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John Bolton’s Hawkish Flight

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The American edition of The Wall Street Journal (WSJ), citing former and currently serving politicians who wished not to be named, reported a few days ago that the US National Security Council (NSC), led by presidential adviser John Bolton, turned to the Pentagon last autumn with a request to devise several variants of striking Iran.

The reason for such a request was a mortar attack carried out in September 2018 by a pro-Iranian group against the diplomatic quarter of Baghdad, where the US embassy is located. Two days later, a similar attack was reported to have occurred in the southern Iraqi city of Basra, where the American consulate is based. No casualties or damage were reported. However, former deputy national security adviser Mira Ricardel described the shelling as an “act of hostilities” and made it clear that the United States should have responded with a “similar act.”

As a result, the US national security team held a series of meetings to discuss how the American side should respond. After that, Mr. Bolton urged the Pentagon to provide options for attacking Iran.

Officials neither confirmed nor denied the WSJ reports. NSC press secretary Garrett Marquis did not provide a clear answer to the question of whether the Council had been considering a military strike against Iran. “We are considering a  full range of measures to ensure security and guarantee our interests,” he said.

It should be noted here that the general staffs of the armed forces of any self-respecting country plan variants of both offensive and defensive operations against a potential adversary in advance. This work is carried out with a constant analysis of the changes taking place in the camp of the enemy, and in their own country. Therefore, undoubtedly, the Joint Chiefs of Staff (US General Staff) has in its secret vaults a variety of options for a war with Iran – the main potential opponent of the United States, as Washington has called it on more than one occasion.

Another matter is the case of John Bolton, when his personal request, even through the channels of the National Security Council, was carried out, according to observers, bypassing President Trump. Such a request took the Pentagon by surprise and put defense department officials who were used to everything “in a shock.” However, the request was accepted for consideration.

According to the WSJ, the Pentagon provided a complete layout proposing some general options for the operation, including a cross-border air strike on an Iranian military facility, which would be mostly symbolic. But the then Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and other senior military officials strongly opposed retaliatory actions, arguing that the damage from the shelling of the US diplomatic missions was insignificant. And this basically logical viewpoint eventually prevailed.

But how will acting Secretary of Defense, Patrick Shanahan, act?

Any blow on Iran may lead to a full-blown armed conflict. Hypothetically,  considering the possibility of an airstrike on an Iranian military facility, it will undoubtedly trigger a return missile strike by the Iranian armed forces on any US military base in the Middle East. The Iranian missile forces have every potential to do so. And this means a war.

Is the United States ready for such a scenario?

It has to be pointed out that even massive missile and air strikes against Iran will not force Tehran to surrender. As in any war, the winner must march over the conquered territory. This calls for a ground operation.

Is the United States ready for this?

As the Field Service Regulations the US Army recommends, in order to achieve the goal of an offensive in the direction of the main blow it is necessary to create at least 6-fold superiority over the defensive forces and facilities. The question arises whether the US Armed Forces are capable of building such a superiority at least in one direction of the Iranian theater of war?

The number of regular armed forces of Iran ranges, according to various sources, between 540 and 900 thousand. The defense doctrine of the IRI puts a major emphasis on the Basij Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps resistance forces, a paramilitary, irregular militia and a reserve force of the regular armed forces whose main task is to participate in the defense of the country’s territory. The main combat units of “Basij” are “Ashura” battalions, which consist of men, and “Al-Zohra” female battalions, numbering an average of 400 each. Currently, 2500 such battalions are formed in Iran, consisting of 1 million volunteers, well trained both militarily and ideologically. In total, Iran’s “Basij” system embraces more than 12 million Iranians.

Is it possible for the United States and their allies to outnumber, if not 6-fold, then at least by 2-fold, the regular and irregular forces of Iran in the Iranian theater of military operations on the ground (without using nuclear weapons)? The answer is clear – no. And the Pentagon is fully aware of this.

For this reason, the likelihood that the United States will venture into an armed conflict with Iran is small.

John Bolton’s actions can be described as dangerous amid the current situation in the top echelons of power in the United States, which is controversial, to put it mildly. The opposition Democrats are exerting a serious and effective pressure on President Trump, while the State Department (and other as significant structures) is trying, as journalists say, to prevent the president’s “reckless” decisions from being put into effect.

In turn, US National Security Advisor John Bolton is making the most of the current state of affairs putting an end to internal strategic debates and discussions that could reveal the controversies within the Donald Trump administration. Mr. Bolton does not want to hear conflicting points of view, hates leaks, and wants to control the entire flow of information that is sent to the US President. This is a sure way towards excessive consolidation of power in the hands of one individual. Moreover, sometimes he acts without notifying President Trump, like in the recent case in which he appeals to the Pentagon.

