The most noteworthy and shocking sign of disorder in Trump’s bureaucracy has now manifested in the State Department. Its enervated head, Rex Tillerson, former CEO of ExxonMobil, has been forced out in the face of “profound disagreements with the president on policy,” including the Paris climate accord, the Iranian nuclear deal, and the denuclearization of North Korea. Tillerson, no dove, has actually supported a more sensible track on these issues—preferring a U.S. signature on the climate accord, maintaining the nuclear deal, and favoring (qualified) diplomacy on the Korean Peninsula—unlike the incessant bellicosity of the “moron” (his term) for whom he worked. This was described as somewhat ironic in the New York Times at the end of a news column which quoted James F. Jeffrey, a former colleague of Tillerson. He characterizes the firing as “a mystery because the people at the State Department would work for the devil if he is advancing American interests, which Mr. Tillerson was.” (By his remark, one is reminded of the ouster of George Kennan, who, as he laid the post-1945 basis for U.S. domination of the world, was considered too soft on the Soviets, and therefore swapped for Dean Acheson.)
With Mike Pompeo, current head of the CIA, now nominated to fill the vacated slot, who will head the agency? Indeed, Trump’s proposed replacement, Gina Haspel, has a record of advancing “American interests” with a uniquely devilish resolve, to the extent that she even directly participated in the torture of several suspects during Bush’s reign over the global terror network of CIA black sites. Her gruesome tenure is heavily criticized in the Senate Intelligence Committee’s 6,000-page torture report, particularly for her vigorous, and ultimately successful, struggle to destroy video-tapes showing the torture of Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri in Thailand in 2005.
To some, Haspel’s depraved career reflects the appropriate qualifications for directorship of an institution like the CIA. Others will rightfully fume with condemnation at the thought of another documented torturer at the helm. All, however, can agree that, from Tenet, to Petraeus, to Brennan, to Pompeo, the time-honored techniques of brutality, sadism, and intimidation of weaker peoples will surely continue, despite the occasional changes of faces. The crucial, short-term question is what will be the concrete consequences for U.S. foreign policy. The short answer is that they are a mixed bag of worry and cautious hope, both of which are subject to change by an engaged public.
In the immediate background is the trajectory of today’s Republican Party. In recent years, it has strayed so far away from regular procedural politics that it has been described by conservative commentators as, “in its legislative incarnation especially, a radical insurgent, dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.” Hence, the reflexive hatred for any proposal promulgated by the Democrats, or, especially, the anti-Christ Barack Obama. About the astoundingly irrational right-wing proposals on immigration, Paul Krugman noted that, “For a long time the GOP was essentially run by business interests,” but these “interests have lost control,” in a process that has converted the party of “angry white men harnessed to the business elite” to one of “angry white men, unleashed.” Trump, though a billionaire businessman, has personally opted for policies that have sidelined the interests of groups like the Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable in favor of ones that satisfy his white nationalist, Evangelical base, simultaneously propagating the mythical image of a courageous nation that is more than willing to stand alone against an unappreciative and hostile world community. When Tillerson, a more traditional elite, stood as a barrier to this enterprise, he was sacked, revealing an uncomfortable state of affairs in which the more levelheaded policies are those preferred by business sectors.
“[The] United States is a big problem now. I think the United States’ decision to withdraw from this Paris agreement really creates a serious problem,” former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told the Guardian. Now free to speak critically of U.S. opposition to the world-consensus on climate change without fear of being personally attacked, Ban points out the obvious implications. “Without the US, we have a lot of difficulties, particularly mobilising financing” for the proposed $100 billion fund the rich countries had previously pledged as aid to the poor ones by 2020. Tillerson, who headed an institution that profited enormously from accelerating climate change, urged Trump repeatedly not to withdraw from the Paris agreement, and, although he was overruled, there are still important, simultaneous developments outside of federal structures. This may be seen as evidence of Clive Hamilton’s report from Paris that “Investors are running ahead of governments.” At the COP23 international climate conference in Bonn last November, the Trump administration “[promoted] coal, natural gas and nuclear energy as an answer to climate change.”
