Making America Great: Nationalism, Terror and Forever War
November 17, 2017
Making America Great: Nationalism, Terror and Forever War
Ramazani: I want to thank all of you for coming on a Friday evening. It’s an honor to have Mark Danner with us today. Professor Danner is James Clarke Chace Professor of Foreign Affairs and the Humanities at Bard College and Chancellor’s Professor of Journalism, English and Politics at the University of California Berkeley, a writer and reporter who for 25 years has written on politics and foreign affairs. He has covered, among many other stories, wars and political conflict in Central America, Haiti, the Balkans and the Middle East.
Among Professor Danner’s books are “Stripping Bare the Body,” “The Secret Way to War: the Downing Street Memo and the Iraq War’s Buried History,” “Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib, and the War on Terror,” “The Road to Illegitimacy: One Reporter’s Travels Through the 2000 Florida Vote Recount,” and “The Massacre at El Mozote: a Parable of the Cold War.” Professor Danner was a longtime staff writer at “The New Yorker” and is a frequent contributor to the “New York Review of Books.” His work has appeared in “Harper’s,” “The New York Times,” “Aperture,” and many other newspapers and magazines.
He co-wrote and helped produce two hour-long documentaries for the ABC News program “Peter Jennings Reporting,” and he has appeared as a commentator on PBS’s “The Charlie Rose Show,” “The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour,” and “Bill Moyer’s Journal,” on CNN’s “Prime News,” “The Situation Room,” and “Anderson Cooper 360,” on ABC’s “World News Now,” CSPAN’s “The Morning Show,” and MSNBC’s “The Rachel Maddow Show.”
Professor Danner is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the World Affairs Council, the Pacific Council on International Policy, and the Century Association. He is also a fellow of the Institute for the Humanities at New York University, and he was twice named the Marian and Andrew Heiskell Visiting Critic at the American Academy in Rome.
His work has received, among other honors, a National Magazine Award, three Overseas Press awards, and an Emmy. In 1999 Professor Danner was named a MacArthur Fellow and in 2016 he was awarded an Andrew Carnegie fellowship in support of his most recent book, “Spiral: Trapped in the Forever War.” In a review of that book, Michael Ignatieff writes, “Danner has been the most intellectually distinguished critic of America’s war on terror. “Spiral” is a masterly writer’s case for the prosecution, a patriot’s indictment of his own country’s folly.”
The title of Professor Danner’s talk here today is “Making America Great: Nationalism, Terror and Forever War.” Please join me in extending a warm welcome to our distinguished guest, Professor Mark Danner. [Applause.]
Danner: Thank you. Thank you very much. I am delighted to be here. I was telling Vaheed earlier that I was last in New Orleans in 1977. I was a freshman in college spending the summer hitchhiking around the country, and I came to New Orleans to visit a friend of my family’s on whom I had a great crush, who was living in the French Quarter with a designer of carnival masks. And I stayed in the Quarter for four to five days with them in this fantastic apartment with all these masks hanging everywhere.
And I think the one time that I left the French Quarter, I got on the trolley, the streetcar, and went up St. Charles Avenue, and it poured. It was starting to pour in the mid-afternoon. And just as I got to Tulane and got off, the rain stopped, and I wandered off into the campus and wandered around. And I swear it was the most beautiful place I’d ever seen. I just thought it was astonishingly beautiful. Water was dripping off the trees, and the sun was coming out, and I’d never seen a campus so beautiful.
And I thought I’m going to come back here. I love this city. I love this campus. And that, of course, was 40 years ago, a blink of an eye. But I’m very excited that I have, indeed, come back here because of Vaheed Ramazani’s very generous invitation, and I want to thank him for that, and thank Jeanny Keck and [Je’da], who both have arranged the trip, so thank you very, very much. And thank you all for coming on a Friday evening.
That was the optimistic part of my talk. [Laughter.] You just heard that. And we’re now going to go into the less than optimistic part. As Vaheed told you, my title today is “Making America Great: Nationalism, Terror and Forever War.” Originally there was a question mark after “Making America Great,” and I thought that was a little bit too snarky about Donald Trump.
And what I want to do, I covered the campaign. I’ve written a fair amount about Donald Trump. And also, as Vaheed described, have a long history in writing about foreign affairs, writing about terrorism, writing about wars, human rights. And I’d like to try to combine those things today in talking about where we are one year after the election—I covered the campaign and the run-up to the election, and election night—where we are one year after the election when it comes to the new era, the new nationalism, the new era in foreign policy.
So I’m going to roughly divide this talk into those three subtitle units: nationalism, terror and forever war. But all of it is in the service of trying to explain and maybe give a somewhat dispassionate, I hope, analysis of how we’re doing in the last year in making America great again, MAGA, M-A-G-A. I have numerous copies, iterations of those hats at home that my two-year-old son likes to wear. MAGA, Make America Great.
So let’s start with nationalism. And I’m going to begin by doing a little bit of exegesis. I hope you won’t mind that. We’re going to talk about the world, as you see in front of you, when it comes to Donald Trump, what the world is, what its relation is to the United States, what we owe it, what it owes us, because that is, in a sense, the way he thinks. And I’m going to use as my subject of exegesis “Crippled America.” Who has this book? Anybody? I wouldn’t think so. Anyway, this is the campaign book. “Crippled America: How to Make America Great Again.” So this is, in a sense, the urtext.
And if we look in this book, there is a chapter on foreign policy. And we see here that he sets out basic principles, because it is wrong to criticize Trump for not having ideas and so on. He definitely, very definitely, has ideas, and they’re ideas of longstanding. They go back, if you look at his history, they go back at least 30 years. I met him for lunch in 1987, I think, and his ideas on foreign policy were already well formed by that time. He was in his early 40s, this brash real estate developer in New York who already was commanding the tabloids.
And he had just put an ad in the “New York Times.” “There’s nothing wrong with America’s foreign policy that a little backbone can’t cure.” And this was a big critique of America’s foreign policy. By the way, under Ronald Reagan, okay? So this critique that he ran on, that he chanted, make America great again, at his rallies, actually goes back into the ‘80s.
When I look at this book I see “if we’re going to continue to be the policemen of the world, we ought to be paid for it.” “It’s no wonder nobody respects us. It’s no surprise that we never win. When people know that we’ll use force if necessary and we really mean it, we’ll be treated differently,” comma, line, space, new paragraph, “with respect.” That’s the only thing in the paragraph, a two word paragraph.
Let’s see. “Depending on the price of oil, Saudi Arabia earns somewhere between half a billion and a billion dollars a day. They shouldn’t exist, let alone have that wealth, without our protection. We get nothing from them. Nothing. We defend Germany, we defend Japan, we defend South Korea. These are powerful and wealthy countries. We get nothing from them. Nothing. It’s time to change all that. It’s time to win again.”
So there’s a degree of resentment here about the rest of the world taking advantage of the United States. The United States, under this analysis, is a sap, is a sucker. Basically puts its money, its treasure, its young men and women in the armed forces out to defend various parts of the world and we get nothing in return. And for that reason we’re the suckers of the world.
And indeed, in this ad that I just pointed to, if you read it, as I will try to do, “It’s time for us to end our vast deficits by making Japan and others who can afford it pay. Our world protection is worth hundreds of billions of dollars to these countries and their stake in their protection is far greater than ours.” So you see the roots in these early declarations of the central idea of Donald Trump’s foreign policy, which is sovereignty, right? Sovereignty, a concept that goes back in international affairs to 1648, the treaty that ended the 30 Years War, is his credo. We need to act for ourselves, not in favor of other countries.
