Trump’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad National Security Team
Gareth Porter paints a dismal picture. Time and again, President Donald Trump indicates he wants to do the right thing: get out Afghanistan, get out of Syria, get out of South Korea.
Every time, his national security team – the people he appointed – sends him to “the tank” and hotboxes him with all the reasons he’s wrong and why the US needs to “stay the course” in multiple wars and absurd deployments.
If the account of Bob Woodward is to be believed, Trump’s flailing against his own appointees is nothing less than pathetic, that of a pitiable Gulliver roped down by Lilliputians of his own installation. As described by Tom Engelhardt:
‘After all, from National Security Advisor John Bolton (the invasion of Iraq) and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (a longtime regime-change advocate) to CIA Director Gina Haspel (black sites and torture), Secretary of Defense James “Mad Dog” Mattis (former Marine general and CENTCOM commander), and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly (former Marine general and a commander in Iraq), those adolts [sic] and so many like them remain deeply implicated in the path the country took in those years of geopolitical dreaming. They were especially responsible for the decision to invest in the U.S. military (and little else), as well as in endless wars, in the years before Donald Trump came to power. And worse yet, they seem to have learned absolutely nothing from the process. [ . . . ]
‘In his book, Woodward describes a National Security Council meeting in August 2017, in which the adolts [sic] in the room saved the president from his worst impulses. He describes how an impatient Donald Trump “exploded, most particularly at his generals. You guys have created this situation. It’s been a disaster. You’re the architects of this mess in Afghanistan… You’re smart guys, but I have to tell you, you’re part of the problem. And you haven’t been able to fix it, and you’re making it worse… I was against this from the beginning. He folded his arms. ‘I want to get out… and you’re telling me the answer is to get deeper in.”
‘And indeed almost 16 years later that is exactly what Pompeo, Mattis, former National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, and the rest of them were telling him. According to Woodward, Mattis, for instance, argued forcefully “that if they pulled out, they would create another ISIS-style upheaval… What happened in Iraq under Obama with the emergence of ISIS will happen under you, Mattis told Trump, in one of his sharpest declarations.’
There’s every indication that Trump’s heart is in the right place but he hasn’t got either the awareness of his own vast Executive authority (for example his ability to withdraw us from entangling treaties, including NATO, with the stroke of a pen!) or the detailed factual knowledge to refute the lies fed to him by his own team. Symptomatic is Trump’s seeming acceptance of the canard that ISIS arose because of “what happened in Iraq under Obama” – supposedly that a “premature” American withdrawal created a “vacuum” – rather than as a foreseen and intended result of the Obama administration’s aim to create a “salafist principality” in the Syria-Iraq border region, as attested to by his own first National Security Adviser, General Mike Flynn, whom Trump shamefully threw to the wolves when things got hot.
Porter nonetheless concludes on an optimistic note: “Trump’s unorthodox approach has already emboldened him to challenge the essential logic of the US military empire more than any previous president. And the final years of his administration will certainly bring further struggles over the issues on which he has jousted repeatedly with those in charge of the empire.”
So maybe we can still hold out hope for the human wrecking ball.
Still, whatever Trump’s sound personal impulses, what have we got to show for it? Let’s look at the score so far:
- The bad news: Under Trump we’ve stayed bogged down in all the messes he inherited. And worse, in Syria he even took direct military action (which his predecessor declined to do) and has set us up for multiple rounds of nuclear chicken with Russia. In Afghanistan, we’ve added troops, not withdrawn them. Our no-questions-asked support for Saudi Arabia’s sickening war against Yemen continues. We’ve given Ukraine lethal weapons, another aggravating action Barack Obama hesitated to take, and given Kiev a green light to open a new front against the Russian Orthodox Church. Despite Trump’s summit with Russia’s Vladimir Putin ties with Moscow worsen by the day. Things with China don’t look so rosy either, with a major US Navy “show of force” set for the South China Sea.
- The good news: Though the outcome is still in doubt harsh rhetoric against North Korea’s Kim Jong-un led to the billing and cooing in Singapore.
- The best news: Trump hasn’t started any new wars of his own.
Not yet, anyway.
