Will Trump’s cabinet of horrors start a war(s)?
analyzes the Trump administration's further lurch toward warmongering and "America First" nationalism--and what the consequences might be.
THE TRUMP administration has taken a decisive turn toward an even more militarist "America First" strategy.
Over the past few weeks, the billionaire bigot-in-chief expelled key establishment figures from his cabinet and replaced them with protectionists and hawks committed to confrontation, not only with North Korea and Iran, but also China.
Up until now, the administration was torn between two factions.
On one side was a "globalist" team of bankers, generals and corporate executives, which upheld the strategy that has predominated in U.S. politics for decades of superintending the neoliberal world order of free trade and globalization.
On the other was a grouping of right-wing nationalists--most prominently, Steve Bannon, but including other individuals with different backgrounds--which has lobbied Trump to abandon that neoliberal order, wholly or in part, in favor of "protectionist" trade policies and great-power conflict, particularly with China.
A man of few ideas and ruled by erratic, predatory compulsions, Trump has appeared to balance between these two factions like--in Michael Wolff's memorable phrase from the tell-all book Fire and Fury--"Jabba the Hut in a golf shirt."
After Trump got rid of Bannon in a fit of rage last year, the globalists seemed to have triumphed, and numerous segments of the ruling class with a stake in the neoliberal status quo breathed a sigh of relief.
But in March, Trump fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and nominated hawk and current CIA Director Mike Pompeo to take his place. He also axed National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and brought in John Bolton, the notorious "bomb first and ask questions later" advocate of pre-emptive war.
The Trump economic team has also been shaken up. When Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and top trade adviser Peter Navarro won a series of protectionist measures from Trump--including new tariffs on washing machines, solar panels, steel and aluminum, with plans for more penalties against China for allegedly violating U.S. corporations' intellectual property rights--Gary Cohn, one of the main representatives of Wall Street bankers in the administration, quit as director of the National Economic Council.
ALL THESE developments have sent a wave of panic through the American establishment, which had looked to the globalists as the "adults in the room" who would contain Trump's erratic outbursts.
Cohn, Tillerson and McMaster had, indeed, been successful in curbing some of Trump's extremes threats, like breaking from the NATO military alliance, and in getting him to focus on typical Republican policies like passing the enormous tax cut for the rich late last year.
But some commentators, such as foreign policy apparatchik Eliot Cohen, wrongly concluded based on this record that the Trump presidency had "ended up being a highly erratic, obnoxious version of the Republican normal," as Cohen wrote in Foreign Affairs in January.
In reality, even before the cabinet shakeup and the latest lurch toward militarism, the Trump administration was breaking in important ways with Washington's grand strategy of free trade globalization.
This "strategy has run out of gas," as foreign policy analyst Walter Russell Mead summarized in a Wall Street Journal commentary, for three reasons:
First, Mr. Trump knows that the post-Cold War policies can no longer be politically sustained. Second, he knows that China poses a new and dangerous challenge to American interests. Third, he sees that foreign policy must change in response. The old approach...must be reassessed in the light of today's dangerous world.
The administration presented its new approach in the recent National Security Strategy document (NSS). It reorients the U.S. away from the so-called "war on terror" toward containment of great-power adversaries--China and Russia are explicitly named--and a confrontational approach to regional rivals like Iran and so-called "rogue states" like North Korea.
The strategy put forward would foster American strength by intensifying the xenophobic domestic security apparatus, protecting U.S. industry and high technology, and shifting away from superintending the neoliberal order by adopting a transactional approach to international relationships and protectionist economics.
The NSS remained, however, a shotgun marriage between the globalist and nationalist factions in the White House. After his cabinet purge, Trump has swerved much further in the direction of the economic nationalists and military interventionists.
CONSIDER WHO'S in charge now at the White House. Peter Navarro, the director of the newly created National Trade Council, has been with the administration from the beginning, but he has emerged into prominence as its main theorist of protectionism.
He is committed to waging economic and military war on China. Just look at the titles of his recent books: The Hundred Years Marathon: China's Secret Plan to Replace America as the Global Superpower; Crouching Tiger: What China's Militarism Means for the World; Death by China: Confronting the Dragon: A Global Call to Action and The Coming China Wars: where They Will Be Fought and How They Can Be Won.