And it’s based on a certain attitude toward what’s happened since the Second World War and since the period of American of hegemony, okay? Essentially, my theory would be that he imbibed with his breakfast cereal, in the ‘50s, this idea that the United States, during World War II, not only won, but instead of seizing territory, as other countries would do, the United States rebuilt Japan, rebuilt Germany, was not in it for itself in any way, was completely an altruistic power, and acted entirely for the rest of the world.
That was the propaganda—propaganda that the United States told itself during the ‘50s and ‘60s, that we’re an altruistic power. And essentially young Donald Trump, eating his breakfast cereal at the New York Military Academy or wherever else he was, took this very seriously. And what he got from that was not that the U.S. was a great nation that didn’t want anybody else’s goods or anything, he got from that that we’re suckers, we’re saps.
And to, I think, critique this a little bit, one has to look at the system that grew up after the Second World War that it seems to me Donald Trump is ending, that he is trying to end, and that he is—and this is where we get personal—is pretty much unable to understand. Not because he’s stupid, because I certainly don’t believe that he is in any way stupid, but because he has certain ways of thinking that he cannot escape. He’s a transactional thinker. Someone always wins, someone always loses, okay? He thinks in terms of money, in terms of trade, in terms of who’s doing better in trade, who’s doing worse in trade. He has no room in his thoughts for an idea of international power.
Let me see if I can make this work. Okay. This is the system that we’re living under right now, okay? This is the U.S. military footprint on the world. We have various fleets basically protecting, as we would call it, or imposing our will on, as you might call it, the entire world. We have a Pacific fleet, we’ve got an Atlantic fleet, we’ve got a Mediterranean fleet, we’ve got the Fifth Fleet in the Persian Gulf. Each of them is led by one or more aircraft carriers.
We have a fleet stationed in Japan whose job it is to patrol the Pacific and keep the Japanese, as it were, from developing nuclear weapons of their own, because these fleets have nuclear weapons on them. This is sort of the world hegemonic system, if you want to call it that. Or you can simply call it the world system of world order, if you want to be less tendentious about it.
Now this was set up after the Second World War, after what Isaiah Berlin called the worst century in history. The beginning of the century—let’s see. This won’t be to scale, but… Let’s say 1914 to 1945 90 million people were killed in wars, right, World War I and II. Then we have the Cold War to 1991. Then the War on Terror, 2001. Okay, this is a kind of, what historians call the periodicity I’m working with.
Huge number of people killed, and then the system set up after the Second World War, in the late ‘40s, where the U.S. will, indeed, do this. The United States will provide freedom of navigation. It will provide international stability. The Soviet Union, of course, did not agree to this. It will provide an international monetary system started with the IMF, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank.
It established NATO, which is, let’s see… Yes, that works. The relationship of the United States with Europe, treaty organization, North Atlantic Treaty Organization. It set up the mutual defense treaty with Japan. So this is the way by which the United States dominates the Atlantic. The one with Japan and eventually South Korea is the system by which the United States dominates the Pacific. All of this has been—I mean, this is kind of international relations 101. It has existed since the late ‘40s, was built up during the ‘50s, and is still in existence.
And I would argue to you that Donald Trump, if you want to positively analyze it, thinks it’s unfair. I mean, my analysis, I would say he doesn’t really understand it fully. Which is to say when you do a defense treaty with Japan and you’re able to keep your fleet in Japanese waters and in a Japanese base, you are getting something from that. In other words, you’re spending money, but you’re getting something from that. You’re projecting power. The same thing with Europe and our base in Italy.
So even though it is true that they actually do pay us something—he says they pay nothing. That, as is usual with Trump’s speeches, is factually incorrect. They do pay us a considerable amount. Nonetheless, there is an added value, and the added value comes from the international system that the United States has established. So my argument really is here that because he thinks in terms of dollars and cents, because he thinks largely in terms of trade, and he sees the enormous trade surplus that China has with us, the enormous trade surplus that Japan has with us, the enormous trade surplus that Germany has with us, in effect, we’re suckers. We’re not, in fact, getting the right end of this deal. In fact, we’re being taken to the cleaners.
So you’ve seen, since he’s been in office, what has he done? He hasn’t eliminated any of these forces. What he has done—those are aircraft carriers, by the way. What he has done is started to undermine the political basis of these relationships. When he went to Europe on his first trip as President, even though there was a statement in his main speech emphasizing that the United States would stand by what are called its Article 5 responsibilities—that’s Article 5 of the NATO treaty which says an attack against one nation is an attack against all—President Trump eliminated that line. He didn’t say it. Which is a very canny way of basically undermining NATO. Now does it make NATO collapse? Of course not. But it gives a certain degree of doubt about what the United States would do when it comes to military pressure on Europe.
Similarly, he talked about, during the campaign, that the Japanese and the Koreans might want to get their own nuclear weapons. American policy, since the war, has been all about the United States providing a nuclear umbrella and stability. That’s the big word, stability. So he’s essentially, in what he’s doing, when it comes to the Korean crisis, as you know, he said the North Koreans would be met with fire and fury, a threat of nuclear retaliation which is never done.
No American president, even though there have been considerations in U.S. history of using nuclear weapons before, notably in the Korean War, no one has ever made a public threat like that, to my knowledge. He just threatened it, fire and fury. And he went to the UN then and threatened to completely destroy—totally destroy is the quote—North Korea. Absolutely unheard of. And of course one of the key attributes of Donald Trump is that every day he’s doing things that were formerly unheard of. It’s one of the key attributes of his presidency.
One other thing to comment about, it seems to me, when it comes to, call it, the new nationalism, there’s a focus on sovereignty. He went to the UN and gave the traditional President UN speech in which he used the word sovereignty 21 times. He mentioned human rights only once, and that in a denunciation of the Human Rights Commission of the United Nations. So this focus on America first, basically our allies are screwing us, we’re going to end this situation and we’re going to do it now. Which has started, I would argue, to undermine the international system because the President himself is showing the fact that he doesn’t have faith in it.
Now, does it matter—and actually, this is an important point I want to make—does it matter that after all, he’s just one man, and this system has been up and running for 70 years? Can he undermine it by himself? Well, there’s something else he’s doing. He’s demolishing the State Department. They’ve imposed a hiring freeze of the top State Department ambassadorial staff, the people who are the equivalent of three star generals. Sixty percent of them have left. The second level 50% of them have left. So the diplomatic arm of the United States government is being destroyed as we speak.
When he was asked about that by Laura Ingraham on her new Fox show, she said, you know, how can you run a foreign policy when you don’t have a State Department, he said let me tell you, the one that matters is me. I’m the only one that matters, because when it comes to it, that’s what the policy is going to be. You’ve seen that. You’ve seen it very strongly. So the second element of the new nationalism is personalization. He certainly is kind of an authoritarian personality. We could argue about, perhaps in the questions, what that exactly means. But he personalizes power. And his idea of making foreign policy is he decides.
There’s an entire bureaucratic system within the American government that’s grown up since the Second World War that started with the National Security Act of 1947 where you have the National Security Council pulling in all this bureaucratic wisdom from the Defense Department, State Department, Department of Treasury, etc., and it gets finally up to the President to make a decision. All of that essentially still works, but it’s been detached from the President. You simply have a person who’s working with a small number of aides and making decisions. So when he says I’m the only one that matters, in fact that is, to some extent, true.