If Trump plans to launch a spanking new useless conflict of his own (launching at least one war has become something of a presidential prerogative, the Constitution notwithstanding), Iran seems to be the place. The portents are all bad. Despite his long-term optimism Porter notes that by adopting a policy of regime change against Iran urged on him by National Security Adviser John Bolton and financier Sheldon Adelson, Trump “may finally give up his resistance to the multiple permanent US wars.”
Sharp attacks on Iran by Trump and other top US officials, as well as by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, defined last month’s United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) meeting. Superficially, this resembled Trump’s verbal assaults last year on “Little Rocket Man” Kim Jong-un and North Korea, which eventually set the stage for the Singapore summit, a lowering of tensions on the Korean peninsula, an opening between the two Koreas which could become self-sustaining, and an uncertain path to denuclearization.
However, it is unlikely the current vilification of Tehran will lead to a comparable outcome. All signs indicate that Washington is serious about regime change in Tehran, either via sponsorship of internal unrest that would topple the current government, or by military action a la Iraq 2003. While the former is certainly Washington’s preferred option, the latter cannot be ruled out. This orientation may be considered fundamental to the administration’s current course both because of the composition of Trump’s team and because of the insistence of America’s regional partners, above all Israel and Saudi Arabia.
In pursuing this course, we will continue to see on-and-off confrontation with Russia, stepped up pressures on China, and a divergence of views with America’s European allies, especially on sanctions policy. Iran may be the focus, but this is a full-spectrum global policy long in preparation. In July 2018 it was reported that a few months earlier the US and Israel formed a joint working group focused on internal efforts to encourage protests within Iran and to undermine the country’s government. The point men are Bolton and his Israeli counterpart Meir Ben-Shabbat.
Of a piece is Pompeo’s July speech from the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, in which he clearly sought to evoke the fall of communism, casting the Ayatollahs in the role of Leonid Brezhnev and company. While Iranian “regime change” is not the publicly stated goal of the Trump Administration’s policy, it is hard to see how US demands on Tehran don’t amount to exactly that, with Pompeo comparing the Iranian “regime” (a term used dozens of times in his speech to imply illegitimacy) to a “mafia.” He asserted that Iran’s behavior is “at root in the revolutionary nature of the regime itself” – suggesting that no real change can be expected and that removal is the only remedy. Pompeo demanded not just a total change in policy from Tehran but a different mode of governance amounting to Iran’s ceasing to be an independent regional power.
Also of note were reports in late 2017 of a Trump-Netanyahu “strategic work plan” to counter Iran following a December 12 White House meeting and, before that in June 2017, the appointment of the “Dark Prince,” “Ayatollah Mike,” the “Undertaker” and convert to (Sunni) Islam Michael D’Andrea to run the CIA’s Iran operation. (One Langley insider’s simple comment on the D’Andrea appointment: “All I can say is that war with Iran is in the cards.”)
In short, this is a coordinated, strategic effort using every lever of national power to achieve its objective. It would be naïve to expect that this does not include the use of covert action, including support for terrorism inside Iran (such as the recent attack on a parade in heavily ethnic Arab Khuzistan), if not directly then via proxies armed and funded by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States on the pattern of Libya and Syria.
For anyone desperately seeking a parallel between Trump’s harsh rhetoric towards North Korea at last year’s UNGA, which led in time to the Singapore summit with Kim Jong-un, there is little to indicate that this is simply Trump’s “art of the deal” to achieve a similar outcome with Iran. There are three key distinctions between the two theaters. First, US demands regarding North Korea were focused on its nuclear program, while demands on Iran are comprehensive and are tantamount to demanding that the current government abolish itself. Second, while America’s top partners in northeast Asia, Japan and especially South Korea, welcome a warming to Pyongyang, US partners in the region of Iran, notably Israel and Saudi Arabia, are themselves the engines pushing for a more bellicose policy.
