US could lose the next war it fights

By Alex Mitchell

The United States of America has not won a major conflict since 1945 so the admission by former Pentagon official David Ochmanek that “we could lose the next war we fight” might come as no surprise to many.[1] The warning made in testimony to the Congress is simply a part of a well-honed tactic by the Pentagon to secure additional funding for itself and for the military in allied nations. It was ever thus, with the notorious ‘missile gap’ with the USSR publicised by Jack Kennedy to justify the start of the militarisation of space being a prime example.[2] Speaking to the World Economic Forum in the Davos ski resort on 26 January, US President Donald Trump promised to increase defence spending and called on America’s friends and allies to “contribute their fair share” towards “our common security” against “rogue regimes, terrorism and revisionist powers”.[3] 

War is in the news. The Economist magazine of 27 January stated that “China … and Russia are entering into a renewal of great power competition with the West.” Whilst having benefitted from the international order established by the USA, “they see its pillars – universal human rights, democracy and the rule of law – as an imposition that excuses foreign meddling and undermines their own legitimacy. They are now revisionist states that want to challenge the status quo and look at their regions as spheres of influence to be dominated. For China, this means East Asia; for Russia, Eastern Europe and Central Asia.”[4]  The Pentagon’s new national defence strategy regards “great power competition” not international terrorism as the primary threat facing the USA.[5] It plans accordingly to deploy smaller scale nuclear weapons on the battlefield. Otherwise it fears the USA might lose a conventional conflict.

China and Russia are accused of seeking to revise the established doctrine that the USA is the sole super-power in the world and to be gearing up to challenge Trump’s intention to “make America great again”. Worryingly, for the defenders of the global market economy, it is not only Beijing and Moscow which intend supposedly to break up the international system of free trade guaranteed by Washington. Trump appears to be pursuing the same goal. The Economist wants to see a halt to America’s twenty years of “strategic drift” by using a combination of technological leadership, soft and hard power – diplomacy and coercion, in other words – to retain its role as the guarantor of “world peace”. Unfortunately, the magazine continues, “Mr Trump wants America to give up defending the system it created and join Russia and China as just another truculent revisionist power”.[6] A global war over the Earth’s resources and territories has edged a step closer. 

Russia has also been accused of conducting cyber warfare against the West. “We know what you are doing”, Theresa May told the Lord Mayor’s Banquet in November 2017. She accused Russia of planting fake news, cyber-espionage and weaponizing information to undermine free societies.[7] Supposedly Russian agents manipulated swing voters in marginal states to vote for Trump using ads on Facebook and other social media. An investigation by Le Monde diplomatique and The Nation found “no concrete evidence to support” the story of Russian meddling in the US, French and German elections or the British referendum.[8] Nonetheless, the story of Russian interference in the US Presidential election sparked another round of sanctions on (mainly rich) Russian citizens by the Congress.[9]  

The scandal has gathered momentum as a result of the FBI’s on-going investigation into the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russian nationals, official or otherwise, who always seem to have alleged ‘Kremlin links’. The FBI opened its investigation after receiving a dossier of information from Christopher Steele in July 2016. Steele, a former officer in the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) had been contracted in April of that year to undertake an investigation into Trump and his associates by Fusion GPS, a Washington-based political and commercial research company founded by two Wall Street Journal reporters in 2009 – the same year as Steele started his own company Orbis. Steele and Glenn Simpson, one of the founding partners in Fusion, worked together on a number of cases over the following years.

Fusion was commissioned by lawyers acting for the Democratic National Committee (DNC) to probe Trump’s background. Steele had served in Moscow between 1990 and 1993 as a second secretary at the British Embassy and later in a senior position on SIS’s Russian desk. His dossier, based on information from his Russian contacts, claimed that the Russian intelligence services had spied on Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump in the past. Included were lurid details of Trump’s romp with prostitutes at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, Moscow, in 2013. Steele’s sources also claimed that Trump had paid for the hacking of the DNC’s emails.[10]  Wikileaks later released the emails in July 2016.

