Even as Britain and parts of Europe – though not it should be stressed the rest of the world – have been distracted by the hysteria about the Skripal case flooding out of London, far more important events have been happening across the Atlantic.
President Trump’s position becoming stronger
Firstly, President Trump’s political position is beginning to look significantly stronger with the decision of the House Intelligence Committee to close down its Russiagate investigation and to report that there was no collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign.
It is expected that the Senate Intelligence Committee will shortly report the same finding.
The Mueller inquiry has yet to report, but none of its indictments suggest that any evidence of collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign has been found.
It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Russiagate scandal – at least so far as it concerns the position of Donald Trump as President of the United States – is finally drawing to a close.
A politically much strengthened President is now therefore using the increasing political space available to him to reshuffle his foreign policy team.
Rex Tillerson, his former Secretary of State, is gone, replaced by former CIA chief Mike Pompeo.
General H.R. McMaster, his former National Security Adviser, is also gone, replaced by the notorious veteran hardliner John Bolton.
Tillerson and McMaster: a weak team
Neither Tillerson nor McMaster should be missed.
Tillerson is a person of great ability and experience who had the makings to be an outstanding Secretary of State. However the task the President intended for him – to be along with his first National Security Adviser General Flynn the point-man in the restoration of good relations with Russia – proved impossible to execute because of the Russiagate scandal.
In consequence Tillerson has drifted, and over the last year his lack of empathy with the President has become increasingly obvious, with increasingly public disagreements between the two men about the conduct of relations with North Korea and Iran.
The fact that Tillerson is reported to have called the President (his boss) a “f…g moron” cannot have helped, even though the story has been denied.
As for General H.R. McMaster, opinions about him differ, but the President cannot have been happy at the way he was effectively forced on him following the forced resignation of General Flynn.
General McMaster, as a former protégé of General Petraeus, war historian and military planner, is often spoken of as some sort of neocon intellectual.
In my opinion his views are the conventional views of a US military officer, and he is overrated.
His approach to his task as head of the National Security Council’s bureaucracy has been essentially managerial, neglecting the job’s key function, which is to act as the President’s principal adviser on foreign and security policy. To the extent that he has sought to perform this role at all, he has acted like a kind of gatekeeper, trying to box the President into following his own conventional thinking.
The President, who was elected with his own distinctive views on foreign policy has, understandably enough, become increasingly resentful of this tutelage.
It seems the breaking point may have been the President’s decision to ignore McMaster’s advice by telephoning Russian President Putin to congratulate him on his election. McMaster apparently advised against it. The President did it anyway, moreover refusing even to bring up Russiagate or the Skripal case with Putin.
Though tensions between the President and McMaster have been building up for some time and the two were apparently already in discussion about McMaster going, the President’s decision to ignore McMaster’s advice by calling Putin, and the subsequent leak to the media that he had acted contrary to McMaster’s advice, appears to have been the final straw, and within days McMaster was gone.
Pompeo and Bolton: disciples of America First?
What then of the two men – Pompeo and Bolton – the President has picked to replace Tillerson and McMaster with?
The first thing to say is that Donald Trump now has had a year of being President during which time he has become far more experienced in Washington politics, and has a much better idea of the sort of people he likes to work with and who share his views.
Whilst Tillerson and McMaster were people who were picked for him – Tillerson was apparently chosen at the suggestion of George W. Bush’s former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, not at the Russian government’s suggestion as the Trump Dossier’s compiler Christopher Steele has preposterously claimed – Pompeo and Bolton look to be Trump’s own choices.
In the case of Pompeo, Trump has now worked closely with Pompeo for a whole year, and it is clear that the two men get on with each other and share many of the same views.
In the case of John Bolton, the position is more complicated.
The Moon of Alabama describes John Bolton well
John Bolton is not a neo-conservative. He does not dream of ‘spreading democracy’ or ‘nation building’. He is a ‘smash, burn and leave’ libertarian hawk. He is also an exceptionally avid bureaucrat who knows how to get the things he wants done. That quality is what makes him truly dangerous. Bolton is known for sweet-talking to his superiors, being ruthless against competitors and for kicking down on everyone below him.
Another way of putting it is that John Bolton is an American nationalist and an apostle of US power.
He prefers to see this exercised with all constraints thrown off. Moreover he does so with none of the pretences about “democracy promotion”, “human rights” etc with which the US – and neocon officials especially – habitually mask the US’s actions.
