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Donald Trump

Trump’s national security strategy is a welcome shift away from ‘war on terror’ policies

Michael Edesess says a recent speech by US Defence Secretary James Mattis focusing on China and Russia as adversaries is actually something to celebrate, because it shifts focus from the post-9/11 policies that damaged the US’ security and reputation

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 01 February, 2018, 2:16pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 01 February, 2018, 11:05pm

Last week, reports of a massive increase in US defence spending confirmed the momentous shift in America’s national security policy that defence secretary James Mattis announced on January 19 in Washington.

His announcement, though highly noteworthy, was only lightly reported in the United States

Mattis said: “We will continue to prosecute the campaign against terrorists that we’re engaged in today, but great power competition, not terrorism , is now the primary focus of US national security” (emphasis added).

When the future histories of the US are written, these words – uttered by Mattis in his uncharismatic fashion – will mark a memorable turning point in US policy.

For the past 16 years, the US has entrapped itself in vicious internal disputes, wrong-headed policies and actions that resulted directly from the 9/11 attacks.

Osama bin Laden must be chortling in his grave, as the US political disruptions that were the goal of the attacks have been as effective as they possibly could be.

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Since then, because of its predictable overreaction to 9/11, the US has been bogged down in dirty, unwinnable wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It has forever sullied its commitment to human rights, with revelations of torture and its dark prison at Guantanamo – which for years has housed “suspected terrorists” many of whom aren’t actually suspected of terrorism any more, but are subjected to deplorable living conditions and have not been released or tried.

The overreaction has further sullied US commitment, not only to human rights, but to the privacy of US citizens.

The intrusive intelligence gathering by the National Security Agency that was revealed by Edward Snowden – instigated by the hastily passed, too-broad Patriot Act – has invoked comparisons to George Orwell’s infamous Big Brother state of 1984.

The habit of blustering about extremist Islamic terrorism, instilled in politicians since 9/11, is surely responsible for Donald Trump’s victory in 2016. Trump proved himself blusterer-in-chief with his unabashed scaremongering about Muslims, and any immigrant who might – in theory – commit another 9/11.

Mattis is often considered by Trump sceptics to be the most adult of the “adults in the room” in the presidential entourage.

On January 19, in an adult, bluster-free manner, he quietly declared the 16-year self-destructive overreaction to 9/11 at an end. He said that instead, national security policy will focus on dangers arising from great powers.

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But the US has already undermined its soft power advantages over China and Russia by damaging both its human rights record and press freedoms amid allegations of “fake news”, and by making a spectacle of its angry, hypocritical posturing in Congress and on TV and radio news.

Chinese government and media appear much more dignified in comparison. The line between America’s glorious freedoms and China’s unfree state has been blurred. And President Xi Jinping has been quick to take advantage of that.

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Citizens of the US should respond to Mattis’ statement with a hearty sigh of “good riddance”. The blight on US policy and national character since 9/11 has taken a significant toll. The damage that bin Laden wrought was successful in weakening the US, not so that it is vulnerable to a new Islamic caliphate as bin Laden intended, but to another new rising power.

The danger, of course, is that the US will demonise the new enemies in unhelpful ways. Let us hope the new policy views them as competitors, not enemies, and that it will be in the hands of adults.

Michael Edesess is chief investment strategist of Compendium Finance, adjunct associate professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and a research associate of the Edhec-Risk Institute