John Bolton is one of the irreconcilable hardliners on the issue of Iran. Having assumed  his current position, Bolton stepped up the administration’s policy of isolating and exerting pressure on Iran, thereby demonstrating his hostile attitude toward Iranian leaders, which dates back to the days when he served as an official for the administration of George W. Bush. As a private individual, he called for military strikes on Iran, as well as a change of regime. In March 2015 – three and a half months before the signing of a nuclear deal, when it became clear to everyone that the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action (JCPOA) was ready and its authors were busy putting the final touches to it, – Mr. Bolton published an article in The New York Times under a provocative headline “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran”. From the very beginning, John Bolton was against the JCPOA and fully backed President Trump in his efforts to pull out of the nuclear deal.

Bolton summed up his political credo in one phrase: “There is no such thing as the UN. There is the international community that can be headed by the world’s only superpower, which is the United States of America. ”  This he says despite the fact that in 2005-2006, he was the US representative to the UN.

Defense department officials, The New York Times writes, express growing concerns that John Bolton may indeed provoke a serious conflict with Tehran at a time when President Trump is losing influence in the Middle East.

Concern is being voiced not only by US military and politicians but throughout the world. After all, the main danger lies in the unpredictability of actions of President Trump and his hawkish employees, like John Bolton.

first published in our partner International Affairs

Senior research assistant at RAS Institute of Oriental Studies, candidate of historical sciences

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Trump’s coming trade war “deal” is a dud

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In typically bullish style, Donald Trump has told the world he expects a resolution to his trade war with China within four weeks. The U.S. President claims the deal “has a very good chance of happening,” and, when it does, it will be “the Grand Daddy of them all.” But key concerns linger:  China has made several concessions to the U.S. over the endless rounds of talks, but there is little sign of Beijing reining in its support for industries such as steel and aluminium – one of the key reasons for the stand-off in the first place. If the Chinese delegation refuses to give way, and to stop dumping cheap products on global markets, even Trump’s staunchest supporters might wonder whether the whole dispute has been worth it.

While the trade war cost the U.S. economy an estimated $7.8 billion in lost GDP last year, the toll has been far greater on China, whose economic growth among other reasons was drastically hit by the steep American tariff walls. Growth has already slowed to its lowest level since 1990, and industrial production has hit a 10-year nadir. Despite Beijing’s best efforts,  latest employment figures show a spike in the number of people out of work, pressuring Xi’s government to arrest the slide.

The IMF did at least provide some good news, revising up its 2019 growth forecast for the Chinese economy. However it also warned that, if the trade war escalates and both sides impose 25% tariffs on all each other’s goods, China’s losses will be bigger. U.S. GDP would fall by up to 0.6% in such a scenario, while China’s could plunge by more than double that figure. Around 1% of the U.S. workforce in sectors such as agriculture and transportation could lose their jobs – a major blow to those rural communities Trump has pledged to revive. In China’s manufacturing sectors, around 5% of people could find themselves suddenly out of work.

Signs of progress

This stark reality explains the raft of climbdowns brokered by Xi’s negotiators, which have gone some way to repairing the damage in some of the worst-hit U.S. sectors. China has proposed buying an extra $30 billion worth of U.S. agricultural products a year, including soybeans, as a concession to U.S. farmers facing soaring stockpiles. On top of that, Beijing has cut tariffs on U.S. cars, news which will have been welcomed by the beleaguered American automobile industry.

But what about China’s trade policies, which have long been central to the U.S. grievance, particularly unfair industrial subsidies? On that it’s hard to see what China has really offered. Xi’s team has made a general commitment to stop subsidizing domestic industries and drowning global markets, but it’s been making these promises for the last 10 years without much action on it, so analysts would be forgiven for being cynical. Observers describe the latest pledges as light on detail, particularly as China offers little information about how it would go about implementing subsidy cuts.

All the indications suggest that China will continue pumping out aluminium and steel, two of America’s – and the EU’s – keenest focus areas. Even after Trump slapped huge tariffs on the two metals last year, Chinese manufacturers continued to ramp up production. For example, in the first two months of 2019 unwrought aluminium and aluminium product exports reached multi-year highs as producers responded to slack domestic demand by dumping their product overseas.

