Home/Daniel Larison/Trump’s Cartoon Imperialism and War Crimes

Trump’s Cartoon Imperialism and War Crimes

US President Donald Trump at NATO gathering in London this week, Dec. 2019. (Photo by LUDOVIC MARIN / POOL / AFP) (Photo by LUDOVIC MARIN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

The Iraqi parliament approved a measure that called for an end to the U.S. military presence in Iraq. The prime minister spoke in favor of a departure of U.S. forces, and it seems very likely that U.S. forces will be required to leave the country in the near future. The president’s response to this was in keeping with his cartoon imperialist attitudes about other countries:

Trump doesn’t see other countries as genuinely sovereign, and he doesn’t respect their decisions when they run counter to what he wants, so his first instinct when they choose something he dislikes is to punish them. Economic war has been his preferred method of punishment, and he has applied this in the form of tariffs or sanctions depending on the target. Iraq’s government is sick of repeated U.S. violations of Iraqi sovereignty, and the U.S. strikes over the last week have strengthened the existing movement to remove U.S. forces from the country. One might think that Trump would jump at the chance to pull U.S. troops out of Iraq and Syria that the Iraqi parliament’s action gives him. It would have been better to leave of our own accord before destroying the relationship with Baghdad, but it might be the only good thing to come out of this disaster. It is telling that Trump’s reaction to this news is not to seize the opportunity but to threaten Iraq instead. Needless to say, there is absolutely no legitimate basis for imposing sanctions on Iraq, and if Trump did this it would be one more example of how the U.S. is flagrantly abusing its power to bully and attack smaller states.

In another instance of the president’s crude cartoon imperialism, he repeated his threat to target Iran’s cultural heritage sites:

President Trump on Sunday evening doubled down on his claim that he would target Iranian cultural sites if Iran retaliated for the targeted killing of one of its top generals, breaking with his secretary of state over the issue.

Aboard Air Force One on his way back from his holiday trip to Florida, Mr. Trump reiterated to reporters traveling with him the spirit of a Twitter post on Saturday, when he said that the United States government had identified 52 sites for retaliation against Iran if there were a response to Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani’s death. Some, he tweeted, were of “cultural” significance.

Such a move could be considered a war crime under international laws, but Mr. Trump said Sunday that he was undeterred.

The fact that attacking cultural heritage sites is a war crime is probably one of the things that appeals to Trump. He sees war only in the crudest terms of plunder and atrocity. He has both advocated for committing atrocities and pardoned men who have committed atrocities. It doesn’t concern him that threatening the cultural heritage of one of the world’s oldest civilizations is disgraceful barbarism. It would never occur to him that the U.S. should aspire to live up to a higher standard. He doesn’t think that the U.S. should be bound by the restrictions that his own administration endorsed in a 2017 Security Council resolution, because he takes for granted that when the U.S. does something it can’t be a war crime.

One common response to Trump’s threat to attack Iranian cultural sites is that the military would not carry out such obviously illegal orders, but this objection misses the point. The point is that the president is an unrepentant, public advocate of committing war crimes against civilian targets, and this reflects his appalling worldview that the U.S. can do whatever it likes to any other country. That not only helps to normalize and encourage such crimes, but it also does lasting and possibly irreparable damage to our relations with many other countries.

Trump’s threats against Iranian cultural sites have naturally united Iranians across the political spectrum in disgust, and they show once again just how empty and cynical his claims to be “standing with” the Iranian people have always been. The Trump administration has consistently refused to distinguish between Iran’s government and its people, and the effects of its policies have been to punish the people for the government’s actions. Trump doesn’t care about these distinctions, and he has nothing but contempt for the people there, and that is why he is only too willing to thretean war crimes against them.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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