Can Trump Survive Syria, Mattis, Stock Market Fall, & Friedman’s ‘Watershed Moment’?

25 Dec

Can Trump Survive Syria, Mattis, Stock Market Fall, & Friedman’s ‘Watershed Moment’?


I have long believed that the three red lines in Washington that no elected president can significantly transgress without being ejected from the Oval Office are unwavering support for the priorities of Wall Street, the Pentagon, and Israel. With the announced withdrawal of American troops in Syria (and their 50% cut in Afghanistan), transgressed one of these red lines. What is more, he upset what the mainstream media has been calling ‘the last adult in the room,’ the Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, who made the country critically ponder Trump’s transgression by his thinly veiled rebuke in the form of a letter of resignation that has been treated as scripture by such hegemonic media outlets as CNN and the NY Times. It has become clear that Trump transgressed two of the three red lines, a reality further aggravated by the Christmas shutdown of the Federal Government and his babyish tantrum about financing his wall.


And even Israel, the only untransgressed red line, visibly shuddered in response to the Syria announcement, evidently worried by the way it was abruptly done without consultation. Probably even more worrisome to its leaders was what might follow from this withdrawal, which hinted at the possibility of a further American political disengagement from the Middle East. Given Trump’s contention that now that ISIS had been defeated, a conclusion contested within the Beltway, further steps along these lines might soon occur. I am sure Trump watchers in Tel Aviv are aware that he tends to double down when under attack, and the 50% cut in the Afghanistan combat force may be regarded as a step in this direction.


Trump has long developed a formidable reputation for managing to cross red lines without suffering adverse consequences. It was a surprise to me that he got away with attacking the service record of Senator McCain, the most celebrated name among recent American war heroes, deriding the Bush family, and even mocking the sacrifice of a gold star family whose son had died in Iraq. Beyond these personal slurs, Trump had undermined the rule of law, overcome an array of challenges to his business empire, and even publicly insulted and berated such hallowed public institutions as the FBI and CIA. His private life should have shocked his Evangelical base, but it seems that his support for right to life judicial appointments was enough to earn him a free pass with respect to gambling, beauty shows, and even hush money handed out to throw a blanket of denial over his promiscuity.


Yet has he gone too far this time? We will find out early in 2019. Perhaps he can mend fences by finding ‘an adult’ to replace Mattis at the Pentagon, escalate the war-mongering rhetoric directed at the UN and Iran, reaffirm his undying commitment to Israel backed by taking some concrete initiative, and explain the stock market decline as the dirty work of the Democrats and some treasonous behavior in the back rooms of the financial mavens who run Wall Street. If he so acts, the Republicans at least will be inclined to forgive. After all their options have been limited ever since Trump’s base made it clear that their adoration of Trump is an absolute, and their support for the Republican Party is relative in all respects, and would vanish altogether the minute Trump is thrown under the nearest bus.


Tom Friedman, the self-anointed arbiter of establishment moods has portentously called the Syrian imbroglio ‘a watershed moment’ in which he decided for himself that it was no longer tenable to wait out Trump’s four years, and then go all out to defeat him in 2020 with a centrist candidate. Friedman now puts a ball of urgency in the court of the Republican Party, calling for a family intervention, therapy style, in which Trump is read the riot act and told that unless there is “a radical change in how he conducts himself,” even Republicans will have no choice but to press for his resignation, and if that fails, then impeachment. [NY Times, Dec. 24, 2018] 


There are ironies present. When Trump makes a demilitarizing move he is under severe attack by the liberal establishment and representatives of the national security elite. This contrasts with the applause he received when he launched an air strike against Syrian targets in April 2017 after an alleged chemical weapons incident. The bipartisan consensus that sustained the Cold War for more than four decades has never reconciled itself to geopolitical peace, and has closed its eyes to any prospect of peace ever..


In revealing ways this pattern is not new. When Ronald Reagan, a president beloved by American conservatives and military hawks, returned in 1986  from a high profile summit at Reykjavik, Iceland with the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, with signs of a breakthrough with respect to getting rid of nuclear weapons, even he was subjected to attack as ‘unprepared’ and not to be trusted with the protection of America’s strategic interest. Of courtse, the liberal establishment joined in supporting the chorus of national security voices marginalizing. To embark upon a path that might produce nuclear disarmament was viewed with alarm in Washington, and the defenders of the militarist red line stepped forward. Under these pressures Reagan retreated to his comfort zone, which meant resuming the posture of being a hawkishf Cold Warrior. At this point those who spoke for the established order breathed sighs of relief and reaffirmed Reagan as an inspirational leader/


Further back, in the early 1950s, when the notorious Senator Joe McCarthy attacked the Army, he transgressed, and soon had his wings clipped. This ability to destroy those who would weaken support for militarism and the American commitment to uphold global security has remained unassailable ever since World War II. It has been manifest in what has been dubbed ‘the forever war’ by H. Bruce Franklin borrowing from Joe Haldeman’s celebrated science fiction classic. [See his fine book, Crash Course: From the Good War to the Forever War(2018) and it has made the existence of a peacetime economy and military budget a political impossibility. Some thought the Soviet collapse at the end of the Cold War might change this outlook, but in retrospect any such hope was never realistic, out of touch with how militarism had restructured the American state since 1945. After the Cold War ended, the war planners conjured up new threats and pursued strategic ambitions with undiminished zeal, and the world responded in kind.


