Wednesday, March 28, 2018

John Bolton: The fire starter this time


WE MUST, as a nation, be more unpredictable ... and we have to be unpredictable starting now,” President* Donald Trump said on March 22 from Washington, uttering the breathtakingly foolish words that may be the defining language of the Trump Doctrine, right before introducing the Cardinal Richelieu who will advise him on how best to achieve the angry inscrutability that Trump demands.

Trump named John Robert Bolton, the ardent ├╝berhawk who helped engineer the disaster of the Iraq war, to become his third national security adviser in 14 months. Bolton replaces Army lieutenant Gen. H.R. McMaster, thought to be a relative moderate in the Trump inner circle — and thus, subject to banishment from House Trump.

The New York Times reported March 22 that “General McMaster struggled for months to impose order not only on a fractious national security team but on a president who resisted the sort of discipline customary in the military. Although General McMaster has been a maverick voice at times during a long military career, the Washington foreign policy establishment had hoped he would keep the president from making rash decisions.”

So much for that. The oversize child scratching up the Resolute Desk has moved on to bigger things. With Bolton by his side in the West Wing (he starts on April 9), he’s about to break all the furniture in the White House at once.

◊ ◊ ◊

It’s difficult to think of a more automatically divisive, ideologically narrow figure to sit at the literal right hand of an American president* than John Bolton, whose appointment is a major pivot point in American national security.

As recess-appointed U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, and as Undersecretary of State for Arms Control, Bolton helped establish the pretext for the Iraq war, and create a corrosive global mythology of America as Warrior Nation. Bolton worked with Paul Wolfowitz, Dick Cheney and the Bush II neocon cabal in helping popularize the domestic and foreign notions of the United States as a superpower victimized — a perception widely, eagerly amplified in the zeitgeist in the fearful days and months after 9/11. Over the years, Bolton became a longtime contributor to the Fox News political-media ecosystem.

He’s been a man on a mission for some time. The New York Times reported March 23 that in 2014, his political action committee, the John Bolton Super PAC, hired Cambridge Analytica, shelling out about $1.2 million over two years for “survey research” and “behavioral microtargeting with psychographic messaging.” The Bolton PAC allegedly knew that Cambridge Analytica, lately accused of misusing personal data from perhaps as many as 50 million Facebook users, was using Facebook data to do its work.

Christopher Wylie, the Cambridge Analytica co-founder who blew the whistle on his former company’s actions, said Bolton’s PAC was “obsessed with how America was becoming limp-wristed and spineless,” saying it wanted “research and messaging for national security issues [which] really meant making people more militaristic in their worldview.”

◊ ◊ ◊

BOLTON’S PENDING arrival might accelerate debate about the next shoe to fall. There’s already handicapping under way that points to John Kelly, the beleaguered White House chief of staff, being shown the door next. Ron Klain, a former aide to President Obama, made that case on March 23, on MSNBC:

Kelly, Klain said, “is a military man who understands the huge cost, the human cost, of war and [is] not a war hawk. I think seeing John Bolton come into the White House with his proposals for a pre-emptive strike against North Korea, for war with Iran – he even wrote recently about the idea of a war with Cuba – this is a person who is going to get this country into a military conflict. And I don’t think that’s what John Kelly wants.”

It’s not. The Times reported March 22 that “Mr. Kelly ... prevailed in easing out General McMaster but failed to prevent Mr. Trump from hiring Mr. Bolton, whom they said Mr. Kelly fears will behave like a cabinet official rather than a staff member.”

To the extent that Kelly doesn’t want a fulminating ideologue like Bolton in the White House (“we’re all full up here, thanks”) but Donald Trump does ... well, that puts Kelly and Trump even more at loggerheads. And we all know how one-on-ones with the boss always work out, sooner or later.

◊ ◊ ◊

Kelly, once thought to be the principal adult persona in the White House (if only by a little) actually shares common cause and frontline experience with Secretary of Defense James Mattis, a pragmatic ex-military man still held in very high regard by U.S. military leaders.

Mattis has what Republicans would no doubt call a nasty streak of moderation. He’s pushed back on Trump overtures more than once, both before his tenure as SecDef and since. As a veteran who knows the sting of combat firsthand, Mattis is likely to oppose Bolton on some of his more hawkish intentions.

Politico reported on March 23: “He opposed Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate change accord, decertify the Iran deal, slap tariffs on steel and aluminum, and move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. He opposes the president’s proposed ban on transgender service members ...”

And The New York Times reported Saturday that “Mattis, the retired general who has ... warned that military confrontation with North Korea would result in ‘the worst kind of fighting in most people’s lifetimes,’ told colleagues on Friday that he did not know if he could work with Mr. Bolton.”

Which likely pits Mattis and Trump against each other.

And we know how that always works out, sooner or later.

◊ ◊ ◊

THIS IS THE DYNAMIC of the New Trump Order, a simple thing, if not downright simplistic: The Donald is tired of gettin’ pushed around. This is his playground, see? It’s all his, it all belongs to him, it’s all about him, see? He’s tired of bein’ pushed around around the White House and he’s tired of bein’ pushed around around the world. And he thinks he’s got just the right pit bull on steroids to deal with both problems at the same time. You can bet that Bolton, not on the clock until April 9, already has The Donald’s ear, singing his praises, validating his bellicose rhetoric ... one angry militarist provocateur in league with another.