So these prejudices of his or this understanding of the world system that I described earlier that goes back 30 years is, to some extent—these alliances are not breaking down completely—but it’s having, I would argue, a surprisingly large effect on America’s place in the world.
Let me give you one statistic. When it comes to Japan and South Korea, where the current crisis is going on, the place from which, if there is a nuclear war in the near future, it will be there, the place about which I am sincerely nervous, under Obama 88% of Japanese were confident in Obama’s abilities to protect them. A key thing about our alliance, confident. Seventy-eight percent of South Koreans were confident in Obama’s ability to protect them.
Under Trump, the number goes from 88% of Japanese under Obama to 24%. Eighty-eight to 24 under Trump. South Koreans, 78% were confident in Obama’s ability to protect them. Seventeen percent are confident under Donald J. Trump. Okay, so this is, you know, politically speaking this is extremely important because these are democracies, first of all, and this will be reflected, I would argue, in their policy, one way or another. So that change, indeed, is happening.
I want to leave time for questions, so let’s get, for a quick moment, to Part 2, which is to say terrorism. Donald Trump, as you remember, ran in the campaign basically threatening, when it came to ISIS, to bomb the shit out of them, right? An amazing quote. I usually have to apologize for that quote, sorry I said that. But it was the President or the candidate for President of the United States, that was his policy, we’ll bomb the shit out of them.
And indeed, since he has come to power, when it comes to the Islamic State, he has, indeed, bombed the shit out of them. He’s basically taken Obama’s policy, which was using air power to support Kurdish and Iranian backed Iraqi troops, and added much increased air power, which is to say he’s bragged about the fact that he’s completely rewritten the rules of engagement.
What are the rules of engagement, or as the military calls them, the ROEs? Basically that says when you can drop a bomb. If there is a risk that you’re going to kill 20 people, you cannot drop a bomb. If there’s a risk you’re going to kill 40 people you cannot drop a bomb. In other words, you can’t do a drone attack if there’s a considerable risk of civilian casualties, etc. I mean, obviously it’s more specific than that, but that’s essentially it. It’s put down in bureaucratic language. Everybody gets it. It determines how much bombing you can do, among other things. And it also determines how many civilians you kill.
So one of the main things that Trump has done since assuming office, he has kept Obama’s policy against the Islamic State. We are still, indeed, backing these militias from Iraq, we’re still backing the Kurds. But what we’re doing is truly bombing the shit out of them, which is to say that the number of civilian casualties have more than doubled. The numbers of civilians killed, according to the UN, have gone up by 67%. I mean, these numbers are very hard to find. The number of bombs being dropped have more than doubled. Did everybody know that? Who here knew that? Okay, several people, which is good.
I mean, in general, of course, one of the characteristics of our forever war, which is Part 3, is that no one cares. It’s not really covered. It’s on the inside of the paper. It isn’t putting American forces at risk, normally. They’re drones. Drones are the perfect American weapon because no Americans are put at risk. You’re just killing other people, right? So what he’s done is cranked it up. We’re killing more people.
Now has that had an effect? He would claim that by changing the rules of engagement, it has allowed the United States to defeat ISIS. I would say that there’s no evidence of that. In fact, the war was going pretty well when it comes to getting back territory, which is what this was about. It was about destroying the footprint of the Islamic State.
Let’s see, in Raqqa, which is right over there, in Mosul, which is over there. This is kind of where the Islamic State was. And it was about taking back this territory. The United States forces, very few on the ground, most air forces, and the Kurdish forces, and the Iraqi Shia forces were, indeed, winning that war, if winning is taking back territory. And under Donald Trump they have finished it, albeit with killing a lot more people.
So what is the problem with this? You know, I did a book essentially devoted to the forever war. One of my theses was that the beginning of this war in 2001, the beginning of the new age of the war on terror, which we are still part of, this began with Al Qaeda adopting a strategy of provocation. In other words, what do you do when you attack the Twin Towers? Why did they do that? What was the point? Obviously they wanted to kill people, and they did kill about 3,000 people. But the bigger point was it was a recruitment poster.
In other words, they are an insurgency, and what an insurgency does is carry out attacks in order to build political base, to get more people joining their movement, more people sympathetic to it. So in effect, those pictures of the burning towers and the collapse of the towers were a recruitment poster, and the entire point of their attacks, and the entire point of ISIS’ attacks is to build a political movement that will overthrow these American allied states in the Middle East, notably the Saudis and the Egyptians.
Both of those states are autocracies. Both of those states are dependent on American relationships for protection and for money. And the idea behind the terrorist attacks, I mean, they’re not interested in overthrowing the United States. They’re interested in overthrowing these states and others besides.
So if you look at what has happened in the war on terror, we are looking at 16 years during which the key metric should be the number of terrorists. In other words, how do you win the war on terror? If you want to call it the war on terror. It’s not a very good name. The way you win is you try to do things that will decrease the number of terrorists.
And the United States, since 2001, has regularly and methodically and continually increased the number of terrorists. We went from a point in 2001 where we had Al Qaeda, a couple of thousand people in the mountains of Afghanistan, actually down here, to a point in 2014 where the Islamic State was occupying territory the size of Belgium. That was the progress of the war on terror.
And I would argue the major reason for that was the occupation of Iraq, among other things, which is the single geopolitical blunder of the era, worse than a blunder, a crime. That was key to establishing ISIS and it is key to the current dynamic in the Middle East.
I have this map up here, by the way, to show something that is rather obvious, which is when things start to happen in the Middle East you have increasing instability, which indeed is the case since 2001, largely, I would argue, because of American actions and the law of unintended consequences. It affects the alliance in Europe. You have an enormous influx of refugees coming from here. And it has destabilized various states within Europe. And it has helped alter the political complexion in Europe. It has contributed to the rise of a new right that again we can talk about in the question period. But the politics of our European allies are tightly tied to what’s going on in the Middle East.
I mentioned a minute ago the Iraq War, which began in 2003 and supposedly ended in 2011, although in fact it continues to this day. There are American troops there. There are American troops here. There are American troops, some of them, here. We’ll in a minute show where all the American troops are. But the key element to remember from the Iraq War is that it made of the Iraqi state, which was beforehand a balancing state to the Islamic Republic of Iran, it made of Iraq a vassal of Iran. In other words, having been an opponent of Iran, having balanced out Iran in the Middle East, Iraq has now become a vassal state of Iran.
The key here is the Shia-Sunni divide, Shia being the form of Islam practiced by 90% of Iranians, Sunni being the form of Islam practiced all the way over here. And that dividing line used to be here, so Iraq was the front line of the Sunni states, Iran the front line of the Shia states. The Iraq War essentially moved that dividing line over to here. And the Iranians now are fighting in Iraq, as I mentioned, and they have basically established a line toward the sea that goes from Iran through northern Iraq, through Syria, all the way into Lebanon.
And if you look at the headlines today, what’s going on with the Saudi, you know, our great allies the Saudis—Donald Trump loves the Saudis. He went on a trip to Saudi Arabia. They projected his face on the front of his hotel seven stories high next to the king. I mean, it was a beautiful image. If I was better about preparation I’d have the image here for you to see. It was beautiful. But they treated him, you know, they played to his vanity. They treated him as this great star.
