WHYY (NPR Affiliate): Trump taps new foreign policy team

I spoke today on WHYY’s show, Radio Times, about John Bolton, Mike Pompeo, Gina Haspel and Dona;d Trump’s foreign policy. You can listen to the show here. WHYY is the NPR affiliate in Philadelphia.

Talk Nation Radio: Mitchell Plitnick on John Bolton

On Monday, I spoke with David Swanson of Talk Nation Radio about the appointment of John Bolton as Donald Trump’s new national security adviser. You can hear the interview here.

Four Questions About John Bolton

Since John Bolton was appointed as Donald Trump’s national security advisor, I have spent a good deal of time talking about it. Those conversations have been with colleagues in the policy world, friends, and the media. In honor of the Passover season, here are four questions that have been broadly discussed, and my responses to them.

If Donald Trump has demonstrated anything, it is that he makes his own decisions and doesn’t listen to the counsel of others. That being the case, how much difference does his national security advisor make?

It’s true that Trump has his own course and he likes to stick to it. His stubbornness and arrogance about his own ability, despite his canyon-like dearth of experience, are defining Trump traits. His sacking of the so-called “adults in the room,” like Rex Tillerson, HR McMaster, and Gary Cohn is likely a reflection of his own increased comfort level with his job and belief that he doesn’t need people around him who will push back against his ideas. He’s ready for a room full of yes-men.

But there’s another Trump characteristic that needs to be considered, and that is how easily manipulated he is. For example, points made on FOX News immediately turn into presidential tweets. Saudi royals flatter Trump for hours, then present their picture of regional politics to him, and get the president to adopt their view and green-light an aggressive move that caused an ongoing rift in Gulf Cooperation Council. The National Rifle Association had one meeting with Trump and got him to back off of everything he’d said only a day before in the wake of one of the most horrific U.S. school shooting incidents.

John Bolton is the perfect person to play this president like a violin. Bolton is smart, tactically clever, proficient at speaking in the sound bites that Trump can digest, and he knows how to stroke his boss. The former assistant secretary of state for intelligence and research, Carl W. Ford Jr., testifying at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2005, called Bolton a “kiss-up, kick-down sort of guy.” Such a man is going to ingratiate himself to Trump. He won’t argue with Trump on policy or try to moderate his plans, as McMaster and Tillerson did. He’ll push Trump even farther down the path he has already blazed: a foreign policy characterized by unilateralism, belligerence, tough-guy posturing, and aggression. That last has not yet featured as prominently in Trump’s policies, and that is precisely where Bolton is so very dangerous.

Unlike most of Trump’s appointees, especially in his inner circle, Bolton is also an old hand at Washington politics. His government work dates back to the Reagan era. He knows how to get things done in DC.

But perhaps the most dangerous aspect of Bolton is his known willingness to fabricate evidence. As the NSA, Bolton will be in a perfect position to mold the intelligence that Trump receives. To build the case for the invasion of Iraq—which Bolton still believes was the right thing to do—he cherry-picked intelligence to create the picture that he wanted to see and, more importantly, that he wanted to present. It is difficult to imagine a president more susceptible to such machinations than Donald Trump.

How badly does Bolton tilt the scale toward war with North Korea and with Iran?

For those reasons, Bolton clearly raises the risk of war with both Iran and North Korea by a considerable margin. Bolton sees diplomacy as a waste of time, something whose only usefulness comes from being able to say “we tried, now let’s get on with the bombing.” If Trump goes through with his proposed meeting with Kim Jong-un—which is far from certain—Bolton will surely do what he can to see that the meeting ends on a sour note.

But as frightening as Bolton is on North Korea, he is a much bigger concern regarding Iran. The growing consensus, which seems undeniable, is that Trump is going to abandon the Iran nuclear deal on May 12, when he would need to once again waive sanctions. Bolton’s presence only makes that even more certain. More than that, it likely means that the United States will take further steps to antagonize Iran, with the goal of making Iran act in response and then using any Iranian action as a pretext for escalation.

Might that same pattern emerge with North Korea? Perhaps, but there are a few key differences between North Korea and Iran that put Iran in much more immediate danger than North Korea.