But Navarro and the economic team seem downright conventional compared to the right-wing fanatics Trump has promoted on the military side.
Trump has nominated Gina Haspel to replace Mike Pompeo as the new head of the CIA. Haspel is the barbaric incarnation of everything wrong with the spy agency. Her most infamous achievement was overseeing a torture base in Thailand during the reign of George W. Bush.
"Gina Haspel was a central figure in one of the most illegal and shameful chapters in modern American history," argues Christopher Andrew, deputy director of the ACLU's Washington office. "She was up to her eyeballs in torture: both in running a secret torture prison in Thailand and carrying out an order to cover up torture crimes by destroying videotapes."
Mike Pompeo is even more dangerous. Like Trump, he is crudely Islamophobic--as a member of Congress, he proposed legislation that would have shut down most Muslim organizations in the country.
Pompeo is a vocal supporter of protectionist and confrontational policies toward China. He believes that negotiations with North Korea are fruitless and supports further sanctions and even military strikes, and he is loudly in favor of ripping up the nuclear accord with Iran negotiated by Barack Obama.
But the most frightening of all the new figures in the administration is John Bolton, whom Trump appointed as his new National Security Advisor.
Bolton is best known for helping George Bush lie his way into the Iraq War, something he defends to this day--and denouncing the United Nations as an institution so bureaucratic and irrelevant that "if [its headquarters] lost 10 stories, it wouldn't make a bit of difference."
Republican columnist George Will called Bolton "the second-most dangerous American"--after Trump, of course--and predicted that he would commit the U.S. to wars and crimes against humanity.
Bolton advocates military action to overthrow the regimes of both North Korea and Iran. He believes that the U.S. should jettison "the ambiguous 'One China' mantra" and recognize Taiwan, a policy decision that China has made clear they would consider an act of war.
WITH THIS gruesome cabinet, Trump has tilted his administration in the direction of economic nationalism and militarism. But two factors could curb their most extreme inclinations.
First, the establishment maintains its globalist agents in the administration--the so-called "moderate generals" Jim "Mad Dog" Mattis as Defense Secretary, and John Kelly as White House Chief of Staff. The state bureaucracy also has ways of acting as a brake on Trump and his new appointees.
Second, Trump is a mercurial bully who could turn on Navarro, Pompeo and Bolton if they irritate him--just as he did with Steve Bannon--and swing back toward the globalist faction.
That said, it would be a mistake not to recognize that Trump has likely crossed a line. His new protectionist measures and extremist foreign policy appointments have destabilized an already crisis-ridden world order, intensified the U.S. conflict with China and Russia, and ratcheted up tensions with North Korea and Iran.
Trump's trade penalties directed at Chinese exports to the U.S. have caused turmoil in the world's stock markets. Sections of the elite may hope these are merely leverage for upcoming negotiations with China on trade--Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin claimed as much in a Fox News interview last month.
But the stock market drops this month show the raw fear of a full-blown trade war.
Similarly, other national governments--whether allies, rivals or targets of the U.S.--worry that Trump's new appointees, especially Bolton, signal preparations for dramatic confrontations, if not outright war.
As Chen Dingding, a professor of international relations at Jinan University, told The New York Times, Bolton is "a hard-liner, not just toward China but to the whole world...[H]e does represent a worldview of the Trump administration, one of 'America First' and unilateralism over multilateralism. I think the whole world should be concerned, not just Asia."
So far, China and Russia have both reacted with vigilant calm.
The Chinese government is hoping it can strike a deal with Trump over trade, but it has already announced tariffs of its own on $3 billion worth of American goods, and it could up the ante even more if the U.S. doesn't back down.
For its part, Russia is banking on Trump's "bromance" with Putin--or whatever dirt Putin has on the billionaire president--to mitigate the impact of the new anti-Moscow hawks in the administration.
Trump's new cabinet will have a far worse immediate impact on U.S. conflicts with Iran and North Korea. The hawks seem determined to scrap the nuclear deal with Iran when it comes up for renewal this May, and they advocate blocking with Saudi Arabia and Israel to force through new sanctions and even military attacks on Iran to destroy what's left of its nuclear program.