Thus whilst representing the US in the United Nations as its ambassador Bolton made no attempt conceal his total contempt for the United Nations and for the whole system of international law which it represents.
As to his attitudes to US interventionist wars, they were summed up for me in a television interview I saw him give some time after the start of the Iraq war as it was becoming clear that Iraq following the US invasion (which he supported) far from becoming a thriving democracy as had been promised was instead descending into chaos and sectarian civil war.
Bolton’s response was both clear and chilling: he didn’t care. The US’s objective was to overthrow Saddam Hussein, who had been challenging the US position in the Middle East. With that objective achieved what happened after – Iraq’s descent into chaos and civil war – was of no concern to the US. If Iraq went to pieces and millions of Iraqis died or were killed, it didn’t bother him, and it did not concern the United States.
Not surprisingly most people find this attitude disturbing, which it is. However I would point out its intellectual clarity and honesty.
Perhaps I am alone in thinking this but on balance I prefer Bolton’s tough minded way of speaking to the endless sermonising of people like Nikki Haley, Samantha Power and the neocons, who support all the same wars John Bolton has supported, but who also insist that they serve some higher moral purpose even as they spread death and disaster all around them.
Why Pompeo and Bolton appeal to Trump
It is easy to see how this sort of frank ‘no-nonsense’ thinking would appeal to someone like Donald Trump, who is every bit as much of an American nationalist as John Bolton, and who has never made any secret of the fact that he also despises the moralising language with which US policy is typically conducted, and has little time for international law.
Whilst Mike Pompeo, the new Secretary of State, has never expressed himself in quite such blunt terms, he too seems to take the same strong line on vigorously defending US national interests and everyone else be damned that John Bolton does.
Since Pompeo and Bolton hold views about how the US should conduct itself in the world which look to be in accord with Trump’s, and since unlike Tillerson and McMaster they are clearly Trump’s own picks, I expect them to have a much better relationship with Trump than Tillerson and McMaster did, and to last much longer than Tillerson and McMaster did.
I do not share the widely expressed view that they will soon be gone, like Tillerson and McMaster.
Re-establishing civilian control of the US government
There is one important positive aspect of the coming of Pompeo and Bolton which has gone largely unremarked.
This is that the appointment of Pompeo and Bolton and the resignation of McMaster break the ring of generals who have been in effective control of the US government ever since Steve Bannon was ousted in August.
Though the other two generals that make up this ring – Defense Secretary Mattis and White House Chief of Staff Kelly – are still there, the coming of Pompeo and Bolton finally provides a civilian balance to them.
Soldiers tend to be more effective as executors of policy than as policy makers. Ever since the military took charge of the US government in the summer the US has a result been drifting into ever deeper confrontation with Russia, China and Iran, without much thought of why it is doing so, and what the consequences of confrontation with any one of these powers might be.
I explained all this in an article I wrote for The Duran on 24th August 2017
General Mattis is not prepared to risk a head-on clash with the Russian military in Syria, but is willing to act in the most provocative way imaginable against Russia in Europe,…. General Mattis is not prepared to risk a head-on clash with China in the Korean Peninsula, but is willing to act in the most provocative way imaginable against China in the South China Sea.
As is the case in Europe, this is because General Mattis presumably doesn’t believe that the risk of an armed clash with China in the South China Sea is a real one.
This strange mix of policies – backing off from confronting the Russian and Chinese militaries in Syria and Korea where the risks are real, but aggressively seeking confrontation with Russia and China in Europe and the South China Sea where no risks are thought to exist, is exactly what one would expect of a US soldier.
They combine the extreme risk-aversion characteristic of today’s US military, with its longstanding habit of aggressive posturing where the risks of doing it appear to be minimal.
What is wholly absent is any sense of a larger strategy.
In no sense does General Mattis seem to have a policy either for Russia or China or for dealing with the separate crises in Afghanistan, Korea or the Middle East.
Instead he improvises reactively – as might be expected of a soldier – in each case doing so without any sense of the interconnections between the various crises which confront him, or of the paradox of the US seeking Russia and Chinese help in the Middle East and the Korean Peninsula whilst simultaneously striking against Russian and Chinese interests in Europe and the South China Sea.
Needless to say, in respect to Grand Strategy – thinking about the Chinese-Russian alliance and looking for ways to respond to it – General Mattis can come up with nothing at all. So far as he is concerned, it is enough that China and Russia are adversaries of the US, so he sets out in each case to confront them where he feels he can, without giving any thought to how this may make them work more closely together against US interests.