The obvious difference is that North Korea has a deterrent. Although Kim’s ability to hit the United States with a missile is debatable, he certainly can inflict enormous damage on places closer to him, particularly South Korea, including with a weapon of mass destruction. The possibility of nuclear escalation will give Trump pause and will certainly animate the US military leadership, as well as virtually all US allies. Though even all of this may not stop Trump if the situation escalates to a sufficient degree, it would take quite a few big events to get to that point.

Iran is a very different story. It does not have deterrent weaponry. Yes, Hezbollah could launch thousands of missiles against Israel if the US attacks, but this is of little deterrent value. That’s because Israel, along with Saudi Arabia, has been pushing for an attack on Iran for years. Both countries hate the nuclear deal and want to see a much more aggressive stance against the Islamic Republic. Although Israel’s military leaders have a very different view, the Israeli political leadership, especially Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, would love to see the US abandon the nuclear deal and go after Iran. South Korea will passionately urge restraint while Israel and Saudi Arabia will be arguing with equal fervor for aggression. Bolton will bolster that case.

For Bolton, all of Islam is a threat. Bolton’s long history of Islamophobia has been so severe that it is likely that the threat of even more Mideast turmoil will deter him not at all. The hatred he has expressed toward Muslims is going to make him an even more passionate advocate for war on Iran.

Put bluntly, Iran is in terrible danger, as is the entire Middle East, with Bolton’s appointment. The Korean Peninsula is not doing much better, but it should, at least, have more time and more options to avert catastrophe.

Are Republicans supporting this appointment?

Congressional reaction has split along party lines, in another show of how far to the right the Republican party has jumped. Conservative columnist Max Boot, who has strongly opposed Bolton, illustrates the point by quoting one of Bolton’s former bosses. “Among those who have soured on him is George W. Bush. ‘I don’t consider Bolton credible,’ Bush told a group of conservative writers, including me, in the Oval Office in 2008. If the president who sent him to the United Nations can change his view of Bolton, so can I.”

Anti-Trump conservatives like blogger Jennifer Rubin of The Washington Post criticized Bolton’s appointment. Rubin wrote, “The Bolton pick should be a wake-up call to Republicans who always assumed wise, calm advisers would be there to constrain Trump. It should motivate both Republicans and Democrats to start reclaiming Congress’s power, for example, by declaring that congressional authorization is required for a first strike on either Iran or North Korea.”

Although Rubin has been against Trump from the first, it is remarkable to see a conservative writer like her, who enthusiastically supported George W. Bush’s actions and applauded every Israeli military action in memory, so frightened by Bolton mixed with Trump that she would call for reducing the president’s power to make war.

Still, even Republicans who are likely displeased with Bolton’s appointment, such as Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), have thus far been silent, while others like Lindsey Graham (R-SC) have applauded Bolton’s appointment. Granted, their objections would make no difference, so any Republican lawmakers who might not be thrilled about Bolton are being politically prudent by avoiding a conflict with the president. But it also reflects a belief that Republican voters are likely to be mostly supportive of Bolton’s appointment.

What can people do?

There is no way to prevent Bolton’s appointment. But if there were ever a presidential move that was a call to action, this is it. Now is the time for every US citizen, of all parties, to make it clear that they do not want the US to rush down a path to war. Given Bolton’s intense Islamophobia, it is also a time to make it clear, in the media, in the capitol and in the streets of every US city, that there is no place for such sentiments in US policy.

But most of all, since Bolton requires no congressional confirmation, it’s imperative to focus on those who do. As bad as Bolton’s appointment is, it will be even worse if he teams with Trump’s designated secretary of state, Mike Pompeo. At least one Republican, Rand Paul, will oppose Pompeo. But when Pompeo was confirmed for CIA director, 14 Democrats—Joe Donnelly (D-IN), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Maggie Hassan (D-NH), Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), Tim Kaine (D-VA), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Joe Manchin (D-WV), Claire McCaskill (D-MO), Jack Reed (D-RI), Brian Schatz (D-HI), Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Mark Warner (D-VA), and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI)— supported him. If they hear from enough constituents, that might change.