The effect this will have on the international market will continue to be serious, particularly in the aluminium sector already decimated by years of Chinese over-production. The resultant price slump has effectively wiped out entire industries in countries such as the U.K. and the Netherlands. Worse, the tide shows little sign of turning, with aluminium prices on the London Metal Exchange hovering near multi-year lows. With experts suggesting that around 40% of the world’s smelters are now losing money, the ripple effect from China’s subsidies extends far beyond the U.S deep into Europe’s industrial heartland.

Long-term interest

Of course, this doesn’t mean Trump will necessarily force China to stop dumping in the global, or even national, interest. Considering his desire for simple, easy-to-sell results, he will likely accept a deal if China simply agrees to buy more U.S. goods. In that case, he would likely skirt round the fundamental issues about market distortion – a serious risk that is becoming ever more acute as Trump’s image as a cunning dealmaker is showing cracks in the wake of the failed nuclear summit with North Korea, increasing his desperation to prove himself.

As most recent reports suggest, Washington’s will to hold out for the sake of a “great” trade deal is indeed weakening. Although the thorniest issue, insider sources say U.S. negotiators are backpedalling on the demand that China cut subsidies in a move to push a trade agreement in the next month. This is in line with former White House advisor Gary Cohn’s claim that Trump is mostly interested in closing a deal to boost stock markets and give himself the ideal fillip for his re-election campaign.

Yet, for the long-term health of the global community, Trump must press China on this issue. A quick-fix deal will doubtless cheer the global economy subjected to serious collateral damage from the trans-Pacific spat. But it risks stoking further conflict in the future, and ultimately a renewal of the stand-off. China may have been hurting to secure an agreement, but now it may about to be handed one with terms more beneficial than Beijing had imagined from the outset.

Rather than giving in with the end in sight, Trump needs to go all out for total victory, one that justifies the turmoil his trade war has caused. If he doesn’t, his deal may only be a ceasefire.

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By 3-to-1, Americans Want Assange Prosecuted

Eric Zuesse

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A YouGov poll of 2,455 Americans taken on April 11th found that by a margin of 53% to 17%, or by slightly over 3 to 1, Americans want Julian Assange to be prosecuted. 

The question was: “Wikileaks founder Julian Assange was arrested in London. Do you think he should or should not be extradited to the US?”

This was a remarkably bipartisan hostility toward Assange. As the YouGov news-report on that finding indicated:

“That majority increases among both Republicans (59% supporting extradition) and Democrats (62% supporting extradition), but decreases to a plurality (46%) among Independents. Independents were more likely to respond with uncertainty (32% saying they don’t know) than Republicans and Democrats, and a little more than one in five Independents (22%) are opposed to extradition.”

During 18-20 November 2018, YouGov had polled Americans on “Do you have a favorable or an unfavorable opinion” on Assange, and separately the same on Wikileaks. On each, Americans were predominantly unfavorable toward Assange by 38% to 20%, and toward Wikileaks by 44% to 29%. Another question in that poll was “Do you support or oppose the prosecution of Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks?” “Support” was 29%. “Oppose” was 19%. 

In March 2011, Reuters’s Ipsos polling firm asked 18,829 people in 23 countries, “As you may know, the mission of the Wikileaks internet site is to publish copies of confidential government or corporate files and information to the public. Do you support or oppose this type of site that would post such materials?” Globally, there was 74% “Support” and 26% “Oppose.” The lowest support was in U.S.: 29% support versus 61% opposition. (The second-lowest support of Wikileaks was in UK or “Great Britain,” where the opposition to Wikileaks was 38% instead of America’s 61%.) That poll also asked “Would you consider the publishers of the materials” from such a site to be “public service” or “mischief makers” or “criminals” or “heroes” or “other”; and the predominant one of those choices worldwide was “public service,” which was selected by the same percentage of people as the total percentage who had chosen either “mischief makers” or else “criminals” (the second and third preferred options) and it was eight times as many as those who had chosen “heroes.” (NOTE: These latter opinions pertained to the news-media that published information from Wikileaks — not to Wikileaks itself.) However, yet again, in this poll, Americans stood alone for the extremity of their hostility towards a national press that’s not being controlled by the Government (which is what Wikileaks is all about): only one third as large a percentage of Americans as the global percentage chose “public service,” whereas the percentage of Americans who chose “criminals” (42%) was more than three times the global percentage (13%) who chose that. The second-highest to that degree of extreme hostility against a press that’s authentically independent of the government was likewise “Great Britain”: 20%. Canada was the third-highest, at 19%. In other words: the #1 most-hostile nation against democracy was 42% in America, and the next-most-hostile to democracy was 20% in “Great Britain” — less than half as high a percentage of hostility against democracy, as compared to the U.S. percentage; and Canada was only slightly less hostile toward democracy than was the UK.

