As President Trump tries to ban refugees, he looks poised to create more of them.
The structural logic should be familiar by now — and Iraq is just one example. America and its partners help lay waste to a Muslim majority country and enable the proliferation of armed groups, some of whom terrorize the local population. The military industrial complex gets richer. The targeted society loses its means of reproduction: infrastructure is decimated, social services cease functioning, jobs vanish, prices rise, security dissipates, homes are obliterated, and the death toll swells. Millions of refugees flee, a small portion of them to the West. Meanwhile there are periodic terror attacks in Europe and North America with a tangential relationship to insurgents in places the West attacked and the refugees face racism and legal barriers when seeking new lives in the countries that ruined their old ones.
These systemic patterns have culminated in Trump attempting to prohibit refugees for 120 days and placing longer-term restrictions on people from seven Muslim-majority countries at the same moment that the new administration readies for more war against Muslim-majority countries.
As soon as Trump was sworn in, the White House’s website posted short overviews of several policy areas. This characteristically bellicose material names two countries that the administration sees as a “threat” to the United States: North Korea and Iran.
A direct US military attack on Iran would be a violation of international law that would endanger thousands of Iranian civilians, destroy social services, make Iranians poorer, and create yet another wave of refugees. The possibility of this happening is real. Trump’s team consists of people with long records of anti-Iran belligerence like CIA director Mike Pompeo, Defense Secretary James Mattis, and former national security adviser Michael Flynn. Recently Flynn put Iran “on notice” and the next day the Trump administration placed new sanctions on the country.
High ranking members of Trump’s NSC raise similar concerns. Retired US Army Col. Derek Harvey, who leads the National Security Council’s (NSC) Middle East team as the special assistant to the president and White House coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, has a history of focusing on how to “push back” against Iran. Col. Joel Rayburn, who serves as the NSC director on Iraq, Iran, Lebanon and Syria, is an army intelligence officer who like Harvey has a “dim view” of Iran. In a phone call between Trump and King Salman of Saudi Arabia, a key US partner that sees Iran as its main enemy, the two agreed to “address” Iran’s “destabilizing regional activities.”
The latter could be a sign of danger for Lebanon should the administration decide to weaken Iran by going after Hezbollah, its Lebanese ally. The US ruling class sees Iran as a barrier to the American goal of maintaining dominance in the Middle East, a project in which Israel plays a key part.
Both Israeli and American elites have long blustered about Iran’s supposed threat to Israel and the Iran-Hamas alliance. Though Trump criticized Israel’s announcement of its latest round of settlement construction, this statement can be seen as just another instance of a decades-long pattern: Israel builds illegal settlements and American politicians occasionally issue a mild rebuke while giving Israel the political cover, weapons, and money it needs to build them and to carry a vast array of other crimes in which the United States participates.
Obama, for example, criticized settlement expansion but backed three major Israeli assaults on Gaza. Last week the Israeli Knesset passed a law that would make thousands of West Bank settlements retroactively legal under Israeli law and the Trump administration declined to comment.
There are signs another large-scale Israeli-US attack on the Palestinians may not be far off. On February 7, Israel carried out airstrikes and intense artillery shelling in Gaza, actions that the Al Mezan Center for Human Rights describes as “reminiscent of the preludes to Israel’s wide-scale aggressions on Gaza.” Two days later an airstrike on the Egypt-Gaza border, which Israel denies carrying out, killed two Palestinians. Recently the Palestinians agreed to a unity deal and last time they did so, in 2014, Israel reacted by killing 2,251 people in Gaza with US support. The Republicans have made provocative promises about moving the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and recognizing the city as Israel’s “eternal, undivided capital.”
Whether or not that happens the Trump team’s orientation to Palestine suggests that it will continue providing Israel the means to kill, oppress, and dispossess Palestinians, perhaps creating more Palestinian refugees and certainly doing everything possible from to prevent the nearly eight million Palestinians who are already refugees from returning to their homes.
American, Israeli, and Saudi hostility toward Iran also ties in to Yemen, where grossly overstated claims about Iranian ties to the Houthi rebel groups are used to justify a US-Saudi war on the country. The costs of the war are staggering. In a country whose population is 27 million, 182,011 Yemenis have been driven out and more than 2 million have been internally displaced. Over 7,000 people, mostly civilians, are dead and 38,280 are injured; 19 million lack access to safe drinking water or sanitation; 14 million are food insecure, 7 million are severely food insecure, and 3.3 million children and pregnant or breast-feeding women are acutely malnourished. Such conditions are sure to lead to an upsurge in the number of Yemeni refugees.
