From the beginning of Donald Trump’s presidency there has been a question: when he runs out of phoney wars will he have to start a real one? President Trump’s only language is conflict, his only appeal the visceral pleasures of setting Us against Them.
What has not been clear, though, is whether he would be able to contain the necessary conflicts within the sphere of violent rhetoric or whether the red meat he feeds his base would have to be, in the end, actual human flesh.
This week it became much more likely that Trump will not be content with wars of words. The attractions of the real thing are growing steadily more irresistible. The big questions now are who he will make war on and whether he can transform himself into a commander-in-chief behind whom Americans will rally.
Trump is neither an isolationist nor a hawk. He has no strategy at all. So the growing inevitability of a Trump war is not intellectual but institutional and political
In fairness to Trump, war is pretty much the default condition of the American presidency. Since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, in 1941, only Jimmy Carter can reasonably be said not to have been a wartime president. Democrats have been as gung-ho as Republicans.
And even the suspicion that Trump may be using alleged outrage about chemical weapons to distract from a domestic sex scandal is not new. Trump may well be using the military to drown out news coverage of the FBI's raids on the offices of his personal lawyer Michael Cohen, in search of evidence of payoffs to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal, who both claim to have had affairs with him.
But cynics at the time likewise suggested that Bill Clinton’s assault on the al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Sudan, in 1998, on the entirely spurious grounds that it was producing nerve gas, was meant to draw attention away from Monica Lewinsky’s testimony to a grand jury about her affair with him.
Nor would Trump be the first president who campaigned on an isolationist ticket only to find himself unable to resist the allure of bloody foreign entanglements. George W Bush, as a candidate in 2000, called for a “more humble foreign policy” before morphing, after September 11th, 2001, into an enthusiast for invasion and regime change who started wars that are still going on.
In the Republican primary debates in 2016 Trump struck a chord with his audiences by claiming to have opposed Bush’s invasion of Iraq: “I’m the only one on this stage that said, ‘Do not go into Iraq, do not attack Iraq.’ ”
Like so much else that comes out of his mouth this was a brazen lie, but it was in line with his larger insistence that the United States should stop spending blood and treasure fighting other countries’ wars. And it showed that Trump does have an instinct for the feelings of his followers and for their disillusionment with the results of neoconservative warmongering. (This is why most of the Bush-era neoconservative establishment supported Hillary Clinton over Trump, seeing her as a much more reliable military hawk.)
But Trump is an opportunist, not an ideologue. When he announced just over a week ago that the US would "be coming out of Syria, like, very soon", he was no more taking a principled stand than when he tweeted his intention to attack the Syrian regime this week.
Just as he was no more serious when he threatened to rain down “fire and fury like the world has never seen” on North Korea than he was when he suddenly agreed to meet its leader, Kim Jong-un, and his more excitable supporters started talking about him winning the Nobel Peace Prize.
He is not a peacemaker or a warmonger, neither an isolationist nor a hawk. He has no strategy at all. The growing inevitability of a Trump war is therefore not intellectual. It is institutional and political.
In the first place there is just one American national institution that Trump actually likes, and that’s the military. He has utter contempt for Congress, for the courts, for the rule of law, for federal agencies from the FBI to the environmental protection agency.
But he is enormously attracted to the military. Not attracted enough, admittedly, to have served in it. (He sought and received five deferments from the draft for Vietnam, the last of them because of heel spurs that allegedly prevented him from walking properly, although not from playing golf.) But the military often looks most attractive precisely to those who have avoided its realities.
Trump’s love of a man in uniform has led him to want to lavish money on what is already by far the largest military establishment in the world. (The US spends more than the next seven military powers combined.) His budget proposals envisage spending on the military a staggering $726 billion, or about €587 billion, a year by 2023 – 65 per cent of all discretionary federal expenditure.
And the big problem with all this spending is that you have to use it. Military budgets can’t keep rising without wars.
The political inevitability, meanwhile, is not so much that Trump’s support is slipping away. It has in fact remained pretty solid around 40 per cent. It is that the enthusiasm of that base has to be constantly aroused by conflict.
Trump’s primary instinct is to feed it phoney “wars”. He has two of them on the go, a border war to protect the United States from a caravan of Honduran refugees and a “trade war” with China. But, as episodes in the great Trump drama, both are proving to be a disappointment.
Sending the National Guard to the border is no substitute for the promised wall that is no more real now than it was when Trump was leading chants about it at his rallies.
And the promised "easy to win" trade war doesn't look so good when exports of soya beans and pork to China, so crucial to Trump-voting farmers, are at risk.
Add these two factors together and stir in Trump’s character traits of indifference to decency, impulsive narcissism and need to be recognised as top dog, and a hot war seems inescapable.
The most likely target is Iran. Trump is already committed to tearing up the multilateral deal to limit Iran's nuclear ambitions. His incoming secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, has long prepared the ground with the claim that Iran is "intent on destroying America".
His new national-security adviser, John Bolton, has been urging the bombing of Iranian nuclear sites for years and also called in 2015 for "vigorous American support for Iran's opposition, aimed at regime change in Tehran". Deeper American involvement in Syria can bring the US into direct conflict with the Iranians and provide the "incidents" that will trigger war.
Israel and Saudi Arabia would be only too pleased to see it happen.
Trump has told too many lies to be easily believed when he claims the US is in peril. And too many people have seen his chaotic incompetence to trust him as a saviour
But would it work? Wars have rescued unpopular leaders in the past (the Falklands for Margaret Thatcher, Iraq for George W Bush), and one can never overestimate the degree to which appeals to patriotism and allegations of treason can solidify a tottering tyranny.
Fox News would love the boost to ratings, and the Stars and Stripes would sprout on lapels and porches. The Republican Party, facing defeat in the November midterm elections, would surely rally to Trump as commander-in-chief.
Or the whole thing could be a debacle. Trump has told too many lies to be easily believed when he claims that the nation is in peril. And too many people have seen his chaotic incompetence to trust him as a saviour.
The prospect of war just might make Americans terrified not of the enemy but of being led into battle by a bumbling blowhard.