Opinion Op Ed 30 Mar 2018 Donald Trump and his ...
The writer is a senior journalist and commentator based in New Delhi

Donald Trump and his hawks have war on their mind

Published Mar 30, 2018, 2:20 am IST
Updated Mar 30, 2018, 2:21 am IST
There is nothing about the present White House that leaves one sanguine on any count.
President Donald Trump. (Photo: File)
 President Donald Trump. (Photo: File)

President Donald Trump was so impressed by John Bolton’s hawkishness on Fox News that he appointed him his national security adviser. By this logic, Arnab Goswami must be in line for a Cabinet slot soon.

This clearly is not the whole truth. Mr Bolton, after all, is only part of a larger continuum. He was named George W. Bush’s ambassador to the United Nations but while he served in an interim capacity for over a year, the US Congress didn’t confirm him because of his intemperate style. Congress now has to toss a coin on who is more intemperate: the US President or his NSA? He was to have taken over from John Negroponte who, more than secretary of state Colin Powell, was the key hawk in the run-up to the occupation of Iraq in April 2003. For greater continuity in the theme partly scripted by him, he took over as ambassador to Baghdad. A key player in his team was Robert Stephens Ford, whom Mr Negroponte praised sky high because he had the courage to “wear his flak jacket and go out of the high-security Green Zone to meet contacts”.

 

When did you last hear of a senior diplomat go out to meet contacts in the midst of a civil war turning into an insurgency?

It was this experience which came in handy when Mr Ford became ambassador to Damascus. Under the cover of the so-called Arab Spring, he drove to Daraa, Homs, Hama in 2011, major centres of the insurgency which, over time, became, the Syrian civil war. Note the continuity in personnel from Iraq to Syria and now Iran.

His testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Committee on February 6, 2018, contains the blueprint for West Asia, of which Iran is today the most combustible part. By a coincidence, Colin Powell’s former chief of staff, Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, intervened on the theme publicly on February 5. Were two opposite points of view competing for the attention of the US Congress?

 

The New York Times Op-Ed page headline said it all:

“I Helped Sell the False Choice of War Once. It’s Happening Again.” The column, written by Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, appeared on February 5, 2018. The date is significant because exactly 15 years ago, on February 5, 2003, Colin Powell, former secretary of state, spoke at the UN, making out a case for a pre-emptive war with Iraq. Remember those satellite pictures, sinister vehicular movement, “confirming” the presence of weapons of mass destruction in that blighted country.

 

Gen. Powell’s chief of staff, who actually helped draft the speech, was Lawrence Wilkerson, now a much chastened man. He learnt the hard way that both he and his boss had been set on a fool’s errand by the intelligence community. There were no WMDs in Iraq.

Mr Wilkerson, the perennial insider, draws comparisons with the current mood in Washington.

“Just over a month ago, the US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, said the administration had “undeniable” evidence that Iran was not complying with the Security Council resolutions regarding its ballistic missile programme and Yemen.

 

Just like Gen. Powell, Ms Haley showed satellite images and other physical evidence available only to the US Intelligence community to “prove her case”.

“It’s astonishing how similar that moment was to Powell’s 2003 presentation.” Who is pushing America into a conflict with Iran?

“Avigdor Lieberman (Israeli defence minister) and Benjamin Netanyahu and their acolytes in this country (US), among whom I put Nikki Haley — they have determined that it would be best if American troops also participated in the overthrow of the Tehran regime.”

 

 There is nothing about the present White House that leaves one sanguine on any count. It would be rank bad form to compare the President of the United States with Caligula, but folks are making that comparison to good effect. Caligula elevated his horse to Cabinet rank. Donald Trump has committed no such misdemeanor so far. But no one can bet on the future.

While his buddies across the Atlantic are in convulsions over Russian President Vladimir Putin dispensing nerve agents on the streets of Britain, Mr Trump has made a quiet telephonic contact with the same Russian gent. He then turfed out Russian diplomats. No one can make out whether he is cooing or barking at the Kremlin.

 

Washington’s current policy towards Iran, which carries Mr Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner’s imprimatur, is quite transparent — leave it outside the regional order that the US seeks to impose in West Asia (Middle East). And then defang Iran in every possible way, including military action.

This is the exact opposite of the order that Barack Obama-John Kerry had sketched out for the region.

The 2015 nuclear deal with Iran was signed within a certain conceptual framework. The pivot to Asia had acquired greater saliency in Mr Obama’s scheme. China’s extraordinary rise required the US to pay greater attention to the Pacific region. This entailed that day-to-day supervision of West Asian affairs by the US would no longer be possible.

 

The US was not running away from its West Asian responsibilities. The legitimacy conferred on Iran after the nuclear deal made it a key player in the new West Asian balance of power which Washington was proposing. Other players in this arrangement would be Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar. But Saudi Arabia and Israel, sleeping in the same bed in Syria, were totally averse to having Iran as a player in the new West Asian balance. It was galling for the Israeli-Saudi duet when Russia, with the help of Iran-controlled militias and Turkey’s switch in favour of Bashar al-Assad, turned the tide in Syria.

 

This is when Mr Trump appeared in the White House, not quite Caligula incarnate but more or less there. As candidate he had told Jake Tapper of CNN that billions of dollars had been given to groups in Syria who may well have been the Islamic State. “I think they were the Islamic State”, he said with certainty. The interview is available on YouTube.

Instead of wasting money on questionable groups, Mr Trump has fallen back on a strategy closest to his heart: making money. Towards this end he has American boots on the ground in Syria, for which a prohibitive bill will be submitted to an embattled Saudi King-to-be, running helter skelter between Yemen, Syria, Qatar and the occupants of Riyadh’s Ritz Carlton Hotel.

 

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