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The Appointments of Bolton and Pompeo Bring Us Closer to War
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Armed conflict between the US and Iran is becoming more probable by the day as super-hawks replace hawks in the Trump administration. The new National Security Adviser, John Bolton, has called for the US to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal of 2015 and advocated immediate regime change in Tehran. The new Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, has said the agreement, which Trump may withdraw from on 12 May, is “a disaster”. Trump has told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he will not accept a deal with “cosmetic changes” as advocated by European states, according to Israeli reporters. If this is so, then the deal is effectively dead.

The escalating US-Iran confrontation is causing menacing ripples that could soon become waves across the Middle East. The price of crude oil is up because of fears of disruption of supply from the Gulf. In Iran, the value of the rial is at its lowest ever, having fallen by a quarter in the last six months. In Iraq, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi admits his greatest fear is a confrontation between the US and Iran fought out in Iraq.

A dangerous aspect of the super-hawk approach to Iran is similar to that of the Bush administration in the run up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. In both cases, those calling for use of armed force had, or have, lethally little knowledge of what they were/are getting into. Pompeo had a simple solution to the Iranian problem when he was still a congressman, telling reporters it would take “under 2,000 sorties to destroy the Iranian nuclear capacity”.

Optimists, though these have become fewer on the ground in Washington in the last few weeks, are dismissive of such bellicose rhetoric. But whatever Trump and his lieutenants think they are doing, their words have consequences. Governments have to take threats seriously and devise counter-measures to meet them in case the worst comes to the worst. In the wake of the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, American neo-conservatives boastfully proclaimed it would be “Baghdad today, Tehran and Damascus tomorrow”. These slogans were enough to ensure the Syrian and Iranian governments did everything in their power to make sure that the US could not stay in Iraq.

Looking back, the invasion of Iraq marked the turning point for the hegemony of the Anglo-Saxon powers – the US and the UK – on the world stage. The fraudulent justification for the war and the failure of those who launched it to get their way against relatively puny opponents turned a conflict which was meant to be a show of strength into a demonstration of weakness. Foreign intervention in Libya and Syria in 2011 produced similar calamities.

If we are on the edge of a fresh crisis in the Middle East, centring on Iran, then the US is in a much weaker position than it was pre-Trump. Domestically divided and short of allies, it can no longer control the rules of the game as it once did. Over the last year there are two examples of this: in May, Trump visited Saudi Arabia giving unequivocal backing to its rulers and blaming the troubles of the region on Iran. But it turned out that the prime target of Saudi Arabia and UAE was not Iran but tiny Qatar. All Trump had achieved was to break the previously united front of Gulf monarchies against Iran.

In another major misjudgement by the US in January, the supposedly moderate Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced that the US would be keeping its forces in Syria after the defeat of Isis, and intended to get rid of President Bashar al-Assad and roll back Iranian influence. This ambition was largely fantasy, but the Russian and Turkish reaction was real. Four days after Tillerson’s arrogant declaration, the Turkish army poured into northern Syria with Russian permission and within two months had eliminated the enclave of Afrin, inhabited by Kurds who are the only US ally in Syria. The Kurds are now rather desperately hoping they will not be left in the lurch by the US in the event of a Turkish military assault on the main Kurdish-held territory in north-east Syria.

I was in the Kurdish-held zone in Syria earlier this month and wondered what the US will do if the Turks did decide to advance further. The north Syrian plain east of the Euphrates is dead flat with little cover, while the main Kurdish cities are right on the Turkish border and highly vulnerable. The US only has 2,000 troops there, and their effectiveness depends on their ability to call in devastating airstrikes by the US air force. This is a powerful option, but would the US really use it in defence of the Kurds against Nato ally Turkey?

What Trump claims was President Obama’s weakness of will and poor negotiating skills was in reality an astute ability to match US means to US interests and avoid being sucked into unwinnable wars. This was never really understood by the Washington foreign policy establishment, which is stuck in the pre-2003 era when US strength was at its height in the years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Still less is it grasped by super-hawks like Bolton and Pompeo, with no idea of the political and military minefields into which they are about to stumble.

