Diary from Trumpland

Hawk in control

Print edition : December 21, 2018

John Bolton, National Security Adviser to President Donald Trump. He is now the man who shapes U.S. foreign policy. Photo: YURI KADOBNOV/AFP

U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton, known for his warmongering, is eager to manufacture evidence to start wars against governments that he does not favour.

United States President Donald Trump’s National Security Adviser, John Bolton, has never seen a U.S. war he has not championed. Reality has always been irrelevant to him. In a previous stint at the State Department during the presidency of George W. Bush, Bolton tried to block several internal memorandums on Iran. He was concerned that these documents would not allow him to make the case for more pressure on Iran because of its nuclear programme. What Bolton wanted was to create the conditions for a war against Iran. He also tried to push false statements about Cuba and biological weapons. This was also to generate enthusiasm for a war against Cuba. Facts are irrelevant. His opinion is all that counts if these lead to wars that he wants.

Trump was initially uncertain about Bolton—his moustache is a problem, he said. But then, under pressure from the neoconservative wing of the Republican Party, Trump brought in Bolton to one of the most senior positions in the White House. Bolton is now the man who shapes the U.S.’ foreign policy.

Focus on Iran

Bolton’s focus has been on Iran. He is guided by policy recommendations from Israel and Saudi Arabia. Criticism of these two countries is forbidden in the White House. That is why Trump was so forgiving of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for his role in the assassination of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. It is also why there will never be even a word of criticism of the Israeli government for the sniper fire against unarmed civilians in Gaza and for the bombardment of Gaza in November. It has been typical for the U.S. to defend these countries, but at the same time, as a sop to the liberals, to make gestures of criticism. Even those gestures are not available under Bolton. He is almost like the ambassador for Israel and Saudi Arabia in the U.S. And, since these countries want to pummel Iran, Bolton wants to pummel Iran.

It was under Bolton’s urging that Trump referred to Iran as “chaos, death and destruction”. Bolton headlined the annual United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) summit this year. Funded by two billionaires, Sheldon Adelson and Thomas Kaplan, UANI essentially puts forward the most virulent right-wing Israeli agenda in the U.S. At the summit meeting, Bolton characterised the government in Iran as a “murderous regime”. “If you harm our citizens,” Bolton said, “if you continue to live, cheat and deceive, there will indeed be hell to pay.” The tone was rough.

Diplomacy is not Bolton’s strength (he once said if the 38-storeyed United Nations building in New York “lost 10 stories, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference”). Bolton focussed on Syria and on the nuclear deal. If any U.S. troops were killed in Syria by an Iranian-backed military group or if the U.S. found Iran to be building a nuclear arsenal, then the U.S. would go to war against Iran. “Let my message today be clear,” he said. “We are watching, and we will come after you.”

Trump’s decision to unilaterally pull the U.S. out of the nuclear deal with Iran came at the insistence of Bolton and the neoconservatives as well as Israel and Saudi Arabia. Trump’s statement about the killing of Khashoggi focusses attention not on Saudi Arabia’s shortcomings, of which there are many, but on Iran. Iran is responsible for this and that, for Yemen and Syria, for every problem in West Asia and North Africa. The statement was so comical that Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif took to Twitter, Trump’s favourite medium, to say: “Perhaps we’re also responsible for the California fires, because we didn’t help rake the forests—just like the Finns do?” This was a clever tweet. Trump had said that the cataclysmic forest fires in California had nothing to do with climate change but were a result of poor forest management (and here he said Finland had no forest fires because the Finns raked their forests—a statement mocked even in Finland, where the hashtag #RakeAmericaGreatAgain made its appearance).

‘Troika of tyranny’

Over the past two decades, the U.S. has not had an easy time moving an agenda in South and Central America. The rise of left-leaning governments and a leftist regional project (Bolivarianism) drove a process that precluded the interference of the U.S. government. Even right-wing governments in Colombia and Mexico had to bend to the importance of this regional development. The failed U.S.-driven coup against the government in Venezuela in 2002 signalled the weakness of the U.S. government in this period.

The tide changed with another coup, in Honduras in 2009. Commodity prices collapsed, and left-leaning governments fell to coups, to judicial interference and to loss of their base to inflation and joblessness. The dynamic changed from the Left to the Right in Latin America. Bolton smelt blood. He went to Miami and gave an important speech where he threatened the “troika of tyranny”—Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela—with regime change.

Close links with Colombian President Iván Duque and with Brazilian President-elect Jair Bolsonaro (whom Bolton called the “Trump of the Tropics”) has emboldened Bolton further. He has begun to coordinate policy with them to exacerbate the problems in Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela as a pretext for either military intervention or (more likely) for civil conflict and the collapse of the governments.

In 2002, when Bolton worked for President George W. Bush, he argued, without evidence, that Cuba had developed a biological weapons programme. Fortunately, the intelligence officers in the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the State Department (particularly Christian Westermann) did not accept Bolton’s view. An angry Bolton tried to get the agents transferred, but their superiors, notably Carl W. Ford at the State Department, did not follow his order. Bolton was not able to drive his anti-Cuba agenda at that time.

Ford described Bolton as a “kiss-up, kick-down kind of guy”, someone who berates subordinates and who cajoles superiors. That is hardly the lesson of this incident. What is more important is that Bolton is eager to manufacture evidence to start wars against governments that he does not favour. Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela are in his gunsights. He is going to use his post—and a pliant media—to manufacture as much negative information as possible about these countries.

War against the planet

Bolton, like the neoconservatives, believes that the U.S. military force must be used medicinally on the planet. There is only one solution to crises—for the U.S. Air Force to bomb mercilessly. Bolton has repeatedly called for the U.S. to bomb Iran. In 2015, he wrote an opinion piece in The New York Times entitled “To Stop Tehran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran”. Two years later, he took to The Wall Street Journal to make the case for “military options for North Korea”. Non-proliferation has failed, he wrote in both pieces. Bombardment was the only option. Pre-emptive strikes are necessary even if these result in civilian casualties.

To make the case for “diplomatic options”, Bolton told a Fox News anchor in 2017, is to surrender to countries such as Iran and North Korea. Bolton’s book is called Surrender Is Not an Option. A better title would be: War Is Always the Option.

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