View from abroad: The return of the neo-cons

Updated March 26, 2018

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JOHN Bolton has been chosen by US President Donald Trump as his next national security adviser.—AFP
JOHN Bolton has been chosen by US President Donald Trump as his next national security adviser.—AFP

WITH Donald Trump’s nomination of John Bolton as national security adviser, the world has become a more dangerous place than it already was.

Bolton was a rabid neo-con in George W Bush’s presidency, and was instrumental in pushing the US into invading Iraq in 2003.

He has earned himself such a fearsome reputation as a hawk among hawks such as Cheney and Rumsfeld that a recent The New York Times editorial had this to say about him: “Mr Bolton, in particular, believes the United States can do what it wants without regard to international law, treaties or the political commitments of previous administrations.”

Bolton’s other political beliefs flow from this belief in American exceptionalism.

He advocates a pre-emptive strike against North Korea, arguing that American policy cannot be dictated even by close allies like Japan and South Korea. Never mind that should the US strike North Korea, Japanese and South Korean citizens would suffer terrible losses.

Similarly, Bolton, a long-time critic of the deal with Iran that successfully halted its nuclear enrichment programme, thinks the US should tear up the agreement signed by Barack Obama, and destroy Iranian military sites.

This is in line with Binyamin Netanyahu’s position, and given the Israeli PM’s close relationship with Trump, it would surprise few that he might have recommended Bolton’s appointment.

It goes without saying that Bolton is a staunch supporter of Israel. A war with Iran, at a time the Middle East is already in flames, would make the Iraq and Syrian wars look like picnics by comparison.

While it would delight Saudi Arabia and Israel, the region would be in turmoil for years.

Then Bolton is a fierce critic of the United Nations, once famously declaring that if its New York headquarters “lost 10 stories, it would be no great loss”.

Thus, he argues that the United States should not submit to its authority as it seeks to impose its own solutions on the world. And in his view, the Iraq war wasn’t a mistake as it led to the removal of Saddam Hussein, never mind the hundreds of thousands of lives that misadventure cost.

Bolt’s appointment closely follows the elevation of Mike Pompeo to secretary of state, a post that became available with the firing of Tillerson. The latter was viewed as being insufficiently supportive of Trump’s position on the Iran deal.

Pompeo’s deputy, Gina Haspel, has been promoted to the top job in the CIA. Thus, virtually at a stroke, Trump has surrounded himself by hawks, who despise diplomacy and advocate using hard power to achieve American aims.

Haspel, to remind readers, oversaw the CIA’s programme of ‘enhanced interrogation’, and ordered the destruction of the water-boarding video-tapes when a Senate committee began investigating the use of torture against suspected terrorists.

Clearly, Trump values her work as he once declared during the presidential campaign that he would insist on measures tougher than water-boarding.

While John Bolt will be spared a grilling by a Senate committee as the national security adviser is appointed by the president, Haspel’s hearings will be fascinating as several Democrat senators are already known to be sharpening their knives.

Mike Pompeo, the incoming secretary of state, is known to have views similar, or even more extreme, than Trump’s on a wide number of foreign policy issues. Both he and Bolton will lean harder than ever on Pakistan, and in this, they will have the entire Trump administration behind them.

Over the last decade, Pakistan has been losing friends at an alarming rate on Capitol Hill, and there is now a solid consensus encompassing politicians, army generals and the media that we have been supporting the Taliban and the Haqqani network in Afghanistan.

This, assert our many critics in Washington, has made it impossible to defeat the Taliban, and has made the Afghan war the longest in American history. Tens of thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars after the Americans invaded Afghanistan in 2001, the war smoulders on, with Afghan security forces suffering heavy casualties.

The Americans have yet to figure out an exit strategy, and in their frustration, lash out at Pakistan. Soon, our generals will discover that under Bolt and Pompeo, there is a lot of pain the US can inflict on Pakistan.

Like zombies, it seems the neo-con walking dead have been resurrected by the Trump presidency. This is odd because despite Trump’s many flaws, he had denounced Bush’s war on Iraq as a “big, fat mistake” that had “destabilised the Middle East”. But now, he seems to have fallen under the spell of the hawks who surround him.

This juggling of the top cabinet jobs has left the remaining professionals at the state department in disarray. As it was, hiring had almost completely halted under Tillerson, and a large number of ambassadorial jobs were unfilled. It didn’t help that Trump conducted much of his diplomacy via Twitter, thus undercutting the efforts of US overseas missions.

Observers see a growing sense of self-confidence in Trump’s latest round of firings and hirings. They feel that the US president has filled the top jobs with people he is comfortable with. And his obsessive viewing of Fox News appears to have led to Bolton’s appointment: apparently, his muscular opinions on the use of military power were central to his getting the national security job in the first place. The reason he wasn’t hired earlier is that according to Trump’s confidants, the president disapproved of his bushy moustache. Had he been clean-shaven, the US might have launched yet another war by now.

irfan.husain@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, March 26th, 2018