The big question is whether Trump’s inert caution would stay intact in the face of well-argued interventionist options from Bolton and Pompeo, who often favour military solutions as the quickest and the best.
By Seema Sirohi*
President Donald Trump’s decision to name John Bolton, a hawk the liberal establishment loves to hate, as his new National Security Advisor and Mike Pompeo as Secretary of State could be a major turning point in his administration.
Both men have a long history of supporting military interventions and low tolerance for long-drawn out diplomacy. Bolton’s tenure in the administration of George W. Bush was marked by an overt enthusiasm for the Iraq War and bureaucratic gamesmanship to crush opponents.
Bolton will replace H.R. McMaster, who was unable to develop a rapport with Trump and was increasingly isolated on policy issues. Pompeo, currently the CIA Director and an aggressive critic of Iran, will take over from Rex Tillerson, whose public disagreements with Trump on foreign policy issues had rendered him largely ineffective as America’s top diplomat.
Trump and Pompeo have a close relationship — Pompeo often personally delivers the daily intelligence briefing to the president. When foreign diplomats interact with Pompeo, they will know he is speaking for the US President.
While announcing the changes, Trump said, “We’re getting very close to having the cabinet and other things I want.” The sentiment was a reflection of the widely reported differences between the president and his national security team over the past year.
The new additions will tilt the balance in the circle of top foreign policy advisors towards more hawkish positions, leaving Defence Secretary Jim Mattis as the lone voice arguing for diplomatic rather than military solutions. With Gary Cohn, the Chief Economic Advisor, already gone, defenders of the liberal international order in the White House are few and far between.
Once in place, Bolton and Pompeo are expected to replace mid and lower-level officers who may not be read from their songbook. Expect a more effective execution of policies because Bolton can and will play Washington’s vast bureaucracy to his advantage — McMaster and Tillerson were novices in the field.
The fulcrum would be Trump who is said to have few fixed views on foreign policy. But his instincts are against waging new wars, despite his bellicosity about incinerating enemies with “fire and fury like the world has never seen,” or bragging about the size of his “nuclear button.” In the end, he has, by and large, exercised caution in sending troops on new military adventures.
Before committing extra troops in Afghanistan, Trump repeatedly exhorted his national security team to explain in concrete terms how sending more US soldiers would break the stalemate in the long-running war. He was frustrated with a lack of clear-cut answers, delaying the release of the new South Asia strategy. The strategy — praised in New Delhi for its clarity on Pakistan — might come under review by the new appointees.
The big question is whether Trump’s inert caution would stay intact in the face of well-argued interventionist options from Bolton and Pompeo, who often favour military solutions as the quickest and the best. Will they put the United States on a path to confrontation with Iran and North Korea as some liberals fear?
As a candidate, Trump had called the Iraq War “a big, fat mistake” and accused the Bush Administration of lying about Iraq possessing weapons of mass destruction. But now he has invited Bolton, one of the most ardent supporters of that war into the White House.
Bolton was such an unabashed enthusiast that at one time he advocated expanding the war to Iran. He has continued to justify his positions even as the war’s disastrous repercussions, including the birth of ISIS, are felt from the Middle East to Europe.
Bolton and Pompeo both view the Iran nuclear deal as dangerous and “disastrous.” They want to scuttle the deal, a view that aligns them perfectly with Trump but not with European allies, the International Atomic Energy Agency and much of the rest of the world.
Bolton, in fact, got back into Trump’s inner circle by suggesting ways to get out of the Iran deal after his access to the White House was restricted by Chief of Staff John Kelly.
It was reportedly at Bolton’s suggestion that Trump gave an ultimatum last year at the United Nations that he would pull out of the Iran deal unless the US Congress and European allies renegotiated the agreement. This is precisely what is happening.
A top US official is doing the rounds of European capitals to see if new elements can be included in a renegotiated deal by 12 May, the deadline set by Trump. These include putting restraints on Iran’s ballistic missile capability, imposing stricter inspections of nuclear sites and indefinitely extending the time limit on Iran’s enrichment capacity.
Bolton may go a few steps further. In 2015, he wrote in The New York Times: “The inescapable conclusion is that Iran will not negotiate away its nuclear programme. Nor will sanctions block its building a broad and deep weapons infrastructure.”
“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.”
Pompeo’s views on the Iran deal are just as hawkish. Being the CIA Director with access to intelligence has only sharpened them. He told the Aspen Security Forum last July that Iran’s compliance was “grudging, minimalist, temporary.”
He went further in October, calling Iran a “thuggish police state,” a “despotic theocracy” and compared it to ISIS, a Sunni terrorist group that Iran has actually been fighting. The level of rhetoric is a throwback to the Dick Cheney-Donald Rumsfeld era and the steady build-up to the Iraq War.
As a Congressman, Pompeo stridently opposed negotiating any deal with Iran. He called for breaking off talks in 2014 and suggested airstrikes to take out Iran’s nuclear installations. When the Obama Administration concluded the deal, he called it “surrender.”
Similarly on North Korea, Pompeo and Bolton want capitulation from Pyongyang, not compromise. Bolton has suggested in the past that the United States could attack North Korea without the agreement of South Korea, a treaty ally.
As recently as last week after his appointment as the new NSA had been announced, Bolton told Radio Free Asia, that the subject of Trump’s upcoming summit with Kim Jong-un should be about “eliminating, dismantling its nuclear programme.” Anything else would be “a waste of time.” While admitting that military action against North Korea was “very dangerous,” he stressed, “It’s more dangerous if North Korea has a nuclear capability.”
Pompeo also said something similar last July. “It would be a great thing to denuclearise the peninsula, to get those weapons off of that. I am hopeful we will find a way to separate that regime from this system.”
These are fighting words. The problem is that Bolton and Pompeo have the capability — both intellectual and bureaucratic — to convert them into a real confrontation.