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Trump Has Embraced War Crimes as a Re-Election Strategy

Trump is using a war criminal to rally his base around the crudest notions of nationalism and power.

President Trump pictured with retired Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher and his wife Andrea Gallagher.

The increasing elevation over the past months of war criminal Eddie Gallagher within Donald Trump’s presidential re-election campaign was already disturbing. But, now, within the context of escalating U.S. tensions with Iran and an impeachment process that has left Trump eager to reassert his primacy, it offers even greater cause for concern. Trump is using Gallagher to rally his base around the crudest possible notions of nationalism and raw power. As Trump continues to skirt the brink of conflict with Iran, the president’s symbolic embrace of Gallagher’s violence bodes ill for how Trump would prosecute any such war.

As 2019 wound down, Donald Trump went out of his way to tie his fortunes to the disgraced Navy SEAL. Gallagher, you may recall, was turned in to investigators by his own SEAL comrades, who said they witnessed him thrill-killing a teenage prisoner suspected of being an ISIS (also known as Daesh) operative, and randomly shooting down civilian pedestrians on city streets in Iraq. He boasted on social media about knifing so-called bad guys and built up a terrifying reputation for embracing violence for the sake of violence.

After his fellow SEALS turned on him, Gallagher was arrested. Ultimately, the murder charges were dismissed, but he was found guilty by a military court of posing for trophy photos with the corpses of his victims.

For the past year, Trump — egged on by conservative commentators on Fox News, on talk radio and on an array of internet outlets — has talked of Gallagher not as a hoodlum but as a hero. In the late autumn, he pardoned Gallagher. Then he ordered the Navy to reinstate Gallagher’s SEAL status, leading to the forced resignation of Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer, who subsequently penned a scathing letter denouncing Trump’s championing of Gallagher and warning of a breakdown of the rule of law. Finally, over the winter break, Trump began inviting Gallagher — who has spent the past few months building up a brand as a conservative “influencer” – to campaign with him. Gallagher showed up with the president at social events in Mar-a-Lago over New Year’s, and Trump has been shamelessly using this war criminal, whom he grotesquely calls an “ultimate fighter,” to gin up his base.

During all these events, the public didn’t know that Trump was planning actions against Iran so clearly in violation of the 1907 Hague Convention and U.S. laws that prohibit the assassination of foreign government officials; that they would all-but-inevitably lead to armed conflict between the U.S. and Iran.

Then, on January 3, at Trump’s orders, the U.S. military launched a lethal drone strike against Iranian Gen. Qassim Suleimani, while he was on Iraqi soil. The justification? That Suleimani was a really, seriously, incredibly, almost superhumanly bad dude, who was scheming to launch terror attacks in the Middle East that could result in American fatalities; that in killing Suleimani, the U.S. was somehow acting to, in Trump’s words, “stop a war.”

Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and others have declared that this was a legitimate “targeted killing,” because it was intended to head off an imminent threat. But, as the old adage goes, no matter how you dress a pig up, at the end of the day, it’s still a pig. The attack against Suleimani was, by any measure, an illegal assassination — which the Hague Conventions explicitly identify as constituting a war crime.

Indeed, the shifting explanations conjured up by this lawless administration to justify the unjustifiable are so ludicrous on so many levels that it’s hard to know where to start. But let’s give it a go.

Yes, Suleimani was a violent man whose Quds Force was responsible for a great deal of destabilization and bloodshed in the region. But there are many unpleasant, dangerous, ambitious officials attached to many different governments around the world — including the U.S. government and those of U.S. allies. If that was the litmus test for whether an assassination was justified, there’d be drone strikes-of-opportunity by one government against the officials of another on a daily basis, and international law and diplomacy would become a quaint relic of a bygone age.

