Clearly Donald Trump’s Presidency is entering a new phase. He is feeling his oats: he now has successes under his belt, and seems emboldened, and ready to pursue his impulsive, instinctive personal style, which he believes, took him to the Presidency. Things are about to get ‘interesting’ (in the Chinese sense). He is throwing off his restraints (Tillerson on JCPOA; and Cohn on tariffs). And other conventionalist ‘impedimenta’ (i.e. McMaster) may go, too, in coming days. General Mattis will cut a somewhat lonely figure in the future, perhaps.
Tillerson, last October said: "The president is a very unconventional person, as we all know, in terms of how he communicates, how he likes to create action-forcing events. And so, the President often takes steps to force an action when he feels things are just not moving." So, it seems that Trump is forcing ‘action’ now. But with what end in mind? And, more importantly, is that end realistic, or will it take us to disaster – even to war?
Trump relishes risk, and elevating the stakes, sky-high. And his choices for replacements to this week’s dismissals reflect this: David Stockman describes Larry Kudlow as being “off the very (deep) deep-end for years, on the more important matters of deficits, tax-cut magic, Fed money-printing, wild-eyed economic growth rates, and, above all else, incorrigible cheerleading for Wall Street's serial financial bubbles.” In short, Trump is casting aside Cohn’s conventional banker’s caution, in order to double-down on ‘supply-side’ economics (a big risk when government debt already stands at 105% of nominal GDP, and the US has a three trillion plus borrowing requirement already baked in, for the next three years ).
And he has just cast overboard, Tillerson’s old-style, courteous and conventional diplomacy, for that of a polarizing ‘hawk’ – Mike Pompeo. Not just any old hawk, but an North Korea hawk, as well as an Iran hawk; and a Russia hawk too. And, is, just to round off the picture, an Islamophobe (as extensively documented by Jim Lobe), and – like Trump – a partisan, Israeli loyalist.
“Just two days before he was named Rex Tillerson’s successor as secretary of state”, Uri Friedman has noted in The Atlantic: “CIA Director Mike Pompeo … an unsparing critic of the nuclear agreement with Iran, vowed to not repeat Barack Obama’s mistakes. What he promised was breathtaking: that President Trump would secure a better deal with North Korea … than his predecessor did with Iran, which had yet to acquire nuclear weapons.” Friedman continues: “The previous administration was negotiating from a position of weakness. This administration will be negotiating from a position of enormous strength”… The administration’s plan for the talks, [Pompeo] explained, is to maintain and increase economic pressure on North Korea while aiming for the “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization of North Korea … [unlike Obama, who left] “the Iranians with a breakout capacity” to produce nuclear weapons, Pompeo noted. The “human capital and enrichment capacity” behind Iran's nuclear-weapons program “continues to remain in place” despite its pause in testing, he cautioned – and “President Trump is determined to prevent that from happening in North Korea.”
Friedman comments: “What made Pompeo’s comments remarkable wasn’t just his assertion that the United States could compel North Korea to do what most experts believe North Korea never will: fully give up its nuclear weapons. It was also how confidently he made the claim, given what he’s said in the past about North Korea.”
Not surprisingly, the American and European press is replete with questions about whether Trump, by making Pompeo Secretary of State, finally has fully succumbed to the neo-cons (especially as John Bolton appears to be being considered for a senior position in Trump’s Administration, too). It has prompted serious and cool-headed commentators to predict that Pompeo’s appointment, plus Bolton hovering in the wings, suggest that we are heading for war with Iran and Russia.
The latter may well be right, but perhaps we should try to unpack this a little further. The ‘anti Trump, covert US state’, and its collaborators amongst Europeans and ‘globalist’ European intelligence services, evidently is ratchetting-up the pressure on Russia at every point – hoping to push President Putin into some ill-judged over-reaction, that would compel Trump to take some irreversible, rupturing action against Russia. They hope to corner Trump into burning his bridges with Putin, for good. But Trump bends a bit under the extreme force of these winds, but stays afoot – and the Russian President does the same, despite the heat of severe provocations.
Does Trump seek war with Russia? No. But the covert state does; and will try everything to get it. Trump does want war with Russia. In fact, he wants President Putin to help him make peace in the Middle East.
Tillerson is cast aside not because Trump wants nuclear war, but as a result of the mismatch between Trump’s mode of negotiation – as expressed in the Art of the Deal – and the conventional diplomacy of building good relations and a rapport with one’s counter-parties, as conducted by Tillerson. Trump simply does not believe that Tillerson’s way works. The latter clearly is not Trump’s way. He does not believe in it. He demands leverage. He insists to show strength. He hikes his threats to Armageddon levels; pushes the stakes sky-high, and just when it seems that tensions inexorably will explode, he tries to secure a deal.
