Trump team

Ministry of war

Print edition : April 27, 2018

President Donald Trump with by H.R. McMaster (left) and Rex Tillerson (right), who were replaced as National Security Adviser and Secretary of State respectively. A file picture. Photo: Jonathan Ernst/REUTERS

Mike Pompeo, Secretary of State. Photo: Doug Mills/The New York Times

James Mattis, Secretary of Defence. Photo: AFP

John Bolton, National Security Adviser. Photo: ALEX WONG/AFP

Sheldon Adelson, magnate and close friend of Trump. Photo: Patrick Semansky/AP

Donald Trump and his new Cabinet may regard war as the most effective instrument of statecraft, but there is little appetite amongst the U.S.’ allies for armed action against Iran and North Korea.

A mid-level official in the United States State Department smiled as he talked about Trump’s new Cabinet. It is sadly funny that the most serious person in the Cabinet is someone with the nickname “Mad Dog”. We talked about the career of General James Mattis, Trump’s Secretary of Defence. No one seemed concerned with the actual career of Mattis, said the official. He recalled Mattis’ career in Iraq. Mattis had been responsible for the flattening of Fallujah in 2004 and for the Mogr el-Deeb wedding party massacre in May 2004. He had ordered the bombing of a tent in this little village near the Syrian border. As many as 42 people died in that attack—14 of them were children. No one has been held to account for this murder. Mattis, as the person who authorised the bombing, has never been charged. “Mad Dog didn’t get his name out of thin air,” said the official. In Trump’s Cabinet, “Mad Dog” Mattis is seen as the moderate. He is the “adult in the room,” as the State Department official put it.

Trump’s cabinet has haemorrhaged. Many of the so-called sober heads have been fired. First went Trump’s Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, a former head of ExxonMobil who was seen to be too rational for the Trump team. Then went National Security Adviser General H.R. McMaster, a military man who was seen as insufficiently deferential to the neo-conservative view of the world. Neither Tillerson nor McMaster thought it prudent to box North Korea and Iran into a corner. Neither wanted to draw the U.S. into a major war on two ends of Asia. This is the reason why a petulant Donald Trump pushed them out the door.

Mattis, along with Tillerson and McMaster, were known as the “Committee to Save America”. It was said in the nattering circles of Washington, D.C., that these men would not permit Trump to push the proverbial nuclear button and start a war. Mattis and McMaster had served in the U.S. military in Iraq. This gave them some weight in their discussions with Trump. Tillerson’s immense international experience allowed him to make the case to Trump that there was simply little appetite for war amongst the key partners of the U.S. (in particular, Europe and Japan).

Regime change intellectuals

But Trump faced immense pressure from his core constituency—the neo-conservative bloc, which includes those who have a particularly deep antipathy to Iran. There is a callous disregard for reality amongst those who advise Trump. His close friend, the magnate Sheldon Adelson, had said in 2013 that the U.S. should drop a nuclear bomb on Iran as part of its negotiation strategy. Take a hard line, he suggested, and the Iranians would surrender their nuclear programme. People like Adelson disliked what they saw as timidity on the part of Tillerson and McMaster. They wanted hard-nosed people in the White House, people who would be willing to bomb Iran when called upon to do so. Adelson, Trump’s largest campaign donor, had long urged Trump to hire U.S. diplomat John Bolton into the White House. But Trump, mercurial as ever, disliked Bolton’s moustache and perhaps his attitude as well. Eventually, Adelson prevailed. McMaster was out and Bolton took his place as the National Security Adviser. Bolton is a hyperbolic personality. When Adelson said that the U.S. should drop a nuclear bomb on Iran, Bolton took to the The New York Times to write, “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran”.