All evidence indicates that the Trump government will maintain the scope of attacks on Yemen if not dial them up. Flynn specifically cited Iranian support for the Houthis as a reason for his aggressive statements against Iran. Trump and Salman’s conversation about Yemen involved a discussion about creating “safe zones” in Yemen, a goal that can only be achieved by military means. Already Trump is killing people in Yemen on another front: in a raid apparently undertaken to combat al-Qaeda’s Yemeni franchise — a rival of the Houthis — US Navy Seals killed as many as twenty-three civilians, ten of them children.
Trump’s administration has also spoken of possibly establishing “safe zones” in Syria. Trump is expected to order the Pentagon and the State Department draw up a plan for doing so, a move that Reuters reports “could risk escalation of US military involvement in Syria’s civil war,” possibly to the point of including ground troops. The United States and its proxies have already played a significant part in the violence that has forced over eleven million Syrians from their homes, almost five million of whom have left the country. Negotiations to end the Syrian war are ongoing. The American role in the talks is marginal and the outcome of the discussions is very much in doubt.
What isn’t in doubt is that Trump intends to keep bombing Syria and Iraq in the name of destroying ISIS. Trump’s policy overview vows to defeat ISIS “and other radical Islamic terrorist groups” by pursuing “aggressive joint and coalition military operations when necessary.” The US-led coalition has dropped 65,731 bombs and missiles in Syria and Iraq and killed an estimated minimum of 2,358 civilians since the campaign began in August 2014.
It’s difficult to imagine that these deaths will rid the region of ISIS or similar formations as US-led militarism not only fails to address the causes that give rise to such groups but is itself a leading cause of their proliferation. Reports indicate that approximately fifteen civilians have been killed by coalition bombs in Raqqa, Syria since Trump took office. The group’s findings also suggest that coalition airstrikes in Mosul, Iraq have repeatedly killed large numbers of civilians since Trump was sworn in: they appear to have slain fifteen civilians on January 21, over thirty more on January 26, another twenty the next day, seven on January 29, and eleven a day later.
Such is the violence of what is far and away the most deadly social formation on earth, the US empire. American hegemony in the Middle East continues to be geared toward, as Noam Chomsky describes it in The Fateful Triangle, controlling “the region’s energy reserves and the flow of petrodollars.”
Imperialism involves redistributing wealth upward: American workers pay taxes and much of their money is given to the captains of the death industry. Thus imperialism is a class project and can be seen as one plank of the new administration’s efforts to empower capital and decimate labor. The institutional impetuses for more imperialist wars are, as ever, in motion.
When Flynn threatened Iran, the oil markets applauded. The White House website’s sketch of military policy makes clear that the “defense” industry can expect generous gifts from American taxpayers. It says that “the military needs every asset at its disposal to defend America” and vows that other countries won’t be able to surpass US military capabilities. The new government will “rebuild” the military and give military leaders “the means to plan for our future defense needs” by increasing the size of the air force and navy because “our military dominance must be unquestioned.”
Of course, Trump has been as incoherent on this front as any other and has criticized bloated military contracts, but the weight of the evidence suggests a military build-up is in the offing. William D. Hartung, the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy, points out that on Trump’s election the value of the stocks of military contractors Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Northrop Grumman, and Huntington Ingalls increased dramatically. Others in the Trump-o-sphere have extensive ties to the war industry; for example, Mira Ricardel, a former executive at Boeing’s strategic missiles and defense unit, who ran the defense portion of Trump’s transition team.
Mattis has made millions working in the war industry. The death machines won’t be left idle: they have to be used to create demand for the next wave of billions in public money to be given to the war profiteers.
Unleashing the death machines means the mass murder of mostly poor people of color, the near total destruction of societies in the Global South, and the denial of millions’ right to govern themselves. The ongoing wars need to be stopped and the new ones averted before they start. For that to happen being pro-refugee must also mean being antiwar.
Resistance to the forced dislocation of people from their families and communities by the governments under which we live needs to be a top political priority. The inspired and inspiring opposition to the Trump government’s anti-refugee measures is a crucial opportunity to resurrect and revamp the moribund antiwar movement. Borders should be open. But the violence also has to end so that the right of refugees to return to their homes — in Palestine or Syria or Yemen or anywhere else — can be demanded. And it is imperative that we stop more people from being made refugees in the first place.