In the ongoing US foreign policy transition saga, John Bolton’s ousting as Donald Trump’s National Security Adviser, due to their alleged deep differences, provides a fitting point to revisit the disarray in American foreign policy overall, especially as the US approaches what will be a momentous election year in 2020.
Here, the contention has been that US foreign policy has been in a state of transition ever since the end of the George Herbert Walker Bush administration, on into the presidency of Barack Obama which repudiated the unilateralism of Bush the Younger. With the onset of the Trump presidency, the US foreign policy transition has morphed into outright neopatrimonial instability, reflecting the bizarre ultra-right-wing real estate mogul, reality TV personality currently occupying the White House.
Essentially, the Trump Disruption in American foreign policy is something of an exclamation point! It is one emphasising – and re-emphasising – the end of what has been a decades-long post-war era continuing into the post-Cold War period of Americo-Triumphalism, without any major updating revisions or adjustments in the US-led Western Alliance paradigm. Its stale brittleness began surfacing under the George W Bush Presidency. This was when Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld began introducing such snide references to “Old Europe” while neocon pundit Robert Kagan introduced his Mars (US) vs Venus (Europe) metaphor amid European opposition to Bush unilateralism in Iraq.
The Obama presidency repudiated Bush-Dick Cheney hardlinism in a return to liberal internationalism of which the Paris Climate Accord, the Trans-Pacific Partnership and especially the Iran Nuclear Deal were signature accomplishments which Trump has summarily reversed in fits of anti-Obama petulance. In search of “The Deal”, to keep his electoral base on side, Trump’s strongman bluster and bellicosity wrapped in reality TV-style grandstanding (except in the presence of Russian President Vladimir Putin, hence inviting the label “Putin’s Puppet”) followed by retreats disguised as “toughness”, as with his North Korean partner in “true love”, Kim Jong-un, has little to show for it. That is, apart from Photo Ops.
So, signing an Afghan deal with the Taliban at Camp David, no matter how unkosher this would come across to Washington’s foreign policy establishment, really meant wonders going into 2020.
Warmonger-in-Chief, John Bolton, would have none of it even though it was called off on pretext of an American serviceman’s death in a Kabul bombing. But Bolton was not alone as scepticism over the administration’s perceived “cut and run” negotiations was rife across the political spectrum. Afghanistan, nevertheless, was the “tipping point” triggering Bolton’s exit, although Trump essentially came around to Bolton’s position, possibly because an image of “weakness” was beginning to sow Trumpian strongman self-doubt? The Ego Calculus if you will.
Whatever the case, the US-Taliban negotiations carried out by veteran GOP Afghan-American diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad and, for that matter, the harsh critiques of those negotiations, are emblematic of the broader and more fundamental crisis in the ongoing transition in US foreign policy turned diplomacy neopatrimonial farce under Trump who cares nothing about policy or diplomacy as for him it is all about “optics”. But before elaborating on this point and how it exposes the extent of this crisis into the ranks of the Democrats auditioning to replace Trump, it is instructive of the challenge posed by Trump to dwell briefly on how this episode of Bolton’s ousting has turned Trump into something of a “peacenik” committed to ending America’s “forever wars”!
That mainstream media commentary and op-eds have been complicit in this con job of a travesty further underlines the magnitude of disarray in what passes for foreign policy discourse in today’s Washington. Post-ousting, the media portrays Bolton’s becoming Trump’s national security advisor as having been an unlikely choice even though, at the time of Bolton’s ascent into the job, it was a widely anticipated development as the media pronounced on the dwindling “adults in the room” with the exit of Rex Tillerson at State and then HR McMaster, leaving a lonely General Frank Mattis as the only “adult” holding down the fort at Defence.
Bolton, at the time, was widely seen as a natural given his well-known disdain for diplomacy and multilateralism with an “America First” Fox News bellicosity that won Trump’s heart. Now, the post-resignation line has it that everyone wondered how long this “marriage” of egos would last given Bolton’s penchant for military interventions and Trump’s penchant for non-intervention and troop disengagements from Syria and Afghanistan opposed by much of the foreign policy establishment.
So now we know Trump was actually restraining his national security adviser from executing the Monroe Doctrine in Venezuela and air strikes against Iran after the shooting down of an American military drone. Either way, both Trump and Bolton are one in their hardline resistance to nuanced diplomacy and international cooperation in engaging friend and foe alike.
Iran is an excellent example where Trump was certainly not opposed to Bolton’s secondary sanctions threat against European allies in an effort to force them out of the Iran Nuclear Deal in their “maximum pressure” strategy against Tehran. The upshot: heightened instability in the Persian Gulf with Tehran’s back against the wall, in the process, exposing contradictions in the Saudi-Emirati anti-Iran alliance. The devastating attacks cutting Saudi oil production in half introduce a new magnitude of complexity.
But, for the sake of argument, Trump was apparently champing at the bit for talks with the Iranians with Bolton no longer around. Prior to the attacks on Aramco, would Trump have considered doing away with the secondary sanctions against Europeans wanting to do business with Iran as a means of kickstarting some kind of talks (not just suspending them as Fareed Zakaria advocates)? Would Iranians even buy into such a Trumpian gambit in the absence of secondary sanctions removal which, by the way, would strengthen European efforts to persuade Iran to remain in compliance with the nuclear deal?
Secondary sanctions are what could determine the real difference between Trump and an ousted Bolton who, in the end, won out in opposing the Taliban negotiations and the photo op that Trump was planning for Camp David as a prop for his 2020 re-election.
