PATRICK LAWRENCE: A Week of Dangerous Developments from Iran to North Korea

The increasingly aggressive moves by Trump’s hawkish advisers give the impression of a palace coup, writes Patrick Lawrence. 

By Patrick Lawrence
Special to Consortium News

Neoconservative hawks in the Trump administration, led by National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, moved swiftly to usurp control of U.S. foreign policy last week. Iran, Venezuela, North Korea, China: In all four cases, the president has been effectively sidelined on defense and national security questions in what begins to resemble a palace coup.

Global tensions now escalate by the day; so does the risk of military confrontation, notably but not only with Iran. There have long been indications that President Donald Trump is at odds with many of his foreign policy advisers. This internal conflict broke into the open last Thursday, when the Washington Post published leaked accounts of White House warfare.

“The president’s dissatisfaction has crystallized around national security adviser John Bolton,” the Post reported, “and what Trump has groused is an interventionist stance at odds with his view that the United States should stay out of foreign quagmires.”

John Bolton: Promised a clean Caracas coup. (Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons)

Immediately at issue between Trump and Bolton is the administration’s recently failed attempt to depose Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela’s president. To be clear, Trump is not the peacenik of the piece: As the Post reported, he is dissatisfied with Bolton because the planned coup in Caracas has not proven swift, clean, and risk-free, as the national security adviser apparently promised it would. A quagmire now beckons.

But the president’s feud with the Bolton–Pompeo axis and those in the Washington bureaucracy allied with it, extends well beyond Venezuela. The extremist neoconservatives among his advisers and elsewhere in his administration have consistently foiled Trump’s efforts to negotiate with Tehran and Pyongyang — for a revised nuclear accord with the former, a denuclearization agreement with the latter. Last week the administration’s hawkish wing made Trump’s chances of diplomatic settlements with Iran and North Korea even more remote. As he works toward a comprehensive trade accord with China, the Pentagon appears intent on provoking Beijing in the South China Sea.  

Persian Gulf Deployment

Bolton opened the week with an announcement that a carrier group and Air Force bombers would deploy to the Persian Gulf “to send a clear and unmistakable message to the Iranian regime that any attack on United States interests or on those of our allies will be met with unrelenting force.”  Bolton cited “troubling and escalatory indications and warnings” without offering evidence of either.

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Two days later, Pompeo made an unannounced visit to Baghdad to brief Iraqi officials on the administration’s new move against Iran. Pompeo cited the same “credible threat” as Bolton — but again without offering evidence of it. In a statement released Friday, the Pentagon said it was also sending a Patriot antimissile system to the Persian Gulf and that the week’s activity was the start of a series of deployments in the region.

There is some informed speculation, as yet unconfirmed, that Israel — which has long wanted to draw the U.S. into an open conflict with Iran — provided the intelligence Bolton and Pompeo appeared to be acting upon. By Friday, The New York Times was citing “American and allied intelligence officials” in its news reports explaining the background of the new deployments.

It is almost pitiable to watch as Trump tries to hold his ground against the hawks who surround him. On Wednesday he announced broad new sanctions to block Iran’s exports of iron, steel, and other metals, which account for about 10 percent of Iran’s export revenue. It was a nonlethal, business-related tightening of the screw, and Trump made his intentions plain later in the week. “What they should be doing is calling me up, sitting down, and we can make a deal, a fair deal,” Trump said. That is a good description of just what the Bolton–Pompeo axis is determined to prevent.

Trump under hawk watch. (State Department)

Tensions with North Korea also escalate. Pyongyang is still smarting from the failure of Trump’s February summit with Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader — another Bolton–Pompeo design. Pyongyang tested short-range missiles twice last week. The Justice Department quickly announced that the U.S. was impounding a North Korean cargo ship that had allegedly violated sanctions when it carried a shipment of coal to Indonesia last year. It is difficult to imagine the Justice Department’s timing was coincidental; whether or not it was an intentional response to the missile tests, the seizure pushed Trump’s ambition to negotiate with Kim further into the deep freeze.

Challenging China 

The China case is a big-screen variant of the others. While Trump is pressing Beijing hard for a trade deal — he announced additional tariffs on Chinese goods last Friday — the military appears to be escalating its challenges to China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea. Last week two U.S. warships sailed waters over which China asserts jurisdiction, prompting Beijing to charge heatedly that the U.S. was violating its sovereignty. At best the Pentagon is indifferent to Trump’s negotiating efforts; at worst it opposes them.

Bolton, Pompeo, and those in their camp have two apparent intentions as they effectively isolate Trump on the foreign policy side. One is to override international law with American diktats. The other — most evident now in the Iranian case — is to provoke a retaliatory move that will serve as a casus belli justifying U.S. military action. Rarely in the postwar period, if ever, has Washington manifest this degree of undisguised belligerence in its foreign policy objectives.