The US establishment and its allies may be aghast at Trump withdrawing from the nuclear deal, but it looks more than likely he is going to do it. Sanctions on Iran may be reimposed, but these are never quite the winning card that those imposing them imagine, whatever the suffering inflicted on the general population. Sanctions unilaterally imposed by Trump may damage Iran, but they will also isolate the US.


Whatever the outcome of a confrontation between the US and Iran, it is not going to “Make America Great Again”. The northern corridor of the Middle East, south of Turkey and north of Saudi Arabia, has always been the graveyard of US interventionism: this was true of Lebanon in the 1980s when the US embassy was blown up, and when 241 US services personnel (including 220 marines) were killed by a truck bomb in Beirut. This was true in Iraq between 2003 and 2011, and Syria from 2011 to the present day. The US has commonly blamed Iran for these frustrations, an explanation that has some validity, but the real reason is that the US has been fighting a sect rather than a single state. All these countries where the US has failed either have a Shia majority, as in the case of Iran and Iraq, a plurality, as in Lebanon, or are a ruling minority, as in Syria. As the most powerful Shia state, Iran has an immense advantage when it comes to fighting its enemies in such a sympathetic religious terrain.

The new line-up in Washington is being described as “a war cabinet” and it may turn out to be just that. But looking at ignorant, arrogant men like Bolton and Pompeo, it is difficult to avoid the feeling that it will all end in disaster.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: American Military, Donald Trump, Iran, Neocons 
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  1. Anonymous[171] • Disclaimer says:

    Perhaps Mr. Cockburn has missed the plot this time. All this sabre rattling is good for business, and Mr. Trump has certainly indicated business is a good thing. Price of oil goes up. US sells more weapons. Simply by bring in Bolton, it puts everyone on notice that Mr. Trump is “really serious” about “the awful Iran deal”. He’s staking out a strong negotiating position, eventually the Iranians will grow so weary of worry, they’ll cut a deal somehow. What’s the proof? Just look at N. Korea. Looks like they can’t get a deal fast enough. Spin the wheel. Roll the dice.

    • Replies: @Tsar Nicholas
    , @Moi
    , @KA
  2. Anonymous [AKA "Dogood"] says:

    Certainly Trump has appointed some neo-con warmongers. But I haven’t seen any new war nor any big escalation on Trump’s part. I hope Trump is just putting them in there as a negotiating position, to get our enemies afraid and acting more reasonable. And he’s been talking of pulling out of Syria (whose side are we on over there anyway? There’s no good group with which to side.)

    I guess we’ll have to wait and see, what Trump’s plans really are. Especially given his mixed campaign rhetoric on the Middle East: on one hand he promises to decimate ISIS (more or less accomplished) and on the other that our involvement over there is a mistake.

    • Replies: @c matt
  3. anon[225] • Disclaimer says:

    I think we’re headed for war.
    Trump may think he is just putting pressure on his European satellites and Iran to get what he wants, his art of the deal, but he is forgetting that all the many other parties with their own vested interests get a vote as well.
    Relations with Russia have fallen off a cliff, and Trump has started a trade war with China. Even his European satraps despise Trump personally and are aware how much falling in line with American dictates have cost them economically and politically.
    Iran is aware that any concession on its part will just lead to an ever increasing list of impudent and arrogant demands no government could accept and survive. Any new agreement with America is as worthless as the current one.
    America itself is more fractious and weaker internally than at any time since the Civil War.
    Europe has so many internal crises it is difficult to keep track of them all.
    War may be seen as some kind of safety valve to divert attention from internal divisions, as it was in 1914.
    Given the above, capable leadership is crucial. But while the situation calls for a Bismarck or a Metternich, we have Trump, May, Macron, and Merkel, and this does not inspire much confidence.
    Current western leadership is best characterised as incredibly arrogant, venal and corrupt, delusional, ideologically driven, and irredeemably ignorant.
    Maybe we should all attend church and pray. God help us.

  4. @Anonymous

    I think you need a wider perspective than the Iran deal and little Rocket Man in North Korea.

    You need to include other consequentials like the campaign of villification against Russia by the intellectually challenged Theresa May and the fact that there’s a growing danger of a clash between Russian forces and western forces either in Syria, over Syria or in the sea west of Syria.