The proposals of Trump, the usual mélange of fossil fuel investors, and their proxies in the federal government were not only scorned by the international community, but also by a separate American delegation headed by California Governor Jerry Brown, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and other U.S. Congressmen, who “announced that the states, cities and businesses that had pledged to abide by the Paris accord were on track to meet the Obama administration pledge to cut emissions at least 26 percent below 2006 levels by 2025.” Incidentally, as the U.S. vowed to withdraw its financial contributions to the climate fund, it inadvertently handed to the government of Syria, currently the most reviled regime on the planet, a propaganda victory when the latter waited shrewdly until all other countries of the world had signed on, then became a signatory itself, leaving the Trump administration in what should have been a humiliating state of isolation. But, of course, you cannot humiliate a man that lacks any shred of shame. On the contrary, the refusal to sign onto the accord is an act of boldness and willingness to defy an unsympathetic world that does not comprehend our nobility and virtue.
Pompeo, who received over $1 million from Koch industries during his six years in the House of Representatives, and regards the fact that climate change poses a national security threat “ignorant, dangerous and absolutely unbelievable,” is sure to combat what little efforts the U.S. has mustered until now to contribute to global efforts, rendering the U.S. unable to rise to the level of Syria. As has already been stated, however, other motives abound. The expulsion of Tillerson is perhaps a part of a public relations effort aimed at creating a sense of harmony in an administration otherwise sunken in turmoil, considering he was the third in a recent string of firings of officials, all of whom supported the Paris accord.
However unified the administration’s reactionary position towards the Paris accord will become under Pompeo, it will still have to confront a growing opposition of public opinion, local and state governments, elite business sectors, and civil society organizations, all of which are fighting simply to affirm a scientific consensus.
Iranian Nuclear Deal
“The first big test will be Iran,” said Michael McFaul, former U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union. “Tillerson and [Defense Secretary James] Mattis supported the Iran nuclear deal. Trump and Pompeo have stated many times that they do not.” In mainstream discussion, these two positions are dignified as almost two different philosophies, the result of careful deliberation and weighing of the facts. In reality, they are nothing more than two different techniques of antagonizing Iran: one, an agonizingly slow reintegration into the world, unparalleled international scrutiny, and sanctions to be lifted at the behest of a casuist global superpower; and two, rejection of diplomacy, unremitting threats of destruction (in violation of international law), sanctions, and intimidation of states that dare to ignore U.S. diktat and engage in commerce and financial transactions with Iran. Of course, the distinction between them is fluid, but neither approach acknowledges recent history between the two states, nor leaves room for reparations of any sort for severe, past crimes.
Pompeo and Trump’s avowed commitment to scrapping the deal stems not from a divergent view of how to stop terrorism, democratize Iran, or mitigate the threat of nuclear war. Instead, it is the only sort of confrontation that Washington can afford in an era of remarkable decline for American power. The International Atomic Energy Agency is the monitoring arm of the UN, in charge of ensuring Iranian compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Its “periodic reports since the accord took effect have shown that Iran is complying with its terms,” writes Rick Gladstone of the New York Times. Tillerson quietly acknowledged this last year in an April letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan, writing that the “conditions” of all relevant legislation have been “met” by Iran. The coming of Pompeo may spell an end to this minimal level of rationality.
While there is no internal record to consult with in regard to Trump’s policy, it is certainly fueled at least in part by the simple desire to prevent the regional ascendancy of Iran and Russia. When it broke out of the “Twin Pillars” condominium in 1979, the other pillar being the Wahabbist theocracy of Saudi Arabia, the Islamic Republic was immediately targeted for regime-change. The decade-long, U.S.-backed Iraqi invasion of Iran, the litany of sanctions and financial seclusion, and the encirclement of the country by U.S. military forces are all instruments of punishment for defiance of U.S. control. This desire for control is what derailed earlier international efforts at reigning in Iran’s civilian nuclear program in 2010, when, “responding to a request that had been made first, in political terms, by the US president, and then later, in more technical terms, by one of his representatives,” Brazil and Turkey attempted to mediate a settlement with Iran wherein it would ship out half of its uranium for storage in return for Western provision of nuclear isotopes for its medical sector. The proposal was tanked by the U.S., irritated that the recalcitrant President Ahmadinejad did not back out first and sought arbitration elsewhere. Europe has similarly been “held back by the U.S.” in its efforts to negotiate a way out.
It is through this prism that the discussion of the nuclear deal should be viewed. The JCPOA, negotiated and signed under a Democratic administration, reflected a more conciliatory line that responded to the concerns of a wide array of business interests in the U.S. The conduct of today’s GOP, though, derives from a religious zeal for enmity, and prioritizes the chauvinistic reputation of state power over the interests of its usual paymasters in the domestic business community.