‘Chickenhawk’ vs ‘Chickenshit’?
The shadow and substance of Trump vs. Bolton have perhaps been best articulated by Adam Weinstein, writing in The New Republic. Weinstein pithily put it this way in placing in perspective pro-Trump, anti-Bolton Kentucky Senator Rand Paul and liberal New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd’s conferring “peacenik” credentials on Trump against warmongering Bolton:
“Contrary to the testimony of Rand Paul and Maureen Dowd, Trump is not a peacenik. If there is a tidy binary distinction between Bolton and Trump, it isn’t between hawks and doves, chickenhawks and chickenshits. Neoconservative chickenhawking was a taut, narrative-driven, overconfident belligerence aimed at creating a US-led world order; Trumpian chickenshittery is incoherent, cowardly belligerence, calculated, if at all, to glorify the Don.
“The latter is every bit as hazardous to global security as the old Republican hawkishness: both start by blowing up the global order and multilateral agreements, but Trumpism manifests as tough talk with absolutely no credibility, proffered by an easily distractible simpleton who backs down from every fight he’s ever instigated.”
The latest escalation in the Persian Gulf following drone strikes on Aramco is an outcome that can be viewed as attributable to both “chickens” coming home to roost, taking things to the brink. Moreover, Bolton’s departure is no protection from a Secretary of State with an evangelical end-days penchant for Armageddon!
An alternative paradigm
In any case, so much for the Bolton-Trump false binary! A falsity indulged in by mainstream media, which is why Democrats may experience an uphill struggle against Trump “the peacenik” on foreign policy in 2020 if they don’t begin charting a credibly progressive and truly peacenik alternative in support of their progressive domestic agenda.
The two are, after all, interlinked in their budget implications for making the case for a sustainable national renewal agenda. This is where the fatal flaw in conventional (including Democratic), as well as Trumpian wisdom on disengaging from Afghanistan, becomes instructive. Liberal or conservative, Republican hawkishness or Democratic dovishness, the underlying unilateralism and dismissiveness of multilateral solutions inclusive of non-NATO and/or non-G7 actors exposes a glaring fault in bringing an end to America’s quagmire in the Hindu Kush.
The Taliban likes to portray the government in Kabul as America’s puppet, even though this same government is an observer member of the Sino-Russian led Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO) which in 2005 established the SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group. Were Democrats to win the White House in 2020, would the next president consider a UN-supported Nato-SCO negotiating framework that might more effectively pressure the Taliban into negotiating with the Afghan government in a manner giving assurances to Afghans that modernising secular social progress will not be rolled back in an eventual settlement?
A UN Security Council backed Nato-SCO approach to peace negotiations in Afghanistan is just one instance where an enduring NATO-SCO Eurasian security arrangement just might point to a way out of the fundamental post-Cold War East-West divide that has only widened further over the years. But this requires a whole spanking new worldview that is lacking among Democrats and the left. Republicans, whether non-intervention isolationists like Rand Paul or Bolton and his ilk will never countenance such a prospect. But why not Democrats? Except, perhaps, that Democrats remain intimidated by Republicans less they confirm themselves as the “soft” party of “weakness” while the GOP gets away with Trump as “Putin’s Puppet” and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell earning the moniker “Moscow Mitch” for opposing election security legislation against Russian renewed election interference in the 2020 election.
Democrats: left on domestic policy, status quo on foreign policy
Foreign policy has hardly surfaced in Democratic presidential pre-primary debates. And because of the intimidating “whose tougher than who?”, Janan Ganesh, in a right-on-target Financial Times critique notes that “more often, Democrats find themselves attacking Trump for insufficient toughness. When the president chases North Korea’s Kim Jong Un around Singapore and Hanoi for a promise to denuclearise, they make sport of his indignity.” (italics added)
Thus: “At a time when all orthodoxies seem negotiable, the Democrats are allowing many to go unexamined. Should the US continue to aspire to overwhelming military superiority when it accounts for less and less of world output? How much mileage is there in the containment of a country, China, that has had the world’s largest economy for 18 of the past 20 centuries? In a region as fraught as the Middle East, should the US have such clear friends (Israel, Saudi Arabia) and such clear enemies (Iran)? Should it, given its domestic bounties of oil and gas, have much of a role there at all?”
On Ganesh’s last point, this informed Obama’s “Off-Shore Balancing” calculus behind his Iran nuclear deal strategy amid the intractability of an Israel-Palestinian peace settlement – which, by the way, demonising Iran has been a conveniently strategic distraction employed by Netanyahu which Democrats and Republicans alike buy into as Democrats scramble to show how much they support Israel “right or wrong” as much as Trump and the GOP!
Rethinking the Middle East, as President Obama had started with the Iran deal is what Democrats need revisiting in devising a sustainable foreign policy grand strategy that allows funding for a long-overdue comprehensive domestic renewal agenda, instead of bipartisan unsustainable over-budgeting for the Pentagon to the tune of $718-billion, alongside mega-tax cuts for the filthy rich. Little wonder questions arise on how one pays for domestic policy reforms Democratic candidates are pronouncing on in their debates.
As Ganesh rightly concluded: “The candidates for the 2020 election are facing the future on almost every subject. On the one that counts most, they are stranded in time.”
So bye-bye Bolton, but the national and global security threat of Republican foreign policy which Democrats fear to challenge remains. A luta continua!
Mr. Francis A Kornegay Jr is a senior research fellow at the Institute for Global Dialogue associated with the University of South Africa
The article was first published in the Daily Maverick, 19 September 2019.