Exclusive: Donald Trump’s appointment of war hawk John Bolton is a cause for concern, Daniel Lazare writes, but what is perhaps an even bigger concern is that both major U.S. political parties are dominated by war hawks.
By Daniel Lazare
John Bolton is a hawk’s hawk, a militarist who never saw a U.S. war of aggression he didn’t like. The best thing one can say about his appointment as national security adviser is that Trump will probably ignore him the way he does all his other advisers and fire him six months down the road. If so, the sky won’t fall right away. But make no mistake – it will soon.
Rarely has war fever in Washington been deeper and more broad-based. Everybody’s jumping on board – liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats, human-rights advocates and neoconservatives. With the 2018 midterms fast approaching, it seems that the only choice voters will have is between a military conflict from column A and one from column B. Which will it be – the clash with Putin that liberals are talking themselves into? Or the showdown with Iran that Bolton has long advocated?
It’s a choice between cyanide and arsenic. One moment, Trump is threatening “Little Rocket Man” Kim Jong Un with “fire and fury” while, in the next, the New York Times is demanding that he take off the gloves with regard to the Kremlin. The title of a Times editorial on Friday, March 15, said it all: “Finally, Trump Has Something Bad to Say About Russia.”
It blasted the Orange-Haired One for being slow to impose sanctions in retaliation “for the Kremlin’s interference in the 2016 election” – still unproven, by the way – and of holding off “for reasons that have never been made completely clear.” This last point was rich considering how often the Times denounces Trump as a “Siberian candidate” that Russia installed in the White House to do its bidding. The editorial slammed Putin as “an authoritarian leader” who “has paid little or no price for his aggressions” in Syria and the Crimea, and it predicted that the Russian president “won’t stop until he knows that the United States will stand up to him and work with its allies to impose stronger financial and diplomatic measures to rein him in.”
If financial and diplomatic measures don’t work, what then – military force? Five days later, Editorial Page Editor James Bennet issued another schoolyard taunt, this time an editorial entitled, “Why Is Trump So Afraid of Russia?” The occasion was a remark that ex-CIA Director John Brennan had just made on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe”: “I think he’s afraid of the president of Russia. … The Russians, I think, have had long experience with Mr. Trump and may have things they could expose.” (Quote begins at 5:05.) The comment was an excuse for yet more Times paranoia:
“The possibility that Mr. Putin could have some hold on the American president has lurked in the background over the past year as Mr. Trump displayed a mystifying affection for the Russian leader and ignored or excused his aggressive behavior and nefarious activities, most important, his interference in the 2016 campaign, a subject of the special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.”
Of course, it’s a subject of Mueller’s investigation, and it will continue to be so as long as Congress gives him carte blanche to look for dirt wherever he pleases, regardless of whether it has anything to do with Russian collusion or not. The editorial then went at Trump once again for the sin of insufficient hostility: “…it’s hard to see how praising and appeasing a bully will advance American interests. That’s not the approach Mr. Trump has taken with adversaries like North Korea or Iran, or, for that matter, even with some allies.”
“If Mr. Trump isn’t Mr. Putin’s lackey,” it concluded, “it’s past time for him to prove it” – perhaps by threatening to incinerate Moscow the way he has threatened Pyongyang.
The relationship between adolescent rhetoric like this and Trump’s decision to bring semi-fascists like Bolton and Tea Partier Mike Pompeo on board is clear. The more the Times, not to mention the Washington Post, CNN, MSNBC, and others, taunt him as soft on Russia, the more he taunts them right back for being soft on Iran and then adopts confrontational tactics to demonstrate his own machismo.
Bolton is the latest example of where such tit-for-tat madness is leading. The former U.S. ambassador to the UN is famous as an opponent of the 2015 Iran nuclear accord and advocate of Iranian regime change. On this, he and Trump see eye to eye, which suggests that years of fist-shaking may finally give way to something more concrete, like cruise missiles and bunker-busting bombs.