On the point of exporting terror, the case of Yemen has often been adduced. With regard to Iran’s support of Houthi militants, little evidence exists, irrespective of the impassioned denunciations of it by U.S. leaders. Mohsen Milani writes in Foreign Affairs that the Saudi Arabian dictatorship, which has been the most fervent purveyor of alleged Iranian meddling, has been “grossly exaggerating Iran’s power in Yemen to justify its own expansionist ambitions. Iran is not the cause of the civil war, nor are the Houthis its proxy. Chaos, not Iran, controls Yemen.” In 2008, commentator Michael Bröning observed that “an assessment of Iran as some sort of brutal hegemon in the Gulf can scarcely be justified—notwithstanding President Ahmadinejad’s frequent gaffes. Teheran’s current foreign policy is undoubtedly also aimed at asserting itself more forcefully in the region, but this cannot automatically be regarded as an attempt on Iran’s part to set itself up by force as hegemon among the region’s Shiites. On the contrary, Teheran abandoned the policy of exporting revolution in the 1990s.”
The professed goal of democratizing Iran barely even merits discussion. The United States’ chief ally, Saudi Arabia, makes Iran looks like a model of secularism and stability. The Kingdom is the principal sponsor and exporter of Sunni terror throughout the world, and has used its boundless oil-wealth to perpetuate its Salafist/Wahabbist designs in Syria and Yemen, as well as reprimand Qatar for positioning itself as an economic and diplomatic interlocutor for Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Taliban. For these crimes, the Kingdom has been rewarded with a torrent of U.S. arms and diplomatic support, and even a seat at the UN Human Rights Council, in spite of the fact that it “has arguably the worst record in the world when it comes to religious freedom and women’s rights,” according to Hillel Neuer. In an attempt to reconcile Washington’s rhetoric with its policies, the noted British historian of Iran Michael Axworthy says that Iran “is starting to look more like a potential friend, and the state we treat as an ally looks more and more, if not like an enemy, like the sort of friend that renders it unnecessary to have enemies.”
Much like their position on the Paris climate accords, Trump’s approach to the JCPOA is a brash supersession of the American business community, which has salivated at the prospect of exploiting the economic potential of Iran. In March 2015, before the deal had even been reached, the Wall Street Journal reported that investors were already “[queuing] up to invest in the country.” It quoted an eager New York investor who recognized the fertility of Iran, which exhibits characteristics of both a developed country and an undeveloped one. “It has a well-educated population, a large middle class, a substantial industrial base and has made progress in dismantling subsidies to get its macro house in order. At the same time, growth, valuations and potential investment upside are similar to frontier countries at a much earlier stage of development.”
Recertifying the JCPOA and lifting sanctions would be a major boon to peace as well as American business, and would prevent other probable catastrophes. According to two former Pentagon officials, scrapping the deal leads to a decision: further violence or more sanctions. The consequences of military action (American or Israeli) against Iranian nuclear facilities would yield tremendous blowback, as did Israel’s June 1981 bombing of Iraq’s Osirak reactor, which did not end Saddam Hussein’s nuclear weapons program, but instigated it. “Bombing may simply have produced an Iran even more committed to the pursuit of a weapon” as a method of deterrence, on the rudimentary strategic reasoning of IR theory. Sanctions, they conclude, will spur Iran to simply ramp up pressure on its allies in the region to step up attacks on American troops, and encourage its compatriots in the “Shi’ite Crescent” to assert control over the vast oil resources that lie predominantly underneath their feet. Which scenario will Secretary of State Pompeo be more willing to accept?
There are few issues that are so grossly misreported in the U.S. as the conflict with North Korea. The preeminent specialist on modern Korea, Bruce Cumings, writes in last year’s London Review that, “In the West, treatment of North Korea is one-sided and ahistorical … The demonisation of North Korea transcends party lines, drawing on a host of subliminal racist and Orientalist imagery; no one is willing to accept that North Koreans may have valid reasons for not accepting the American definition of reality.” Despite the intentional obfuscation and misreporting, though, readers can discern with relative clarity Mike Pompeo’s ostensible stance on the conflict. The mainstream press reports that, “Even in a hawkish administration, Mr. Pompeo’s statements about North Korea have been hard-line.” In muted language, he even hinted at a possible regime-change policy last year at a speech in front of the Aspen Security Forum, counseling that the U.S. should “[s]eparate capacity and someone who might well have intent, and break those two apart.” In short, as State Secretary, Pompeo will likely work to degrade the progress made between the two Koreas until now, and will seek to exert pressure on South Korea and Japan to accelerate the isolation of the DPRK.
