What do new changes in US officialdom mean?
US President Donald Trump now has a team that reflects his political instincts and the priority he attaches to putting “America First.” This will almost certainly mean US withdrawal from the nuclear agreement with Iran, an article of faith with both Mike Pompeo and John Bolton.
ON March 13, US President Donald Trump announced the removal of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and his replacement by CIA Director Mike Pompeo, with CIA veteran Gina Haspel succeeding the latter as the agency’s head. Nine days later, Trump sacked National Security Adviser (NSA) H.R. McMaster and appointed John Bolton in his place. All these appointments are controversial, and have made the Middle East even more unstable and insecure.
Tillerson had not covered himself with much glory in his short tenure. He was seen as low-key, non-communicative and ineffective. But his fatal flaw was that he was not close to his president. In fact, last October he referred to Trump as a “moron.”
But Pompeo scarcely seems a better choice. A strict born-again Christian, he has an established record of Islamophobia, closeness to anti-Muslim extremists, and affiliation with pro-Israel right-wing groups in Washington.
He prefers confrontation to dialogue, an observer has noted — hardly the best qualification for the chief US diplomat. American commentator Jason Rezaian wrote that Pompeo’s rapport with the president could “help to enable Trump’s worst instincts.”
Pompeo is said to be obsessed with Russia. In his view, the US position visa-vis its Cold War rival is still a zero-sum scenario. His present concerns relate to Russia’s and Iran’s expanding roles in the Middle East.
Haspel has been closely associated with extreme torture used by the CIA against alleged extremists in its custody after 9/11, using methods that even then were viewed within the agency and its oversight bodies as not only morally repugnant but also largely ineffective.
But it is Bolton who has caused the most disquiet among commentators, who recall his hawkish positions during the presidency of George W. Bush and his close association with the neoconservatives. This cabal pushed the US to war against Iraq in 2003, seen widely as the country’s greatest foreign policy disaster and the harbinger of the acute insecurity the region is experiencing today.
Observers have pointed out that in the Trump administration, Bolton has promoted conflict with Iran. His contact with the president was facilitated by his close ties with Trump’s major donor and pro-Israel hawk Sheldon Adelson. Robert Hunter, former American ambassador to NATO, has described Bolton’s appointment as NSA as “an insult to the entire US national security profession.”
Trump now has a team that reflects his political instincts and the priority he attaches to putting “America First.” This will almost certainly mean US withdrawal from the nuclear agreement with Iran, an article of faith with both Pompeo and Bolton. While there are valid concerns over Iran’s hegemonic intentions that threaten the interests of its neighbors, hardly any of them want to see the collapse of the deal, which would bolster the hawks in Tehran and make the region more dangerous.
Linked with this is the situation in Syria, where Russia is leading a peace process — with Iran and Turkey as partners — that is trying to put in place a post-conflict political order based on consensus among the rival groups. The hostility of Pompeo and Bolton to Russia and Iran will certainly remove any prospect of such a settlement.
But the US could cause even greater damage to regional security. Its decision to plant itself firmly in Syria to roll back Russian and Iranian influence is founded on promoting Syrian-Kurdish aspirations for independence.
This plan has upset Turkey, which has moved troops into Syria, captured the Kurdish stronghold of Afrin, and is demanding control of a 100-km-long “safe zone” from Afrin to Manbij to stop the Kurds from consolidating their homeland. This scenario has placed the US in the untenable position of either betraying its Kurdish proteges or alienating its NATO ally, amid the possibility of serious conflict between the two.
But the most serious prospect for the region is the close affinity of Trump and his hawkish officials with right-wing extremists in Israel. US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital will almost certainly lead to agitation by the beleaguered Palestinians and the use of disproportionate force by Israel, which will spread disquiet across the Middle East.
Linked with this is the possibility of Israel attacking Lebanon and Syria to eradicate the influence of Hezbollah and Iran at its borders. This could lead to a regional conflict and significant Israeli casualties. Bolton and Pompeo could even advocate a direct attack on Iran to end its nuclear program and effect regime change, both of which Bolton has been promoting for several years. The outlook for the Middle East has rarely been so horrendous.
Talmiz Ahmad is a former Indian diplomat who holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies, Symbiosis International University, Pune, India.