Bolton is not alone. Nearby is the man Trump has picked—Central Intelligence Agency Director Mike Pompeo—as his nominee for the Secretary of State. Like Bolton, Pompeo sees war as the most effective instrument of statecraft. His eyes are focussed on Iran and North Korea. These are seen as threats to the U.S. and its allies. There is no need to negotiate with them, Pompeo has suggested. It is far better to use the full force of the U.S.’ military power to force them into submission. Pompeo has called Iran a “thuggish police state” and has openly talked about the need to “change the Iranian regime”. Neither Bolton nor Pompeo is embarrassed to defend the U.S.’ war on Iraq, despite its aftermath, and both see it as a blueprint for future wars on Iran and North Korea.

Rhetoric against Iran

The appetite to attack Iran is limited in Europe and amongst other U.S. allies. The United Nations has made it clear that Iran has been meeting its commitments to the nuclear deal. There have been no clashes in the Persian Gulf between Iranian speedboats and the U.S. navy. There is no reason for Trump to ratchet up the war rhetoric against a government in Iran that has sought normalcy with the West through this nuclear deal.

In 2012, Israel all but fired up its bombers to indicate that it would launch a pre-emptive strike on Iran. It was only the lack of enthusiasm from the Obama administration that prevented the war. The nuclear deal in 2015 quietened the war hawks. But Israel remained enthusiastic about military action against Iran—if not only against Hizbollah, the Lebanese political movement that is allied to Iran.

As it has faced defeat in both Syria and Yemen, Saudi Arabia has increased its eagerness for an attack on Iran. Massive arms purchases by Saudi Arabia came alongside close public links with Israel. Both Israel and Saudi Arabia have made it clear that they would like the U.S. to strike Iran.

Trump’s closest foreign leaders are Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. Netanyahu has called Iran “the greatest threat to our world”, while the Crown Prince has dubbed Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei “the Hitler of the Middle East”. Such hyperbole leaves no room for dialogue. Bolton and Pompeo are close to Israel and Saudi Arabia. The war drums against Iran will sound not only from Tel Aviv and Riyadh but increasingly from within the White House as well. Pompeo and Bolton share the view that the crisis with Iran is linked to that with North Korea. In the view of these men, a strike against North Korea will damage the “axis” between these two countries. Pompeo has said that the U.S. should make “no concessions” to Pyongyang. Just before he was anointed National Security Adviser, Bolton wrote an odd essay in the The Wall Street Journal entitled “The Legal Case for Striking North Korea First” (February 28).

It is likely that Bolton and Pompeo will advise Trump to cancel his promised meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. If Trump does go to the meeting, it is equally likely that he will insult Kim and derail the process. With Bolton whispering in his ear, Trump’s petulance will know no bounds.

What Bolton and Pompeo have not been able to acknowledge is that the world of 2002-03—when the U.S. conducted its illegal war against Iraq—has now changed. The entry of the Russian military into Syria in September 2015 put down a marker that the Russians would no longer tolerate a regime change war. The Russians have suggested that they could send a squadron of warplanes into Tehran to block U.S. military action on that country. An attack on Iran would weaken Russia’s position in Syria. It is unlikely that Russia would sit by and watch the Americans conduct even a small-scale strike on Iran.

Bolton’s lack of understanding of the world was apparent in August 2017 when he mused about a joint U.S.-Chinese attack on North Korea “to dismantle North Korea’s government”. There is no indication from Beijing that it would tolerate any such armed action. The appetite for armed action in the Korean peninsula is now almost nil.

Even Japan, the U.S.’ closest ally in North-East Asia, is not keen on a war so close to its borders. Australia, another close ally, has developed a relationship with China that might stay its hand from any unilateral U.S. military action. If the U.S. decides to be belligerent, there is no clear sense of who would ally with it.

Trump has assembled his war Cabinet, but it is not going to be so easy for them to go to war. Barriers against a war on Iran and North Korea have been erected. Neither Russia nor China would welcome either of these adventures. Indeed, both might act to prevent them—and not just at the U.N. Security Council. It is not beyond the imagination to see Russian aircraft in Tehran and Chinese aircraft in Pyongyang. No one, not even Bolton and Pompeo, would like to see the U.S. go to war against China and Russia.