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26 March, 2018 00:00 00 AM

Trump's pick of hawkish Bolton raises old ghosts

Hussein Ibish
Trump's pick of hawkish Bolton raises old ghosts
Former US ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, left, has replaced HR McMaster as Trump's National Security Advisor

Defence secretary Jim Mattis was always the most important and impressive of them, and if he’s the next to go, profound anxiety would be warranted. For now, he seems secure, in large measure because he has defended his strong grip on the Department of Defence by avoiding any public disagreements with the president, keeping a very low public profile, and interpreting his authority exceptionally narrowly while defending it extremely tenaciously. His tenure has been an object lesson in how to be a successful and dignified senior official under  Trump.

This purge is accompanied by the rise of ideologues who are much more hawkish and politically aligned with, and personally beholden to,  Trump. It does seem to signal that the president is growing more comfortable in his first political position, dispensing with people he didn’t like, agree with or trust much but were appointed to communicate something or reassure some constituency.

The myth of the “grown-ups” was, in fact, deliberately authored by  Trump himself through these appointments. And now he seems to feel no further need of it. The replacement of  Tillerson with former CIA chief Mike Pompeo will be applauded in much of the Gulf, which felt he was unduly sympathetic to Qatar and insufficiently tough on Iran. The same logic might even welcome having  Bolton, rather than Gen McMaster, at NSC.

And, perhaps, these appointments are designed to make the administration look “tough” as a negotiating tactic and intimidate North Korea and China, or Iran and the European signatories to the nuclear agreement, in pursuit of the "art of the deal". But it looks increasingly likely that, in a few weeks,  Trump will simply withdraw from the Iran nuclear agreement.

If there is a realistic plan for what comes after that, it’s been concealed with an effectiveness rarely seen in Washington in general, and this administration in particular.

On Thursday, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al Jubeir at the Brookings Institution encouraged Washington and the three European signatories to find a way to keep the agreement alive while dealing with Iran’s continued misbehaviour. His implicit point is that simply walking away from the deal would play directly into the hands of Iranian hardliners.

But  Trump has given no indication he understands that, and neither have  Pompeo or  Bolton, the latter of which recently made the legal as well as practical case for an attack on North Korea.

Toughness is a virtue. Recklessness is dangerous. Wars are best avoided. Hard-nosed negotiating and even psychological warfare can work, but, as recent American history has shown, bellicosity and impulsiveness can lead to miscalculations and colossal blunders.

If there is a serious plan for dealing with Iran in the aftermath of a deconstructed nuclear agreement, there’s been no hint of it. And, as the 2003 invasion of Iraq demonstrates, even when there is a clear plan, it’s not always a good one.

In a way, it’s useful that  Trump increasingly has the team he wants and is comfortable with. Hopefully, if nothing else, it will yield more policy clarity and predictability. And if belligerent rhetoric and bellicose advisers are all part of complex posturing by  Trump in preparation for getting “better deals” with Pyongyang and Tehran, that would be welcome. But the world and the region can’t afford another fiasco like the Iraq invasion.

The danger is that with  Trump growing in confidence and purging most of the somewhat independent and sober-minded “grown-ups” from his team he will be empowered to follow his instincts in situations where careful strategy and rational calculations based on fully-understood complex realities are indispensable. These instincts led many of his companies into bankruptcy.

Even those applauding now may one day miss the grown-ups more than they would imagine.

And then there was one “grown-up” left in the Trump White House. National security advisor HR McMaster was living on borrowed time for months. He never clicked with Donald Trump and openly disagreed with the sudden opening to North Korea and ongoing appeasement of Russia.

Now he’s gone, to be replaced at the National Security Council by the ultimate Washington hardliner, John Bolton.

From the outset of the Trump administration hopes were pinned on a group of experienced and sensible professionals, usually nicknamed “the grown-ups,” to restrain  Trump’s most reckless and disruptive impulses and impose some order and continuity, especially on foreign policy. The group was generally held to include Gen McMaster, outgoing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and former economic advisor Gary Cohn, all recently removed in what looks like a purge of level-headed and independent-minded officials.

Some originally included John Kelly, now  Trump’s Chief of Staff, in the group, but everyone paying attention to how he led the Department of Homeland Security crossed him off the list in short order. Indeed, he increasingly looks like  Trump’s South Boston alter ego. Sad.

Below is a selection of his recent comments on foreign policy by Bolton:

Iran nuclear deal

"I think it’s a strategic debacle for the United States. You can always tinker around the edges, and the question is whether putting lipstick on a pig is really going to make a difference here. I think the answer to that’s clearly no." - March 20 on Fox News.

“The inconvenient truth is that only military action like Israel’s 1981 attack on Saddam Hussein’s Osirak reactor in Iraq or its 2007 destruction of a Syrian reactor, designed and built by North Korea, can accomplish what is required. Time is terribly short, but a strike can still succeed.” - March 2015 in a New York Times op-ed titled "To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran".

North Korea’s weapons programme

"It is perfectly legitimate for the United States to respond to the current ‘necessity’ posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons by striking first." - February 28 in a Wall Street Journal commentary titled "The Legal Case for Striking North Korea First”. He added: “Given the gaps in US intelligence about North Korea, we should not wait until the very last minute."

“How do you know the North Koreans are lying? Because their lips are moving.” - March 9 on Fox News.

"I think the only diplomatic option left is to end the regime in North Korea by effectively having the South take it over." -- September 2017 on Fox News.

China trade and Taiwan policy

“They’re stealing our intellectual property. We’re just supposed to sit there, is that the answer? I don’t buy it. I am a free trader but I don’t think that means just getting pounded into the ground when another country does not abide by the commitments it made.” - March 22 on Fox News.

“It is high time to revisit the ‘one-China policy’ and decide what America thinks it means, 45 years after the Shanghai Communique. Mr Trump has said the policy is negotiable. Negotiation should not mean Washington gives and Beijing takes." - January 2017 in the Wall Street Journal, where he also advocated for closer military ties with Taiwan.

The writer is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, DC



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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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