Brian Schatz said that “I think there are a number of us who voted for him last time who are actively reconsidering based on his service in the administration.” Secretary of state and CIA director also carry two different job descriptions. If Democratic senators hear from enough of us – and even a couple of Republicans – it might sway the vote.

It’s a thin reed to hold onto. But the time has never been more critical.

John Bolton: The Essential Profile

After weeks of rumors, President Donald Trump today replaced National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster with former Ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton. Many foreign policy analysts and advocates immediately expressed deep concern and dismay at Bolton’s appointment.

Former Assistant Secretary of State Philip Crowley tweeted about Bolton’s appointment, “I was at dinner in late 2016 with some former European diplomats when Rex Tillerson emerged as the nominee for (Secretary of State). While unknown, they expressed relief that (Donald Trump’s) choice was not John Bolton. EU diplomats will not sleep well tonight given the latest news.”

Joe Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, a leading anti-nuclear foundation, tweeted, “This is the moment the administration has officially gone off the rails.” While the Mideast advocacy group J Street tweeted that “Bolton is an unabashed advocate for the premature, unnecessary and reckless use of military force in the Middle East and around the globe. This appointment isn’t just unwise. It’s disastrous.”

The brazen nature of Bolton’s appointment was underscored by the fact that it came the same day that news broke of Bolton having recorded a video for a Russian gun group in 2013, after being introduced to the group by the National Rifle Association (NRA). Given the scandals around Russia and the NRA of late, the indifference to the politics of this news speaks volumes about the White House’s commitment to Bolton.

As outraged as many supporters of diplomacy have been at Trump’s appointments and policies, Bolton’s appointment reaches a new level. Here at LobeLog, we are reprinting, with permission, the profile of John Bolton from Right Web, a site which tracks the activities of a vast array of right wing and militaristic figures and organizations. Read more at LobeLog

Avoiding Another Mistake In Lebanon

No one has ever complained that the United States doesn’t pay enough attention to the Middle East. In recent years, however, one country that hasn’t gotten much attention in Washington is Lebanon. But on Tuesday, the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee’s Sub Committee On Near East, South, and Central Asian Affairs and Counterterrorism held a hearing on Lebanon. The hearing focused on US aid to Lebanon, and whether the outsized presence of Hezbollah in the Lebanese government meant that aid should be cut.

Elliott Abrams, a leading neoconservative ideologue and senior fellow at the Council for Foreign Relations, spoke in favor of reducing aid to Lebanon. Rob Malley, president of the International Crisis Group and former lead diplomat in the Clinton and Obama administrations, spoke against such measures.

Abrams painted a picture of a Lebanon dominated by Hezbollah and, by extension, Iran. “The Sunni prime minister, Saad Hariri, provides cover to Hezbollah’s domination of the state rather than a counterbalance to that power,” Abrams said. “Hezbollah is part of Hariri’s coalition government—but Hezbollah, not the government, dominates.”

In typical neoconservative fashion, Abrams called “a fantasy” the assessment of Acting Assistant Secretary of State David Satterfield who said that US aid to Lebanon is “enabling the Lebanese government to…assert its authority throughout all of Lebanese territory.” Instead, Abrams prefers the assessment of Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, whom he quoted as saying, “Today, the Lebanese army has lost its independence and is another unit in Hezbollah’s apparatus, and therefore, as far as we are concerned, the infrastructure of the Lebanese army and the Lebanese state is one with the infrastructure of Hezbollah.”

As a result, Abrams contended that, “The United States should reassess our military assistance and our entire policy.”

Abrams’s testimony follows a standard neoconservative line of using US aid as a method of making other countries’ decisions for them. Abrams sees Lebanon through a Likud lens: as an Iranian proxy, not as an entity unto itself.

Malley’s testimony, while overtly cordial and even, at times, friendly toward Abrams, stood in stark contrast. Malley took a broader, more pragmatic view in terms of tactics but also provided a much fuller picture of the Lebanese domestic scene.