This is the concern, if not the fear: That Bolton’s ascension as national security adviser is an implicit, pre-emptive rejection of the idea of moderation in geopolitical tone and tactics — really, a rejection of the value of international negotiation itself. That Bolton’s appointment emboldens conservative hawks in Congress to double down on bloating the Pentagon even more.

That Bolton’s appointment effectively tells the nation and the world that Trump is fed up with doing what he’s told — by which he means doing what the Constitution, generations of White House protocol and geopolitical reality tell him to do — and that now, with id fully unleashed through the conscious mind, he’s ready to raise hell, to run things His Way: like the autocratic CEO of a major (and majorly dysfunctional) corporation instead of the United States of America.

The only declaration of independence Donald Trump may care about now is the one he’s just created for himself.

◊ ◊ ◊

Something about this choice – its sheer, brazen, willful disregard for Trump’s own biography and the risk of lasting damage to the country – makes it look like an intentional feint, a manufactured distraction a la Wag the Dog. But in a context where distraction is an everyday thing, what the hell would he be distracting us from?

Is it Stormy Daniels? Robert Mueller? The Russia investigation? The parade of shaky staff hires in recent months? Is it the White House curio cabinet of knaves, mushwits, stooges and fools who’ve been there from the beginning? The skeptics and defectors among high-profile Republicans? The possibilities are endless.

Some think Trump’s gambit with Bolton was a way to pre-emptively assuage the far-right, who 18 hours later, on March 23, would be apoplectic over Trump’s signature of a $1.3 trillion spending bill that gave Democrats and progressives Christmas in March, with no new funding for the border wall or 1,000 new ICE agents (cherished Trump objectives), and fresh sanctions against Russia — among other things.

Giving the Pantone-red conservatives Bolton, as a kind of counterbalance to the impact of that left-leaning bill signed into law, might be seen by those conservatives as a fair exchange. Much of the world already wishes this devil’s bargain wasn’t going to happen.

◊ ◊ ◊

WILLIAM RIVERS Pitt, writing at Truthout, has got the Fear.

“Bolton's gruesome personal behavior with staff and others has become lore. He once got crossways with a federal contractor named Melody Townsel, and chased her through the halls of a Russian hotel while pelting her with shoes and other available missiles. Over the next several days, he stalked Townsel around the hotel, shouting threats and shoving threatening letters under her door. This is not a guy you want to give a staff to. ...

“The people who agree with him are still freaked out by him, because he is a ball of terrifying war hubris made flesh, yet somehow he keeps landing jobs within walking distance of the Oval Office. George W. Bush made him UN ambassador while Congress wasn't home. He was fantastic at alienating other nations, but wasn't really in a position to do the kind of serious damage he's capable of.”

◊ ◊ ◊

That may be about to change. From a historically traditional and fundamentally advantageous position, as a kind of Rasputin vulture riding the clavicle of the president, the national security adviser is more often than not, as Pitt observes in his piece, “the last person in the room.” That also presumes he or she would, logically, get the last word on whatever issues are top of mind in the Oval.

Pitt: “The job of the National Security Adviser is to judge and filter intelligence data for the president. In this incredibly powerful position, John Bolton will literally be creating reality for Trump according to his own twisted, violent vision of how US military might is best used. The man is a manufacturer of corpses, and has been so for a very long time.

“It has been firmly established by now that the most powerful person in the country is the last person Trump speaks to before making a decision. This phenomenon has been on vivid display as he staggers through debates on repealing the ACA, tax cuts, the budget, DACA and gun control. In every instance, Trump trumpeted nearly by rote the opinion of whoever had his ear five minutes before. There is more whiplash in Congress because of this than you'll find at a demolition derby. It is fact.”

◊ ◊ ◊

IT'D BE ONE thing if Bolton was an outlier, a crackpot Cassandra with no paper trail of experience and perspective. He is, in fact, a known quantity. “John Bolton is not some gray bureaucrat whose views are unknown to us,” said Michael McFaul, the American ambassador to Moscow under President Barack Obama, and now a Stanford University professor, to The Times. “He’s very clear that there should be regime change in Iran and North Korea, and military force should be used to achieve those goals,” he said. “If you hire him, you’re making a clear signal that’s what you want.”

Given what’s at stake, you can’t help but think about that doomsday clock created by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. On Jan. 25, the group’s Science and Security Board advanced the clock’s hands by 30 seconds, to two minutes to midnight. That minute hand hasn’t come closer to striking midnight since 1953.

We may get closer still. John Bolton, the embodiment of the military hawk, Buck Turgidson and Dr. Strangelove rolled into one, has the absolute undiminished ear of the president* of the United States, and the world doesn’t have a second to lose. We’ve had a taste of his previous incarnations as a firebrand, a political figure with only aspirations of the incendiary. The rhetorical flamethrower we know as John Bolton may have never had a better time, or opportunity, to set the world on fire. Literally.

Image credits: John Kelly:  Cliff Owen/Associated Press. James Mattis: via @thehill. Cambridge Analytica logo: © 2018 Cambridge Analytica.  Trump: via @davidaxelrod.  Truthout logo: © 2018 Truthout. Doomsday clock graphic: © 2018 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...