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Trump and the Myth of ‘Disengagement’

Houellebecq makes a mistake common to defenders of Trump's foreign policy: he invests great importance in the fleeting, superficial rhetoric that the president sometimes uses while ignoring the president's actions.

I read Michel Houellebecq’s strange case for Trump. He made a few interesting observations, but this line is bizarre and wrong:

Trump is pursuing and amplifying the policy of disengagement initiated by Obama; this is very good news for the rest of the world.

No doubt there are many hawkish interventionists and a few Trump supporters that would like us to believe this, but I don’t see any evidence that it is an accurate description of Trump’s foreign policy (or Obama’s, for that matter). I agree that it would be very good news for the rest of the world if the U.S. were not meddling and interfering as much as we have in the past, but there is not yet any sign that Trump intends to meddle significantly less than his meddlesome predecessors. That is what some of his voters hoped he would do, but they have been thoroughly disappointed by the substance of administration foreign policy.

Houellebecq urges us to consider things “from the point of view of the rest of the world,” but I don’t think he does that. Maybe it isn’t possible for anyone from a particular place to do that, but I submit that this piece doesn’t make a serious effort. It is easy to answer Houellebecq’s assertion that the “Americans are getting off our backs” when we remember that the Trump administration has been threatening European companies and governments with punishment if they don’t adhere to the illegitimately reimposed Iran sanctions. Even leaving aside the arbitrary use of national security justifications for slapping tariffs on many of our allies, Trump’s Iran policy has amounted to attacking most of the world’s major economies over their legitimate trade with Iran. That isn’t happening because of anything Iran or its trading partners have done, but because the president made an arbitrary, irrational decision to leave the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). That doesn’t sound like getting off the backs of non-Americans to me. Houellebecq also says that the “Americans are letting us exist,” but the millions of of Yemenis being starved as part of a U.S.-backed war that Trump has defended to the hilt would surely disagree. So would the tens of millions of Iranians subjected to collective punishment under sanctions that were supposed to remain suspended as long as Iran honored the terms of the JCPOA. You will not be surprised to find that the words Iran and Yemen never appear anywhere in the essay.

Many foreign policy pundits and analysts worried that Trump would pursue a policy of “disengagement,” but he has delivered something different from and much worse than that. The U.S. has not disengaged from the world under Trump, but it has made a point of walking away from several multilateral agreements, most of which were clearly in the interests of the United States. Trump’s foreign policy remains an aggressive, meddlesome one, but it is also one that runs roughshod over international law and institutions in much the same way that George W. Bush’s foreign policy did. It is unilateralist in order to be even less restrained.

Houellebecq’s assessment that Trump’s foreign policy “is very good news for the rest of the world” rests on the false assumption that Trump is pursuing a “policy of disengagement.” His error is compounded by his mistaken belief that Obama “initiated” such a policy when he was president. If Obama “initiated” a “policy of disengagement,” it is strange that Trump began his presidency with at least three wars in Afghanistan, Yemen, and Iraq/Syria. Two of those wars began under Obama, and Trump subsequently escalated all of them. Houellebecq congratulates Obama for not intervening in Syria in 2013, but seems not to have noticed that the U.S. intervened in Syria in 2014 and our forces have remained there illegally ever since. He applauds Obama for not adding Syria “to the long list (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and others I’m no doubt forgetting) of Muslim lands where the West has committed atrocities,” but notably forgets to include Yemen as one of the places that Obama did add to that list.

While he’s at it, he makes another assertion for which there is no evidence:

It seems that President Trump has even managed to tame the North Korean madman; I found this feat positively classy.

Unless one is reciting administration talking points, I have no idea why anyone would say this. Kim Jong-un hasn’t been “tamed,” Trump’s “maximum pressure” approach has failed on its own terms, and North Korea is engaging with South Korea for its own reasons and in response to the diplomatic work of President Moon. Trump has been irrelevant to the progress in rapprochement between North and South Korea, and the administration’s fixation on North Korean disarmament has been working at cross-purposes with South Korea’s engagement policy.

He also lauds Trump’s trade policies:

President Trump was elected to safeguard the interests of American workers; he’s safeguarding the interests of American workers.

Once again, this is what some Trump supporters would claim, but the evidence for it is scant. The president’s trade wars have mostly yielded higher costs for American businesses and consumers, and even in the industries Trump has been favoring the workers aren’t seeing any of the benefits. It would be more accurate to say that Trump is safeguarding the interests of a handful of corporations at everyone else’s expense. That is not what Trump’s voters thought they were getting, but it is what they got.

Houellebecq is using Trump in most of the essay as an excuse to make points about other things that he already wants to make. After all, what does one’s view of the Russian government have to do with the Great Schism of 1054? Nothing at all, but bringing up Russia lets him offer his thoughts about the relationship between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. He thinks France should leave NATO. I don’t have a problem with that, but he is kidding himself if he thinks that Trump is going to hasten the day when that arrives. Trump is fine with the continued existence of NATO, and just wants to berate Europeans to spend more on the military. Houellebecq makes a mistake common to defenders of Trump’s foreign policy: he invests great importance in the fleeting, superficial rhetoric that the president sometimes uses while ignoring the president’s actions.

He concludes that “Trump seems to me to be one of the best American presidents I’ve ever seen,” but he has reached that conclusion by relying on unfounded assertions and false assumptions about what it is that Trump has actually done. The essay seems to be an extended exercise in conjuring up an imaginary world. The imaginary Trump that he has dreamed up might prove to be an okay president, but the real one is nothing of the sort.



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