By Alastair CROOKE
The 8 May US Presidential declaration (on exiting JCPOA) requires of us fundamentally to revise our understanding of Trumpism. At the outset to his term of office, Trumpism was widely understood to be based on three key pillars: That the costs incurred by the US in upholding the full panoply of Empire (i.e. policing the American, rules-based, global order) were just too onerous and unfair (especially in the provision of the defence umbrella) – and that others must be coerced into sharing its cost. Secondly, that American jobs had been, as it were, stolen from America, and would have to be recovered through forced changes to the terms of trade. And thirdly, that these changes would be effected, through applying the tactics of the Art of the Deal.
That seemed, at least, to be clear, (if not necessarily a wholly feasible blueprint). But mostly we thought that the Art of the Deal was about threatening, blustering, and hiking leverage on ‘whatever the counterparty’ – raising tensions to explosive levels – before, at the very eleventh hour, at the very climax of crisis, offering ‘the deal’. And that was the point (then): Yes, Trump would toss verbal grenades intended to upend conventional expectations, take actions to force an issue – but the objective (as generally understood), was to get a deal: One that would tilt towards America’s mercantile and political interests, but a deal, nonetheless.
Maybe we misread Trump’s build-up of America’s already super-sized military. It seemed that it was about potential leverage: something to be offered (in terms of an umbrella to compliant states), or withdrawn from those who would not put their hand in their pocket deeply enough.
But everything changed with Trump’s 8 May statement. It was not just an American ‘exit’ that was mooted, it was full court financial war that was declared against Iran (with ‘terms of surrender’ couched in terms of regime change, and total submission to the US). But this is no longer about how to reach a ‘fairer’, better deal for the US; how to make it more money. Rather the financial system was to be leveraged to destroy another state’s currency and economy. The US military are being super-sized further, to be used: to be able to rain down ‘fire and fury’ on non-compliant states.
Nahum Barnea, a leading Israeli commentator, writing in (the Hebrew language) Yediot Ahronoth, expresses the plan concisely: “The long-term Israeli aspirations are far-reaching: to lead Iran to economic collapse by means of the American sanctions. The economic collapse will lead to a change of regime. The new regime will give up the nuclear option, and Iran’s plans to spread throughout the region. What caused the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, will cause the collapse of the Islamic Republic. President Reagan did it to the Soviets; President Trump will do it to the Iranians. Trump became enamored of the idea”.
The embrace of regime change in Tehran, combined with the unilateral ‘giving’ of Jerusalem to Israel, and the US ‘green light’ for Israel to attack Iranian forces and infrastructure, anywhere and anytime in Syria, is the very antithesis of the Art of the Deal approach. It is, rather, about actually – and physically – collapsing the Middle East paradigm through financial and military coercion. It is another western utopian project by which the perceived human ‘flaws’ to an orderly world (i.e. these ‘Ayatollahs’ who perversely oppose America’s mission civilisatrice) must be corrected by force or through eliminiation.
US Foreign Affairs Professor, Russell-Mead, suggests that this 8 May metamorphosis within ‘Trumpism’ – as we formerly understood it – represents something new, a change of direction, a course now plotted toward: “a neo-American era in world politics, rather than an [Obama-ist] post-American one”. (Somehow Trump’s initiatives seem so often to be primordially spurred by Obama-phobia).
So, “the administration wants to enlarge American power rather than adjust to decline. For now at least, the Middle East is the centerpiece of this new assertiveness”, Russell-Mead foresees, explaining that this new Trump impulse stems from:
[Trump’s] instincts telling him that most Americans are anything but eager for a “post-American” world. Mr. Trump’s supporters don’t want long wars, but neither are they amenable to a stoic acceptance of national decline. As to the wisdom of accommodating Iran, Team Trump believes that empowering Iran is more likely to strengthen the hard-liners than the moderates. As Franklin Roosevelt once put it in a fireside chat, “No man can tame a tiger into a kitten by stroking it.”
The Trump administration believes that far from forcing a U.S. retreat, Iranian arrogance and overreach in the Middle East have created a golden opportunity for the assertion of American power. It hopes the emerging alliance of Arabs and Israelis will give America local partners who are ready to bear many of the risks and costs of an anti-Iran policy in exchange for American backing. Israeli air power and Arab forces, combined with the intelligence networks and local relationships the new allies bring to the table, can put Iran on the defensive in Syria and elsewhere. This military pressure, along with economic pressure from a new round of sanctions, will weaken Iran’s hold on its proxies abroad and create political problems for the mullahs at home. If they respond by restarting their nuclear program, Israeli-American airstrikes could both stop the process and inflict a humiliating blow to the regime’s prestige.
At that point, Team Trump believes, Iran will be faced with a different kind of negotiation, one in which the U.S. and its allies are in a position of strength. In addition to accepting limits on its nuclear activities, optimists hope, Iran would also scale back its regional ambitions. Syria’s future would be determined by the Arabs, Iran would accept Iraq as a neutral buffer state between it and the Sunni Arab world, and an uneasy peace would prevail.”
Ah … Utopia … Trump is to re-make the Middle East. What could possibly go wrong?
Russell-Mead does not explicitly say it (preferring to call it ‘neo-American’), but what we are seeing is the blending of early Trumpism into pure neo-conservatism. Or, we might say, with Netanyahu-ism. Yes, the characteristic Trumpist approach of making splashy foreign-policy decisions which seem to deliver for his base in the short term, (but which often seem to lack a deeper strategic vision or appreciation of the longer-term risks) is still evident, but the ‘deal’ has been substituted by the search for complete submission – to an “enlargement of American power”, as Russell-Mead writes.