    You need to also take into account the decision by Trump to sell weapons to the rogue regime of nutters in Kiev. I could go on . . .

  5. Moi says:

    If you think Iran will fold, you don’t know Iran.

  6. Anonymous [AKA "JEFF JIA"] says:

    By this time, is there still anybody who would trust Washington’s words/agreements?!

  7. PJ London says:

    Trump, Trump, Trump!

    If Presidents made any difference do you think that they would change them every few years?

    Bill Clinton once reportedly told senior White House reporter Sarah McClendon,“Sarah, there’s a government inside the government, and I don’t control it.”

    “The real rulers in Washington are invisible and exercise power from behind the scenes.”
    Felix Frankfurter (1882-1965), US Supreme Court Justice, (1939)

    ‘So you see, my dear Coningsby, that the world is governed by very different personages from what is imagined by those who are not behind the scenes. ‘
    – Benjamin Disraeli, British Prime Minister (1804-1881)

    It is all theatre, the President, the Cabinet, the whole process. Watch the GOP convention and the Dem convention, would you trust those screaming idiots to actually run things?

    Thankfully wiser heads prevail, unfortunately in the USA they happen to own ammunition and armament factories.

    Ah well, tempus vincit omnia.

  8. Freebird says:

    Trump is not going to take the U.S. into a un-necessary war of invasion in Iran or anywhere else. It is not in his nature. If you read his books he talks at great length about the mistake of Iraq and the mistake of getting deeply involved in an interventionist manner in the Middle-East. Or anywhere else for that matter. He may exit the Iran nuclear deal but that is only because it is a rotten deal not worth the paper it’s written on. Iran was cheating on the deal before the ink was dry. And as far as a war in any theater of the world that was much more likely had Hillary won the presidency. She is a noted hawk not necessarily a Neocon but a blatant hawk nevertheless. In my opinion Trump is one of the most level headed politicians of his time when it comes to foreign policy and or war. Now if we are attacked in our homeland that is a different story. But war just to change the power structure of certain countries is not likely with Trump as president. Is he bellicose in his rhetoric yeah at times but that is only for effect ——— notice North Korea is now ready to seriously talk. Something they never did under Obama and or Bush. Trump imposing new sanction on Iran is a long way from all out war and believe it or not something the Iranians fear a great deal.

  9. anonymous[204] • Disclaimer says:

    Why this embedded journalist is only interested in spreading the Western intelligence services against people of the middle east and not revealing the West and its dog Israel’s crimes against humanity? Why he does not write on Israel’s crimes against Palestinians, but only stays on the traitor kurds and their cooperation with the AXIS OF EVIL US-Israel-UK, copying the lies of US-Britain-Israel on Bashar Assad or Iraqis to fool people for the Western geopolitical interest?

    Don’t trust the embedded journalists and expose them all over the world.

    This is his description on the net:

    [Patrick Oliver Cockburn (/ˈkoʊbɜːrn/ KOH-burn; born 5 March 1950) is an Irish journalist who has been a Middle East correspondent for the Financial Times since 1979 and, from 1990,]

    Is apartheid entity not part of the Middle east????????

  10. KA says:

    Bring it on!
    Ameruca talks when it knows opening mouth will hurt less than moving its legs.

    NK was not begging to talk .It gave more than one opportunities for US to strike at NK.

  11. c matt says:

    Our enemies might start acting more reasonable once we start.

  12. Anonymous [AKA "Tom Callaghan"] says: • Website

    Two people are key to Trump’s political viability…Sheldon Adelson and Rupert Murdoch. Both want military action by the US against Iran. Both have supported Bolton, one way or another, for years.

    Bolton is a hack. He’s virtually unemployable. His role In life is to call for military action against anyone that may at some future time do something that Israel does not approve of.

  13. Anonymous [AKA "Mr. Zero"] says:

    Trump decided to withdraw from Syria… Brave enough to admit defeat or better than that? Or troops are needed elsewhere? The dual universe, East and West has arrived. More middle east war plans… well it’s going nowhere, too bad, goodbye NeoCON warmongering sad faces.

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