The Chaos of "Going Legitimate"

After only two weeks of Donald Trump’s presidency, there are some bizarre and frightening contradictions appearing in American foreign policy, as summed up by Daniel McAdams:

[There has been quite] a disappointment for those who expected President Trump to make a clear break with the interventionist, warmongering foreign policy of his two immediate predecessors. The Trump Administration threatened Iran several times--including bizarrely putting the country “on notice,” conducted more than 150 drone strikes, launched a disastrous commando raid in Yemen that killed scores of civilians, threatened continued sanctions on Russia over Crimea, and threatened China over the South China Sea. Warmongers seem to be in the driving seat, driving the President toward more, not less, American bombs overseas.[1]

With his eggshell ego, lack of political experience, and tendency for imprecise and ill-considered utterances, Trump may never deliver on the promise to build better relations with Russia. His low approval ratings and his political weakness in Washington could easily derail his foreign policy and send it in a disastrous direction.
In Trump’s recent interview on Fox News with Bill O’Reilly, the host asked him why he wants to get along with Vladimir Putin, who, O’Reilly said, was a “killer.” Instead of reproaching O’Reilly for the reckless allegation that could harm relations between the two nuclear superpowers, Trump went along with the premise and simply said that America has killers too. In a stunning admission for a an American president, he dropped the myth of American innocence and asked, “What, you think our country is so innocent?”
Some might call this progress, but the statement carried with it no implication from Trump that we must renounce violence and build an international system based on peaceful co-existence. Instead, he simply acknowledged that the exercise of power in international relations is just large-scale gangsterism. This was the theme that ran throughout The Godfather when it appeared as a novel and film in the early 1970s at the end of the Vietnam war. A biographer of Marlon Brando explained its appeal then:

Puzo tapped the public’s appetite for rationality and control, even at the hands of criminals. Readers [were] battered by too much news, too much information about strife at home and abroad... It was as if they needed to believe that violence made sense if you looked at it a certain way... [Marlon Brando said the story] “...was about the corporate mind because the Mafia is the best example of capitalists we have.”[2]

America seems to have lost this healthy cynicism about politics and business, and, ironically, it is Hollywood actors and filmmakers who seem most shocked by the rise of Donald Trump to the presidency, even though they have made their fortunes with hundreds of films and television dramas about the exercise of raw, unvarnished power. It is Hollywood’s most profitable theme. At one point during the election campaign, the actor who portrayed the young Don Corleone wanted to punch Donald Trump in the face. Perhaps these actors always thought they were making cautionary tales, but it turned out they were paving the way for life to imitate art.
For Trump his statement about America’s lack of innocence is a truism that he cannot change, and probably wouldn’t want to. What is different in politics now is that Trump is an outsider who has penetrated the highest office of legitimate power. He is like Michael Corleone, who always wanted to “go legitimate.” He succeeded and now it is as if Michael Corleone or Tony Soprano is behind the desk in the Oval Office.
In The Godfather (Part 3) Michael Corleone tried to take a place in the legitimate corporate world, but as he did so he realized he was outclassed and outgunned by the viciousness of the Vatican, the bankers, and all other “pezzonovanti who have killed countless millions of men in our lifetimes?”[3] Trump has attained power, and he too is besieged by the elite insiders he has displaced and threatened. He has always had the mentality and the speech patterns of a gangster, yet he is speaking now from the highest office, to the alarm of the establishment society that would not dare utter a naked truth about America not being innocent. They are shocked that he has no filter and no restraint, no sophistication for knowing what truths cannot be named. He just speaks as if he is Tony Soprano sitting with his boys outside a Newark cafe. “So Putin’s a killer. Whaddayagonnado?”

Quotes from The Godfather Trilogy: “Politics and crime, they're the same thing”

In December 2016, when Barack Obama erroneously said that Vladimir Putin was the former head of the Soviet KGB (not the Russian FSB), he also stated in a context that was clearly referring to Russia, “... when any foreign government tries to impact the integrity of our elections ... we need to take action. And we will—at a time and place of our own choosing. Some of it may be explicit and publicized; some of it may not be.”[4] The president was oblivious to the danger that Russians might perceive any misfortune that might befall them as a deliberate attack. They might, for example, think a power grid failure was caused by computer malware inserted by an enemy.[5] Did Barack Obama not stop and wonder if Vladimir Putin might be a superstitious man?