This is the point of Pompeo, I suggest: He is the ‘enabler’ to push the stakes to the very limit; the ‘hawk’ that makes everyone fear – and come to believe – that conflict is inevitable; but who – at one minute before midnight – offers a deal. It is a process wholly different to the laboured, incremental, step-by-step approach of conventional diplomacy. Could Tillerson really have made such a bluff – of imminent war, of ‘fire and fury’ – credible? He is perhaps, too nice.
So, what is going on? Trump, it seems, is emboldened sufficiently to try to unfold his ‘plan’ for Middle East peace. It is not so much a ‘plan’ in a conceptual sense, but rather a series of transactional steps that he seems to have in mind. But key to this sequencing, is the ‘seed’ planted by Mark Dubowitz and the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD), which is funded primarily by right-wing supporters of Israel, including billionaire Sheldon Adelson, a close ally of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It is a long standing advocate for war on Iran.
Politico describes Dubowitz as “a key outside adviser to the Trump Administration on Iran”. And the point on which Dubowitz has been insisting with Trump, is that any North Korean nuclear deal is intimately interconnected with the Iranian JCPOA – and that both ultimately connect to making peace in the Middle East.
The FDD thesis is that “the Iran-North Korea axis dates back more than 30 years. The two regimes have exchanged nuclear expertise, cooperated widely on missile technologies, and run similar playbooks against Western negotiators. The fear: Tehran is using Pyongyang for work no longer permitted under the 2015 nuclear deal [i.e on nuclear warheads] while [Iran is] perfecting North Korean-derived missile delivery systems, back home [which are not covered by the JCPOA]”. Or, in other words, that Pyongyang has sub-contracted to itself the development of an ICBM capable nuclear warhead, whilst Tehran – on the other hand – is focused on developing missile capability. And this presumption of a division of labour between North Korea and Iran essentially is at the root of Trump’s demand that the Europeans must get Iran to relinquish the so-called ‘sunset clauses’, and the Iranian missile programme – lest Iran enable North Korea to achieve the capability to land a nuclear bomb on the US.
Is there really this conspiracy? There may have been some co-operation years ago, in the era of Pakistan’s A. Q. Khan, but the FDD thesis is more speculation, than substance. North Korea’s and Iran’s aims differ: North Korea wants inter-continental missiles that can reach America. Iran doesn’t. It wants short and medium range missiles for self-defence.
Be that as it may: there are grounds to believe that Trump’s working hypothesis is based on the FDD theory. And further, that ending this supposed interplay between Iran and North Korea constitutes the pillar on which Trump’s ‘deal of the century’ for the Middle East rests.
So, Pompeo’s job is to convince Kim Il Jung that he faces utter destruction unless he takes the path of divesting the state of its nuclear programme; and to do something similar to Iran in respect to its (hypothetical break-out capacity), and its missile programme: i.e. Pompeo must achieve double de-nuclearisation by escalating the stakes sky-high to the point that everyone fears war – in the expectation that North Korea and Iran will be the ones to back down (The Art of the Deal).
And this ‘double de-nuclearisation’ – this line of thinking goes – will make Israel and Saudi Arabia will feel safer: Saudi can normalise with Israel, and the latter can then do something for the Palestinians (according to this White House optic). With the final part to this construct being the quiet understanding that Russia will restrain Iran, Syria and Hizbullah; and Trump will commit to restrain Israel … Peace in our time?
Maybe. But just to be clear, this is a highly risky project, which may well lead, instead, to war. North Korea may call Trump and Pompeo’s ‘fire and fury’ bluff (leaving Washington without any ‘off ramp’, except the very military action which the bluff is supposed to obviate). Iran may elect to ignore Pompeo too; it has learned to distrust America’s word. Israel may fear Iran’s conventional weapons as much – or more so – than Iran’s nonexistent nuclear war heads, and seek to entangle the US in a war to destroy Iran, and thus preserve Israel’s regional hegemony.
And, then there is the question of whether America is at present ‘agreement capable’? The unitive US state is fragmented. For whom or what does Trump speak? Can Trump give either North Korea or Iran any credible security guarantees, in the event of some agreement? Would Congress co-operate? Would the covert state co-operate? Will super-hawk Pompeo remain loyal to Trump’s vision? Will the neo-cons manipulate this process towards the conflicts that they seek to ignite?
Eliot Cohen in The Atlantic has written of Pompeo:
“He is sometimes described as a Trump loyalist, but that is nonsense: No one is loyal to Trump—he is too indecent a human being to attract such normal personal attachments. The administration is not divided into people who are loyal to Trump and those who are not. Rather, it is divided between those who know how to manipulate his vanity, his hatreds, his sensitivities, and those who do not.”
Trump may discover that the intransigence of his presumed opponents is not his biggest problem, but taking Washington – and all its burning hatreds – with him, represents the bigger challenge.