Where Abrams painted Lebanon as essentially Hezbollah’s country in service to Iran, Malley presented a more fact-based and complex picture:

Lebanon has participated in, experienced, and suffered from the Israeli-Arab conflict, the pernicious influence of sectarianism, the rise of militant jihadism, interference from regional actors, and dramatic refugee flows. Yet Lebanon also is that rarest of examples of what so much of the Middle East is lacking: pluralism, tolerance, consensus-based politics, and an ability to maintain relations with the U.S., Iran, and Saudi Arabia. The shocks Lebanon has experienced—from more than a million Syrian refugees, or a quarter of its population, who’ve poured in through Lebanon’s eastern border, in addition to hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees; to a vicious war next door; to the sectarian tensions generated by that war and Hezbollah’s direct involvement in it; to the rise of jihadi militancy—would have destabilized even a sturdy country, let alone one as polarized along political and confessional lines. The fact that it continues to hold together in large part is due to memories of the recent civil war but also to the delicate and at times unsavory domestic and foreign balancing act in which it constantly engages.

Perhaps the most important piece of Malley’s testimony for the Senate was his contention that Lebanon maintains that state of affairs through a very delicate balance—one that almost certainly would be upset by a drastic cut in US aid—while also acknowledging that Hezbollah’s outsized power in the government is a disturbing reality. “Lebanon’s relative stability, as I noted, has been purchased at a disturbing cost,” Malley said. “It has entailed accommodating an armed movement, Hezbollah, founded with active participation and funding from Iran, with the explicit mission of fighting against the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon at the time and that has been a loyal Iranian ally ever since. Hezbollah, which has developed strong social roots by successfully exploiting the historical marginalization of the Shiite community, acts with considerable autonomy in Lebanese affairs.”

Malley pointed out that a cut in US aid would not hurt Hezbollah, as whatever US funds might indirectly reach the entity are not that significant. But such a cut would hurt ordinary Lebanese as well as the Lebanese government and state’s armed forces, the LAF. He also pointed out that Abrams’s characterization of Lebanon as being essentially controlled by Hezbollah was inaccurate. “While one ought not underestimate the role Hezbollah plays in Lebanese political life, and particularly in its foreign policy, it is not coterminous with the Lebanese state, and the Lebanese state cannot be reduced to, or should be held responsible for, the actions of an actor that has largely usurped its foreign policy,” Malley said.

This leads to Malley’s conclusion:

Outside actors, the U.S. among them, should deal cautiously with Lebanese affairs; bolster the central government and its institutions, notably the LAF; mitigate risks of a new Israel-Hezbollah confrontation; reduce regional tensions through diplomatic engagement, including with Iran, all the while the putting aside more ambitious goals. This is not necessarily the most inspiring or transformational of agendas. But Lebanon is too weak, too vulnerable, too fragile, too finely balanced to be the vehicle for a transformative agenda. Lebanon is not the place where grand dreams are made. It’s where they crash.

Lebanon’s fragility is due to many factors. Some of them are historical and date back to the days of French domination, including the confessional system, which is a fundamental, but not the sole, basis of its political system. Others have evolved over the years out of a great deal of both internal and external conflict. But the Saudis, and particularly the new U.S. darling, Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) learned of the perils of interfering in Lebanon, when they tried to force the resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri last year. Lebanese united across the sectarian spectrum in outrage at the Saudi interference in their country, and MbS had to back off.

Hezbollah is certainly a powerful force in Lebanon. Although it is not the Iranian puppet it is often portrayed to be, it is certainly a very close partner with Iran. Whatever one thinks of Israeli and US policy, those countries understandably have grave concerns about Hezbollah’s strength.

But that should not lead to foolish decisions like the one MbS made. The Trump administration’s decision to slash aid to UNRWA in order to punish the Palestinian Authority for not genuflecting to Trump’s biased policies is already being felt in Lebanon, which is home to some 450,000 Palestinian refugees. This is on top of Lebanon trying to deal with over one million Syrian refugees that have poured into the country in recent years. Making it even worse could prove calamitous.

Lebanon has frequently paid for decisions made not only by Hezbollah but also in Riyadh, Tehran, Jerusalem, and Washington. Right now, the quiet in the country has mostly held for over a decade. Lebanon deserves the chance to preserve that. The United States needs to do everything it can to help them do that.