Don Corleone: But let me say this. I am a superstitious man, a ridiculous failing but I must confess it here. And so if some unlucky accident should befall my youngest son, if some police officer should accidentally shoot him, if he should hang himself while in his jail cell, if new witnesses appear to testify to his guilt, my superstition will make me feel that it was the result of the ill will still borne me by some people here. Let me go further. If my son is struck by a bolt of lightning I will blame some of the people here. If his plane should fall into the sea or his ship sink beneath the waves of the ocean, if he should catch a mortal fever, if his automobile should be struck by a train, such is my superstition that I would blame the ill will felt by people here. Gentlemen, that ill will, that bad luck, I could never forgive. But aside from that let me swear by the souls of my grandchildren that I will never break the peace we have made. After all, are we or are we not better men than those pezzonovanti who have killed countless millions of men in our lifetimes?

Michael Corleone: My father is no different than any other powerful man, any man who is responsible for other people, like a senator or a president.
Kay: How naive you sound!
Michael: Why?
Kay: Senators and presidents don’t have men killed.
Michael: Oh? Who’s being naive, Kay? In five years the Corleone family is going to be completely legitimate.

Italian politics have had these men [bankers and Vatican priests] for centuries... They are the true Mafia... They have no honor... Politics and crime, they're the same thing.

Now Putin is insulted and demanding an apology from O’Reilly, and not, for the time being, from Trump for agreeing with the premise that he is a killer. It doesn’t require much imagination to see how quickly the plan to get along with Russia could turn south in a very bad way. Warmongers in the American establishment, led by the likes of John McCain, the raving mad senator from Arizona, are pushing for war with Iran, Russia and China—all at the same time! McCain was in Ukraine recently giving the green light to a restoration of hostilities in Donbass, which began on schedule shortly after he left.[6] In years past, it would have been an outrage to see such disregard from a congressman for the right of the incoming president to set the direction of foreign policy. But at present the American government is in an unprecedented state of chaos, with reckless, contradictory policies bleeding from every orifice of the body politic.
These warmongers must be mad, but for some reason the psychology profession in America is not tying itself in knots over the agonizing question of whether they should break their ethical code and offer a diagnosis of John McCain and other similarly deranged people in positions of power, as they have done only for President Trump.[7]
Leaving aside the moral and legal questions about the madness of threatening war, we can focus on how the these threats of war endanger Americans, since this might be the only way to get their attention.
It would be reckless for any American to assume that all nuclear-armed nations would refrain from using nuclear weapons unless they were first attacked by nuclear weapons. It is a common belief that no nation would be foolish enough to abandon the “no first use” doctrine, but if this were true, it would make no sense for nations, especially weaker ones, to even have a nuclear deterrent. They want to deter a conventional military attack, not just a nuclear attack, and for that deterrence to be credible they have to remain ambiguous about the situations in which they would use nuclear weapons. Even France, not a weak military power, states in its doctrine that nuclear weapons would be used if the nation faced an existential threat of any kind. In other words, if it were the last option for avoiding complete defeat, they would use a nuclear weapon even if none had been used against them.[8] If this is true of France, it must be true of the other nuclear powers, especially those that could never defeat the vastly superior conventional forces of America.
As a war with Iran could draw China and Russia into the conflict, an American threat against any of these three creates a possibility that these militarily weaker countries could be backed into a situation in which they feel an existential threat, forcing them to defend themselves with nuclear missiles. There is no telling what nuclear-armed Israel would do if it were struck with an Iranian missile.
As for China, Trump’s consigliere Steve Bannon stated in 2016, “We’re going to war in the South China Sea in five to ten years.”[9] Although that was just opinion he expressed before he was in a position of power, it is doubtful his view has changed. The only bright spot in that utterance is that the word “war” is used so casually in America where there is a war on drugs, a war on poverty, a war on crime, and a culture war, among others. It could be that Bannon meant only that there will be some disagreements. But if he means war, he too has lost his mind.
Americans and the media outlets loyal to government may cheerlead for this warmongering, regardless of the cruelty, illegality and immorality of threatening to make war using the largest military force that has ever existed. But they seem to have forgotten one thing. A few enemy missiles will always get through. September 11, 2001 taught Americans about the horror of mass, instantaneous murder of civilians, and taught them that they are vulnerable to a world where they have sown much hatred. But for the most part, their military interventions, especially since the late 1980s, have had no consequences on the “homeland.” They have suffered no invasions or pre-emptive drone attacks on the family gatherings of senators conspiring to make war. Americans feel invulnerable, and so they have been able to live unaware of the risk that they could provoke a nuclear attack, and of the fact that nothing can defend them from a nuclear attack. The ABM shield might stop a few. Others might miss their targets. But a few missiles will always get through.

