Business Day (South Africa), 2 October 2017
United States (US) president Donald Trump’s recent speech at the United Nations (UN) in New York has been widely condemned as a belligerent perversion of an institution established in 1945 to promote global peace. Breathing fire and brimstone in his debut appearance on Turtle Bay, Trump spoke in biblical terms, warning that “If the righteous many do not confront the wicked few, then evil will triumph”. He then explicitly noted that Washington would have “no choice but to destroy North Korea” if it continued its recent six nuclear tests and two ballistic missile launches. Trump was effectively threatening to annihilate not just a regime, but an entire country. As he crudely put it, referring to North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un: “Rocket man is on a suicide mission.” Trump then described North Korea, Iran, and Venezuela as “rogue regimes”, before hypocritically criticising threats to Ukraine and the South China Sea by Russia and China. He conveniently forgot his own launch in April of 59 Tomahawk missiles – without any investigation or a UN mandate – against the Syrian regime for allegedly using chemical weapons.
As abhorrent and condemnable as Trump’s UN speech was, such actions are actually not unusual for US presidents who routinely engage in this type of martial posturing and religious self-righteousness. George W. Bush’s notorious “axis of evil” speech in 2002 included two of Trump’s “rogue regimes” – North Korea and Iran – as well as Iraq, which Bush disastrously invaded a year later without UN authorisation. Drawing on a sanctimonious, muscular, born-again Christianity, Bush’s arrogant and deeply insulting insistence – in the days following terrorist attacks on the US on 11 September 2001 – that the whole world decide whether it was “with America or with the terrorists” came right out of an atavistic Old Testament world where doctrines such as “an eye for an eye” reigned supreme. In this absolutist “new world order,” there was no more room for nuance or subtlety. One could not at the same time condemn terrorism and caution America not to kill innocent civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq in a vainglorious attempt to “impose” democracy around the world through the barrel of a gun. The frequent depiction by Bush of America as a “liberator” was also repugnant in its hypocrisy and historical inaccuracy, at least as viewed by Africans, Asians, Caribbeans, Latin Americans, and Middle Easterners who have suffered and, in some cases, continue to suffer, from the brutality of American-backed tyrants.
Barack Obama is often erroneously depicted as one of the most peaceful contemporary US presidents, despite sending drones that killed an estimated 3,500 innocent civilians mostly in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and participating in the “regime change” mission in Libya in 2011 that assassinated Muammar Qaddafi and left Libya anarchic and destabilised the Sahel region. Obama’s Nobel peace prize speech in Oslo in 2009 also demonstrated the same “American exceptionalism” that Bush and Trump had expressed. Much of the speech – delivered in the shadow of two US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq – explained why force had to be used to bring about peace. A celebration of peace thus turned into a justification for war.
Obama perversely used the Christian-derived doctrine of “just wars” to explain why he could not be guided by apostles of non-violence like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. In stark contrast to his earlier condemnation of the historical imperial actions of the US in Latin America and the Caribbean, he glorified his country for having “helped underwrite global security for more than six decades.. and enabled democracy to take hold in places like the Balkans”. Obama went on, rather inappropriately in the context of a Nobel speech, to criticise Iran and North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, while reserving his own country’s right to act unilaterally, in an echo of Bush’s “pre-emptive” use of force doctrine.
These martial musings are deeply ingrained in the DNA of an America that has historically been in a perpetual search for enemies, wishing to slay foreign dragons as if in a recurring Hollywood nightmare of sequels. This time, the imperial country is actually led by a reality TV star who has turned the presidency into one endless version of “The Apprentice”, with Trump himself in the starring role: a bumbling, brutish, buffoonish rookie always one episode away from pressing the nuclear button in a fit of violent rage.