WASHINGTON — The senior United States commander in Iraq said on Tuesday that an American airstrike most likely led to the collapse of a building in Mosul that killed scores of civilians this month…
“My initial assessment is that we probably had a role in these casualties,” said General Townsend, who commands the American-led task force that is fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. But he asserted that “the munition that we used should not have collapsed an entire building.”
On the one hand, the tragedy of Mosul was “one of those things” that happen in a war, and clearly not intentional, and obviously pales in comparison to the flagrant bloodlust of ISIS. It doesn’t pale to the hundreds killed, of course, and that’s exactly the other hand. It’s hard to say if this one specific incident was an outcome of the Trump administration loosening the rules on engagement, giving fewer restrictions about civilian casualties, or if it could have happened regardless, but we need to be prepared for more of these stories.
Because, while letting on-the-ground commanders have more freedom, and more coordination with local officers fighting ISIS, is theoretically a sound strategy in a vacuum (and there have been reports that Iraqi commanders are happy), we aren’t in a vacuum. We’re in the Trump administration, which has been openly hostile to the Muslim world. Mass civilian casualties won’t be seen as an outcome of war. They won’t be seen as terrible accidents by genuinely committed and largely decent military people who want to destroy ISIS and liberate the people of Iraq and Syria from medieval teenage monsters. It will be seen as an outcome of Trumpism.
And the problem might be that this is exactly what Trump and his people want.
Steve Bannon might be a slight outlier when it comes to dreaming of religious holy wars, but he isn’t that far off. For years, the GOP has been saying that the fight against ISIS is a war of civilizations, and of civilization, and that it is essentially an existential struggle in which the US might be destroyed. This is wrapped up, and exacerbated by, general hostility to Muslims. It also “confirms” and strengthens that hostility.
Part of that is the rhetorical tomb Republicans walled themselves in. Because Obama (correctly) didn’t consider ISIS more than just a very dangerous terrorist group, they had to imagine them as Nazi hordes landing on Floridian shores. And because Obama actually did act aggressively to fight ISIS, they had to ramp up the rhetoric to pretend that MORE had to be done, because Obama, of course, was a wimp and really probably wanted ISIS to win. Senator ISIS, he surely thought, had a great ring to it. So they’ve convinced themselves for years that a massive blitz was needed.
It goes deeper than that. It’s partly because the GOP is, by and large, a bunch of non-military types who pump themselves up with reflected glory, and that means elevating every threat to an existential level. But it is also because the GOP is, by and large, made up of religious bigots and hysterics who despise Islam and want the US to fight a Christianized battle against it. They’ll say against terrorism, but the two have a 1:1 conflation in the GOP mind.
So that’s where the new rules come in. It’s a way to push that battle forward, and that sounds good to Donald Trump, who 1) is a bigot; 2) thinks he’s tough, and 3) is too lazy to come up with a plan other than “kill”. So again, his personal pathologies perfectly line up with mainstream Republican goals, “mainstream” here meaning “lunatic”.
We see this in Yemen, probably more than in Iraq and Syria, largely because Yemen is off the map, for the most part, and seen as an ideological playground and a place in which one can experiment. It’s where the Special Forces-Drone strategy was tested by Obama, and it’s where Trump will test his “anything goes”s strategy.
The administration is expanding its role in Yemen, as the Soufan Group reports. It wants to expand help to the Saudi-led war against the Houthis, the large majority of which is a war crime. It is doing this because it believes that the Sauds are our friends, and that they can help broker Jared Kushner’s regional peace deal. They are doing this because they believe that the Houthis are essentially Iran, and that this is a war against Iran. They don’t believe Yemen actually exists, save as a battleground for their experiments.
But mostly, they are doing this because they can. They want this war, which is why they are expanding Yemen’s “area of active hostilities“. This is a war of civilizations, against the Muslim tide. That they are doing this in conjunction with shutting down our borders from refugees, and specifically targeting Muslims, is not a coincidence. It’s a plan. Or, if this is a mistake, and they actually think that they are doing something positive for world peace, as opposed to Western domination, then they are doing an excellent incidental job of persuading people otherwise.
Yemen is facing a terrible, devastating famine, which will further destabilize the region. Can you imagine the Trump administration, which is gutting foreign aid, even pretending to care? The war in Yemen is not inherently regional; it’s a local battle steeped in Yemeni history and geography, and can only be resolved by taking that into account. Can you imagine Bannon or Trump or Kushner knowing any of that history, or even pretending to take it into account? Of course not.
And none of that is chance. They might be all bluster, but this isn’t a blunder. It’s a global tragedy, but it is intentional. They want a civilizational battle, and that’s essentially in lockstep with the majority of the Republican Party. The moral outrage of their actions is terrible enough. But knowing that any fleeting victory is ledgered against an ever-expanding and irresolvable conflict makes what happened in November a world-historic disaster.