The purpose of a writer is to keep civilization from destroying itself.
- Albert Camus

For the sake of reminding Americans of the danger they are flirting with by allowing warmongering congressmen to speak for them, I cite a few passages from Nagasaki: Life after Nuclear War, Susan Southard’s collection of oral histories of surviving victims of the nuclear attack of August 9, 1945. Many people would like to avoid an encounter with such descriptions of an unimaginable horror. We would rather not think about it and instead hope that the same could not befall us, but it might be a good thing if everyone forced themselves into a ritual remembrance occasionally. We have to revisit Hiroshima and Nagasaki occasionally in order to remain vigilant.

Susan Southard, Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War
(Penguin Random House, 2015)

The air smelled of smoke and death. As Yoshida had seen farther north, here, too, the riverbanks were piled high with dead bodies. Corpses floated just below the surface of the river, “like potatoes in a tub,” one survivor remembered, some facedown and others sinking headfirst so only their feet were visible. When Nagano and her father approached the Yanagawa Bridge, they halted at the sight of a dead horse standing on all four legs, totally blackened, its head stretched upward. Nagano clung to her father’s arm as they walked past it and crossed the bridge to get closer to their house—but fires continued to block every entrance to their neighborhood. (Page 59)

Family members poured into and through the city from every direction and searched for anything, near or far, that could orient them in the atomic plain. Two men argued loudly over a woman’s scorched body found between their houses, each claiming that she was his wife. Another man pulled his still-breathing pregnant wife from under the ruins of their house but she died as he placed her on a wooden plank. (Page 69)

A charred mother and infant lay dead next to each other on a damaged streetcar platform. Inside mangled streetcars, scorched bodies of passengers were seated as they had been at the moment of the blast. Men, women, children still trapped beneath buildings or lying injured in the ruins moaned, wailed and whimpered for help and water. (Page 71)

A man whose flesh had been burned off his feet was running through the ruins. A bewildered woman carried a bucket holding the severed head of her young daughter... When the men reached Michino-o Station, hundreds of people sat or lay on the ground, waiting to be loaded onto trains that would transport them to relief stations and hospitals outside the city. As each train departed, a chorus of agonizing moans echoed in its wake.

And so on...

Not from the film The Godfather. Photo from Nagasaki Journey: The Photographs of Yosuke Yamahata


[1] Daniel McAdams, “Is Trump’s Foreign Policy Just More Bush And Obama?, February 7, 2017.
[2] Stefan Kanfer, Somebody: The Reckless Life and Remarkable Career of Marlon Brando (Faber and Faber, 2004), 234.
[3] The quote comes from a famous scene in The Godfather Part 1 in which Don Corleone repeats a theme that is expressed throughout the series: that the mafia is more honorable and less violent than the politicians and assorted big shots (pezzonovanti) who had inflicted two world wars on humanity.
[4]Obama On Russian Hacking: ‘We Need To Take Action. And We Will.’NPR (National Public Radio), December 15, 2016.
[5] James Bamford, “Commentary: Don't be so sure Russia hacked the Clinton emails,” Reuters,” November 2, 2016. The author noted that “a public warning about a secret attack makes little sense. If a major cyber crisis happens in Russia sometime in the future, such as a deadly power outage in frigid winter, the United States could be blamed even if it had nothing to do with it.”
[6] Daniel McAdams, “New UN Ambassador Threatens Russia Over Ukraine Violence, Demands ‘Return of Crimea,’”, February 2, 2017.
[7] Sara Durbin and Vaneeta Sandhu, “Stop Calling Trump ‘Crazy’: It’s Stigmatizing and Oppressive,”, January 30, 2017.
[8]La dissuasion c’est moi dit l’inconnu de province,” Initiatives pour le Désarmement Nucléaire, March 23, 2016. 
[9] Benjamin Haas, “Steve Bannon: ‘We’re going to war in the South China Sea ... no doubt,’” The Guardian, February 2, 2017.

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