With Pompeo as secretary of state, Trita Parsi, leader of the National Iranian American Council, tweets that “Trump is assembling a WAR CABINET” – and the judgment may well be on the mark. If so, Tehran will undoubtedly respond by shoring up its defenses along the “Shi‘ite crescent” stretching across Iraq and Syria to Lebanon. The Arab gulf states will ratchet up their anti-Shi‘ite sectarianism while Turkey and Israel may conclude that it’s now open season on Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and likewise send in the bombers and troops.
After a momentary lull, the effect will be to thrust the region into yet another round of war, one even bigger and more ferocious than the last. All the usual horrors will ensue – refugees, terrorism, social collapse, and renewed xenophobia in Europe and the US.
But Iran is where things get complicated. It’s allied with Russia while both states are allied with Assad, whom Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, and Barack Obama spent years trying to topple. Trump opposes the 2015 Iran accord but wants to make nice with Putin, while liberals back the agreement while at the same time viewing the Russian president as the devil incarnate even though he helped negotiate it. Their neocon allies are meanwhile hostile to all three.
Chuck Schumer, leader of the glorious anti-Trump #Resistance in the Senate, voted against the Iran agreement, as did fellow New York Democrat Eliot L. Engel in the House. William Kristol, leader of the never-Trump neocons, campaigned against it along with fellow neocon Trump-basher Max Boot.
So the more Trump moves against Iran and Syria, the more divisions are likely to emerge in the anti-Trump camp between neocons who see nothing wrong with confronting Tehran and liberals who would be more comfortable with a stepped-up military response in the eastern Ukraine. Regardless of where it takes place, war will grow more likely rather than less. Bernie Sanders may finally speak out against such spiraling levels of insanity, but it will be too little too late.
John Bolton is without doubt a dangerous man. Not only did he champion the war against Saddam Hussein, but, even before U.S. troops had set foot in Iraq, he told Israeli leaders that the next step would be to take out Syria, Iran, and North Korea, a goal he has pursued with single-minded consistency ever since. For Bolton, the aim is to create a growing cascade of Third World wars so as to propel the U.S. into a position as unchallenged military dictator of the entire globe. The more numerous the conflicts, the more he’s convinced that the U.S. will come up on top.
The problem though is that Democrats have been no less bellicose. Breaking ranks with Democrats like Massachusetts Governor Mike Dukakis, Bill Clinton set the pace in 1984 by allowing the Arkansas National Guard to be transferred to Honduras in support of Ronald Reagan’s regime-change efforts in neighboring Nicaragua. Democrats supported George Bush Sr.’s invasion of Panama in late 1989 and the 1990-91 Gulf War too. As president, Bill Clinton launched round-the-clock air attacks on the Balkans while Hillary championed the post-9/11invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Clinton, Obama, and John Kerry upped the ante even more after the 2011 Arab Spring by launching a bombing campaign that reduced Libya to anarchy and spending billions more to do the same to Syria.
The former has been set back generations as Al Qaeda and ISIS-linked Islamist militias battle one another in the streets, black African migrants are bought and sold as slaves, and women are subjected to draconian Saudi-like restrictions. According to the World Bank, Syria has suffered an estimated $226 billion in war damage, a staggering sum for a country of 21 million people with a per-capita income as of 2010 of just $1,700.
The problem with Washington is that it doesn’t have one war party, but two. The more they go at one another, the more they export America’s domestic chaos overseas in the form of Third World military conflict. Could it be that America is turning into the biggest failed state of them all?
Daniel Lazare is the author of The Frozen Republic: How the Constitution Is Paralyzing Democracy (Harcourt Brace, 1996) and other books about American politics. He has written for a wide variety of publications from The Nation to Le MondeDiplomatique, and his articles about the Middle East, terrorism, Eastern Europe, and other topics appear regularly on such websites as Jacobin and The American Conservative.