It is safe to assume we are not on the precipice of immediate war with any of the nations Bolton and Pompeo have so far singled out. The Washington Post report on Bolton’s contretemps with Trump indicates that administration hawks are turning leery of military intervention in Venezuela — even as they keep military intervention “on the table.”

Tehran announced last week that it would begin withdrawing from some of the commitments it agreed in the 2015 nuclear accord, but it has so far been careful to remain within the pact’s terms. “Iran and the U.S. are not headed toward a war,” the Financial Times quoted an Iranian official as stating at the end of the week, “but we may witness some clashes that would then lead to negotiations rather than a full-scale war.”

That assessment holds for now but may prove too optimistic. The pace of policy escalation, now that Trump has lost control in his own administration, is quickening. Given what Bolton and Pompeo got done in a week, it is impossible to predict how aggressively they will make use of the latitude they have recently claimed for themselves.

It has been clear for some time that Trump’s confrontation with his policy minders was inevitable from the start. He campaigned in 2015–16 on a disruptive foreign policy platform. Improved ties with Russia, an end to wars of adventure, negotiations with adversaries rather than potentially explosive confrontations: These were among Trump’s bedrock positions, and they provoked opposition within Washington’s permanent bureaucracy — call it the Deep State if you like — as soon as Trump took the Republican nomination.

If there is a surprise in the administration now, it does not lie in the emergence of the Bolton–Pompeo axis. Something like it was never more than just beneath the surface in the Trump White House. The surprise lies in Trump’s persistence in the face of unrelenting resistance from those wedded to the fantasy of eternal American primacy.

Patrick Lawrence, a correspondent abroad for many years, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune, is a columnist, essayist, author, and lecturer. His most recent book is “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century” (Yale). Follow him @thefloutist. Visit his website here.  Support his work via The Floutist.

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29 comments for “PATRICK LAWRENCE: A Week of Dangerous Developments from Iran to North Korea

  1. GKJames
    May 14, 2019 at 19:58

    Is it really a matter of the president and his noble instincts against a cabal of advisers thwarting his will? Isn’t it just as likely that the president is doing what he always does: sniff the wind to find out where the faithful stand? Iran per se is of no interest to him. The views of evangelical Christian voters very much is. And if they want missiles to fly, fly they will. It’s easy and, for about half the country, immensely entertaining. And, of course, the resulting applause for the president’s courage to take on evil will reward the psyche of a very damaged individual.

  2. Luther Bliss
    May 14, 2019 at 15:07

    Good article.

    Funny that Trump portrayed himself as the ‘anti-Bush’ but he’s basically in the same spot as Bush Jr. They both were sympathetic to neoconservative, as Presidents they surrounded themselves with neocons then had to struggled to control them.

    The prima donna Don will hold out until he gets a spectacular ‘false flag’ where he can act presidential.

  3. Chantel Dickens
    May 14, 2019 at 14:18

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  4. Anonymot
    May 13, 2019 at 18:53

    That’s a pretty impressive photo. It’s reminiscent of the great foursome: Schickelgruber, Fatso, Goebbels, and Riefenstahl (without the filmic talent.) They will take us far to a comparable megalomaniacal destiny. Meanwhile the Democrats do the Dance Of Death.

  5. DH Fabian
    May 13, 2019 at 13:36

    On that “informed speculation… that Israel… has long wanted to draw the U.S. into an open conflict with Iran,” what is missing is any logic to support that “speculation.” Such a war clearly increases tensions throughout the region, which Israel can’t afford. I think many forget that Israel is a tiny country, surrounded by vast Arab nations, some of which seek to eradicate the sole Jewish nation. Every US “intervention” in the Mideast (protecting US oil interests in the region) increases the dangers to Israel.

    • RomeoCharlie29
      May 13, 2019 at 18:23

      Except that, thanks to the US, Israel has nukes.

      • Anonymot
        May 13, 2019 at 18:58

        Oh, yes! A facade of safety built on Universal Pictures back lot by our famously successful CIA, the golden fools.

    • anon4d2
      May 13, 2019 at 22:03

      Troll alert. The US can buy oil from any supplier for the same price as anyone else, as you clearly know. Do you bomb your local gas station to ensure the supply of petroleum? The US has zero “interests” in the Mideast that need protection. Only the greatest fool thinks everyone else a greater fool.

    • Monte George Jr
      May 14, 2019 at 19:45

      Israel does not want safety; It wants Supremacy. It wants dominance over others, and death for those who resist. The desire of Zion is eternal: Tov Shebbe Goyim Harog.

    • Zhu
      May 19, 2019 at 02:06

      We Americans don’t admit responsibility for our mistakes, war crimes, etc., so we need scapegoats. At the moment, Russia and Israel are fashionable, although I suspect that hysteria about the Yellow Peril, China, will grow and grow.

