BY PRABASI NEPALI
US President Donald Trump’s impulses are putting his administration’s credibility on the line – not only in domestic affairs, but also in the whole gamut of external relations, from trade to national security. According to the Associated Press, weeks of conflicting and misleading statements from the president and his top aides have raised repeated questions about the White House’s credibility, sowing mistrust and instability among the working staff in the West Wing (the East Wing are the living quarters of the president and his family). Even the Congressional Republican leaders are left wondering whether they can negotiate with the president in good faith. In fact, some even claim that it was becoming well-nigh impossible to deliberate anything with White House officials, given the president’s propensity to undermine his own staff’s public and private commitments. Some have even found themselves in the unconventional position of advising lawmakers to disregard some of the president’s own statements!
This was the case last Friday, when Trump thundered in a morning tweet ominously warning to veto a massive government spending bipartisan bill that his aides had assured lawmakers and the public that he would definitely sign. He was angered by the fact that the bill did not contain many of his favourite projects. However, after several hours of bickering, he did finally sign. The episode left many Republican disconcerted, and Representative Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania went to the extent of a scathing evaluation: “The spontaneity and lack of impulse control are areas of concern for lots of members on both sides of the aisle . . . Disorder, chaos, instability, uncertainty, intemperate statements are not conservative virtues in my opinion.” In addition, Trump has standing trouble with the truth. A majority of Americans believe Trump is untruthful, including a recent Quinnipiac survey in which 57 percent said the president was not honest [!] Peter Wehner, who served in three Republican administrations (Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush) said: unsparingly: “He doesn’t even know what his own stance is . . . It just devalues his word and his threats and promises and his presidency.”
It seems his duplicity has rubbed off on some of his own aides. Thus, not only Trump himself, but his staff – including spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders and chief of staff Gen.(retd) John Kelly — issued strong denials about the prospects of national security adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. Mc Master departing the White House. This month, Trump replaced Secretary of State
Rex Tillerson with CIA Director Mike Pompeo which was forbidding enough. Now, he has proposed former United Nations ambassador John Bolton to be his third national security adviser in 14 months, replacing H.R. Mc Master (whose level-headedness and intelligence vexed Trump) – which is most ominous. Trump is now surrounding himself with advisers more likely to agree with his views and taking his foreign policy in a more hawkish direction.
Bolton, 69, is a Fox News (disparagingly titled the ‘state media’ for slavishly supporting Trump) analyst who contemplated a run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. He is a prominent figure in the ‘Washington swamp’, with a walrus-like moustache (which Trump dislikes) and hard-bitten views on many global challenges. He was also a contender for the Secretary of State post. Some members of Congress immediately challenged his selection for the critical position. Thus, Senator Jack Reed said in a statement: “This is not a wise choice. Mr. Bolton does not have the temperament or judgement to be an effective national security adviser.”
However, unlike the cabinet level Secretary of State (or of Defence, or even the Director of the CIA), who has to be confirmed by the US Senate and can be called to testify before it on any issue it chooses, the National Security Adviser (NSA) is not confirmed by the Senate and is responsible only to the president and serves only at his pleasure. He directs the formidable apparatus of the National Security Council (NSC) which can tap the resources of the key administrative departments and the intelligence agencies. The NSA is probably the most powerful, sensitive and demanding responsibility in the administration, after the president, that is. The NSA is responsible for briefing the president daily on various aspects of national security and must act like an honest broker. Unfortunately, the new NSA candidate has the tendency to distort intelligence to back his belligerence and fosters an atmosphere of intimidation. It has been reported that the two remaining [retired] generals in Trump’s team are not very happy with the new appointment.
Bolton tweeted in January that time was running out on stopping North Korea’s nuclear weapon’s programme. He said: “We’ve got to look at the very unattractive choice of using military force to deny them that capability.” At a time when Trump has threatened to withdraw the US from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, and when concurrently the European signatories Germany, France and the UK under the guidance of a skilled US negotiator are trying feverishly to reach modifications to the agreement, Bolton has tweeted that the deal “needs to be abrogated.” He has also called for “effective counter measures to the cyber war that Russia is engaging.”
Just a month ago, according to The New York Times, the prevalent wisdom in Washington was that the triumvirate of McMaster (NSA), Tillerson (State) and Mattis (Defence) was “the only restraining influence on Mr. Trump’s confrontational urges.” Now, there is a new political constellation at play with two of the most virulent opponents of the Iran deal, creating “the most radically aggressive foreign policy team around an American president in modern times.” After all, according to Senator Edward J. Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts, “Bolton [as under secretary in charge of arms control in the Bush II administration] played a key role in politicizing the intel that misled us into the Iraq War.” History may very well repeat itself and armed conflict may break out – against Iran, or in Korea, or by miscalculation in a number of other places where adversaries misread US intent.
Trump has already unleashed a trade war, saying in an inane manner: “Trade wars are good, and easy to win.” If Trump pulls out of the Iran nuclear deal by May 12, Iran could respond by restarting its nuclear programme. This may set off various chain reactions – Israel may react violently, and Saudi Arabia would go nuclear – all imponderables. The collapse of the Iran deal would also have negative repercussions for negotiations in the Korean peninsula – probably back to square one. It is most difficult to see a clear and peaceful path ahead, considering Trump’s unpredictability and the meeting of minds with the future Secretary of State and National Security Adviser – hopefully no explosive consequences.