And as it happened, he gave his imprimatur to a rather dramatic policy that they had begun, which is Saudi Arabia is now, as we speak, transforming itself from a patronage state, where you have 30,000 princes, you’re giving them all some money, you have a kind of consensus in the royal family, they’re very slow in how they take decisions, they’re not very aggressive regionally, into a police state. They’re arresting a lot of princes, they’re consolidating power, and Trump has been completely on board with this transformation.
And as a result you have a kind of new aggressiveness from Saudi Arabia. They have blockaded Qatar right here. Qatar, they think, is too close to Iran, which is to say close to them in relations. Qatar, as it happens, shares a natural gas oil field with Iran, so has to have good relations with them. It’s a complicated story. But they have blockaded them. They have also started a war against Yemen, pushing back against the Iranian designs in Yemen.
So essentially, the short version of what’s going on in the Middle East now, when it comes to the United States, is that a movement that began—and one could go farther back on this, obviously—but a movement that began in 2003 with the Iraq War, which was this disaster, left in its wake a failed state that is essentially a vassal of Iran, has now turned into Saudi Arabia pushing back. Saudi Arabia is also holding the prime minister of Lebanon prisoner, it seems. Maybe or maybe not prisoner. A lot of people think so. He’s resigned, but he is still Saudi Arabia. He’s not returned to Lebanon.
So the short message here is you have a great deal of instability that’s been caused a secondary consequence of, I would argue, the Iraq War, but also is being made worse by Donald Trump’s love for the Saudi autocracy and his hatred for Iran, because he joins… Whereas the Obama administration was trying for the beginning of a rapprochement with Iran—I don’t want to overstate this—and concluded the Iranian nuclear deal, as it’s known, in fact Trump has decertified the nuclear deal, as he has withdrawn from Paris and withdrawn from the Pacific trade initiative, so there’s three big steps, and he has gone all in with Saudi Arabia in pushing back against Iran. And we seem close, perhaps, to some kind of regional blowup in the Middle East.
So terrorism, just a word about it. My fear during the campaign was that Donald Trump, if he were elected, was going to benefit, because he’s very opportunistic, a very intelligently opportunistic politician, that he would benefit from a terrorist attack in the United States to consolidate power. And I wrote this in the “New York Review” during the campaign. It’s been what I had feared throughout because I thought the Islamic State would also see it in their interest to create a terrorist attack in the United States and see this kind of autocratic power emerge. I’m less certain of that now, partly as a result of the Halloween attack in New York, the consequences of which were much less than I would have thought when it comes to coverage and so on.
I think there is a degree of terrorist fatigue which has affected the coverage and has been affected by, as well, the mass shootings. People are so used to now seeing these mass violent deaths in the United States that terrorist attacks are not quite so shocking. I mean, having said that, who knows what would happen if you had a 9/11 scale terrorist attack. I don’t know. So I’m less concerned now about a terrorist attack leading to a kind of autocratic consolidation.
What I am concerned about is that the forever wars that we’re in now, in which the United States is actually fighting wars, I believe, in seven countries—seven countries, is this right? Let’s count. The United States is fighting in Iraq and in Syria. The United States is using its drones extensively still in Yemen. The United States is using its drones in Somalia. The United States is fighting in Afghanistan. The United States is using its drones in Pakistan. We could add Mali, Niger, as we recently learned, and various other places where we have special forces, and, to some extent, drone forces. Is anybody counting? Is that seven? I think it’s seven. It was eight? All right, well, maybe I’m overdoing it.
But in fact there are these things called forever wars, which, you don’t really see any end of them, because what they are is this attempt to use what Obama called the light footprint, meaning Special Forces. The number of Special Forces since 2001 has doubled. Special Forces command now has 70,000 troops, and they are all over the world. Did I have a map showing that? Well, this shows U.S. personnel and where they are. It doesn’t quite do it. You see the numbers there. Green is more than 1,000, dark green. Lighter green is more than 300. Anyway, you see.
Basically we’re using this light footprint, using Special Operations forces and drones. And these wars are going on. They’re under the justification of the authorization for the use of military force which was voted a week after 9/11—not even a week—six days after 9/11 in 2001. Most of the terrorist groups that are being fought by these drones did not exist when that authorization for the use of military force was passed. So it’s very possible to argue, as various people have, that these are illegal wars, that they don’t really have the imprimatur of Congress. But indeed they go on. They go on.
And the question is, one of my theses here is that—and this predates Donald Trump—that the United States has created a perpetual motion machine, that in fact, because we’re continuing with these wars using drones, killing a fair number of civilians, we are increasing or continuing the effort to recruit terrorists. And we continue it and continue it and continue it, and we kill them, and kill them, and kill them, and kill them.
The Israelis call this cutting the grass, or mowing the grass. They talk about Gaza. You know, every few years we have to mow the grass. We have to go in with our drones, we have to go in with the army, we have to kill a lot of terrorists, as they call them, or Hamas members, or whatever you’d like to call it, and then they’re done mowing the grass, and in a few years they’ll have to mow the grass again.
And the United States has essentially adopted this model in six or seven countries. And the difference with Donald Trump is that he’s not only mowing the grass, but he has decided to change the rules of engagement and kill a lot more civilians, which would seem to me to be likely to exacerbate the original problem.
As I said at the beginning, how do you decide you’ve won the war on terror? You decide you’ve won it when there are fewer terrorist attacks and fewer terrorists. And in fact the war on terror, or the terrorist war on us, if you want to put it that way, is a global insurgency. And the point of an insurgency is to keep itself going, keep itself growing, gather more recruits. And terrorist acts are used to basically gather more recruits.
It’s as if we said we want to overthrow the United States. Well, how do you do that with a handful of people? Well, one way you could do it is stage a terrorist attack in New Orleans and cause a police crackdown. And maybe that police crackdown will cause a lot of people to get pissed off, right? So you’re using the power of the state to form your army. And this is what has happened internationally, and it’s what the United States supposedly has been trying to fight since 2001. But my argument is that we have fought it in a dramatically counterproductive way.
So when it comes to the Middle East, the war on terror, what is the difference with Donald Trump, he has gone all in on the new Saudi aggressiveness. He has gone all in on fighting the Iranians. He’s gone all in on not only decertifying, but possibly ending observation or observance of the Iran nuclear accord, which would be a disaster which would mean we’ll have a nuclear problem not only in north Asia with the North Koreans, but in the Middle East with Iran. But he is basically on that path.
And this is an example, too, where a single man, as President, can make the difference, right, because none of his national security advisors, to my knowledge, believe that that Iran deal should be thrown out. Mattis, the Secretary of Defense, has explicitly said to Congress he doesn’t believe it should be thrown out. But Donald Trump, because he hates it so much, for reasons that are somewhat obscure—he thinks we’re suckers again. You know, it all has to do with these very personal—a lot of it has to do with these very personal emotions about being taken for granted, not being respected, being treated as suckers and so on. For these reasons he hates that deal and seems on the verge, one way or another, of getting rid of it. It’s now up to Congress to decide.
Anyway, that’s the Middle East. The relationship with NATO he’s tried to undermine. It’s not going away, but the relationship is not good. The relationship in Asia is, I would say, in very bad shape with the Japanese and the North Koreans.
So I’m basically trying to say here that a system that was established in the late ‘40s, that has essentially ordered the world—I mean, this is euphemistic. Obviously the Cold War had many wars. A lot of people died. The United States and the Soviets essentially fought its cold war using Korean bodies, using Vietnamese bodies, you name it. But in retrospect, there was a degree of order there.