  6. Eddie
    May 13, 2019 at 12:01

    I believe Trump does not support the idiocy of these neocon criminals in his administration. If he truly ran the executive branch of the government, he would cashier them all. It’s not like he has never fired anyone before.

    I remember a candid photograph of Trump sitting inside a limousine immediately after the talk with Kim cratered with the help of Bolton and Pompeo. Trump looked almost human as the disappointment was written in the lines of his face. This entire affair exposes the myth that the US president has the power the Constitution vested in that office.

    The unelected Deep State and their cronies in the warmongering industries are the real power in the Oval Office. The slow-motion and bloodless coup is complete. The oligarchs led by the crazed neocons that run the corporations and the banks have seized power in all three branches of the federal government: Executive. Legislative and Judicial.

  7. Zenobia van Dongen
    May 13, 2019 at 10:36

    This article groups together under the imperialist aggression label various foreign policy issues that are very different in nature.
    When Washington meddles in Venezuelan internal affairs it is a gross breach of international law.
    But American meddling in Venezuela is put on a par with “Last week two U.S. warships sailed waters over which China asserts jurisdiction”.
    So what if China asserts jurisdiction over the South China Sea? It is in blatant violation of the Law of the Sea, and that’s that.
    The author doesn’t seem to notice that in one case the US is in the right, and in the other case the US is in the wrong. For him it’s all American imperialism.
    This is a completely amoral approach to world affairs.

    • incontinent reader
      May 13, 2019 at 23:09

      With all due respect, I think you need to reread UNCLOS to understand what the various signatories signed on to- or reserved- and also recognize that the U.S. has never signed UNCLOS. That is, the U.S. is not only is incorrect (as are you) in applying UNCLOS to China in the South China Sea (where China specifically reserved on that issue), the U.S. as a non-signatory lacks standing to cite UNCLOS as authority. Nor has the U.S. given a damn about Israel’s violation of Lebanon’s EEZ, or seizure for its own benefit of the EEZ over which Gaza should have been granted, and should retain, sovereignty (and which would be an economic engine for Gaza’s redevelopment).

    • Monte George Jr
      May 14, 2019 at 20:23

      It’s called the “South China Sea” for a reason. These have been Chinese waters for hundreds of years. This fact was recognized in the protocols of the Potsdam Conference at the end of WWII, which reestablished the area today enclosed by the “nine dashed line” as within China’s zone of control. These protocols were agreed to and signed by the USA, at a time when Chaing Kai-Chek (a US ally) ruled China. When Mao defeated the Nationalists, the USA developed a case of amnesia regarding that international agreement. Today the US invokes the UNCLOS which it never acceded to, in order to harass the Chinese. Hypocrisy abetted by lies in the service of ‘full spectrum dominance’.

  8. Jeff Harrison
    May 13, 2019 at 10:21

    As Jack Ma said, when trade stops, war starts. You posted this before Thump issued his bully demand – now, don’t you think about retaliating to my latest rounds of tariffs! Which the Chinese promptly ignored. How far will the Chinese go? I suspect they will be a major buyer of Iranian crude and a non-existent buyer of US crude. You also shouldn’t forget about the other, smaller players that the US is hurting – Cuba, Venezuela, and I’m surprised we haven’t heard anything about Nicaragua. I keep waiting for something like Charlie Daniel’s Uneasy Rider – “I heard that highway start to whine and I knew that the left rear tire was about to blow.” – to happen to the US here. There’s lots of unhappy nations but until they can take the power of the US dollar away from us, they’re screwed.

  9. Sally Snyder
    May 13, 2019 at 07:56

    As shown in this article, there is one key reason why Washington’s sanctions against Iran have been less than successful:

    https://viableopposition.blogspot.com/2019/03/blunting-americas-sanctions-against-iran.html

    The imposition of sanctions has actually led to new alliances with Iran and its neighbours in the region.

    • hetro
      May 13, 2019 at 11:22

      Thank you for this.

      Related: Robert Fisk interview in Iraq.

      “I met Hadi al-Ameri in Baghdad a few days before Pompeo turned up in town. A tough, curmudgeonly, 64-year-old bearded ex-militia leader, fluent in Persian and in the Shia politics of Iraq, he is a personal friend of Qassem Suleimani – commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Quds Force and America’s latest “super-terrorist” in the Middle East – and fought alongside Iran in its eight-year war with Saddam.”

      http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/51590.htm

  10. Skip Scott
    May 13, 2019 at 07:52

    It makes no sense for Trump to have hired these neocons in the first place if his campaign positions on foreign policy were genuine. You cannot be Israel’s bitch and have a non-interventionist foreign policy. They are completely at odds with each other. Either Trump is incredibly stupid, cowardly, or he was lying all along. I don’t buy the 4D chess B.S. It will be interesting to see what happens to his base support if he gets us into another useless war.