That same poll also asked: “Wikileaks recently posted thousands of confidential US government diplomatic notes. … Julian Assange, who is responsible for leaking the documents should be viewed as a” — and  49% of Americans said “criminal,” whereas only 17% globally did. (Great Britain was, yet again, on this, the second-highest hostility against democracy, at 26%.) Globally, 29% of all respondents said that Assange had provided a “public service,” but only 11% of Americans said that.

By overwhelming margins, Americans thought that their Government should have an unqualified right to hide from the public, basically, anything it wants to hide. The U.S. Government actually does possess unlimited authority to categorize whatever it wants, as being “Classified.” Overwhelming majorities of the U.S. public approve of this root-principle of dictatorship. Assange is being condemned, fundamentally, because he violates that intrinsic principle (government-secrecy, regardless of how arbitrarily it is imposed), of dictatorship, anywhere.

Clearly, then, the American people were far more favorable toward dictatorship than the public was, in any of the 22 other nations that were sampled.

(NOTE: For the purposes of this article, effective control by the government over the nation’s press is defined as dictatorship, and effective freedom of the press to report any truth — regardless of what the government wants — is defined as democracy. So: the U.S. belongs in the category of a 100% dictatorship, since the Government can classify anything it wishes to.) 

An interesting sidelight to these findings, of an extremely pro-dictatorship U.S. public — and with Great Britain being right behind (though not nearly as pro-dictatorship as Americans are) — is that, in 2002 and 2003, the national press in each of those two countries was so strongly controlled by the government as to deceive (via their stenographic ‘news’-media) their respective public into invading Iraq, on the basis of that stenographic reporting by the nation’s press of the government’s lies against Iraq. This is the result of both countries being dictatorships. This is true irrespective of whether Iraq also was.

Further confirmations of the extreme degree of dictatorship in the United States are that it’s the nation which has the world’s highest percentage of its people in prison, and that in the periodic polling by the Gallup organization, the one “institution” that always scores at the very top as being the most highly respected of all institutions in America is “the military.” That is the finding which would reasonably be expected in a total dictatorship.

So: if Assange gets extradited by Great Britain to the United States for prosecution, he will face here not only the most hostile government but the most hostile public. Presumably, this would please the leaderships (even if not the publics) in all U.S.-allied nations, including especially NATO — America’s anti-Russia military alliance, which after 1991 absorbed the entirety of the no-longer-existing Soviet Union’s Warsaw Pact mirror organization which had countered America’s NATO alliance. NATO itself is strongly supported not only by the governments but by the people within the respective member-nations, and polling in June 2014 found that “A little more than half of EU respondents (56%) said it was desirable that the United States exert strong leadership in world affairs.” So, the publics in those nations (at least back in 2014) wanted their own government to continue to be led by the U.S. Government. That was more than a decade after the U.S. Government (and Great Britain) had invaded and destroyed Iraq, on the basis of lies. So: perhaps the public, not only in America but in other countries, learns nothing from experience, and they are perennially suckers of their respective national leaderships. But, in any case, the American public are international standouts for supporting dictatorship — not merely accepting it, but actually endorsing it. Obviously, if Assange is not freed from Great Britain and especially from the U.S., his prospects are exceptionally dismal. His only actual ‘crime’ is having stood up internationally for democracy. If that’s not a “hero,” who is? But perhaps, now, democracy has become a hopeless cause. Perhaps, in the final analysis, Assange’s fate will turn out to have been the fate of democracy, too — the canary in this coal mine.

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Americans fear punishment for Afghan war crimes

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Lo and behold! Looks like the “great and terrible” United States can be scared to the point of hysteria. Another myth about American omnipotence is being debunked before our very eyes now that the big shots in Washington are dreading the prospect of being held accountable for the crimes their soldiers have committed in Afghanistan.

Well, it’s been a long time since the Yankees have last been scared of anyone anywhere, save, perhaps, for Soviet missiles. Still, the challenge they now have thrown out to the International Criminal Court (ICC) has laid bare their cowardice for the whole world to see. And all this under the guise of threats and warlike rhetoric, of course.

Washington saw red when, in November 2016, Foreign Policy journal wrote that “the prosecutor’s office of the International Criminal Court (ICC) is ready to initiate a full investigation of a range of possible war crimes and crimes against humanity in Afghanistan, including some by US personnel.” Washington was incensed even more after the very same publication wrote that “the chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, will seek to initiate an investigation,” and that “the prosecutor’s office repeatedly called attention to alleged abuses of detainees by US personnel between 2003 and 2005 that it believes have not been adequately addressed by the United States.”