Under threat from the U.S., Iran is likely to seek backing from other powers as a deterrent to Washington's aggression. The head of Iranian parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, Alaeddin Boroujerdi, just announced: "Americans are pushing for harder policies toward the Islamic Republic of Iran, and we need to strengthen our view towards the East, especially China and Russia."
The Trump administration will also bring the conflict with North Korea to a head in May at Trump's face-to-face summit with Kim Jong-un. Bolton told Fox News that negotiations are worthless, and he attacked the leaders of the South Korean government, who orchestrated the meeting, as "putty in North Korea's hands."
Bolton advocates pre-emptive military action as the only solution, arguing "it is perfectly legitimate for the United State to respond to the current 'necessity' posed by North Korea's nuclear weapons by striking first."
Pompeo and Bolton will likely advise Trump to use the summit to issue an ultimatum to Kim to de-nuclearize, something he would almost certainly refuse. This would lead to a further escalation in tensions that already threaten to break out into a conflagration in the Korean Peninsula.
FACED WITH this frightening turn by the Trump administration, many will understandably look to the Democratic Party to stop Trump and his America First henchmen. But in reality, the Democrats are committed to U.S. imperialism's domination of the world system, however much they may disagree with Trump's strategy and tactics.
The Democrats started all of the U.S. wars of the 20th century until George H.W. Bush's Iraq War--including the First and Second World Wars, as well as the Korean War, Vietnam and Barack Obama's intensified Drone Wars. The Democrats in no way deserve the reputation they have as an antiwar party.
Many Democrats don't even disagree with Trump's new America First strategy. For example, the House Democratic Caucus praised Trump's National Security Strategy document, with the sole complaint being that "the administration's actions have not aligned with the language of this document."
Most Democrats support the administration's confrontational approach to China. Remember that it was Barack Obama who launched the infamous "pivot to Asia" precisely to contain Beijing's growing power.
It should come as no surprise, therefore, that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer backs Trump's tariffs on China. "Today he is doing the right thing," Schumer said, as he accused China of "rapaciously" taking advantage of the United States. "They steal it," he said, referring to U.S. intellectual property, "and we do nothing."
What's more, the Democratic Party, including its liberal wing, is far more determined than Trump to ramp up conflict with Russia. Democrats have singled out Russia's meddling in the "U.S. elections and Trump's softness on it to attack him from the right, implying that he is Putin's Manchurian president.
The Democrats do generally disagree with Trump over his bellicose policy toward Iran, but not because they are any less committed to isolating and rolling back the Iranian government's increasing influence in the Middle East. The Obama administration negotiated the nuclear deal with Iran precisely because they want the U.S. and no other power dominating the region. The Democrats just support multilateral tactics over unilateral ones.
The approach is similar with North Korea. The Democrats agree with Trump, as Obama just declared in a speech in Japan, that "North Korea is a real threat." Obama held out hope of resolving the conflict "peacefully," because "the cost in terms of human life would be significant." But that position in no way rules out military force.
Last year, 60 percent of congressional Democrats joined Republicans in voting for a defense budget of nearly $670 billion, an amount even higher than Trump requested. And Congress continued to feed the beast in the most recent budget deal, giving the administration yet more money for the military.
With several Republican senators already stating their opposition to Senate confirmation of Pompeo and Haspel to their new positions, the Democrats have a chance to put up a fight. But don't count on it.
California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, for example, has openly praised the torture-master Haspel, telling The New York Times that, "the torture situation" notwithstanding, "I have met with her extensively, talked with her. She has been, I believe, a good deputy director. She seems to have the confidence of the agency, which is good."
The Democrats are no ally in opposing U.S. imperialism and Trump's warmongering. The two parties are different factions of a ruling class determined to preserve their dominance over imperial rivals like China and Russia, regional powers like Iran, and antagonists like North Korea.
We need to build an independent opposition to Trump's hawkish nationalist threats of war. That doesn't mean siding with America's imperial opponents like China or Russia or reactionary regimes like those of Iran and North Korea.
Instead, we must build an internationalist movement from below in solidarity with national liberation struggles, movements for democracy and workers' struggles for equality. Only such a movement can combine opposition to all imperialisms with a commitment to justice and equality in all the countries of the world.