But, even assuming that, somehow, Suleimani and his plans were so singularly dangerous that they justified this lawless U.S. decision, that they really did alchemically convert an assassination into a legitimate targeted killing, there’s simply no evidence that killing the general has slowed the march to war — and in fact, the latest developments seem to prove the assassination has only escalated tensions. To assume his death could impose peace on the Middle East, one has to assume almost cartoonish Suleimani powers: that, like a Sith Lord in Star Wars, he somehow personally controlled all the levers of war and peace; that his plans were contained solely within his head; that they were not written down, or stored on computers, or shared with other military or political figures; that they were not integrated as part of a broader strategy involving all the complex moving parts of a modern military-industrial state. In other words, Trump’s purported logic only makes sense if Suleimani was seen as literally the only one who could understand his equivalent of the Death Star’s blueprints. Ergo, take him out and problem solved.

Of course, in real life this isn’t the stuff of serious foreign policy thinking or military strategy; rather, it’s the stuff of Marvel comics, of superheroes battling evildoers.

Finally, even assuming the impossible — that Suleimani really did exercise such singular control over planning that his death would disrupt plots-in-the-work — the sheer lack of the most basic ability to put oneself into the shoes of one’s opponents, to look at unfolding events through their eyes, is extraordinary. Simply imagine how the United States would react if one of its top political or military officials was assassinated by China or Russia or Iran while visiting the U.K., and if that country then justified the attack by saying it was done to preserve world peace. Missiles would be flying by day’s end. Yet, somehow, U.S. policy officials have the gall to argue that Iran should calm down and simply accept that the killing was needed for the sake of peace.

Which leads to the next chapter: Iran publicly committed to respond to what it calls an act of war. And Trump announced (via Twitter, as usual) that if and when Iran did so, the U.S. would attack 52 Iranian sites, including sites of profound historical and cultural importance. Even though White House adviser Kellyanne Conway is trying to walk back the president’s tweets, that threat was a promise, in effect, to unleash additional war crimes — since the attacking of cultural sites is a violation of the 1954 Hague Convention.

Early on Wednesday morning, local time, Iran called Trump’s bluff and launched its first response — a series of missile attacks on bases hosting U.S. troops in Iraq. A few hours later, a civilian jetliner plunged, aflame, out of the skies outside of Tehran, killing nearly 180 people. Whether this was an accident — its geographic location and timing stunning in its macabre coincidence — or whether it was an unintended byproduct of an increasingly out-of-control situation, is not yet known.

In his address to the nation Wednesday morning, Trump stopped short of declaring war, instead announcing a new round of economic sanctions against Iran. Yet, make no mistake, the situation throughout the Middle East, never easy to begin with, is now an absolute tinder box. Acts of braggadocio and revenge on either side could, in an instant, lead to calamity. And it seems hard to imagine that more Iranian responses — either authorized by the government, or carried out by semi-autonomous militias — aren’t in the offing.

This is an entirely unnecessary conflict, the product of years of goading and of baiting by the Trump administration. In the past, Trump has used his speeches at the UN and elsewhere to threaten Iran and North Korea with total destruction, issuing vaguely veiled threats to unleash nuclear war against the two nations. Now that the United States is on the edge of armed conflict with Iran, there’s a huge risk that an unstable, vengeful commander-in-chief will both ratchet up the rhetoric about war crimes and ultimately actually commit one or more such crimes.

Which brings me back full-circle to Eddie Gallagher. Trump has gone all-in by embracing Gallagher and other war criminals. He has worked to bend all institutions of government, including the military, to his cruel will. And he has bet the house that the American electorate, come November, will reward him for his chest-thumping, bullying ways.

In addition to campaigning for Trump, Gallagher is busy these days promoting a clothing line that sells apparel with the logos “KILL BAD DUDES” and “Waterboarding Instructor.” For Trump, that can only be a plus. After all, he’s embracing a vision of American might that is utterly amoral in its priorities and shameless in its cudgeling of international norms and laws. One poll found that 43 percent of Americans approve of the killing of Suleimani — which means that Trump’s base, plus a few additional undecideds, largely rallied around the lawless decision.

We are on the edge of the abyss, led by a rogue president surrounded by sycophants and yes-men, enabled by a propaganda machine that idolizes violent thugs and murderous heroes of the far right.

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