Though Mattis and McMaster did not get on, and though Mattis and General Kelly both wanted McMaster gone, the same criticisms I made of General Mattis apply equally to General McMaster.
General McMaster’s entire period as head of the National Security Council has been marked by the same sort of conventional thinking and absence of strategic vision as is true of General Mattis.
By contrast John Bolton – if he is nothing else – is at least someone who takes strategy seriously, and since he is driven exclusively by his conception of US national interests, he is someone who might conceivably act in an unconventional way.
Given the multiple challenges the US is facing some new thinking is essential, and if Bolton can provide it that might not in itself be bad thing.
The problem however is in the nature of the ‘new thinking’ Bolton might offer.
Renewed drive for a rapprochement with Russia?
The possibility that Pompeo and Bolton might decide that some sort of rapprochement with Russia is in the US’s interests, and that they might therefore go along with Donald Trump’s repeatedly expressed wish for better relations with Russia, might seem unlikely but it is a possibility which should not be completely discounted.
Pompeo and Bolton are in no sense friends of Russia. On the contrary they see Russia as an adversary and rival.
However if the two were to decide that US interests would be served by temporarily mending fences with Russia, for example in order to avoid the US becoming over-extended as it pursues conflicts elsewhere, then they are not the sort of people who would let ideology or sentiment stand in their way.
Already Pompeo as CIA chief has shown an element of flexibility when he surprised many people by inviting to Washington the leaders of the Russian intelligence community for a bilateral intelligence summit.
However if Pompeo and Bolton do decide to seek some sort of rapprochement with Russia, it will only be of a temporary nature, and they will want it to be on the US’s terms.
That already makes the prospects for such a rapprochement problematic.
I suspect the Russians understand this fully, so that whilst some temporary easing of tension may occur, a genuine rapprochement is extremely unlikely, and any such easing as does take place will be short term.
War against North Korea?
Some are saying that Pompeo’s and Bolton’s appointment sharply increases the danger of the US attacking North Korea.
John Bolton is known to see the North Korean ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programme as a threat to the US, and he has publicly advocated an attack on North Korea as a way of bringing that threat to an end.
Mike Pompeo has spoken out in favour of regime change in North Korea.
Neither Bolton nor Pompeo are the sort of people to be deterred from a war against North Korea because it threatens casualties in faraway countries like South Korea and Japan. John Bolton treats such casualties as no more than collateral damage (see above).
Of course questions of international law do not concern them either.
On balance, I however still think that an attack on North Korea is unlikely. The risks of such an attack on a nuclear armed North Korea backed by China look altogether too great.
General McMaster is known to have called for a “limited strike” against North Korea. General Mattis and the US military were however strongly opposed. It seems that it was McMaster’s call for a “limited strike” against North Korea which turned General Mattis against him.
I expect the US military to be as opposed to a military strike against North Korea now that Bolton has taken McMaster’s place as they were when McMaster was around.
Ultimately I cannot believe an attack on North Korea will happen which the US military opposes, and for that reason I do not expect such an attack to happen.
However whilst I continue to believe that an attack on North Korea is unlikely, there has to be doubt about whether the proposed summit meeting between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un will now take place.
John Bolton has history of sabotaging negotiations between the US and its enemies. He worked for example to sabotage talks between the George W. Bush administration and the Libyan government of Muammar Gaddafi.
Already there has been intense opposition to the proposed Trump-Kim summit in Washington, and given their known opinions about North Korea and about North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programme, it is difficult to imagine Pompeo and Bolton allowing a genuine understanding with North Korea to happen.
On the contrary it is far more likely that they will press for a more aggressive US military posture against North Korea.
That will translate into more troops and more ships deployed to the Korean Peninsula and to the north east Pacific, more demands for more sanctions against North Korea, more pressure on China and Russia to agree to those sanctions, and more pressure on South Korea to break off its current talks with North Korea.
Frankly the prospect of any understanding between the US and North Korea looks bleak.
Though US President Donald Trump seems to have established – at least in his own mind – a cordial relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping, it is clear that his administration considers China a strategic competitor and long term adversary of the US.
The recent US move to impose tariffs on Chinese goods is at least in part driven by this belief, as are the increasing US naval deployments to the South China Sea.