The ceremony marking shift of the US Embassy to Jerusalem precisely reflects this continuing splashy ‘campaigning’ amongst his grass-roots theme. In fact, Trump initially rebuffed Jewish Republican pressures to move the embassy to Jerusalem (as Haaretz reports), but as the Israeli daily, also noted, by this month, all that had totally changed: “The opening ceremony for the new U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem was, essentially, an invitation-only Trump campaign rally”:
Those in attendance had all sworn loyalty to the president, and belonged to one of the groups that has hailed him as a modern-day Cyrus the Great: Orthodox Jews, right-wing Israelis (including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu) and the pro-Trump Republican base – particularly those in the evangelical community.
This was all on display from the ceremony’s opening blessing, by Texan Baptist megachurch pastor Dr. Robert Jeffress. His eyes squeezed closed in prayer, he thanked God for “our great president, Donald Trump,” lauded how Israel “has blessed this world by pointing us to you, the one true God, through the message of her prophets, her scriptures, and the Messiah,” and praying for Jerusalem “in the name of the spirit of the Prince of Peace, Jesus our lord.”
Netanyahu has been revelling in his successes. Ben Caspit in the Israeli daily Maariv, described (in Hebrew) Netanyahu’s condition: “It’s called euphoria”. The neocons are on a roll: already Eli Lake in Bloomberg is making the link from the Iran statement to the conduct of US trade negotiations with China. In an article entitled “Trump’s Cave to China’s ZTE, Hurts His Iran Strategy”, Lake quotesone of the architects of the crippling sanctions on Iran, Richard Goldberg, noting that: “If you start trading away relief on sanctions enforcement in exchange for better commerce conditions, the deterrent power of American sanctions [on Iran] gets diluted very quickly”.
Lake adds further that his colleague David Fickling made a similar point in his column when he observed that Trump’s ZTE reversal introduces a dangerous moral hazard. “Any government entangled in a dispute with Washington now knows that it need only threaten the Trump-voting farm belt to get off the hook,” Fickling wrote, implying in effect that once you go down the neocon road of weaponised financial war, the position of ‘no respite’ must be held to – even in quite separate negotiations such as with China on trade.
Exactly. Neocons such as John Bolton traditionally deprecate negotiation and diplomacy, prioritising rather, raw power and leverage over counterparties, in order to coerce concessions or submission. The point here however, is that whereas the 8 May statement was directed specifically at Iran, its consequence bleeds across the whole foreign policy spectrum. If accommodating China over ZTE (a Chinese smartphone and semiconductor manufacturer) “hurts the Iran strategy”, then of course, any exemptions or relaxing of sanctions for European companies invested in Iran, will hurt the strategy, more directly. Any concession to Russia, too, then hurts the strategy. It becomes a highly contagious, ‘all-or-nothing’ strategy.
And then there is the North Korea summit. A European official told Washington-based, Laura Rozen, that the Trump administration is convinced it has an opening for a nuclear deal with North Korea because of its maximum pressure campaign. “They call it the North Korea scenario,” the European official said. “Squeeze the North Koreans. Squeeze the Iranians … and they will do the same thing as Kim Jong-un … surrender”.
But Team Trump – if it truly believes that it was the pressure of sanctions primarily which brought about Kim Jong Un’s decision to call for a meeting with Trump – may have misread the ground.
Jong Un, in fact, specifically warned Secretary Pompeo when he met him that the reason for the summit was because: “we have perfected our nuclear capability,” which is to say that North Korea – as a full nuclear weapons power – now feels it has the leverage necessary to compel the Americans to quit the peninsular and to take their threats and missiles away with them, too. Jong Un has South Korea’s support on this (though whether it is sufficiently solid to withstand Washington’s threats, is moot – and hence Jong Un’s anger at South Korea’s resumption of joint military exercises with the US – contrary to earlier understandings). Jong Un added the warning to Pompeo, largely ignored by Washington, but quite plain nonetheless, that “this [prospective summit] is not the result of sanctions that have been imposed from outside”.
In a sense, Trump now needs this summit – and a quick ‘win’ (in time for US mid-terms) – more than Jong Un needs to meet Trump. The North Korean leader has already succeeded in demonstrating to both Beijing, Moscow and Seoul that he is sincere in trying to reach a nuclear, de-weaponised and re-united Korea (China’s demands on him) – and that it is not he that is the problem, but rather, the US’ maximalist demands. In short, the summit is a means to North Korea ameliorating its relations with China and Russia and pursuing apertura with the South. It is not the ends for Jong Un.
In any event, we shall see what happens. But two follow up questions arise: Now that Trump has embraced the new ‘neo-Americanism’ (per Russell-Mead), what will be the US strategy if neither North Korea nor Iran submit? Are military strikes then, on the agenda? And secondly, is this strategy likely to work? We shall, of course, have to wait and see. But there is one important point here: this is not 2012 (the year the US imposed sanctions on Iran). It is 2018, and much has changed.
Trump may imagine himself as some modern equivalent of 16th Century Cesare Borgia, with Bolton as his Machiavelli, and Mattis as his Leonardo, constructing war machines, assassinating enemies, and laying punitive siege to non-compliant Italian city-states.
China, Russia and Iran are not mere city states to be besieged at leisure, and without repercussion. And, just as Trump’s own base articulates its disgust at the DC ‘swamp’ – and the financial gouging, practiced by its political and corporate élites, and demands that the swamp be drained – so too, the axis of China, Russia and Iran want the ‘global order’ swamp drained – and their sovereignties returned.
The latter understand that they face financial warfare for their non-compliance. They understand (as President Putin emphasized again only this month), that the US dollar monopoly exists at the very centre of the ‘global order’ swamp. And they know that only collective action ultimately, can drain it. Who knows, even Europe may ultimately may join the ranks of non-compliance, too – in protest at US sanctions imposed on them.