The Trump Administration has thus far kept the United States out of new military conflicts. This is, of course, not counting existing military conflicts already started by Trump’s latest two predecessors- George W. Bush and later Barack Obama. There is reason to believe that Trump, or more accurately National Security Advisor Bolton, is about to lead the US into another war- and relatively soon.
Let’s put Trump’s foreign policy in historical perspective.
The Legacy of Bush
George W. Bush is widely known for initiating the War on Terror after the 9/11 attacks in 2001. Closely thereafter, the Bush Administration invaded Afghanistan that year and followed up with the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Both conflicts saw a slew of human rights violations and war crimes in the name of combating terrorism, but the record on Bush has been relatively clear- aggressive military action in the name of fighting terrorism. One must wonder what Bush’s foreign policy would have looked like without the 9/11 attacks occurring. It’s fair to say that Bush’s campaign rhetoric of scaled back interventionism may have come to characterize his foreign policy.
Interestingly, Obama’s legacy is both comparable in scope and viewed in a wholly different light than Bush’s. Generally speaking, while Bush favored more ‘boots on the ground’ and torture programs to fight terrorism, Obama relied on drones and special operations forces to fight the War on Terror.
The Intercept’s Jeremy Scahill writes about Obama’s military record that:
“Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, continued some of the worst policies of the George W. Bush administration. He expanded the global battlefield post-9/11 into at least seven countries: Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia, Pakistan, Yemen, and Syria.”
This may strike some as surprising given that Obama was widely regarded as too soft on foreign policy by much of the media. Scahill continues:
“At the end of Obama’s second term, a report by Council of Foreign Relations found that in 2016, Obama dropped an average of 72 bombs a day. He used drone strikes as a liberal panacea for fighting those “terrorists” while keeping boots off the ground. But he also expanded the number of troops deployed in Afghanistan.”
“And then there were the “Terror Tuesday” meetings, where Obama national security officials would order pizza and drink Coke and review the list of potential targets on their secret assassination list.”
Coupled with the Obama Administration’s overthrowing Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, one wonders what must be done in order not to be deemed “too soft” these days. To Obama’s credit, ISIS had been significantly knocked back due to increased military intervention in the Middle East, devolving from holding large expanses of territory in Iraq and Syria at one point to just a few strongholds by the end of Obama’s term in 2016.
Fast-forward to the Trump campaign in 2016. Running on a more non-interventionist platform than his Republican colleagues and despite claims to “bomb the shit out of ISIS” and “go after their families”, Trump’s foreign policy during the campaign resembled much more a dove than a hawk, when comparing against other Republicans. Indeed, even with National Security Advisor Michael Flynn -and later H.R McMaster in 2017 after Flynn was convicted of lying to federal prosecutors concerning the Mueller investigation- and former Exon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson turned Secretary of State, no new wars have been initiated by the Trump administration as of the writing of this article (May 17th, 2019).
Shift to the present and we can see two trends:
1) The few strongholds ISIS held at the end of Obama’s term were eliminated during Trump’s tenure, culminating with the takeover of Baghouz Al-Fawqani by US-supported Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in February 2019. The SDF in Syria and Iraqi military- both supported by the US military- had been taking the offensive on ISIS for years, characterized by a slow but steady takeover of ISIS-held territories over time. ISIS, now greatly weakened and without the territory once held, operates as more of an insurgent guerilla force in many areas of the Middle East.
2) Previous Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (former CEO of Exon Mobil) was replaced by Mike Pompeo in 2018, making Tillerson seem a dove in comparison. With a more hawkish Secretary of State, we also have a new National Security Advisor in John Bolton who succeeded H.R. McMaster in 2018. Bolton has been described widely as a staunch advocate of military expansionism- as staunch as you will ever see. The American Conservative’s Daniel Larison commented of the new National Security Advisor that:
“Bolton is able to get his way with Trump so often because he knows how to flatter the president and because Trump is a militarist who doesn’t have a problem with Bolton’s “bomb first and then keep bombing” approach to foreign policy. Above all, Trump’s desire to appear “tough” makes him receptive to brain-dead, hard-line arguments.