    • Hank
      May 13, 2019 at 09:28

      His “base support” is long gone! PERIOD!!! It doesn’t matter if Trump is pushing for wars or these wars are being facilitated DESPITE Trump’s protestations. They are happening and that is the bottom line for me and many people who put Trump in over Hillary. This is exactly why I didn’t vote for Hillary with the itchy warmongering fingers! If the Democratic Party cleans up its crap and gets behind a REALISTIC candidate who addresses the reality of the world and the USA, that candidate WILL be a serious threat to Trump. Right now I’m thinking of Tulsi Gabbard, but what we have all seen again and again are elected President’s giving in to the Deep State and their “endless wars” profit-reaping schemes that bleed and divide the American public! Not until the US Constitution is followed by the letter of the law will the USA ever be considered a nation of “good faith” again!

      • Skip Scott
        May 13, 2019 at 09:57

        I hear ‘ya Hank. I am hopeful regarding Tulsi, and I’ve been going back and forth with dailykos regarding their subversion of her candidacy. I think she’ll need to go Independent or Green Party. She has zero chance inside the DNC controlled democratic party.

      • ML
        May 13, 2019 at 10:03

        Glad to see you may abandon ship, Hank. Donate to Tulsi. She is the only candidate talking about getting us out of regime change wars, you are correct. The mainstream media is almost always suppressing her message at every turn. I don’t know whether to trust her, but at this sorry point, she is the only Democrat I’d even consider voting for in the primaries. I am looking forward to her shredding her sycophantic, corporate Dem colleagues in the debates. I am not yet certain whether I will vote in the presidential election, as I’ve no intention voting for Biden whom they are pushing with all their media might.

        • Skip Scott
          May 13, 2019 at 10:58

          If Tulsi goes bust, I think it’s still worthwhile to vote for the Green Party candidate, even though they’ll most likely have no chance of winning unless they can get to the televised debates in the run up to the General Election. In my state (Arizona), they still have propositions on the ballot that are worth casting your vote for as an exercise in real democracy, even if you leave some candidate choices blank.

          • ML
            May 13, 2019 at 21:58

            Hi Skip, I am a registered Green and voted Stein in 2016. I agree with your plan; it’s a good one. I’m just so jaded. And in Oregon, where we have a closed primary, I am going to have to re-register as a Democrat for the primary, then either switch back to Green or independent. Sigh. Do you have an open or a closed primary in AZ? Cheers.

          • Skip Scott
            May 14, 2019 at 06:59

            Hi ML-

            Our primary is closed as well. I have switched back and forth numerous times to vote for a peace candidate in the primaries. I had to check my card to see what I’m currently registered as. I voted for Jill in 2016 in the general election after Bernie caved to the evil Hillary.

        • Gregory Herr
          May 18, 2019 at 13:31

          I’m afraid Tulsi will be afforded slim opportunities in the crowded “debates” where Biden will get favored status by moderators. And Biden’s entry also assures the primaries will at best result in an indeterminate first ballot leaving the superdelegates to sponsor another corporate-warfare shill that Bernie will once again tell us to vote for in “resistance” to Trump. But yes we will at least be treated to a few great moments from Tulsi.

    • hetro
      May 13, 2019 at 10:53

      Good comment. It seems to me also possible Trump is canny enough to play with these Titans of Stupidity Bolton and Pompeo as a political tactic. I don’t mean 4D chess but instinct to play with both sides of the question–as with “I’m very tough and can control these people (“temper them”) and I’m still the best thing we have for peace. Look at how I was just talking with Vlad and cooling things down in Venezuela.” He may even be enjoying this role as a kind of game, the way an actor might get into the role of Iago or a similar manipulator, as with during his (Trump’s) show-biz days. And all ego-driven on himself as brilliant and the savior.

  11. mike k
    May 13, 2019 at 06:50

    Trump hired these losers, and he can fire them. To pretend he is at their mercy is disingenuous. The buck stops right at Trump’s desk. “They made me do it” is bullshit.

    • ML
      May 13, 2019 at 09:54

      Mike K, my sentiments exactly. Yet the people who voted for him who read CN regularly, will say this over and over again to excuse him. “He wanted peace with … fill in the blank.” But he is the chief. He has hired and fired at will through out his entire administration and he can do it with these two goons. Throw them out with the trash before they kill millions. I don’t find it “pitiable” watching him. I find it revolting. (And for all you Trump supporters reading this- yes, HRC was spouting bellicosity at Iran during the campaign, if I recall.) No excuses for any of them. No more war- especially with my tax money!

    • Sam F
      May 13, 2019 at 12:32

      Yes, it seems rather a vain hope to cite “Trump’s persistence in the face of unrelenting resistance” but may be intended as a demand from the base he must be losing, to reinforce whatever concerns he may have about that, as MSM war drumming increases.

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