Tuesday,18 June, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1387, (29 March - 4 April 2018)
Tuesday,18 June, 2019
Issue 1387, (29 March - 4 April 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Beating the drums of war

If newly appointed US National Security Adviser John Bolton is to be taken at his word, the world should be bracing itself for new wars, writes Khaled Dawoud


Beating the drums of war
Beating the drums of war

Fewer than 48 hours after a White House spokeswoman denied that US President Donald Trump planned to remove US National Security Advisor H R McMaster, Trump nevertheless seemed unable to spend a week in office without making a major staff change, maintaining his revolving door policy and keeping the world wondering how to deal with his administration.

Adding to the concerns of many at home and abroad was the fact that Trump’s new pick for the senior post, John Bolton, was not only a close ally, but a hawkish conservative politician whose statements promote wars against US adversaries, whether in Iran, Iraq, Syria or North Korea.

The US news channel CNN reported that Bolton had promised Trump that “he wouldn’t start any wars” if he was hired to be the third National Security adviser at the White House in just 14 months, a claim that generated scepticism across Washington.

For many, the concern is that the appointment of Bolton, exactly the kind of advocate for US overseas intervention that Trump criticised on the campaign trail, marks a belligerent turn for the Trump administration that could doom attempts to save the Iran nuclear deal, increase the possibility of a clash with North Korea, and ratchet up tensions with Russia.

Bolton drew praise from some Republican Party senators, including South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham, who said the Yale Law School graduate would do “an outstanding job”. But a veterans group called the appointment “frightening,” and advocacy groups warned that Trump was assembling a “war cabinet.”

The anxiety is as much about Bolton’s track record that includes a disdain for diplomacy, a thirst for military adventures, and accusations that he manipulated intelligence in the lead-up to the Iraq War, as it is about the role that he will now play in shaping US foreign policy.

Leon Panetta, who served as both CIA director and secretary of defence under former president Barack Obama and White House chief of staff for president Clinton, said Bolton’s appointment “raises some concerns”.

“My view is that a president is best served by a National Security adviser and a National Security Council that are willing to present a really diverse set of views to the president, to make sure that he’s well-informed and that he makes decisions based on the facts and not emotions,” Panetta said in a television interview.

“And I’m a little concerned that John Bolton has his own view, obviously a hawkish view, of how to approach these issues,” he added.

“There are a lot of concerns, because we’re dealing with a lot of flashpoints in the world. We’ve got a potential trade war on our hands, we’re dealing with North Korea and a possible summit there. We’ve got China being much more assertive, we have Russia being much more assertive. We’ve got the Iranian regime, and trying to deal with them and the nuclear agreement, and we’ve got cyberattacks. I mean, no matter where you look, there are serious crises, and the real question is whether or not those crises are going to create a situation that will involve the United States in a war. That’s the concern,” Panetta said.

There is little doubt among observers that this was the message Trump wanted to send to the rest of the world: that he is now putting into practice his slogan of “America First” and is ready to use US force if needed, especially ahead of his unprecedented meeting with the leader of North Korea scheduled for the end of May.

Former US secretary of state Rex Tillerson and McMaster were considered some of the few wise voices in the Trump administration, calming the heated rhetoric and holding the president’s horses. “McMaster, Tillerson and [secretary of defence James] Mattis were a checkpoint here. Now it’s going to be up to Mattis to be a checkpoint on some pretty hard-line views,” Panetta said.

The National Security adviser’s job is to act to synthesise security issues across the administration, coordinating and summarising for the commander-in-chief the various policy suggestions that come from the Pentagon, the State Department and other agencies.

A National Security adviser offers his or her own analysis and then conveys the president’s policy decisions back down the chain and makes sure they’re carried out. But many express doubts that Bolton is wired to put aside his own views and offer the kind of impartial summary of diverse policy views that would help a president weigh all the options instead of emphasising the more hawkish positions he prefers.

Presidential historian Jon Meacham said on Friday that the decision to name Bolton as National Security adviser “raises the stakes for military action around the world” due to his “long record of talking about using American power.”

During an interview on the MSNBC news channel, Meacham said that with the appointment Bolton was “getting a quite unexpected second bite at the apple” after serving as ambassador to the United Nations during the George W Bush administration.

“You have to take people seriously, you take them at their word, and as you say, Bolton has a long record of talking about using American power,” Meacham said.

“One of the things that’s really interesting if you go back only ten years or so is you had a series of hawks, particularly in the second Bush term, the George W Bush term, who wanted to exert power even farther, beyond Afghanistan and Iraq,” he continued. “And it was George W Bush who didn’t want to do it. It was people like Bolton who did. And what you fear is that that point of view is now getting a quite unexpected second bite at the apple.”

Democratic Party lawmakers have largely opposed the decision to add the hawkish Bolton to the cabinet, expressing fears he could spearhead an effort to lead the country into war.

“With the appointments of Mike Pompeo and John Bolton, Donald Trump is successfully lining up his war cabinet,” tweeted Senator Ed Markey. “Bolton played a key role in politicising the intelligence that misled us into the Iraq War. We cannot let this extreme war hawk blunder us into another terrible conflict,” he added.

Bolton has been a contributor to the hawkish US news channel Fox News since 2007. Confirming that Trump derives many of his ideas from television talk shows, he named last week long-time CNBC contributor and former Reagan budget official Larry Kudlow as his senior economic adviser.

Meanwhile, the appointment of Bolton as National Security adviser will place two of the most outspoken critics of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal around Trump. Both Bolton and upcoming Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who replaced Tillerson, oppose the deal, which was made under former US president Obama.

Last October, Bolton wrote that he believed senior advisers were giving “flawed advice” to Trump to preserve the deal. He warned that “Obama’s Iran nuclear deal is poised to become the Trump-Obama deal.”

Bolton, who is scheduled to start at the White House on 9 April, has also long taken a hard line towards North Korea. In 2003, when he was an under-secretary in the State Department under Bush, he criticised North Korea’s leader at the time, Kim Jong-il, as a “tyrannical dictator” in a country where “life is a hellish nightmare.”

His brash comments complicated the Bush administration’s dealings with North Korea, which fired back with its own criticisms of Bolton, calling him “human scum and a bloodsucker.” That same year, Bolton said that after the Iraq War, which he also advocated, the United States would go after Iran, Syria and North Korea.

In an interview with the New York Times in 2002, Bolton was asked about the Bush administration’s stance on North Korea. He grabbed a nearby book and placed it on the table. The title was “The End of North Korea.” “That is our policy,” he added.

His view has not changed since then. Last month, he said he supported a military strike against North Korea in a Wall Street Journal column entitled “The Legal Case for Striking North Korea First.”

Meanwhile, some of the most controversial statements Bolton has made have been related to the United Nations where he briefly served as US ambassador in 2005. In 1994, Bolton remarked about the United Nations’ headquarters that “the Secretariat building in New York has 38 storeys. If it lost 10 storeys, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.”

In the same speech, he said that “there’s no such thing as the United Nations.” At that time, Bolton had just left his position as an assistant secretary of state after Clinton became president.

His dismissive views of the United Nations, along with his hawkish ideology, led to a five-month showdown in 2005 between the Bush White House and Senate Democrats when Bush nominated him as ambassador to the United Nations. The president ultimately bypassed the Senate and appointed Bolton as UN ambassador in August 2005 through a backdoor procedure known as a “recess appointment.”

Bolton resigned as UN ambassador in December 2006, around when his recess appointment was set to expire and it was clear he would not win Senate confirmation. The post of National Security adviser does not require the Senate’s approval.

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