by Charles Davis
When the most powerful and belligerent man in the world began casually exploring the idea of invading Venezuela—this, after Caracas’s state-owned oil company gave $500,000 to the U.S. president’s inauguration party—it was an establishment general, H.R. McMaster, who “vigorously urged him against the notion.”
This anecdote fatally undermines an insidious and superficially progressive narrative, established during the 2016 campaign, that a man with the temperament of a spoiled child who’s missed a nap is only a reluctant warrior, constitutionally averse to throwing tantrums with Hellfire missiles.
Eighteen months into this presidency and the myth of nonintervention is not dead, in spite of thousands more civilians in Syria and Yemen losing their lives as a result of this commander-in-chief’s decisions in office. In part, the big lie lives on because these are not the deaths anyone was seeking to avoid. The war on terror, by now, is a commonly accepted framework for international relations, embraced with a great variance in degree by everyone from Bernie Sanders to Bashar al-Assad.
The president’s supposed national security heresies inform the conspiracy theory. The U.S. “deep state,” perturbed that this U.S. president is not seeking to overthrow the governments of Syria or Russia, is now committed to regime change at home—it’s a matter of survival. Through a vicious campaign of leaks about things the president and his closest international ally have said and done, the U.S. war-making bureaucracy is seeking to derail a peace between global powers that ultimately threatens their power.
Can you really believe a Senate committee and an FBI special counsel when it comes to all this Russia stuff, then? These are the same people, recall, who were so wrong about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, as the president himself has said.
The Iraq reference should be a tell. George W. Bush cynically blamed an intelligence failure for the decision to invade Iraq, but as British diplomats wrote during the drive to war, “intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy,” not the other way around. It was not the intelligence community itching for an invasion over phantom weapons, but political Bush appointees who had long sought Saddam Hussein’s forcible removal from power. To these neoconservatives, the intelligence agencies were not seen not as a deep-state ally with a shared goal of perpetual war for an American Century, but a den of liberals made soft by academia and foreign-language skills. They created their own intelligence unit, the Office of Special Plans, specifically to bypass them, all while cherry-picking their material.
Going after spooks and generals may be all well and good, in principle, but it has also been an apologist’s tactic since at least the time of Camelot. In 2018, the revisionism of war criminals has been given a fresh new gloss by people who purportedly engage in anti-establishment politics. This elite alibi, that the invasion of Iraq was the product of flawed intelligence, has an aesthetic edge — years removed from its original context — whose appeal to the left is not hard to explain: the CIA, which helped undermine democracy from Chile to Iran, can go to hell.
The skepticism of those fearing a new Cold War is informed by an ideological and pragmatic reticence to acknowledge the Kremlin’s role in empowering right-wing authoritarians from Damascus to Washington. “McCarthyism” is invoked, used to describe not officials with state power purging their enemies from public life, but a social-media liberal calling some wealthy commentator “KGB.”
“What’s Worse: Trump’s Campaign Agenda or Empowering Generals and CIA Operatives to Subvert It?” a popular left columnist has asked. But the line is not so clear. Under Trump, generals and the CIA have been unleashed, no longer subject to the politically correct meddling of effete liberals. Drones are enjoying a lethal resurgence from Somalia to Yemen. The war on terror continues to provide ample work for the military-industrial complex. Meanwhile, from Iran to Venezuela, “deep state” leaks have actually undermined this president’s conflict-mongering, despite both nations more than qualifying as official enemies.
It has happened before: bad people thwarting the plans of those who are up to worse.
In 2007, when some feared that George W. Bush might add another war to his C.V., all 17 U.S. intelligence agencies—burned by establishment blame-shifting after Iraq—signed off on a report that said the Islamic Republic of Iran was not in fact developing a nuclear weapon, contrary to official claims. “Rarely, if ever, has a single intelligence report so completely, so suddenly, and so surprisingly altered a foreign policy debate here,” The New York Times reported.
A decade later, the same U.S. intelligence community that helped overthrow Iranian democracy in 1953 joined with the generals to declare, once more, that Tehran was not weaponizing its stash of uranium.
With Russia as with Iran, the evidence is abundant. It’s not what the White House ordered. Acknowledging the evidence despite the White House narrative is not, as the sophists insist, to forget the intelligence community’s work on behalf of past and present war criminals.
Today, as during the Iraq war, reactionaries are blasting the CIA not because of its involvement in illegal, covert wars, but because it’s full of “political radicals and left-wing academics” who, in the odd words of an American Spectator columnist, have “gone from voting for communists to taping Russians.” Let’s not confuse this with a progressive critique. Right-wing Russophiles may crib the left’s language when it comes to a highly selective “peace,” but this is to justify a new coalition of the willing, led by Trump and Vladimir Putin, where refugees are kept away from the borders of both countries and bombing campaigns are occasionally coordinated.
When the far right and their favorite world leaders attack the findings of U.S. intelligence agencies, the proper response is not to turn around and reflexively venerate a group of spies that has disappeared the opponents of U.S.-backed dictators. But this is a president who believes that the CIA is overly concerned with protecting innocent life. Any joy derived from his attacks will be short-lived. That spies and generals are not necessarily the biggest hawks in a room with Donald Trump is nothing to celebrate, but rather something to fear.
Charles Davis is a journalist in Los Angeles whose work has been published by outlets such as Al Jazeera, The Daily Beast, The New Republic and Vice.