The ICC report noted that “crimes were allegedly committed with particular cruelty and in a manner that debased the basic human dignity of the victims.” 

Shortly afterwards, US officials visited The Hague where the ICC was meeting to discuss the potential investigation and to express concerns about its scope in what was seen as their first attempt to intimidate the court.

A report by the UN mission in Afghanistan added fuel to the flames of the ICC probe. According to the report, in 2016 alone, 11,418 civilians died there at the hands of all the warring sides, including the Taliban (banned in Russia). Still, the main culprits are US invaders and their NATO allies.

Despite the mounting pressure, the ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda of Gambia persisted with the investigation. Washington then ramped up the pressure by simply revoking her entry visa to the United States. Simple as that.

Bensouda’s office said she had an “independent and impartial mandate” under the Rome statute governing the ICC, and described Washington’s move as an attempted attack on the ICC by the US Administration bringing a sigh of relief from “law-abiding” Americans. And no one in the “free and independent” US media raised his voice against this arbitrary practice.

Such voices of disagreement came from the European Union and the United Nations though, with the UN Secretary General’s official spokesperson Stephane Dujarric expressing the hope that “the United States government will continue to comply with its obligations… and that the prosecutor, when she needs to come to the United Nations, will be afforded a visa for work done at the United Nations,” where Fatou Bensouda was to present a report to the Security Council on the progress of ongoing investigations into the events in Libya.

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini likewise backed the ICC: “We will continue to fully and strongly support the ICC and its work,” she said.

It has also been said that Washington’s disregard for the ICC, which comprises 123 countries (excluding Russia and the US), is fraught with an international scandal. However, President Trump will hardly bother to worry about trifles like this. Responding to the start of the investigation into the crimes committed by the Americans in Afghanistan, the US State Department vowed to revoke or deny visas to ICC staff “seeking to investigate alleged war crimes and other abuses committed by US forces in Afghanistan or elsewhere.” 

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo threatened “to take additional steps, including economic sanctions, if the ICC does not change its course.”

Washington reserves the same treatment also for the ICC staff investigating alleged crimes by the Israelis in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and President Trump has confirmed this. Paraphrasing George Orwell, all people are equal before the ICC, but some people are more equal than others.

However, here the Americans’ strength turns into weakness and uncertainty. President Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton threatened prosecutions and financial sanctions against ICC staff, as well as against countries and companies assisting in ICC investigations of US nationals. If this is not a sign of panic, then what is?

However, the mere fact that an official investigation has been launched against the United States is unprecedented in modern-day politics. When even a Gambian national can see that a global superpower is losing strength and is vulnerable, one can only imagine what will happen if everyone else in the world realizes this too.

Fully aware of this prospect, the Americans have applied all levers of political and economic pressure available to them and showed everyone that they are still a power to be reckoned with. On April 12, the ICC  unanimously (sic!) rejected prosecutor Fatou Bensouda’s request to investigate criminal offenses allegedly committed by NATO coalition forces against civilians in Afghanistan on the very dubious grounds that such an investigation at the present time “would not serve the interests of justice.”

The ruling states that the prosecutor’s request “establishes a reasonable basis to consider that crimes within the ICC jurisdiction have been committed in Afghanistan and that potential cases would be admissible before the Court.” However, the Chamber noted “the time elapsed since the opening of the preliminary examination in 2006 and the political changing scene in Afghanistan since then, the lack of cooperation that the Prosecutor has received and which is likely to go scarcer should an investigation be authorized hampering the chances of successful investigation and prosecution, as well as the need for the Court to use its resources prioritizing activities that would have better chances to succeed.”

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is happy: “I am very pleased that the ICC made this decision today. It is the right one. When Americans misbehave, whether it’s our military, intelligence officers, we have a robust democratic process that holds them accountable. You’ve seen us do that for those that misbehaved. There is in no way or any need for the ICC to intervene,” he said.

This is a striking example of national legislation taking precedence over international law – especially in critical situations.

President Trump was equally pleased hailing the ICC’s refusal to consider the actions of the US military in Afghanistan as “a major international victory not only for these patriots, but for the rule of law (?)”. He reiterated US reservations about the Hague-based ICC, saying that its “broad, unaccountable prosecutorial powers” present a threat to US sovereignty. Which means that Yankees are immune from prosecution – something we should all keep very much in mind.

The whole situation turned out to be pretty ambiguous: the Americans got scared, but the ICC ended up bending under Washington’s pressure. It still looks like the days of America’s complete domination are over, just as the current scandal proved beyond any reasonable doubt.

First published in our partner International Affairs

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