What rulers crave most is deniability. But with the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi by his own government, the poisoning of former Russian spies living in the United Kingdom, and whispers that the head of Interpol, Meng Hongwei, may have been executed in China, the curtain has been slipping more than usual of late. In Riyadh, Moscow, and even Beijing, the political class is scrambling to cover up its lethal ways.
Andrew Jackson, was a cold-blooded murderer, slaveowner, and ethnic cleanser of native Americans. For Harry Truman, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima spared him the likely high cost of invading Japan. But the second atomic bombing, of Nagasaki, was utterly indefensible and took place through sheer bureaucratic momentum: the bombing apparently occurred without Truman’s explicit order.
.. Since 1947, the deniability of presidential murder has been facilitated by the CIA, which has served as a secret army (and sometime death squad) for American presidents. The CIA has been a party to murders and mayhem in all parts of the world, with almost no oversight or accountability for its countless assassinations. It is possible, though not definitively proved, that the CIA even assassinated UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld.
.. Many mass killings by presidents have involved the conventional military. Lyndon Johnson escalated US military intervention in Vietnam on the pretext of a North Vietnamese attack in the Gulf of Tonkin that never happened. Richard Nixon went further: by carpet-bombing Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, he sought to instill in the Soviet Union the fear that he was an irrational leader capable of anything. (Nixon’s willingness to implement his “madman theory” is perhaps the self-fulfilling proof of his madness.) In the end, the Johnson-Nixon American war in Indochina cost millions of innocent lives. There was never a true accounting, and perhaps the opposite: plenty of precedents for later mass killings by US forces.
.. The mass killings in Iraq under George W. Bush are of course better known, because the US-led war there was made for TV. A supposedly civilized country engaged in “shock and awe” to overthrow another country’s government on utterly false pretenses. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians died as a result.
Barack Obama was widely attacked by the right for being too soft, yet he, too, notched up quite a death toll. His administration repeatedly approved drone attacks that killed not only terrorists, but also innocents and US citizens who opposed America’s bloody wars in Muslim countries. He signed the presidential finding authorizing the CIA to cooperate with Saudi Arabia in overthrowing the Syrian government. That “covert” operation (hardly discussed in the polite pages of the New York Times) led to an ongoing civil war that has resulted in hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths and millions displaced from their homes. He used NATO airstrikes to overthrow Libya’s Muammar el-Qaddafi, resulting in a failed state and ongoing violence.
.. Under Trump, the US has abetted Saudi Arabia’s mass murder (including of children) in Yemen by selling it bombs and advanced weapons with almost no awareness, oversight, or accountability by the Congress or the public. Murder committed out of view of the media is almost no longer murder at all.
When the curtain slips, as with the Khashoggi killing, we briefly see the world as it is. A Washington Post columnist is lured to a brutal death and dismembered by America’s close “ally.” The American-Israeli-Saudi big lie that Iran is at the center of global terrorism, a claim refuted by the data, is briefly threatened by the embarrassing disclosure of Khashoggi’s grisly end. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who ostensibly ordered the operation, is put in charge of the “investigation” of the case; the Saudis duly cashier a few senior officials; and Trump, a master of non-stop lies, parrots official Saudi tall tales about a rogue operation.
A few government and business leaders have postponed visits to Saudi Arabia. The list of announced withdrawals from a glitzy investment conference is a who’s who of America’s military-industrial complex: top Wall Street bankers, CEOs of major media companies, and senior officials of military contractors, such as Airbus’s defense chief.
.. Political scientists should test the following hypothesis: countries led by presidents (as in the US) and non-constitutional monarchs (as in Saudi Arabia), rather than by parliaments and prime ministers, are especially vulnerable to murderous politics. Parliaments provide no guarantees of restraint, but one-man rule in foreign policy, as in the US and Saudi Arabia, almost guarantees massive bloodletting.
But as ominous or unprecedented as it might seem, Trump’s outburst is far less dangerous than the way we understand it. The opposition between rationality and irrationality has long undergirded the foreign policy doctrine the United States has relied on for dealing with the DPRK. Now it has been applied to our own President. What I have in mind here is not an elaborate Foucauldian construct, although its popularity certainly has something to do with the way post-Enlightenment Western society has conceived of the relationship between sanity and insanity. This opposition is far blunter, more soundbite-friendly—and thus more seductive. And its greatest partisans are the members of the national security establishment that stand to gain the most from the removal of this troubled President.
.. English-speaking analysts are prone to understanding the behavior of the DPRK through the lens of Richard Nixon’s “madman theory,” a strategy the President adopted in 1969 as he sought an advantageous end to the Vietnam War. Following the theories of the Cold War economist Thomas Schelling, Nixon adopted an approach called Giant Lance, aiming to convince the Soviet Union that an American nuclear strike on Moscow or Hanoi was imminent. By demonstrating that his behavior was not subject to ordinary rational calculation, Nixon hoped to achieve a superior bargaining position: “I call it the Madman Theory, Bob. I want the North Vietnamese to believe that I’ve reached the point that I might do anything to stop the war,” he told H. R. Haldeman. But the Soviets were not fooled: it was not easy to convince them that a world leader would truly be willing to act beyond material motivations and constraints.2
Instead it is American foreign policy doctrine that continues to divide the world into rational actors, typically NATO countries, and irrational ones, typically not long for this world: Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi, the Kims. In this worldview it is not a set of threats or behaviors that makes a leader a madman—it is the determination to maintain independence from American empire, often through the pursuit of nuclear weapons. In such a framework it is always the advocates of continual pressure, threats, and sanctions that appear the most rational, for they are the ones that maintain vigilance against uncontrollable madmen.
.. National security types believe their supreme goal is the prevention of nuclear Armageddon through non-proliferation. But their behavior demonstrates an utter lack at least of means-end rationality, for their policies have made proliferation inevitable.
.. George W. Bush not only invaded Iraq; arguing that he could not negotiate with such an evil regime, he unilaterally renounced the United States’s commitments in the Agreed Framework, justifying North Korea’s weapons program and its skepticism about American dealmaking.
.. Above all, it is the sheer reach and relentlessness of American empire that has set us on knife-edges all over the world. We are constantly told that we have rivals in all corners of the globe—places most Americans, when surveyed, have proven unable to identify on a map.
.. If we are on the brink of nuclear apocalypse, it is because the reasonable people, the Pences and the Frums and the Obamas and the Clintons, have put us and kept us there.
The idle blather of a Trump is nothing in comparison to this threat; if anything, it is a flamboyant extension of it. As a historian I struggle to think of even one instance in which careless words alone started a real conflict. The most grimly absurd adventures of the American military machine—Korea, Vietnam, Libya—were launched by people who were celebrated as the best and the brightest, working from doctrines developed by experts and scholars. To achieve a North Korea policy that does not menace us with nuclear annihilation, we first need to be able to escape their grip.