Trump’s War: Covid-19 Debacle Should Spell the End for Embattled President

“The president of the United States calls the shots”. So said Donald Trump during a remarkable – even by his standards – press conference in which he threatened to unilaterally lift Covid-19 restrictions and blamed the ‘fake news’ media for misportraying his administration’s response to the coronavirus crisis. This despite America being the new epicentre of the pandemic, with over 23,000 dead from the illness and more than 190,000 cases in New York alone.

Trump’s press conference was astounding even by his standards

It is not a desperate stretch to say that the world is at war – we are, after all, fighting a brutal foe with considerable momentum behind it – and yet Trump is hardly acting like a wartime president. He seems more concerned with protecting his reputation, attempting to sully the name of others whilst endeavouring to hide his own ineptitude. He has made no attempt to bring the country together, let alone take a lead in mustering a global response to the outbreak.

This is, of course, an election year and in the past incumbent presidents at war (albeit in a more conventional sense) have used the crises engulfing America and the wider world to bolster their position and secure another term in office. Trump would do well to remember some of these examples.

In 1916, Woodrow Wilson won re-election on an ‘anti-war’ platform, as a heated debate rose over whether America should become involved in World War One. That Wilson subsequently committed US troops overseas no doubt dented his popularity in some quarters, but it also boosted America’s global standing. Either way, Wilson played the game sufficiently deftly to remain in office.

The 1916 election was bitterly fought and Wilson secured a narrow victory

Franklin Delano Roosevelt secured unprecedented third and fourth terms in office during World War Two, with the global conflict unsurprisingly dominating both campaigns. In the 1940 election, he gauged the public’s isolationist and non-interventionist bent to promise that America would not enter another ‘European’ war. By the 1944 election America was deeply involved in the war – public opinion having been swayed by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour – and Roosevelt won another victory by playing on the public’s patriotic fervour, spurred on by American battlefield successes.

Even the Vietnam War – probably the most controversial in American history – was the key for Richard Nixon’s campaigns in the 1968 and 1972 elections. Having won in 1968 after promising to restore law and order on US soil amidst vicious anti-war protests, whilst simultaneously offering fresh direction in Vietnam itself, he won a thumping re-election in 1972 based on a commitment to end the war with American dignity intact.

Nixon staked his 1972 campaign on providing a satisfactory ending to the Vietnam War – he was re-elected in a landslide before the Watergate scandal secured his downfall

Ronald Reagan’s re-election in 1984 and George W Bush’s in 2004 were also in part because of their perceived positive handling of the Cold War and Iraq War respectively.

Wars have often been used skillfully by incumbent presidents – taking advantage of their monopoly over the tools of office – to extend their periods in power. After all, during such testing times the public is likely to be inclined to choose continuity in the hope of stability. As with any election, the campaign promises may not be turned into policy outcomes but it’s all about winning power in the first place.

Donald Trump, meanwhile, looks foolish, paranoid and lost. Whilst governments around the world have rallied to unite their citizens and promote stability, Trump’s has sown division and chaos. Indeed, every unusual aspect of his bizarre presidency has been brought into sharp focus recently; the Twitter rants, the dictatorial actions, the abandoning of allies, the refusal to cooperate with perceived rivals even for the common good.

The so-called ‘ordinary Americans’ that Trump claims to represent are dying in their thousands and the picture threatens to get bleaker still, with the failure to put in place reasonable measures to slow the spread of the Covid-19 virus now reaping its tragic dividends.

Refrigerator lorries are acting as makeshift mortuaries in New York City

It should not be forgotten, though, that Trump has created an effective narrative of ‘Us vs Them’ and that his castigation of the media outlets, in particular, is part of a crude but successful plan to tighten his support base. Whether the glaring flaws in his governance will outweigh the loyalty shown to him by his grass-roots supporters as more people die remains to be seen.

The Democrats could hardly have wished for more ammunition to throw at an incumbent president facing re-election. That they have an arguably weak candidate in Joe Biden – who at 77 is hardly an ambitious pick for a two-term presidency and is very much tied to the Washington establishment that people voted so overwhelmingly against in 2016 – should not matter…in theory.

If Trump wins re-election this year it is a travesty for American democracy and global leadership. Who knows what perils he may unleash given four more years during which he will not have to consider another election campaign? Victory will further cement the bipartisan divide that has rendered American politics farcical, opening the door for revisionist powers such as China and Russia to silently spread their nefarious influence across the globe.

