Trump, Bolton and Pompeo marching to war with Iran

epa07043116 US President Donald Trump (C) arrives with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (R) and US National Security Advisor John Bolton (L) during the 73rd session of the General Assembly of the United Nations at United Nations Headquarters in New York, New York, USA, 24 September 2018. The General Debate of the 73rd session begins on 25 September 2018. EPA-EFE/JUSTIN LANE

A US war with Iran would dwarf the Iraq war in ferocity, destruction and body count. It would blow up the entire region and draw the US into an indefinite guerrilla conflict that would result in defeat, long after Trump is dead and gone. But don’t expect him to have read up on the history of Persia.

One marker of the incoherence of what one hesitates to call Donald Trump’s foreign policy is the stalemate outside Tripoli where the warlord Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) has bogged down amid the growing realisation that a military solution is not on the cards.

While Libya is a sideshow, it has attracted the same collection of actors that are engaged in the far more dangerous game of warmongering in Iran — where no military solution is discernible either.

Haftar began his march towards Tripoli in April having conquered much of the south of the country, including the bulk of Libya’s oilfields, and mopping up many of the tribal and Islamist militias who have carved up the country since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in 2013.

Though some of Haftar’s backers were dubious about his march on Tripoli, once he struck, his coalition of Arab allies — the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt — pulled in behind him with moral and material support.

So did France and Russia. Haftar’s foreign support outmatched that of the United Nations-recognised government in Tripoli and by April he seemed poised to capture the capital.

This was a major quandary for the Americans. Haftar, a former general in Gaddafi’s army, had defected to the United States in the 1980s and lived for decades in MacLean, Virginia, where he worked as an analyst for the CIA.

And yet, after Haftar returned to Benghazi in 2013 and formed the LNA, the US appears to have lost touch with him. Washington supported the GNA government in Tripoli and stationed special force troops under US Africa Command, Africom, at Misrata.

At first, it seemed as if the US policy might remain consistent. Though the US troops were evacuated after Haftar moved towards Tripoli, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on 7 April 2019 issued a statement opposing the offensive and urging Haftar’s forces to halt military operations against Tripoli.

That day Trump met Egyptian President Abdel el Sisi in the White House. Trump was informed by Sisi, and in a call from Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman, that not only was Haftar taking on the scourge of Islamic “terrorists”, he was winning the war.

Days later, the Wall Street Journal reported, Trump called Haftar to praise his role in fighting terrorism and discuss a “shared vision for Libya’s transition to a stable, democratic political system”. No more calls for the offensive to subside emanated from Washington.

The European Union, meanwhile, had called the offensive a threat to international peace.

What swayed Trump was his attraction to winners and disdain for losers. Unfortunately, shortly after his call to Haftar, the LNA bogged down a few kilometres outside Tripoli. The President had made a bad call.

He was about to do it again in Venezuela.

On Monday 30 April 2019, Juan Guaidó, the Venezuelan opposition leader, launched an uprising, aiming to turn the country’s military against President Nicolás Maduro. This was strongly backed by the US with belligerent statements from Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton.

By the end of the week, the coup had collapsed, and Russian President Vladimir Putin, one person that Trump does listen to, put through a call to the president that convinced him to change tack. Trump blamed the hawkish Bolton, who is also the chief advocate for a confrontation with Iran.

Bolton, it must be recalled, was not Trump’s first choice when he first contended for the NSA position in 2017. Trump, from an account by Dexter Filkins in The New Yorker, disapproved of Bolton’s odd walrus moustache and his penchant for just wanting to “bomb, bomb, bomb”.

Bolton arrived in office in May 2018 with a fearsome reputation. George W Bush picked him as UN ambassador after he expressed the view that it would make no difference if the top 10 floors of the UN were knocked off. His memoir of that time was titled Surrender is not an Option.

Bolton moved on to become a fire-breathing commentator for Fox News, warning against the dangers of Islam and faulting the Obama administration at every turn for foreign policy failures that amounted to being unwilling to “bomb, bomb, bomb”. Scolding Obama for naivete, he once declared: Homo sapiens are hardwired for violent conflict.”

Bolton, one of the architects of the Iraq war, is now behind the series of provocations designed to goad Iran into war with the US.

Cable news viewers this week were informed that “an effort is underway by the US to instigate Iran into doing something and, if they do, the US will say how dare you do this and use this as their pretext for war”. This was not Noam Chomsky speaking, but Tim Kaine, the moderate Senator from Virginia and former running mate of Hillary Clinton.