This puts a different perspective on the short meeting Donald Trump Jr held with Natalia Veselnitskaya, the lawyer representing a number of Russian public officials under US sanction, on 9 June 2016. The meeting was set up by a long-standing business partner of Trump who suggested he had access to the Russian file on Hilary Clinton. Veselnitskaya, however, stated that the meeting was not held to make an offer to the Trump campaign but solely concerned the 2012 Magnitsky Act that had imposed sanctions on individuals alleged to have been responsible for Magnitsky’s death in a Moscow jail.[11] (Sergey Magnitsky was an accountant who had investigated government corruption in Russia.) Perhaps the Trump team saw no need to bargain over the sanctions issue as they already possessed the DNC email trove. In any case, all the emails revealed was the DNC’s evident hostility towards Bernie Sanders, the socialist seeking the Democratic Party’s nomination, and which should not have come as a surprise to anyone.

Donald Trump has been portrayed in The Guardian as Vladimir Putin’s pawn: ‘How Trump walked into Putin’s web’ was the headline in a story by reporter Luke Harding. It brings to mind the spy stories of John Le Carré, with Putin, a former KGB officer, playing the role of George Smiley’s wily nemesis Karla. It suits Trump’s opponents in the Democratic Party to give the scandal as much airtime as possible in retaliation for the fabricated scandals over Hilary Clinton’s emails and Barack Obama’s birth certificate. Trump orchestrated both those affairs, encouraging his supporters to chant “Lock her up” at every opportunity at his campaign rallies and even at his inauguration. (Clinton had occasionally used her personal email account and server for State Department business, posing a potential security risk from those same alleged Russian hackers.)  

Trump’s role in all of this is clearly not that of a political innocent. According to Edward Luce of the Financial Times, Trump colluded with the Republican chair of the House of Representative’s intelligence committee, Devin Nunes, to release a critical report, drafted for Nunes, on the opening of the FBI’s investigation.[12] Trump needs to eliminate any evidence that he was behind the ‘fake news’ stories that weakened Clinton’s campaign. That evidence could lead to his impeachment or the annulment of the presidential election by the Supreme Court. Trump’s constant complaints about ‘fake news’ reveal his own penchant for spreading it.

Moreover, Trump’s persistent warmongering in pursuit of Making America Great Again suggests that he was never a secret Russian ally. He is just a regular American intent on maintaining his country’s military and economic dominance and a healthy military-industrial complex, following policies no different to those of his predecessors. 

[1] Katrina Manson, Pentagon shifts focus to China and Russia, Financial Times, 18 January 2018.

[2] Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick, 2013, The Untold History of the United States, London: Ebury Press: p. 278-279.

[3] Larry Elliott, Trump hissed at as he attacks media in Davos, The Guardian, 27 January 2018. 

[4] Leader, The next war, The Economist, 27 January 2018: p. 7.

[5] Katrina Manson, Mattis warns US losing edge in rivalry with great powers, Financial Times, 20 January 2018.

[6] Leader, The next war, The Economist, 27 January 2018: p. 7.

[7] Jon Craig, PM warns Putin we know what you are doing and it won’t succeed, Sky News, 14 November 2017.

[8] Aaron Mat, The Trump blame game, Le Monde Diplomatique, December 2017: pp. 5-6.

[9] Katrina Manson and Kathrin Hiller, Moscow braced for US list of Putin’s elite, Financial Times, 29 January 2018; Courtney Weaver, Sam Fleming and Max Seddon, Mnuchin hints at further sanctions on Moscow, Financial Times, 31 January 2018.

[10] Luke Harding, How Trump walked into Putin’s web, The Guardian, 15 November 2017; Julian Borger, Christopher Steele believes his dossier on Trump is 70-90% accurate, The Guardian, 15 November 2017; Alan Yuhas, Julian Borger and Stephanie Kirchgaesser, Source inside Trump campaign reported concerns to FBI, new transcript suggests, The Guardian, 9 January 2018. 

[11] Shaun Walker, Who is Natalia Veselnitskaya? Low-level lawyer or Kremlin power broker?, The Guardian, 12 July 2017.

[12] Edward Luce, Trump unites Republicans in his war on the ‘deep state’, Financial Times, 1 February 2018; Alan Yuhas and Tom McCarthy, Republicans publish disputed memo on FBI’s Russia inquiry, The Guardian, 3 February 2018.

"The Pentagon's new...defence strategy regards "great power competition" as the primary threat to the USA. It plans accordingly to deploy smaller scale nuclear weapons fearing it might lose a conventional conflict."