The first time I arrived in the US was on 29 September 1977. I was five weeks late for the beginning of term. I was looking forward to my studies and excited about getting to know that country which I’d seen so often in the cinema. As a political science student from Cairo University, I already knew quite a bit about the US system of government. Nevertheless, my professor insisted I add a Civics 101 course to my curriculum as long as I would be spending the next five years in the US.
US President Jimmy Carter was in his first year in office. His election was something of a revolution because he was a Democrat coming after eight years of Republican control of the White House. Also, his main motto was human rights at home and abroad at a time the US was struggling to rally from the defeat in Vietnam. The Cold War was still in a period of detente.
I set about to learn as much as I could about that country and for various academic, professional and personal reasons I continued to study its political evolution from the American revolution to the last elections in 2016, passing through numerous major critical junctures along the way: the US Civil War, two world wars and interventions and proxy wars in other countries in the framework of its rivalry with the USSR or, depending on your point of view, its pursuit of global hegemony.
One feature of that evolution was that the military establishment and its related intelligence and security agencies obtained a large chunk of the US budget, which gave them considerable clout. But another major feature is that the military has remained, as the US’s founding fathers intended, politically neutral. It is subordinate to civil authorities within the bounds established by the US Constitution. The relationship between the army and civil authorities has generally been one of mutual respect. The executive sets out national security policies in coordination with the National Security Council, a body made up representatives of the branches of the armed forces and the intelligence agencies, and these forces and agencies carry out the policies. Politicians from across the political spectrum, whether Republicans or Democrats, or whether in power or in the opposition, speak of their armed forces with great pride, much as you would find in any other country. Meanwhile, military officials take pains to demonstrate their deference to the president as the chief executive and upholder of the constitution.
Then Donald Trump came to power. His remarks against the army began even during his electoral campaign when he faulted the army for not having won a war since World War II. This was not because he wanted to cut the military budget, or even because of his isolationist agenda. He thought his Democratic and liberal adversaries wanted to embroil the US in wars it cannot win. After he won the election and prepared to enter the White House, he had no generals on his team, not even a Republican with experience in office such as Colin Powell. Eventually he settled on Herbert McMaster as his national security adviser and James Mattis as defence secretary. Both resigned after less than two years in office, leaving their posts to officers of lesser stature.
Trump’s relationship with the armed forces and the intelligence apparatus, especially the CIA and FBI, has been frosty at best. It grew bumpier amidst the political crossfire during the investigations into Russian meddling in the US elections on behalf of Trump, followed by the House of Representatives impeachment proceedings set into motion by Trump’s gambit to involve the government of Ukraine in a smear campaign against Joe Biden, his current Democratic rival for the presidency. As the world has learned from recently published excerpts from John Bolton’s The Room Where It Happened, Trump explicitly solicited Chinese President Xi’s help in getting him re-elected in the 2020 elections. According to Bolton, Trump, in his conversations with Xi, underscored the importance of US farmers in the polls and encouraged China to buy as many US farm products as it could.
Military-White House tensions were not just about the latter’s attitudes towards the army. Perhaps more importantly they were about a president who wanted to lift anchor from long established US national security and defence policies. The army was not happy about Trump’s attitudes towards NATO, his policies on Russia, his desire to withdraw from the Middle East and his policies towards North Korea and China. Yet, despite all such tensions and disagreements, the army left all such policy decisions and procedures to the constitutional institutions and mechanisms.
Some political factions in the US have tried to pull the army into the political morass that the army has stayed clear of, out of commitment to historical convention and law. Most recently, the demonstrations that erupted following George Floyd’s murder by a white Minneapolis policeman have served as a catalyst in this regard. The murder ignited long pent up anger among African Americans, liberal whites and various US minorities, triggering weeks of demonstrations as well as some outbursts of violence and destruction. Trump’s threat — “When the looting starts, the shooting starts” — jarred with the American tradition not to pit the army against the people. After Trump had police use tear gas to clear a peaceful sit-in in Lafayette Square, so he could pose in front of a church holding a Bible for an election campaign photo op, the most senior Pentagon official, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley, issued an official apology for participating in that fiasco. When Trump said he would deploy 10,000 troops to help local police and the National Guard to put down protests, former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman retired General Martin Dempsey as well as Colin Powell denounced the threat. Echoing the views of his predecessors, Powell and Mattis, the current US Defense Secretary Mark Esper made it clear that he opposed bringing US troops against the American people.
The friction between the brass and the president is unprecedented. Equally unprecedented is Joe Biden’s remark that if he wins and Trump refuses to turn over the keys to the White House, the military might be called in to escort him out. Such an eventuality may seem farfetched given the American record of peaceful transition of power. But Trump has already suggested, as he did in the previous electoral round, that if he loses in the polls that would mean the results were “rigged”. Meanwhile, history, itself, has become a battle ground. Demonstrators are toppling statues of southern Civil War generals and burning Confederate flags on the grounds that they glorify the age of slavery.
All the foregoing combines to form a picture of an America that is not the America I had studied and grown familiar with. Perhaps we will not have to wait long to learn the secrets history has yet to reveal.
The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 June, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly