You have to believe the world is in trouble when a Defense Secretary hailed by Pres. Trump (and many others) as “Mad Dog Mattis” now looks as if he will be the most moderate high-level person in Washington’s national-security team.
By the decisions he’s made over the past two weeks, to replace Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with Mike Pompeo, and National Security Council advisor H.R. McMaster with John Bolton, Trump is now veering into full “Dr. Strangelove” mode.
Pompeo, who was merely a very hawkish Member of Congress until Trump named him CIA Director last March, still needs to be confirmed as Secretary of State– though Tillerson has already left. Pompeo’s confirmation hearings are expected to be held in April.
John Bolton’s appointment as NSC advisor doesn’t require any Senate confirmation, so he’ll be taking up the job on April 9. He has reportedly already started making plans for deep changes in the staffing of the NSC. Just as well for him that his new job doesn’t require confirmation: His views are so extremely hawkish that back in 2006, even a Republican-controlled Senate refused to confirm him as Ambassador to the UN!
The coming two months may well be pivotal ones for the whole global system, in which the integrity of the system of political institutions and power dynamics that has existed since 1945 could see its deepest challenge and its deepest upsets yet. Between them, Trump, Bolton, Mattis, and Pompeo will be controlling by far the world’s greatest nuclear arsenal and by far its largest and most capable array of non-nuclear forces.
And two key deadlines in Washington’s relations with presumed adversaries are fast approaching:
- On Iran, on or around May 12, Pres. Trump is required (as a result of prior constraining legislation from Congress) to “re-certify” that Tehran has been complying with the terms of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran. He has said that before he re-certifies, he wants Congress to pass some specified, yet-more-restrictive legislation on Iran. Regardless whether that happens or not, if he fails to provide re-certification and announces a decision to exit the JCPOA, that will cause a major world crisis. The JCPOA, remember, has six other signatories in addition to the U.S. and Iran: Britain, France, Germany, China, Russia, and the EU.
- On North Korea, Trump recently informed the government of South Korea that he would accept the invitation from North Korean President Kim Jong-Un to meet with him in person, “by the end of May.” Any backing away from that decision, or the taking of any other moves to escalate tensions with North Korea, could at that point precipitate a deep political crisis in Washington’s relations with South Korea, China, and numerous othr East Asian countries.
John Bolton has a long and rich history of pushing for aggressive policies against both Iran and North Korea. Regarding Iran, just two months ago he wrote that Washington’s goal should be, “ending Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution before its fortieth anniversary,” which comes up next February. (Hat-tip on this to Robin Wright‘s excellent recent piece on Bolton.)
Bolton’s hostility to the Islamic Republic of Iran goes back a long way. During the George W. Bush presidency, when he was Under-Secretary of State for Arms Control, he systematically skewed the evidence he had about Iran’s nuclear program, in an attempt to win fiercer presidential policies against Tehran, as Gareth Porter has shown. He was also, in that position, a major provider to his boss, Sec. of State Colin Powell, and others of the fabricated evidence that helped jerk Pres. Bush into the March 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Bolton, lest we forget, was a major figure pushing (along with Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld) for the invasion of Iraq. And he is one of the few original advocates for that war who is still vociferous in saying that he still thinks it was a good idea.
In a podcast I conducted with veteran UN-watcher Ian Williams last Saturday, Williams noted that Bolton is a true paleo-conservative. Unlike the neocons who married their desire to invade other countries with professions of an intent to build “democracies” there, Williams said, Bolton and his ilk just want to “go in there, overthrow things, then move on.” These are the kind of policies we can expect him to argue for, regarding Iran, North Korea, or other countries. And he will be the person constantly whispering in Pres. Trump’s ear, and totally controlling all the information that reaches the president on any foreign-affairs issue.
This, at a time when Trump clearly seems to be feeling under great threat from the Mueller investigation, the growing chorus of women who accuse him of gross sexual improprieties, and the many other accusations of electoral irregularities and influence-peddling coming his way. A “Wag the Dog” foreign military adventure may seem attractive to him in the weeks ahead.
So what can those of us US citizens who want to prevent any such disaster do? Here’s my list:
- Swiftly (re-)build in your home town a broad-based antiwar movement of the kind that existed all over America prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. As I wrote recently, the pre-2003 antiwar movement kind of collapsed once the invasion started. But veterans of that movement would know how to restart it– and could probably do so in coalition with the “Women’s March” organizers and pro-gun-control organizers who have emerged in the past 15 months. Hometown organizing is the key both to building grassroots pressure on legislators and to building a strong national movement.
- Build the broadest possible (even if temporary) domestic alliances in this phase of rebuilding the antiwar movement. Sen. Bernie Sanders got speedily out of the gate on Friday with a terrific 4-minute video listing the top reasons Bolton should not be NSC advisor that was published on Twitter. But antiwar people should not hitch their wagon to Sen. Sanders or any other single political leader or party at this time. (Even many Republicans can be expected to be appalled by the threats that Bolton and Pompeo pose… )
- Remain vigilant in demanding solid evidence of any claims of infractions or provocations by Iran, North Korea, Syria, or other presumed Trump/Bolton targets, and in demanding only the most highly qualified experts to analyze that evidence. We all know the way in which, under G.W. Bush, the evidence against Iraq was twisted and misrepresented. We should not allow anyone to be similarly fooled again.
- Build the broadest possible (even if temporary) international coalitions to expose and rein in the imperial aggressivity of the Trump/Bolton White House. Such coalitions should of course include members of antiwar movements from all round the world. But they might, in the present phase, include other political forces whose positions on a range of other issues we might disagree with– including pro-government movements in countries directly on the Trump/Bolton target list, or in other significant countries in the international system. US citizens who stand up to announce respect for the rights of Iran’s, or Syria’s, or North Korea’s people to be free of the threat of US regime change and able to determine their own future may be fearful of being labeled “sympathizers” of those country’s current governments. No! As during earlier eras of US aggressivity against Cuba or Vietnam, we would merely by standing by our respect for the self-determination of all the world’s peoples.
- Use the Pompeo confirmation hearings and every other political opportunity possible to demand support from our legislators for international norms including the inviolability of existing treaties (like the JCPOA on Iran) and the non-use of force in international affairs.