That order Donald Trump essentially, through his love for sovereignty, through his distrust of multilateral treaties and organizations, through his distrust of human rights, his attitude that this is simply politically correct, human rights—for example, we’re not bombing enough, we need to use more bombs in the fighting the Islamic State. Why aren’t we bombing enough? Why are we caring for civilians? Because it’s politically correct. In other words, the idea that there’s a pragmatic reason for not killing a lot of civilians in fighting this war he completely rejects.
For all of those reasons I would say that Make America Great Again has shown, after a year from the election, has shown extremely mixed results. On the one hand, the system that I first presented is still in place, although a bit bedraggled. Donald Trump is almost, partly through getting in his own way, the refusal to fill certain government positions, the scandal with Russia, for example, which I haven’t mentioned, which has made it impossible for him to have a true rapprochement with Russia, which he seemed to want to do, which would have hurt NATO a lot more, because of his very desire to do that and the scandal during the campaign, he’s kind of gotten in his own way. The people in the bureaucracy who still believe in the old order, the so-called deep state, all of these things have been obstacles to him.
But I would argue, at the end of the day, that he has made a very good start to making America great again in the particular meaning that those words hold for him. So I will thank you for your attention and ask for questions. And I hope there are many. Thank you very much. [Applause.] Yes?
Male: Has Trump taken steps to [dis]-establish the economic [forces of] globalization, namely the IMF or the World Bank?
Danner: No, he hasn’t. Although I think one could say that under that rubric the most important thing he’s done is pull the U.S. out of the TPP, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which is a massive trade agreement negotiated by successive U.S. administrations that was essentially supposed to be a kind of hedge in the Pacific against China. China is not a member of it. And both candidates, Hillary Clinton and Trump, during the campaign, were opposed to the TPP.
But I think it was generally assumed that if Hillary Clinton was elected, there would have been certain changes in the TPP and then she would have adopted it. And it’s a cataclysmic change that he has pulled the United States out of that. It meant that the other day in Da Nang he gave this speech denouncing trade agreements and then the rest of the conference got together to put in place this trade agreement that the United States is outside of.
So in a broader answer to your question, the U.S., from really the late ‘40s, has been an animating force behind what could be called these sort of liberalizing trade agreements liberalizing the international economic system, the IMF, the World Bank, etc., and the U.S. is now—I read a piece the other day—it was like the kid in the back, called it like the kid in the back of the classroom who throws spitballs and stuff. In other words is kind of rejecting these agreements.
The U.S., of course, is the only country to have pulled out, to not be a part of the Paris accords. The United States, as I said, TPP and so on. But it has not, to go back to your question, it’s not pulled itself out of the IMF, and I don’t see any sign that that would happen any time soon. But pulling out of the TPP is extremely important, not just economically, but geo strategically, very important. Does that answer your question? Yeah, okay. Yeah, Tom.
Male: I was really interested when you started to talk with the word sovereignty and the idea of sovereignty, and then expanding on Trump’s relationship to that idea. And I felt as though you were going to develop the notion that there was a problem with fetishizing sovereignty, and you did develop it, but you were talking about how things play out in the global scale from just purely from the, shall we say, Trumpian, pragmatic, self-interested point of view. Can you talk a bit more about why sovereignty and the emphasis on sovereignty might not produce, even at that level, that sort of transaction level, what’s the pushback of someone who says like come on, it’s America, we need to take care of America first?
Danner: That’s a very good question. I think the assumption he makes in talking about sovereignty is an entire series of assumptions about what the U.S. gets and doesn’t get from its current role in the international system. And it’s based on this idea that globalization took our jobs. I mean, essentially it’s a very old political strategy. He may not see it as such. But it comes down to running against the Other. You’re running against the people who are taking our jobs by coming over the border. You’re running against the people who are taking our jobs by taking American factories to China and Japan and elsewhere. So it’s very much a visceral political argument, and it relies on a series of untruths.
I mean, one untruth I tried to set out is the fact that the United States doesn’t get any value by having a base in Japan. I mean, it does. Or a base in Germany. That we’re just kind of giving them lots of money. I think that is wrong, demonstrably wrong. The second untruth it focuses on is that globalization has only taken jobs away from American workers, and first of all, that that’s the real force that takes jobs away, which isn’t true. I mean, there’s mechanization, computerization. There are a lot of other sources of the end of manufacturing jobs. And there’s unionization. I mean, you can point to a lot of things, a lot of reasons that factories left the United States. But it certainly was not only to do with the international trading regime.
So I think that on one hand it bases itself on things that aren’t true, things that can be shown to be factually false, and on the second hand, it’s really about a kind of prejudice. It’s about…America first is partly simply about disliking and mistrusting the Other. And it’s kind of a brilliant political strategy. There’s a long history of it in the Republican Party. And of course not when it comes to trade. Republicans recently have been free traders, certainly. But the idea of people coming in from outside the borders, and, of course, people of color, fear of people of color.
I mean, this used to be called dog whistle politics, right? You’d say, well, crime is rising. You know, lack of order in the streets, you know, chaos in the streets. And that was a way to say, you know, African Americans, be careful. That goes back to—remember the Willie Horton ad that George H. W. Bush ran.
Well, Trump is a fascinating politician because dog whistle means whistling so you can’t hear it, but the dogs can hear it. Well, he doesn’t dog whistle, he just whistles really loudly, and he makes this politics of anti-Other explicit, which has a kind of value about it. Only it’s dismaying because it means we have to, as a polity, look at ourselves. There’s nowhere to hide anymore. It’s like wow, we elected this guy on this basis. Have I answered your question? I mean, the sovereignty question is just an extremely interesting one. Yes.
Male: I was wondering if you’d come back to the Iran agreement for just a second. I mean, it has its pros and cons. It’s limited in time and so forth. But what about your views about undercutting our ability to negotiate agreements with others when we, you know, we seem to be walking away from something where there’s no evidence that Iran hasn’t been living up to its side of a narrow, you know, it’s a contract, a narrowly defined deal, 10 to 15 years, certain criteria, the International Atomic Energy Agency. Or am I overstating that?
Danner: I don’t think you’re overstating it at all. In fact, there is no evidence they’re not living up to it. And the administration essentially acknowledged that President Trump’s decertifying it didn’t have anything to do with anything the Iranians did or didn’t do.
Male: That’s what I mean.
Danner: So it’s an arbitrary, it’s an essentially arbitrary political step by one administration not to honor the agreement of the last one. Having said that, we’re not out of the agreement. He was able to decertify only because now Congress has to deal with the consequences. But if Congress does do things that will essentially pull us out, I think the effect on the U.S. ability to conclude treaties will be considerable. I think that’s absolutely true. Because we’re not living up to what we said.
I think it was a very bad and rather frightening decision, frankly, because it essentially showed—and I think this is important to remember—that if you’re one of these people who says well, the adults in the room, we’re going to count on the adults in the room—Mattis, McMaster, Kelly, and these are all generals, of course—that we’re counting on these people to prevent Trump from doing the worst he could do, if that makes you sleep at night, I think that what happened with the Iranian agreement, as well as not including the line about Article 5 with NATO in his speech in Europe, both of those things should make you pause, because whenever it seems like he’s being managed by someone he tends to strike out and show his own independence dramatically. And the decertification, I think, was one example.
I hate to analyze this on such personal terms, because what do I know? I’m not talking to him. But on the other hand, it seems the only part of it that makes sense, because Mattis actually publicly said that he thought it was in the interest of the United States to stay in the agreement. And then to have the President decertify it is rather shocking. It really is rather shocking. And the stakes here are extremely high. I mean, if, indeed, the agreement were to go south—I mean, the Europeans have already said we will not renegotiate this. We won’t, period. And I believe them. I don’t think they will.