“Bolton’s critics were right to be alarmed when Trump appointed him, and I fear that many of us are not worried enough about where U.S. foreign policy is headed over the next two years.”
It’s fair to say that Trump himself isn’t eager to attack other countries, but this may not matter much with Trump’s lack of understanding of international affairs. Mike Pompeo and John Bolton are both significantly more militarist than their predecessors, and they are using their influence to move Trump in three key areas with potentially massive consequences.
Three words: Iran. Yemen. Venezuela.
Early on, the Trump Administration dropped the US out of the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action)- dubbed the Iran Nuclear Deal- which kept Iran’s nuclear program in check and opened up relations between the US and Iran. National security personnel across the country decried this move. Over 100 of them (50 being retired US military officers) wrote and signed a letterto the Trump Administration urging them not to back out of the JCPOA. Even several of the highest ranking US military members currently serving had expressed the following (bold is mine):
“Defense Secretary James Mattis, who says he has read the text of the nuclear agreement three times and considers it to be “pretty robust”; Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford, who says, “Iran is adhering to its JCPOA obligations” and a U.S. decision to quit the deal “would have an impact on others’ willingness to sign agreements”; the head of U.S. Strategic Command, Gen. John Hyten, who says, “Iran is in compliance with JCPOA” and argues “it’s our job to live up to the terms of that agreement”; and the head of U.S. Central Command, Gen. Joseph Votel, who says the nuclear deal is “in our interest” because it “addresses one of the principle threats that we deal with from Iran.””
Bolton has been an Iran hawk for years and is now advocating a significantly greater hard-line stance with the Iranian government. It seems Bolton is pushing to either strong-arm Iran into compliance with our wishes or face US military action if they refuse. As former Marine Intelligence officer Scott Ritter writes:
“By purposefully escalating tensions with Iran using manufactured intelligence about an all too real threat, Bolton is setting the country up for a war it is not prepared to fight and most likely cannot win. This point is driven home by the fact that Mike Pompeo has been recalled from his trip to participate in a National Security Council meeting where the Pentagon will lay out in stark detail the realities of a military conflict with Iran, including the high costs.”
Just last week, Bolton presented a planto move 120,000 US troops to the Middle East “should Iran attack American forces or accelerate work on nuclear weapons” as the NY Times reports. An aircraft carrier group, a bomber task force, as well as other military equipment has recently been moved to the Gulf region, as well.
If there was a clearer case for provocation, I’d like to see it.
The American Conservative’s Daniel Larison again sums up the Iran issue:
“Iran hawks desperately want Iran to “lash out” so they can try to shift the blame for rising tensions, but Iran’s government has refrained from taking their bait. They hope to goad Iran with enough provocations that it causes an incident that they can exploit to start a war, but they need to make it appear as if the U.S. is merely reacting instead of being the instigator of the crisis. The Trump administration’s record of poking Iran in the eye again and again over the last year can’t be so easily forgotten, and if the current tensions in the region do escalate there is no question that the administration will bear most of the responsibility for the ensuing conflict.”
Yemen is currently embroiled in a crippling civil war between a government led by Abdrabbuh Hadi and the Houthi Rebels who have captured the capital city of Sana’a and declared themselves the legitimate government of Yemen. It’s worth noting that the Hadi government controls most of the rest of the countryside. Official death tolls have been conflicting, but a recent report puts the number at 56,000 Yemenis killed.
The conflict is widely seen as a case of the proxy conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia, with Iran supporting the Houthis and the Saudis supporting Hadi.
Where the US fits into this picture is its support of Saudi Arabia’s military intervention in the conflict. The US is not officially providing boots on the ground but is instead mostly providing munitions and logistical support for the Saudi military, such as mid-air re-fueling of Saudi aircraft conducting operations in and around Yemen.
