment of the Kurds.
It was not US betrayal per se but only this particular betrayal that somehow managed to inspire widespread outrage—not the betrayal of Yemeni civilians dying since 2015 under US bombs dropped by US-manufactured planes; not the betrayal of the United Nations and international law by Trump’s abandonment of the Iran nuclear deal; not the betrayal of US taxpayers who watch as 53 cents of every discretionary dollar is lavished on the military industry.
But the outrage largely faltered. There was no clear demand, because the only obvious response seemed to be to call for US troops to stay in Syria. And we know that’s a mistake. We know there’s no military solution to these wars, especially the wars waged against terrorist forces, so what should we be asking for? Too many saw a call for diplomacy instead of war as somehow agreeing with Trump—as too close to his claim of ending the endless wars. So the anger hasn’t led to powerful mobilization and clear political demands leading toward an end to war.
In the meantime, there are still about 13,000 US troops in Afghanistan—and Trump called off negotiations with the Taliban aimed at ending that war. There are over 6,000 troops still occupying Iraq, with more arriving daily as hundreds leaving Syria are redeployed across the Iraqi border.
There are hundreds of US troops still in Syria, and more are heading back in, this time to seize control of the country’s oil fields. There are between 45,000 and 65,000 troops at US bases and headquarters spread across Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, and elsewhere in the Middle East, many of them engaged in hostilities on a daily basis.
In the past six months alone, 14,000 additional troops have been sent to the Gulf region, with 3,500 more deployed to Saudi Arabia just in the past few weeks—accompanied by B-52 bombers, drones, and more. Washington’s military assistance is still enabling the Saudi massacre of civilians in Yemen, and the USS Abraham Lincoln, with its thousands of sailors and accompanying carrier strike group, just extended its provocative cruising off the Iranian coast, raising once again the threat of an “accidental” war that wouldn’t be accidental at all.
And then there are 500 or more US Special Forces fighting in Somalia, and 7,000 or so more deployed across several other African countries, including Niger, Mali, and Chad. Remember the widespread surprise when four US troops and contractors were killed fighting in Niger—because so few people knew they were even there? Niger is now the home of a massive new drone base for the Pentagon’s Africa Command, matching the giant drone base in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa.
Washington’s endless wars are no closer to ending than they were when the most recent crisis erupted on the Syrian-Turkish border a few weeks ago. The fact that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is dead changes nothing regarding that catastrophic situation. Despite Trump’s effort to portray the killing of Baghdadi as proof of his commitment to end the endless wars, his death does nothing to help end the war in Afghanistan.
Baghdadi’s departure from the scene doesn’t change the fact that US troops are still occupying parts of Syria, an occupation now changing pretexts to be all about the oil. All those deployments are illegal—not authorized by Congress and in violation of international law. The cease-fire on the Turkey-Syria border is about to expire, and whether Baghdadi is alive or dead, Syrian-Kurdish civilians and fighters are still at risk of being killed and forced out of their homes in a Turkish-occupied zone inside Syrian territory.
Trump has no intention of actually ending wars—he just talks about it a lot. He’s hoping to placate his base’s support for ending them, and of course hoping to distract the public from the scandals cascading from his White House (though Trump’s not-so-popular presence at the Nationals’ World Series home game just hours after the “I did it all” press conference announcing the killing of Baghdadi suggests that ploy didn’t work).
Trump vacillates between “I will end the endless wars” and “we’re going to take the oil”; between “end the endless wars” and “we’ll annihilate you”; between “end the endless wars” and “we’ll destroy your economy.” What he does, in each case, is far closer to the latter than the former.
Trump gets away with stealing the mantle of the anti-war movement because way too few people—particularly progressive voices—are building the movements we need to make the fight to end the endless wars our fight. We can start by building a movement to strengthen initiatives among congressional progressives to end US support for Saudi Arabia’s war against Yemen.
We can start by organizing teach-ins and discussions on campuses and in our communities on how we need a renewal of diplomacy and a renewed nuclear deal to prevent war with Iran. And we can start by helping every movement fighting for the Green New Deal and Medicare for All and every other progressive cause recognize the necessity of a call to slash the military budget in answering the inevitable question, “so how you gonna pay for it?”
That’s when Trump’s false claims of ending wars will be exposed for the lies they are, and that’s when social movements across this country will reclaim the mantra, the title, the crown, of fighting against militarism and war.
Phyllis Bennis is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies and serves on the board of Jewish Voice for Peace. Her books include Understanding ISIS and the New Global War on Terror and Ending the US War in Afghanistan: A Primer.