If Trump manages to get away with these transgressions without either retreating or resigning, he might hang around for a long time, especially with the Democratic Party poised to adopt a losing centrist strategy for 2020. As Yeats reminded us generations ago, under quite different circumstances, ‘the center cannot hold, mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” Only a progressive alternative has a chance of meeting the true challenges facing the American people and indeed, the world. If we as a people sleep through the Trump ordeal and the urgencies of climate change, inequality, and nuclearism, then doomsday gurus will soon be hailed as visionary prophets with fires of discontent burning ever brighter all around us, the planet ablaze.

8 Responses to “Can Trump Survive Syria, Mattis, Stock Market Fall, & Friedman’s ‘Watershed Moment’?”

  1. Gene Schulman December 26, 2018 at 2:19 am #

    Trump will survive so long as the oligarchy has use for him as what Noam Chomsky refers to as a distraction. Once the people recognize that is all he is, and begin to see that the ’emperor has no clothes’, he will be dumped, and replaced by some new distraction.

    • Richard Falk December 26, 2018 at 9:41 am #


      Happy holidays!

      Do you mean ‘the oligarchy’ metaphorically or literally. If the latter it would be helpful to have more clarification
      as to evidence and identity. Remember that Trump-like figures are emerging in all parts of the world, suggesting structural
      features such as inequality, demoralization and alienation, the neoliberal version of globalization.

      • Gene Schulman December 26, 2018 at 11:30 am #

        Thank you Richard. I hope your holiday was as pleasant as mine has been.

        Of course I mean the use of oligarchy to be taken literally: a state governed by a small group of unelected persons. In the US case, members of the military industrial complex, financial institutions and other corporations. Thinkers like Chomsky and Hedges, and even Steven Cohen among many others have long ago identified them for us.

        Though I have not missed the rise of populism, I have not seen any Trump-like figures elsewhere, save the less silly, but equally controlled Macron. And he might soon be gone.

  2. Dr Dayan Jayatilleka December 26, 2018 at 7:29 am #

    As always Richard makes you think and helps you think– this time with the ‘ three red lines’. I do have a question though. How does one square the quintessential continuity of the Cold War consensus that manifested itself even against Reagan in 1986, with the DIS-continuity in the peace movement? Speaking as a Sri Lankan who as a post-grad student was at the huge anti-nuke rally in Central Park in 1982, I am dismayed at the paradox of the paralysis/disappearance of the peace movement at a time in world politics and history which is even more fraught than the Cold War (and here I salute Prof Stephen Cohen’s “voice in the wilderness”).

    • Richard Falk December 26, 2018 at 9:51 am #


      As always, your central observation is perceptive in ways my assessment overlooks. I think after the Vietnam War
      bipartisan political elites defending my three red lines did their utmost to demobilize and depoliticize middle class
      America–professionalizing the military, corporatizing the media, embedding journalists with combat forces, sanitizing
      overseas involvements, drones rather than infantry, etc..In contrast after the Cold War the political elites did their
      best to find enemies, manipulating fear and threats, as was done after 9/11. Long before 2001 I heard Sam Huntington predict
      the coming war with Japan a couple of years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, that is, before a new unifying threat in
      Islam in his clash thesis published first in 1992.

      I can put you in touch with Steve Cohen if you wish. We were friends and colleagues at Princeton for many years. He is married
      to Katrina van den Heuvel, editor of The Nation.

      Warmest holiday wishes, Richard

  3. Beau Oolayforos December 26, 2018 at 6:12 pm #

    Dear Professor Falk,

    Sorry I can’t do hyperlinks, but an article in The Week by Damon Linker, “Trump is Breaking one of America’s Worst Habits” really hits the spot. On the surface, it looks like the pullout from Syria and Afghanistan are the kinds of ‘dis-continuities” we’d hoped for in US foreign policy. But with Trump, of course, we’ll have to see…

    • Richard Falk December 27, 2018 at 8:00 am #

      Totally agreed, especially the last words. Already there are some signs
      of a Trump readiness to reassure militarists–his trip to American troops
      in Iraq, and his remarks while there.


  1. Can Trump Survive Syria, Mattis, Stock Market Fall, & Friedman’s ‘Watershed Moment’? « Middle Eastern Eye - December 25, 2018

    […] Source: Can Trump Survive Syria, Mattis, Stock Market Fall, & Friedman’s ‘Watershed Moment’? […]

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