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Foreign Policy

War for Re-Election

Jul 27 , 2020
  • John Gong

    Professor, University of International Business and Economics

A wildly wrong prophecy on Twitter in 2011from then-private citizen Donald Trump provides many insights into President Trump’s ordering China to close its Houston consulate within a humiliatingly short 72 hours.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said the consulate was directed to close “to protect American intellectual property and Americans’ private information.” But she provided no substantive details, raising eyebrows. If she were speaking about espionage it’s a weak excuse, as every embassy and consulate of every country in the world engages in that, and the U.S. does it more than anybody else.

But back to that Trump tweet on Nov. 30, 2011: It reads, “In order to get elected, @BarackObama will start a war with Iran.”

About three weeks earlier, on Nov. 11, in a lengthy diatribe in a Vlog against President Obama (which is still available on YouTube, by the way), Trump purveyed the same conspiracy theory, saying, “I believe that he will attack Iran sometime prior to the election, because he thinks that’s the only way he can get elected. Isn’t this pathetic?”

Obama of course never attacked Iran. On the contrary he signed a historic nuclear deal with it, which was shredded later by Trump after he came to power. Looking back, what is really pathetic is not so much Trump’s false prophecy — after all, he has been wrong on so many things — but his own willingness to  be pathetic.

Trump obviously understands and believes in a sinister international relations practice called diversionary foreign policy, which has sometimes manifested as diversionary war in history. The idea is to deliberately manufacture conflicts and goad an opponent into hostility or war as a means to enhance political support for the domestic regime.

History has seen many examples of diversionary wars. The third phase of the Hundred Years’ War starting in 1415 with King Henry V of England invading France shortly after his succession to the throne is widely recognized as the first example of diversionary war, whose purpose was to solidify King Henry V’s popularity at home and quell unrest from other English nobles. Modern America has no shortage of diversionary wars, one being the second Gulf War started by George W. Bush based on dressed-up false accusations about Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction and support of 911 terrorists. Both accounts were untrue. The occupation of Iraq however, was considered successful by the American public and the ongoing conflict led to Bush’s re-election. 

In Trump’s case, he must likewise hope that America’s rally-around-the-flag syndrome will somehow salvage his bankrupt 2020 presidential election campaign. Amid the fiasco of his handling the coronavirus, the crumbling economy and racial tensions after George Floyd’s death, he is now trailing Joe Biden big time virtually all polls.

At a national level, CNN’s poll of polls released on July 21 had Biden leading Trump by a significant 12-point margin. Biden had 52 percent support among registered voters, with only 40 percent supporting Trump. These three polls were organized by both left and right mainstream media outlets: Fox News, Washington Post-ABC News and NBC-Wall Street Journal.

At the state level, all six swing states are seeing Trump trailing in various polls. According to realclearpolitics.com, he is trailing by double digits in Michigan and Pennsylvania, slightly in Wisconsin, Arizona and North Carolina, and surprisingly also slightly in the historically Republican state of Florida, which has seen many COVID-19 victims so far because of its elderly population. It is likely that many of these people have developed a bitter feeling toward Trump.

Even without Florida, Biden only needs three of the six swing states to win. With Florida, he only needs just one more. This is the cold political landscape Trump is currently facing. The cruel reality is that barring some dramatic event, Trump is destined to be escorted out of the White House in January.

But Trump wants to win. He used to say his whole life is about winning. He said he is going to win so much that people will get tired of winning. But he is clearly not tired of winning yet. Hence, here he comes with his diversionary war strategy.

The Trump administration is probably already doing this with respect to Iran, given the series of mysterious explosions over there in recent weeks. The big play is certainly against China. To be fair, China has always been a punching bag and scapegoat for many problems in America. It has emerged as a campaign issue in virtually every U.S. presidential election in living memory. This year it is all the more so given the COVID-19 pandemic.

It is indeed understandable from the White House’s perspective that its grudge against China has been running deep and wide. Today, America is seeing daily new infections that exceed the total number in China since the outbreak in Wuhan. China has been reporting essentially zero domestic infection cases for many weeks.

Last week, it released a GDP figure showing a robust rebound of 3.2 percent in the second quarter, while Washington is expected to see a near double-digit decline. America is also witnessing waves of social unrest with a cultural revolution unfolding in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of brutl police.

But Trump’s playing the blame-China card for the coronavirus is a double-edged sword. On one hand he has been indeed trumping up the Wuhan lab origin conspiracy theory, wickedly calling it the China virus, China plague and Kong Flu. At one point, the Republican National Committee was promoting a China-attack memo about the coronavirus issue authored by O’Donnell Associates as a campaign playbook.

On the other hand, the Trump campaign team found quickly that attacking China from a coronavirus angle is not only out of touch with the American people but also reminds people of Trump’s utter ineptitude in leadership since February. The contrast with China is simply too big to be ignored by the public. 

So the Trump administration is attacking China now from a different foreign policy angle. Led by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a series of attacks have been emanating viciously from Washington on a variety of other issues. Essentially Trump’s team is propagandizing a us-against-them-style Cold War narrative with China as the bogeyman in service of his diversionary foreign policy strategy. The frequency of newly manufactured conflicts with China in recent weeks is shocking to say the least.

Trump signed the Hong Kong Autonomy Act, which, contrary to its stated purpose actually harms the people there. The White House has announced sanctions targeting individuals and companies allegedly involved in the suppression of Muslims in Xinjiang. Pompeo has toured the world to lobby allies against the use of Huawei’s 5G equipment. His State Department has also proposed the concept of the Economic Prosperity Network in an apparent attempt to drive supply chains out of China. On July 23, he delivered an Iron Curtain type of anti-China manifesto speech at the Nixon Library, the fourth and culminating event in a series of like speeches from Trump minions, including National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, FBI Director Christopher Wray and Attorney General William Barr.

But the most dangerous diversionary action so far is in the South China Sea, where the U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet has increased the frequency and intensity of its so-called freedom of navigation operations. Renowned Chinese international relations expert Professor Zhu Feng at Nanjing University warned in an article recently that the U.S. is running the risk of a limited armed conflict with China in the South China Sea.

Perhaps that is indeed the purpose of some national security cabalists within the Trump administration. But these people need to be warned that the western side of the Pacific fully understands what Trump is doing and has been putting up with it so far with restraint.

But when that manufactured conflict escalates to shots fired, it is not going to be up to Washington to control the scale and scope of the subsequent warfare. So what is the point of rallying the American public around the flag if that flag is not going to be flying in East Asia anymore? 

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