The United States has never invaded Norway. It has never bombed Oslo. It has never rounded up Norwegians and thrown them in Guantanamo.
Perhaps some U.S. diplomats have referred to the country as a “shithole” — because the food’s rather bland and the nightlife rather staid — but the important thing is that the United States has never treated Norway as a “shithole.”
Between the word and the deed lies a world of difference.
Donald Trump outraged everyone outside his ever-more concentrated base with his recent comment that the United States should stop accepting immigrants from “shithole” countries in Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean and instead bring people in from places like Norway.
Foreign governments from Botswana and Haiti to El Salvador and even Norway denouncedthe president. Rupert Colville, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, called the president “racist.” Even a handful of Republican lawmakers put some distance between themselves and the insulter-in-chief.
But all of this outrage is outrageously beside the point. Trump was only putting into words an underlying principle of U.S. foreign policy. For decades, the United States has treated countries like “shitholes” even if policymakers haven’t called them such, at least not in public.
Trump is a racist and the names he blurts out are offensive, no question about it. But it’s the sticks and stones of U.S. foreign policy that are really going to hurt you. So, why is everyone more upset about Donald Trump’s frank utterances — saying what many of his equally racist Washington colleagues are thinking — than the far more brutal excesses of U.S. foreign policy?
Insult, Then Injury
All armies train their soldiers to dehumanize the enemy. If you think of your enemy as a person, it’s very difficult to shoot him or her between the eyes.
The same holds true for countries. If you think of a country as a civilized place, it’s very difficult to bomb it back to the Stone Age.
The United States, in its more than a century of imperial ambitions, has long been subjecting other countries to the “shithole” treatment. At the outset of empire, the United States branded the Philippines as a place beyond the pale — filled with, as Assistant Secretary of the Navy Teddy Roosevelt put it, “savages, barbarians, a wild and ignorant people.” Such rhetorical dehumanization made it easier for U.S. troops to kill 20,000 Filipino fighters and preside over a three-year war that left more than 200,000 Filipino civilians dead.
The northern parts of Korea and Vietnam received similar “shithole” treatment in the Cold War era. The Koreans and Vietnamese suffered from the same dehumanizing epithets as the Filipinos several generations before. Worse were the saturation bombings that they endured. This was the era of destroying the village to save it. If a place is a “shithole” to begin with, this kind of logic makes perfect sense.
For geopolitical reasons, Vietnam is back in the good graces of the United States: After all, it serves as a wedge against China.
North Korea is another matter. It is the “scourge of our planet” ruled over by a “depraved regime,” Trump said at the UN last year. Trump’s epithets aren’t part of a campaign to bring North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to the International Criminal Court. Trump cares little about human rights, and after all, he either “has a very good relationship” with Kim, according to The Wall Street Journal, or “he’d have a good relationship” (according to Trump). Honestly, who cares about the verb tense? It’s the adjective “good” that counts most: These two guys are cut from the same cloth.
So, forget about human rights. Trump has reduced North Korea to rhetorical rubble as a strategy to prepare the American public for a future military action against the country — an option that Trump continues to cultivate despite the recent inter-Korean warming. Thus does insult precede injury.
But the United States isn’t just in the business of identifying “shitholes.” It’s also in the business of making them.
Sow the Wind, Reap the Shitstorm
After September 11, the United States adopted a more muscular foreign policy that produced one “shithole” country after another.
The Bush administration invaded Afghanistan and Iraq. The Obama administration led from behind in a regime-change effort in Libya. First Obama and then Trump waded into the quagmire of Syria. U.S. Special Forces are involved throughout most of what was once called the Third World (and now, according to Trump, should be renamed the “Shit World”).
In Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States played the pivotal role in turning brutally run countries into certifiable “shitholes.” With Libya and Syria, Washington has helped accelerate the virtual collapse of the countries. Forget nation-building and post-conflict reconstruction: The United States over the last couple decades has been much better at breaking things than putting them back together.
Trump didn’t single out Afghanistan as a “shithole” in his recent comments. He didn’t have to. His policy toward the country conveys very clearly what his evaluation is.
“The gloves are off,” the Pentagon has rejoiced. Between last August and December, Washington conducted almost as many air strikes in the country as 2015 and 2016 combined. The U.S. military now attacks the Taliban anywhere and everywhere — which helped ensure more civilian deaths last year than at any other point in the 16-year war — and not just in defense of Afghan forces (which was the Obama-era policy).
Which brings us back to Trump and his woeful perspective on immigration. Afghanistan continues to be the world’s second leading source of refugees (just behind Syria). Libya and Iraq have been hemorrhaging their populations. Other sending countries — El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Haiti, Congo — can point to the United States as a key player in contributing to the violence, economic chaos, and social unrest that have uprooted a substantial portion of the population — whether it’s been U.S. support for murderous dictatorships, misguided U.S. economic programs, or the U.S. market for narcotics.
In other words, so many of the people trying to get into Europe and the United States these days are escaping the conditions that Washington helped to create.
Hey, President Trump, you want to know why those folks, and not Norwegians, are clamoring to get into this country? Ask all those generals that are sitting around your table. However profane they might be in private — just consider the military origin of the acronyms “snafu” and “fubar” — these military professionals would never violate protocol by referring to other countries in a derogatory fashion. This isn’t the 19th century. But they have blood on their hands nonetheless.
Flipping the Script
Trump made his comments about immigration shortly after meeting with Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg. Trump was suitably impressed with the country. No doubt he wished he could run a predominantly white country made wealthy by oil.
Although the United States currently enjoys a booming stock market and low unemployment, Trump knows quite well the economic distress in much of the country. Those are the areas that put him over the top in the Electoral College. Those are the areas he loves to visit as president to remind him of those boisterous campaign rallies where everyone, and not just 30 percent of the audience, loved him. Those are also the areas that are going to continue to suffer as a result of his feed-the-rich economic policies.
Those are the areas that, dare I say it, Trump considers “shitholes.”
I’m not putting words in his mouth. “I want to make the country great again,” he told the pressback in May 2015. “This country is a hellhole. We are going down fast.”
As I said, first come the insults, then comes the injury. Trump has, in a sense, invaded the United States and unleashed his special brand of fire and fury on the homeland. Now he’s methodically turning this country into a shithole for 99 percent of its residents. He’s been busy all year destroying the United States in order to “save” it.
Trump was prophetic. We are indeed going down fast. And the Norwegians are not coming to the rescue.
Foreign Policy In Focus, January 17, 2018