Political opposition to the US involvement in the conflict has been relatively small but persistent, culminating in a bill called the Yemen War Resolution which was introduced in the House of Representatives by Ro Khanna and in the Senate by Bernie Sanders. Citing US involvement in the war without Congressional authorization, Khanna and Sanders sought to curtail the increasing power of the Executive branch by forcing an end to the US’s involvement via the legislature. Despite facing Republican opposition in both the House and Senate, the bill passed with enough Republican support and virtually all Democrats voting for it.
The Yemen War Resolution was then vetoed by President Trump, who then wrote a statement to Congress stating “This resolution is an unnecessary, dangerous attempt to weaken my constitutional authorities, endangering the lives of American citizens and brave service members, both today and in the future“”. The resolution then was returned to both Congressional houses (Senate and House of Representatives) who could still pass the bill despite the veto by re-passing the bill with a supermajority of 2/3rds of the vote in each congressional chamber. Unfortunately, the bill was then defeated in the Senate by a 53-45 vote, falling 7 votes shy of 60 needed to pass.
Why did Trump veto the resolution? Likely for two reasons: 1) to oppose Iran who support the Houthis and 2) to ensure good relations with the Saudis who in turn ensure a large and secure oil flow and arms deals for the US. In exchange for oil and cheap goods, we trade civilian lives in Yemen.
There’s been a lot of media hoopla surrounding Venezuela lately. Summing up the situation: the country’s economy has been hit hard in the last several years due to historically low oil prices. This has resulted in the Venezuelan economy to lose much of its revenue and has culminated in a political crisis as well, with recently elected President Nicolas Maduro facing a coup attempt from National Assembly member Juan Guaidó.
Venezuela’s situation has been further exacerbated by crippling US economic sanctions. The sanctions act by targeting the Venezuelan Central Bank’s ability to use US dollars to sell their oil. As US dollars are the primary international currency and coupled with Venezuela’s heavy dependence on the export of oil internationally, these sanctions are acting as a hand on the neck of the Venezuelan economy. The Trump Administration is applying these sanctions in order to cause enough suffering in the population that they overthrow Maduro.
The role of the Trump Administration has been a steadfast attempt to overthrow the Maduro government and is a significant force behind Guaidó’s challenge for the presidency. From declaring Guaidó the officially recognized leader of Venezuela, to attempting to orchestrate a military takeover, to discussing the possibility of a US invasion, Trump has put a high priority on overthrowing Maduro, going so far as appointing Elliot Abrams the US special envoy to Venezuela. Abrams, previously disgraced politically for his role in the Iran-Contra scandal back in the 1980s, is back in politics. One can guess what his role will be regarding Venezuela.
Thus far, the coup attempts have failed and Maduro retains the loyalty of the military, thus ensuring his hold to the presidency. Trump has remarked in the past that “all options are on the table”, and with Bolton and Pompeo being key figures of a Trump Administration foreign policy team coupled with Elliot Abrams, the possibility of a US invasion appears a possibility worth paying attention to.
Again, we must ask why the Trump Administration is interfering in Venezuela’s internal affairs. The answer: oil. Here is National Security Advisor Bolton revealing that:
“It’ll make a big difference to the United States economically if we can have American oil companies really invest in and produce the oil capabilities in Venezuela”
President Trump mentioned back in 2017, according to FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe: “That’s the country we should be going to war with” and “They have all that oil and they’re right on our back door.”
Florida Senator Marco Rubio tweeted in January: “Biggest buyers of Venezuelan oil are @ValeroEnergy & @Chevron. Refining heavy crude from #Venezuela supports great jobs in Gulf Coast. For the sake of these U.S. workers I hope they will begin working with administration of President Guaido & cut off illegitimate Maduro regime.”
One must wonder how far strong-arming the world can go before it bites the bully in the ass.
Here’s some George Carlin.
Update on Iran (5-27-2019): The NY Times is now reporting that during a recent meeting with his aides, President Trump “does not want the intensifying American pressure campaign against the Iranians to explode into open conflict” and that even Secretary Pompeo is working with European officials to de-escalate the increasingly tense situation as of late.