SHAFAQNA – Exclusive Interview: Donald J. Trump rose to power in the U.S. to much wonder, anxiety, and horror of observers, both within and without the United States. Since his ascendency of the presidential office, day by day, he has revealed fresh aspects of his personality and politics. Despite his isolationist promises during the campaign days, Trump now seems to be ruthlessly pursuing a realpolitik approach, the extent of which reaching Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and beyond. His recent trip to Saudi Arabia and the prodigious arms deal he brokered there, now looms large on the political horizon of the region, and the world.
Regarding these issues and others, Shafaqna has talked to the political scientist and philosopher Stephen Eric Bronner, Board of Governors Professor of Political Science at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. The Senior Editor of Logos, an interdisciplinary internet journal, a member of more than a dozen other editorial boards, he is also Chair of the Executive Committee of US Academics for Peace and an advisor to Conscience International. Professor Bronner has taken part in missions of civic diplomacy in Darfur, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, and elsewhere. Blood in the Sand: Imperial Fantasies, Rightwing Ambitions, and the Erosion of American Democracy and Peace Out of Reach: Middle Eastern Travels and the Search for Reconciliation (University Press of Kentucky) reflect this interest. He is also a member of on the Executive Committee of the UNESCO Chair for Genocide Prevention and Director of Global Relations at the Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights.
When asked about whether he sees Donald Trump as a novel phenomenon in the U.S political history or not, and how the new U.S. president is related to the legacies of his predecessors, Prof. Bronner admitted Obama’s observation in relating Sarah Palin – the far-right vice-presidential running mate of Senator John McCain in 2008 – with Trump. He said the likes of these figures are
the product of a tradition that begins with the “Know Nothing” movement of the 1840s and extends to the Ku Klux Klan that arose after the American Civil War in the late 1860s, to the fascist sympathizers of “America First” in the 1920s-30s, to the anti-communist witch-hunts of Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the aftermath of World War II, to the “Dixiecrats” and the other anti-civil rights segregationist groups of the 1950s-1960s, to the “Silent Majority,” the “Moral Majority,” and the Tea Party of our own time.
We have to bear in mind that these movements were not tiny fringe phenomena, but rather, they were mass-based, nativist, reactionary, and bigoted to the core.
Bronner believes that Trump has radically shifted the foreign policy embraced by Barack Obama and sees the $110 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia an indication of that. As a result, he says, “it engages the United States far more deeply in the conflicts plaguing the Middle East and thereby opening the way for more intense military involvement; it privileges deposing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad over fighting ISIS; and, in order to justify all of this, demonizing Iran.” Despite Trump’s supposedly following Obama’s agreements behind the scenes, he “is heightening the rhetoric and ending the relative détente produced by the Kerry-Zarif nuclear agreement.” This is a perilous development, contends Bronner, because Trump’s public posture can easily take on a dynamic of its own. By pushing Iran to disavow its policy of engagement, American policy seems to be attempting to create a self-fulfilling prophecy. So far, he says, the Iranian president Hassan Rouhani is being prudent. Bronner is hopeful neither Iranian leaders nor Iranian citizens will over-react.
In Bronner’s thought, American foreign policy is usually (though not always) expressive of domestic trends. On this score, Trump’s embracement of authoritarian leaders, anti-liberal states and, staunchly anti-immigration movements while alienating traditional allies aims “to maximize his independence and an independent power politics unimpeded by world public opinion.” This new foreign policy is also a supplement to the domestic climate of xenophobia, bigotry, and anti-immigration sentiments. Moreover, Trump’s desire to decrease his accountability to the world community in foreign affairs reflects “an authoritarian domestic agenda designed to intimidate media, obstruct congressional investigations into corruption by his administration, undermine the separation of powers, and – worse – subvert democratic governance.”
The double standard seen in Trump’s record, Bronner maintain, is a common feature among authoritarian leaders. “America can preach about the dangers of allowing Iran to ‘go nuclear,’” he says, “even though it has given nuclear weapons to many of its neighbors (India, Pakistan) and it is the only nation ever to have used a nuclear weapon.” Trump’s policy of defaming Muslims inside the U.S. and supporting Muslim despots abroad, is an indication that he makes a difference between the ‘good’ Muslim or Arab, who is a friend to the United States, and the ‘bad’ ones who are enemies. Bronner deems evidence and logical argument always unnecessary to Trump’s way of governance, saying that the U.S. president interprets the American national interest and American security in an unpredictable, arbitrary and self-serving way. “Saudi sects have actually sponsored terrorism beginning with 9/11 attack –yet Saudi Arabia is given a $100 billion arms deal in order to fight ‘the malign influence of Iran.’”
“When American presidents are in political trouble at home,” says Prof. Bronner, “they tend either to engage in a military action or take a diplomatic trip.” This is the rule for which Trump’s recent adventure in the Middle East provides an example. Trump and his entourage are under investigation by at least four different government committees, therefore the visit to Saudi Arabia could be interpreted as a way to distract attentions from what’s going on against him inside America. Currently he’s under the attack of the media for “his administration’s Russian connections, illicit financial dealings, constant lying, and attempts to obstruct the course of justice.” “Trump’s trip abroad,” Bronner asserts, “is an attempt to deflect attention from all of this. That Saudi Arabia threw out the red carpet enabled Trump to appear presidential and his $100 billion trade agreement shows he still knows ‘the art of the deal.’”
However, he continues, Saudi Arabia will undoubtedly use the $110 billion in arms purchases “to support an ongoing transnational offensive against Shia forces that have, for better or worse, played the leading role in combatting ISIS.” It opens the Saudi hand “for a sustained transnational Sunni assault against the Shia in Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and – of course – Iran.” In all this, Eric Bronner see a lack of a coherent ideology, only a strategy reduced to tactics that are arbitrarily selected. Because of this consistent inconsistency, one cannot predict whether he will abide by his isolationist promises, or will pursue an expansionist, hawkish policy.
As a significant implication of the notorious U.S.-Saudi trade agreement, “the United States will undoubtedly turn a blind eye to the suppression of democratic forces by its nominal allies.” The political scientist at Rutgers University is downright in criticizing all the parties involved in the current Syrian crisis. Yet, he says, “the citizenry always pays the price.” Rather than temporary cease-fires, he sees “negotiating to construct sovereign institutions guided by the liberal rule of law, cosmopolitan values, and social equality” as the solution.
Regarding the Iranian politics, Prof. Bronner thinks of Hassan Rouhani’s recent victory as good for the peace and prosperity in the Middle East. “It bodes well,” he says. Bronner claims that the strong urban vote for him was a sign of the “support for a secular-liberal politics,” and an underscoring of “the rights of women, minorities, and political dissidents.” He says:
Rouhani’s re-election also suggests that Iran seeks integration into the world community and that there is broad support both for the nuclear deal with the United States and, just as important, keeping to its provisions. Though the Senate of the United States has endorsed sanctions, I think, steps in normalizing economic relations have been taken and this will probably improve the prospects for European investment in Iran.
Reaching the end of the interview, Bronner tells us that “I can’t say that I am overly optimistic, but pessimism doesn’t get us anywhere.” He expressed his disbelief in “traditionalism” as a solution “to combat the dark side of modernity,” claiming it to be “self-defeating for both the United States and Iran.” Rather he thumbs up on institutional accountability, social equality, and tolerance for others as the best hope for the future anywhere. “This means,” Bronner adds, “looking beyond provincial national, ethnic, and religious constraints.” Concluding his words, he advocates support for the UN agencies and humanitarian aid workers, and deems “criticism of stupidity, terrorism, and violence… [as] necessary even when the culprit is an ally or friend.”