If you had a situation—and it’s not reached that point, it has a long way to go—where the Iranians restarted their nuclear program, we would be talking about a Middle East war, I don’t doubt it. And Iran…I mean, America amazes me. There’s this sort of blitheness about our foreign policy. Iran is a country of 80, 90 million people. It’s a very powerful country. And there’s this kind of blithe attitude, well, should we bomb them or should we…? Do you know what I mean, in certain neo-conservative circles. And you wonder don’t you think there will ever be consequences for things that you’re, you know, killing people in other countries? I mean, you know, there are consequences sometimes. And I think that would be a very poor idea.
So I agree with you that the consequences of this could be very great. And I think in general the erratic character of Trump has now lent itself to the American government, that he will make these statements. I mean, it is simply unheard of, when you have a crisis going on in North Korea, for the President to tweet and call the guy, you know, insult him personally. This just was mindboggling. And of course we’re the frog in the boiling water, right? We’ve gotten used to this idea. But had this happened the day after election day, it’s like what? Is he really doing this? And in fact he is really doing it, and there’s just no…there’s nothing to compare it to.
Male: I’m glad you mentioned that there are other countries involved in this agreement because I think it’s widely assumed that it’s the United States and Iran. But there’s Germany and so forth. And we’re also treating some of our allies—the Russians aren’t our allies—but we’re treating other countries as if they don’t matter in any way, shape or form.
Danner: Yeah, that’s quite true. And that again is typical of his attitude and within the administration. Of course you can put this alongside of TPP and withdrawal from the Paris accord. And now we’re the single country in the world that is not part—I mean, the Syrians signed it, the Nicaraguans signed it, and we’re the only country in the world that is not part of the Paris accord.
And the United States simply, you know, the whole thinking after World War II was…after World War II the United States had more than half of the world’s GDP, and it was just monstrously powerful in a way that really had almost never been seen before. And the idea of the so-called wise man was to bind this great power within these international systems. You know, use it to the United States’ advantage, which they definitely did, but also to stop the—I mean, what would usually happen with such a powerful state, under realist theory, is other states would band together to counterbalance it, right?
Well, the idea was we don’t want that to happen. We’re going to create these great alliances. And you see now this kind of anti movement from Trump, which is, in a sense, pulling these things apart and making the U.S. an outlier. And I think in a funny way that’s the most significant part of what he’s done, make the U.S. the kid in the last row, the kid throwing spitballs rather than the one leading. Yes?
Female: Thanks again, by the way. Great lecture.
Danner: Oh, thank you.
Female: So you discussed President Trump’s [interest in] Saudi Arabia. I, from what I know, and I could be totally wrong, I know that President Obama had a very similar relationship with Saudi Arabia, and for a very long time the U.S. has been an ally of this country.
Female: How is President Trump’s involvement with this country any different from any U.S. president?
Danner: Well, I think—first of all, thank you for the good words. And you’re absolutely right that the relationship between the United States and the Saudis goes back to the ‘30s, when Aramco was created to develop the Saudi oil industry, and then to 1945, when FDR, Roosevelt, stopped in his cruiser on the way back from the Crimea, actually, from the Yalta conference, and he had this meeting with the Saudi king. The king supposedly brought aboard the ship all of his sheep so they could slaughter sheep, and it’s a great little bit of history.
But they made a deal whereby the U.S. would protect the Saudis in exchange for keeping the Saudi royal family in power, basically, the Saudis would supply oil to the United States and to the rest of the world in a regular way, and finally the U.S. agreed to do something about the Palestinian problem. I’m sorry. I’m laughing because this was 1945. So it’s gone back. You’re completely right. It’s been this pillar of U.S. policy in the Middle East since the mid ‘40s.
But I would argue that Trump is rather different because he has… I mean, the U.S. relationship with the Saudis has not been simply with the king. It’s been with the royal family. And until very recently they had this consensus system, which I talked about before. You know, you had various members of the royal family in control of all the ministries. You had the Saudi National Guard, the Saudi army and the Saudi security agencies in the hands of different branches of the family so that security organizations all would, in a sense, counterbalance one another. I mean, it was a delicately wrought system that was somewhat decentralized within the realm of the family, the royal family, which obviously is very large.
And what has happened under Trump, and since the rise of the new crown prince, who’s in his early 30s and is very much a man on the go, is that he’s consolidating power in his hands. He’s arresting other princes, putting them in jail. Actually, the jail is the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. But he’s seizing—he’s put various religious figures in jail.
And Trump, to describe a kind of…I mean, he has undermined recent U.S. policy by essentially putting his chips on the crown prince, and we’re completely, we’re all in on the strategy of I’m going to centralize power, I’m going to do what I want, we’re going to get rid of all these other ancillary powers. Which I think is very dangerous because if there is pushback, we’re going to be essentially standing out on a limb that will be cut off.
But I think that is very different from Obama. By the way, the Saudi royals didn’t like Obama very much, needless to say. The relationship was not very good. I mean, the relationship continued that the United States had with the Saudis, but they were very angry at Obama for letting Mubarak get overthrown and various other things. They didn’t think he was a good enough lover of autocracy. Yeah, go ahead.
Female: Well, just the reason that I was asking you. To me it seems that America’s relationship with Saudi Arabia is we’re more about just like appeasing Saudi Arabia and anything it wants to do, so if this is [any] Saudi’s [new era of] power then obviously [people] would consolidate it and our country would be fine with it, so I just [wonder].
Danner: Well, I think that’s a good point. I think there’s a lot of truth to it. I think the larger point would be that our interesting and crazy relationships are not with countries that are our enemies, but countries that are supposedly our allies. The Saudis is one example, where a lot of the impetus for the Islamic State and for Al Qaeda came from the Saudis. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers were Saudi nationals.
Another example is Pakistan. Supposedly our ally. We give them billions in aid. And they’re killing American troops by their support of the Taliban. So these are interesting alliances. And I agree with you, the Saudi alliance is interesting. I wouldn’t say it’s just appeasement, but it’s becoming more that way under Trump, I would say. Yeah.
Male: You said at the beginning of your talk you didn’t think he was stupid, or you thought he was smart. And maybe there’s a lot of different dimensions of intelligence, and some he does well on and others he doesn’t, but it seems to me that a good case could be made that this is a majorly... [unintelligible] 01:06:06.
But my question is, though, is sort of somewhat [bigger]. I teach national security here, and people ask, and I try to ask myself, are we overreacting to the first year? And do you think he has done anything in the first almost quarter of his term irreversible, or do you think his successors so far could roll back some of the things he’s done? Or do you think we’re moving in a way that after Trump it’s going to, and this is a breaking point in foreign policy, it’s going to be irreversible?
Danner: I don’t know. That’s a hard question. What is irreversible, exactly? I mean, I think if the… The TPP may be an irreversible step, where the U.S. is really weakening itself. The U.S. was trying, supposedly, to pivot to Asia. Withdrawing from the TPP is a very big step. I think by the time you get the next administration, presuming it won’t be Trump’s, I’m not sure we’ll be able to fix that. Who knows?