Third, Trump’s national security team is totally committed to the Israel-Saudi line. This was illustrated at the conference held in sync with the UNGA of the group United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) at which Bolton and Pompeo both appeared. According to one attendee, the atmosphere was one of cultic surrealism: Iran is responsible for every problem in the broader Middle East if not the whole world, including the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and ISIS; all Sunni terror groups ultimately trace their origin and funding back to Tehran; Tehran was responsible for 9/11; the terrorist MEK is the true representative of the Iranian people and is being groomed to be inserted as a replacement as soon as the “regime” crumbles. The UANI event was eerily reminiscent of the atmosphere in Washington in 2002, only replacing one letter to change Iraq to Iran.
Iran is also central to the confrontation in Syria, from which Trump evidently would like to disengage but has been overruled by his underlings. The US, backed by Britain and France, threatened action against Syria and even Russia if chemical weapons were used “again” in a now-postponed offensive on Idlib province. The standoff dramatically escalated with the Russian introduction of S-300 anti-aircraft systems, now reportedly being delivered, in the aftermath of the downing of a Russian surveillance aircraft and the killing of 15 crewmen as a consequence of an Israeli strike near Russia’s Khmeimim air base ostensibly against Iranian targets. The S-300 deployment creates a flexible, de facto no fly zone against Israel in western Syria and even can neutralize onboard electronic systems within a 250-km radius – effectively including all of Israel.How and when the next confrontation will take place is unclear.
By early November we can expect further tightening of sanctions on number of countries continuing to do business with Iran, especially energy purchases. Among these are China and Turkey, and possibly India. (India is a special case because of Washington policymakers’ efforts to woo New Delhi as the linchpin of the anti-China “Indo-Pacific Quad” along with Japan and Australia.) But the most important targets will be countries of the European Union. Much is being made of a so-called “clearing house,” or Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) for conducting business with Iran to avoid the SWIFT system and US sanctions.
The SPV concept is supported by the European Union, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany, as well as China and Russia. But the SPV or any other mechanism for the Europeans to defy the US is only as good as the weakest link. Simply the suggestion of the mechanism has infuriated Washington, which will seek to peel off one or another of the European participants in the hopes of collapsing their common action. It should also be kept in mind that the US Treasury Department can simply sanction the SPV clearing house itself, applying secondary sanctions to any European companies that interact with it.
Predictions that the Europeans are steeling their jelly-like nerves to defy Washington are laughable. The US treats our supposed allies with contempt because that’s what they deserve. (This is broader than just Iran. For example, Washington is also threatening Europe with secondary sanctions on companies participating in Nord Stream 2 (NS2).) The Europeans, even if they had the will, can’t just pull a SWIFT alternative out of a hat. It would take time, resources, and determination, which they are unlikely to expend once the US seriously starts to threaten them. Finally, it is well known that US intelligence has strong influence over many European politicians (including compromising material on them), as well as control of media, special services, military commands, and think tanks. In short, their ability to behave independently is small.
Russia is supposedly prepared to use its Financial Communications Transfer System (SPFS) based on blockchain technology to protect itself, especially when new, extremely harsh financial sanctions are set to kick in in November, close to the time full anti-Iran sanctions go into effect. It will be interesting to see if they can pull it off. With the knowledge that they are the number one target for US financial sanctions, the Russians have had time to work on protective alternatives, including local currency arrangements that bypass the dollar – and Moscow still doesn’t know how well it will work when the time comes. The most recent round of indictments against the GRU over a bizarre witch’s brew of supposed offenses including election meddling, chemical weapons, doping, and MH17 (with London’s malign hand much in evidence) is just a taste of what is to come, even now including direct threats of war.
To sum up, Iran is the proximate target of a policy that has only one direction (forward) and one speed (fast). But the ultimate target is Russia, with no possible improvement in sight and a state of relations that worsens by the week; this is designed to crush its economy and financial system, render its security posture untenable, and lead to a reinstallation of a puppet government of the sort that existed in the 1990s, pending breaking up Russian into more manageable pieces. Finally, after Iran and Russia are disposed of next in line is China, against which covert action to sabotage the Belt and Road Initiative may already have begun.
There isn’t anything remotely America First about any of this. It’s certainly not what this Deplorable voted for. But with the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad national security team Trump has saddled himself with, what else can we expect? They are in charge. Things are going to get a lot worse before they get better – if ever.