The New York Times reported that Acting Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan has presented to the White House a military plan that envisages sending as many as 120,000 troops to the Middle East. Reports of “intelligence” indicating a threat by Iran or its proxies to attack “US interests” in the Middle East and an evacuation of US non-essential staff from Iraq have triggered ominous memories of the march to war in Iraq.

Trump, according to the most generous interpretation, might simply be doing some tough bargaining/deal-making. Amid the rising tensions, he has said several times that he is just waiting for the Iranians to call. Anonymous White House sources fanned out this week to imply that Bolton might be getting ahead of himself with his rush to war.

Having derided the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Obama’s signature foreign policy achievement, as the worst agreement ever, having withdrawn from the treaty despite the Iranians having faithfully kept their end of the bargain, Trump is still under the delusion that the Iranians will return to the table to negotiate a new deal with him.

Trump is attempting to force the Iranian economy to its knees by shutting down all Iranian exports of oil, as well as steel, copper and other products, and decimating its banking system.

However, it cannot have escaped the attention of the Iranians that Trump’s much-vaunted deal-making skills are falling flat all over the globe. The New York real estate negotiating strategy of bullying, bluffing, flattery and fake marketing haven’t worked in the real world of international diplomacy.

North Korea’s Kim Jong-un outsmarted Trump by playing to his vanity, and the chants for Trump to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize are no longer heard at his Maga rallies.

China’s Xi Jinping is showing a willingness to endure pain and suffer the damage Trump is willing to inflict on both the American and Chinese economies rather than submit to extortion.

The problem with the strategy of maximum pressure is that with the Iranians unwilling to bend the knee to Trump, there is no end game in the Middle East.

The confrontation with Iran is being egged on from the sidelines by Mohammed bin Salman, Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Binyamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel, and Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi.

In the absence of its traditional allies — not a single other Nato power supports the US position on Iran — these are important people in Trumpworld.

MBZ, MBS and Bibi will be critical for the upcoming attempt by Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, to cook up a “solution” for Israel/Palestine that is already being billed as the “Deal of the Century”. The centrepiece of the deal will be the creation of a Palestinian Bophuthatswana.

Of course, no credible Palestinians will buy it. Trump has embraced Netanyahu as his closest political confederate, moved the US embassy to Jerusalem, closed the consulate in the West Bank, and generally humiliated the Palestinians at every opportunity. At no stage has he indicated that he has the slightest concern about what they think.

The US wants to secure legitimacy for the deal through the buy-in of Arab powers such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE, the same alliance that is bent on taking down Iran.

So there is a certain logic to the alliances and games that are being played in the Middle East though the outcomes are unpredictable.

Trump may be bluffing, but the bumbling recklessness with which his administration is pouring petrol on to the troubled lands of the Middle East could ignite anyway.

Worryingly, in yet another repeat of Iraq, the administration and its allies appear heedless of the consequences. Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton boasted this week that the US could win a war against Iran in two strikes.

The reality, as a number of analyses have shown, is that war with Iran would dwarf the Iraq war in ferocity, destruction and body count. It would blow up the entire region and even if it results in regime change would draw the US into an indefinite guerrilla conflict that would result in defeat, long after Trump is dead and gone. But don’t expect Trump to have read up on the history of Persia.

The sheer stupidity of this path can only be explained by Trump’s desire to obliterate every vestige of Obama’s legacy, without any understanding or respect for what was achieved.

You have to whisper this thought in Washington, but no one has been able to explain how Iran represents a threat to the US, except maybe as a nuclear power, and that is exactly what the JCPOA sought to address.

Obama believed that Iran and the Saudis had to find a way to share the Middle East and he sought to extricate the US from fighting other people’s wars.

Instead, hawkish politicians routinely go on television to decry Iran as “bad actors” even as agents of their ally, Saudi Arabia, murdered and dismembered a journalist, a resident of the US, at their embassy in Istanbul.

Tom Nichols, a professor at the Naval War College, says Trump has been lucky to avoid a major conflict so far because “the Russians, Chinese, Iranians and others have not yet forced us into a crisis, remaining content instead to see the United States floundering about on its own. There is no need, after all, to destroy American power and prestige if the White House is willing to do all the same damage by itself.

But the United States and the international system it helped create cannot continue indefinitely along this path of incoherence and ignorance.” DM

Phillip van Niekerk is the president of Calabar Africa, a consulting company that operates through sub-Saharan Africa. In a previous life, he spent 20 years as a journalist in South Africa, working as an Africa correspondent for the London Observer and Editor of the Mail & Guardian from 1996 to 2000.


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