The Iran nuclear deal is another example of something that could be irreversible. What’s going on with North Korea, you know, I don’t know how you reverse any of that. You could argue that he’s the first one who’s really taking this in hand and really trying to solve it. He’s trying to pressure the Chinese to move against the North Koreans. But I think that’s a fool’s errand. I don’t think they will ever take steps against the North Koreans that will risk destabilizing the regime. They just won’t. And so in essence Trump is trading pressure on trade with the Chinese, which he promised to impose, for this mythical deal on North Korea.
Will it be irreversible? I don’t know. It’s hard to see the end game in this. Eventually they are… Trump has said that if the North Koreans test again they’ll be met with fire and fury, and the North Koreans are going to test again. They are. So then it’ll be a choice between some kind of reaction by him, possibly a military one, a limited military reaction, or simply doing nothing, in which case you think, well, what is his policy exactly going to be.
And I think if they tried, say, a limited strike where they took out a missile on its launch pad or something like that, it’s an enormous risk. It’s an enormous risk that you would have a war on the Korean peninsula. And I’m afraid that the taunts and the threats he’s made are going to leave him little room to maneuver. So that’s an example of something that would really be irreversible. I mean, Iran also, I think, would really be irreversible.
And the broader question, though, is this weakening of the U.S., of the system that I tried to describe. And all the aircraft carriers are there, the stuff’s still happening, the IMF still works, people are still trading, all this stuff’s going on. But at what point does the U.S., as the kind of lynchpin of the system, lose a degree of political respect and therefore political power where the system doesn’t continue to work very well? That’s another much broader and more complicated question. So I’m sorry not to be able to answer, but… Yeah.
Male: Thank you for speaking, first of all. And also to build off what you were talking about earlier with Saudi Arabia and authoritarian regimes, how has Turkey’s shift as a more authoritarian regime closer towards Russia, as well as their dislike for Obama, which is, now that Trump’s in office, I don’t know how that’s a little different, but how is that changing the regional politics? As well as possibly could you put into context what’s going on in Egypt now that their economy is sort of getting its feet a little bit, I believe? I think they received foreign investment from China. Is that correct?
Danner: Yeah, that’s correct.
Male: So how is it happening? Because the U.S. doesn’t really want to get involved in foreign investment, and it’s seeming like China is trying to snatch up where the U.S. isn’t stepping in anymore.
Danner: Well, that’s about four questions. It’s a big question. I’d say Egypt is the great tragedy of the Arab Spring, that you had this chance for a kind of opening, and it all disappeared in a military coup. And I think it’s very deeply…should be of deep concern to Americans because even if your main concern when it comes to the Middle East is terrorism, in fact the Arab Spring, if it had succeeded in Egypt in establishing a moderate Islamic state that would then have an election, it would have been an absolutely revolutionary step.
So I think I’m immensely sad about what happened in Egypt. A lot of people have been killed there. There have been a lot of massacres. The government has, after spending 30 odd years letting the Muslim Brotherhood serve as a kind of shadow opposition, they basically massacred a great number of them, and the United States essentially stood by and watched. And it’s very terrible.
And I think from the point of view of our policy against Al Qaeda and against Islamic extremism and Islamic terrorism in general, Egypt is a catastrophe, because the greatest threat to Islamic extremism is the success of a moderate Islamic government that shows that in fact you don’t have to use terrorism, you don’t have to overthrow states in revolutions, you don’t have to use violence, there can be—although that was, obviously, a kind of revolution—there can be Islamism as a moderate force. And in Egypt the great tragedy is that that was destroyed. So yeah, I think that’s extremely important for the United States. I’m sorry, what was the—you had another.
Male: It would be good to do—I don’t want to impose on what anyone else wants to ask, but I’d like to hear about Turkey.
Danner: Oh, yeah. That’s a large question. It’s interesting to me what will become of the discussion about Turkey in the weeks ahead because of course Michael Flynn, the first national security advisor to Donald Trump, was on Turkey’s payroll, and was apparently in negotiations to send back the cleric who the Turks claim was at the heart of the coup attempt.
I think Turkey is another example of what’s called by—oh, my god, I’m losing his name, the professor at Stanford who’s a great scholar of democracy—has called democratic recession, that regimes that seem to be strengthening democracies are essentially falling back, if you can use that metaphor, into authoritarianism. And again, it’s very sad and it’s also somewhat threatening for the region because I think it was… Well, I would say it’s turning into a less stable country, and Erdogan is what he is. He’s establishing authoritarian rule.
I mean, from the point of view of the Trump administration, Trump tends to admire leaders like that. He admires Putin, he admires Duterte in the Philippines, and he clearly admires Erdogan. So it may be helpful to them in dealing with Washington, conceivably. But I think for U.S. policy writ large it’s troubling, very troubling.
It should be said, by the way, that the Turks have been one of the major supporters, along with the Iranians, of Qatar since the embargo was launched. When I was in Qatar in July, if you went into the supermarkets, the milk, for example, was all from Turkey. They’d been flying it in, because the milk could no longer come over the Saudi border. So Turkey’s foreign policy within the Gulf, especially, is fairly interesting. Anyway, sorry not to be… Yeah, go ahead. Right there.
Female: I’m curious about your opinion of what happened recently in Niger, like the media response to that. Just because like it seems similar to like the whole Benghazi thing, like [unintelligible] 01:15:33 failing miserably to handle the situation and protect U.S. troops. I feel like the only thing you really heard about in the media about that was like [unintelligible] 01:15:44 responses like that, like the soldier’s wife, but you didn’t hear, you know, it’s not like the same response as [unintelligible] 01:15:52 were getting [unintelligible] making that a huge thing. And I feel like there’s not very much about what actually happened, like what the government actually did in the situation.
Danner: Yeah, well, I couldn’t agree more. I think we don’t know the real story of what happened there yet. And I think that’s part of a larger phenomena, which is that the U.S.—I thought I had a map that showed where Special Forces troops are. They’re in more than 100 countries now. And the United States, the expansion is particularly acute in Africa. The United States is trying to set up security regimes throughout Africa to prevent ungoverned spaces, which is an uncharacteristically poetic Pentagon term, ungoverned spaces, from being used by terrorists.
So Africom, which is the relatively recent U.S. command that governs Africa, is now in all of these countries. And one of the results of those deaths is that Americans suddenly know about that. But I think that we don’t have a clear, at least I don’t have a clear conception yet of what exactly happened and why. Presumably we’ll hear more from Congress about what exactly happened. But are you saying that Benghazi, there was an enormous amount of publicity about it, but not about Niger?
Female: Yeah. It was interesting to me that there doesn’t seem to be a lot of, like, interest or focus on like let’s figure out what happened here.
Danner: Yeah. Well, I think, you know, there’s certainly some obvious political reasons for that, which is that the Republicans were very strong and very ruthless when it came to Benghazi. I mean, I was in a press pen. You know, sometimes when you’re covering a campaign they have this pen that you go into. And I was in a press pen when covering a Romney rally during the 2012 election. This woman with a Benghazi t-shirt, and a Benghazi hat, and Benghazi stuff came up and stood next to me. I was in this pen and she came up and stood next to me right outside the pen and started shaking this stuff. She was like sort of a witch doctor or something, you know, Benghazi, Benghazi, what about Benghazi?
So I don’t think any Democrats are doing that when it comes to Niger. Anyway, not yet. But it still is early days when it comes. I’m just glad that people maybe are starting to know how far-flung U.S. troops are, because people don’t really know that, which is remarkable. Any other questions? Tom, did you have? Well, maybe you first.