I will here state my view that Donald Trump’s desire for a rapprochement with Russia as well as being driven by a genuine personal liking for the country is principally intended to divide Russia from China, with Donald Trump and his former adviser Steve Bannon being two of the few people in the US who seem to have noticed that the two countries have become allies.
I have no doubt that Pompeo and Bolton share this anti-Chinese outlook. Bolton especially has form in supporting an independent Taiwan, which crosses a red line for China.
I expect relations between the US and China to continue to deteriorate, with China responding to the US’s increasing belligerence by challenging US moves in the South China Sea and by stepping up its cooperation with Russia.
Mike Pompeo and John Bolton like Donald Trump are outspoken opponents of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (“JCPOA”) with Iran.
By ditching Rex Tillerson Donald Trump has removed from his administration the last major figure who supported the JCOPA, though General McMaster is also believed to have supported it.
The appointment of Pompeo and Bolton strengthens even further the already strong anti-Iran tilt of the Trump administration, which reflects Donald Trump’s own strong anti-Iran feelings.
Not only will this result in US hostility to Iran increasing even further, but outright cancellation of the JCPOA must now be on the cards.
A US military strike on Iran – something Bolton is known to have advocated during the Presidency of George W. Bush, has now become a distinct possibility.
Senior Iranian officials are already responding by talking of Iran’s need to strengthen even further its relations with the two Great Eurasian Powers: China and Russia.
The chairman of the Iranian Parliament’s Committee on National Security and Foreign Policy Alaeddin Boroujerdi is for example reported by Iran’s Press TV to have said this on 25th March 2018
We must strengthen our relations with important countries like China and Russia, which have also been subjected to US sanctions and face serious challenges from that country. China and Russia are two important and influential members of the [UN] Security Council and the expansion of relations will help neutralize and reduce the impact of US pressure.
The extent of any future realignment of Iran with China and Russia remains to be seen. However tensions in the Gulf region are certain to increase.
Arab-Israeli conflict and the Middle East
I expect Bolton especially to push hard for the restoration of US primacy in the Middle East, which has become severely eroded since the debacle of the Iraq war.
The Middle East happens to be the area of Bolton’s greatest interest, and I am sure he will devote much of his time and energy to it.
Though I suspect Bolton cares little about regime change in Syria, the fact that the US has suffered a strategic defeat there at Russia’s and Iran’s hands will undoubtedly rankle with him, and there must also be a fear that he will do all he can to reverse it. A renewed push for regime change in Syria, risking a confrontation with Russia, is a distinct possibility.
At the same time I expect there to be a renewed effort to bring Erdogan and Turkey back on side.
Pompeo in particular has already shown a clear understanding of the importance of Turkey in securing the US’s position in the eastern Mediterranean and in the Middle East. Only last month he visited Turkey to try to mend fences with Erdogan.
Whether Pompeo and Bolton are prepared to sacrifice the Kurds in Syria to win Turkey back however remains to be seen.
Of one thing however there cannot be any doubt: US support for Israel will remain unconditional and may if anything become even more strident.
Bolton for example has spoken against establishing a Palestinian state and against the two states solution, which is internationally widely regarded as the route to achieving broader Middle East peace.
Venezuela and Cuba
Much like Donald Trump himself, Pompeo and Bolton are implacable enemies of Venezuela and Cuba.
Whatever hopes the Cuban leadership may have had of a normalisation of relations with the US following Barack Obama’s decision to re-establish diplomatic relations have been dashed.
The result is that both Venezuela and Cuba are becoming increasingly dependent on Russia.
In Venezuela’s case this is leading to Russia establishing increasing control over Venezuela’s oil industry and over Venezuela’s erratic economic decision making.
In Cuba’s case steps to re-establish the economic and politic links which existed between Cuba and the USSR also seem to be underway.
The coming of John Bolton especially will not be welcomed in the major European capitals, where he is disliked for his belligerence and abrasiveness. However that is unlikely to have any significant impact on the state of US-Europe relations.
With Pompeo and Bolton Donald Trump has what looks like the foreign policy team that he wants.
It is indeed an “America First’ team, committed to preserving and extending the paramount position of the US, and indifferent to the methods used to achieve it.
It is fair to say however that this is not the conception of ‘America First’ which many people expected when Donald Trump was elected.
Most people then assumed that ‘America First’ meant retrenchment: the US abandoning in its neo-imperial adventures so that it could refocus on its own needs.
Instead we look more likely to get a repeat of the administration of George W. Bush, but this time on steroids.