Trump’s approval rating is not low as one might expect – the election will again likely come down to a few key swing states

By failing to mobilise the considerable resources of the world’s most powerful nation – both soft and hard – and allowing tens of thousands of his own people to needlessly die, Donald Trump’s response to Covid-19 has to rank as one of the worst political actions in American history.

Yet he may still get re-elected…Scary times indeed.

#WWIII? Unlikely but Soleimani Killing Adds Fuel to the Flames in Middle East

The US assassination of Qasem Soleimani, head of Iran’s notorious Quds Force and widely regarded as the second most influential figure in the Islamic Republic, has heightened tensions in the Middle East to a level perhaps not seen since immediately prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Thousands turned out for Soleimani’s funeral, although he was by no means universally popular in Iran

Twitter was abuzz with doom-laden predictions, one of the most frequently tagged being #WWIII. Another hashtag that trended heavily in the immediate aftermath of the assassination was #FranzFerdinand. Archduke Franz Ferdinand was the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne whose infamous murder in 1914 at the hands of Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip, set in motion the wheels of the First World War.

Whilst Donald Trump’s decision to sign off on the execution of Soleimani has understandably enraged the Iranian leadership – not to mention the oblivious Iraqis on whose soil the drone strike took place – predictions of a new global conflict are premature.

In 1914 the conditions in Europe were ripe for war between the great powers, whose possession of international colonies necessitated a translation into a global conflict. Two opposing blocs had formed between the triple entente of Britain, France and Russia, and the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary, soon to be joined by the ailing Ottoman empire and Bulgaria. These blocs in turn interfered and took sides in localised conflicts, particularly the incendiary Balkan states. If it had not been Princip’s trigger that toppled the first domino in the path to war it would have been something else.

The imperialist ambitions of Europe’s great powers ensured the crisis of 1914 mutated into a global war

Iran has vowed revenge for the killing of Soleimani but, even with its allies, it cannot launch a conventional military response to challenge the US. Indeed, such warfare has become increasingly difficult in an interconnected, interdependent world in which nuclear weapons proliferate. The geopolitical landscape has changed significantly since 1914.

True, there are still groups of enemy states backed by localised proxies, competing for regional ascendancy. One of Soleimani’s main qualities – at least according to Ayatollah Khamenei and his devoted followers – was his ability to mobilise proxy groups and states to carry out the bidding of Tehran. But the divisions of the Middle East are so intensely centralised that it is likely that any new ‘traditional’ conflict will be confined to the region.

Iran has for some time offered support to the Lebanese Hezbollah group in its struggle against Israel

This is not to say that Soleimani’s death will not have severe consequences. Iran will respond; it has to. Tehran has already further pulled back from its 2015 nuclear accord and is now likely to proceed at full speed towards nuclearisation (something it almost certainly would have done sooner rather than later in any case). It will continue to export terrorism across the Middle East and may potentially consider sponsoring an attack on the American mainland or on the territory of an American ally. Meanwhile the repercussions for Iraq, whose government may choose to expel American troops given this grave violation of its sovereignty, could lead to a new civil war and the resurgence of the Islamic State.

Trump may hold some of the arrogant delusions of his WWI predecessors who, in the words of Christopher Clark, ‘sleepwalked’ into a devastating conflict. Like them, he has proven unwilling to compromise on almost every issue, his scattergun foreign policy both terribly unsettling and fanning the flames of regional tensions whilst alienating allies.

Yet the question must be asked: how long was Iranian impunity going to be allowed to go unchecked? Tehran has exported terror and exacerbated humanitarian crises across the Middle East and further afield, all in the corrupted name of Islam. It has repressed its own people and allowed them to suffer through years of economic sanctions brought about by its rogue behaviour. A state with any moral capital left may choose to allow their anger to subside and issue a restrained response with the buy-in of the international community, the majority of which did not support the American action. This would allow Tehran to regain at least a portion of respect after years of inflammatory activity, whilst further isolating Trump.

Saudi Arabia says it was not consulted on the drone strike but has called for calm and refrained from criticising US actions

The chances of this happening, unfortunately, are zero. We may not be on the verge of World War Three. However, Donald Trump’s clumsy efforts to punish Iran for its diabolical behaviour are likely to precipitate a renewed battleground in the Middle East, where states will be forced to pick sides between the Islamic Republic and its warped Shiite goals, and the US vision of regional security, along with its steadfast backing of a Jewish state and Arab autocracy.

2020 looks set to be a bumpy ride indeed.