Female: Earlier you touched on the idea that Trump has these goals to have a closer relationship with Russia and that he was kind of getting in his own way, and then you sort of like pivoted away from that. So I was wondering if you could elaborate on like maybe what his goals are and how he’s getting to them.
Danner: Yeah. You know, Trump’s relationship with Russia is somewhat mysterious, right? It was, in some ways, in his career as a developer, the great white whale. He always wanted to build buildings in Russia, and for various reasons he wasn’t able to. And talks were still going on for him to build a building there during the campaign, so this is very recent.
During the campaign he promoted the idea that U.S. relationships with Russia should be better. And I actually happen to agree with him on that. I don’t think that’s a particularly controversial point to make. But he has had this peculiar unwillingness to speak in any way critical about the Russians. It’s as if people are trying to get him to say something he doesn’t want to say.
Having said that, it’s clear that there were a lot of contacts between his campaign and the Russians, without a doubt. And the Russians played a very substantial role during the campaign, both through bots, through the use of WikiLeaks as a cut out to leak Democratic campaign emails. And we’ll never be able to analyze precisely how much this stuff influenced voters. They also, of course, hacked into 21, I think it was the election databases in 21 states, which is astonishing.
And we’ll never be able to say well, they turned the election to Trump. But it was an incredibly close election, so that you could say if it rained in Philadelphia on a given day or whatever a lot of things could have turned the election the other way. So it’s quite possible that those things they did turned the election in his direction.
What I was trying to say is there’s an irony in this in that on the one hand Putin’s strategy, from what we know, the Russians didn’t think Trump would win, as no one else thought Trump would win. They did think what they were doing was trying to damage Hillary Clinton before she took office. That was what a lot of these operations were about.
The irony is that he, of course, did win and the scandal about what happened during the election is making it very difficult for him to carry out the policy initiatives he seemed to want to carry out during the campaign, which is a kind of rapprochement with the Russians, which presumably would have involved lifting some of the sanctions that have been imposed on the Russians since they took over Crimea and began fighting in Eastern Ukraine. He has not been able to take those steps, both because of the political backlash that would have come as a result of the investigation of the campaign and also now the Congress passed a bill keeping the sanctions there and basically stripping him of power to remove them unilaterally.
So that’s really what I meant, that the irony is that the great Russian dream of a Trump presidency has actually, to their surprise, come to pass, but it’s been to some degree checkmated by what they actually did during the election, so there’s a bit of a contradiction or an irony there, I think. Tom?
Male: I just wanted to ask you about what I feel is almost a sort of submerged parallel narrative to your discussion of these global affairs, which is to say your role as a witness and a writer. I mean, I could hear about milk and Qatar and the Benghazi witch doctor lady for another two hours.
But I wanted to ask you a specific question about your process as a writer in one particular episode, which is the El Mozote book initially appeared as the entire issue of a “New Yorker” magazine, and if I’m not mistaken, I think that’s something that happened with John Hersey with his Hiroshima and Janet Malcolm with her silent woman piece about Sylvia Plath and so forth.
And I wanted to ask you what was involved in closing a magazine piece, specifically the El Mozote magazine piece, you know, there’s a certain point in the night when it’s over. So can you just take us the previous 12 hours, closing an entire issue length article, what was going on? Who stayed late at the office?
Danner: Well, thanks for that question. You know, that piece was originally, it was about 45,000 words, which is really a—I mean, it is a book now, of course. And originally I wrote it to be two parts. The first part went up until the actual massacre, you know, included the massacre and the second part included the aftermath.
And Tina Brown, then the editor of “The New Yorker,” who had a great nose for publicity and promotion, read it and said no-no-no, this is going to be a whole issue. So she was the one who made that decision. And I’m very grateful to her for that because it certainly had much greater impact because of that.
Closing it, of course, was very fraught, and it went on for weeks, literally. What happened in the last 24 hours I remember rather well because there was a Marine major named John McKay who was in Salvador and who was involved in—this is, for those of you who don’t know, a book about a massacre that killed about 800 civilians in El Salvador, and it was kind of the story about the way the U.S. covered it up. And one of the investigators was this guy Major John McKay, who was then a colonel when I was writing the piece, and who had talked to me, to my great surprise, and did it off the record.
And I asked him about a day, you know, as the piece was closing—it’s very hard to do when this guy is in a particular position in El Salvador, it’s very hard to put his comments in off the record because people will know who he is, so there’s a great deal of art to trying to disguise his identity, and you can’t use this quote, and you can’t use that quote, and it’s very, as you know, it’s a very fraught process, and you’d much rather have his name attached. That way you could use all the quotes.
Well, about 24 hours before the piece closed, he let me understand—he was then a NATO liaison officer in Belgium, in Brussels, and so I was talking to him every day on the phone, and we were fact checking some of his stuff, and I told him I can’t use that quote, I can’t use this quote because we can’t use your name. And he said, you know, if you could get me clearance in the Pentagon you can use my name. And so the last 24 hours were this horrendous attempt to…you know, the Pentagon, you know what I mean? [Laughter.] It’s like dial the Pentagon, you know, it’s…
So we had to—and thank goodness there was a member of “The New Yorker” editorial staff whose name I will not publicly mention, but who had had—I might conceivably tell it to you later—but who had a relationship with a high official in the Pentagon at the time, and it was a very off the record relationship.
And at the end of the day we prevailed upon this particular person to make a phone call to his friend, and she was able to—I could not believe it. I ended up, in those 24 hours, doing two versions of the piece that had his quotes in it, one version off the record and one version on the record, which was extremely maddening to do. It may have to do with his greatness as a lover or I don’t know what, but he was able to get this approval at the very, really the very last moment, and so we completely changed those sections of the piece that had to do with McKay and published his name. So most of the last part was taken up with that. I hadn’t expected it to be.
But there were also, you know, “The New Yorker” fact checking process is rightly legendary, and there were all these last minute things that, you know, when you turn down the road to El Mozote you say you turned right, but it’s actually a left, maddening things like that. And there was another official in the story in the opposite direction. His name was Thomas Enders, who was the Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs in the Reagan administration. He claimed, when the fact checker called up to check his quotes, which they do, which I think is not a good thing to do, but they do that, this guy claimed it was all off the record, that he never said I could use his name.
And so that was a complete tussle where I essentially said, you know, I never used the phrase off the record, I never promised him anonymity. We had breakfast at the St. Regis Hotel. I remember it very well. All these businessmen and us. And I had never said it. I never said off the record. And some officials, particularly diplomats, tend to assume, when they talk to journalists, it’s off the record, but to me you have to say it. So I prevailed on “The New Yorker” to leave those in quotes, and they did.
But it was stuff like that over the last 24 hours. But it’s a great excitement to close that kind of piece, great excitement, and that magazine has an amazing staff, so I’ll never forget it. So thank you for that question, because those are good memories.
Male: And I just, because life is short, want to share with the room that when there was this time, like you and eight editors at like 11:00 p.m., 10:00 p.m. in the lunch room talking about it, and you all left, I was in the lunch room, and I talked to somebody in that group. I said, who is this guy Mark Danner? And this one person turns to me and goes, who the hell knows?
Male: And a day or two later I realized the person who said who the hell knows was you.
Danner: [Laughs.] I don’t remember that, but I’m glad I was eloquent. That was the only answer to give. Thank you for that memory. I like that. Well, I think who the hell knows is a very good point for me to say thank you very much for your attention. I really enjoyed being here. And thank you for coming. And thank you for bringing me to Tulane. [Applause.]