Indeed, casualty to historical amnesia that the U.S.-North Korea conflict is, there is hope that the immediate history can be recalled, seeing as how liberals yearn ruefully for the perceived civility of the Obama years (even Bush). Like Paris and Iran, former State Secretary Tillerson, perhaps out of an admiration for strongmen, had initially been following a surprisingly sensible game-plan with regard to the situation on the peninsula. Leon V. Sigal wrote in May 2017 that the administration had been “making several subtle moves to jettison the failed policies of the past and open the way to talks,” such as delivering humanitarian flood aid (the first such aid in five years), temporarily approving U.S. visas for the DPRK foreign ministry, and dropping the long-running “insistence that North Korea commit to denuclearization up front before it would enter into talks.” The visas, which were reportedly cancelled by Donald S. Zagoria in response to the Malaysian government’s disclosure that Kim Jong-un’s half-brother had been suspiciously killed with VX nerve gas, were originally issued as a sign of the “willingness of the Trump administration to begin serious negotiations at a later date, or to send a special American envoy to North Korea.” But the justification for cancellation is less than tenable when considering that the “use of the VX nerve agent was already known when Mr. Zagoria got the green light about the visas,” according to the New York Times.
A few months after the cancellations, Pyongyang attempted to assume a bullying posture towards Washington, claiming that it could target the U.S. military colony of Guam, if it ever felt so inclined. While the threats were transparent bombast in a prevailing climate of antipathy, President Trump, eager to preserve his jingoistic reputation at a time when the whole of the American liberal establishment was accusing him of being a Fifth Column for Russia’s Putin, threatened “fire and fury like the world has never seen” in the event of an attack, attainting, and perhaps exceeding the bravado of Kim Jong-un. Again, however, Trump’s more canny bureaucrats stepped in to “roll back all of the international consternation” following “shifts in US policy uttered by Trump,” as CNN described the patternized damage-control. To his aide came Rex Tillerson, who later, upon landing in Guam, told the press, “I think Americans should sleep well at night, have no concerns about this particular rhetoric of the last few days.” After the confirmation of Mike Pompeo, Trump’s blathering with find one more committed spokesperson, further eschewing history in favor of a puerile repartee of locker-room insults and threats.
It has long been understood that North Korean bellicosity results from that regime’s tormented quest to maintain a degree of poise in the face of utter isolation; they have long been eager to come in from the cold. Such desires translate rather awkwardly in the world of power politics, an emotionally immature environment, where violence and peace traverse means and end simultaneously. With the limited South-North détente on display during the Olympics, and major diplomatic talks looming large over Trump’s new appointment, Barbara Demick reminds us in a recent column that, “For decades, North Korean officials have angled to meet with a high-level U.S. representative using all measures of persuasion, whining, wheedling, threatening and even hostage-taking.”
Accordingly, looking back a bit further, we discover that the reason why diplomacy with the DPRK has such a checkered history is that the U.S. has repeatedly failed to live up to its obligations as outlined in various agreements. In 1994, for example, in the midst of a high level of tension, former President Jimmy Carter successfully convinced the DPRK to freeze its plutonium production at its Yongbyon facility and others, in exchange for light-water reactors that could meet the country’s energy needs. Inspectors determined that Kim Il-sung was not developing any more fissile material. After six years, the Clinton administration was even making headway getting the DPRK to relinquish its medium- and long-range ballistic missiles. While there were failures on both sides to meet the strict letter of the Agreed Framework, there was substantial adherence to them, until the incoming Bush administration promulgated its infamous “Axis of Evil” dichotomy, renewing threats. As a result, the DPRK expelled international inspectors, and re-intensified missile development efforts. So, it continued until September 2005, when, under international pressure, the Bush administration agreed to Six-Party talks, ending in a commitment by North Korea to end all nuclear weapons-related activities, respect the sovereignty of its neighbors, and, again, allow for international inspections. Almost without warning, Bush slapped onto the North sanctions that, in Cumings’s words, were “specifically designed to destroy the September pledges.”
What all of this demonstrates is that the U.S. really is not really interested in peace, much less a united Korean Peninsula. It has a stake in maintaining an aggressive posture in East Asia as a method of countering Chinese power and justify its military presence in Japan, South Korea, and elsewhere. U.S. participation in the newest round of talks is certainly unavoidable, but the real hope lies in the conciliatory approach of new President Moon Jae-in, who “scored a solid win after campaigning for the country to ‘learn to say no’ to America,” in a comment by historian Alfred McCoy.
Professor Cumings summarized President Clinton’s acceptance of diplomacy in 1994 in the following terms: “Clinton and his advisers looked down the barrel of the other side’s guns and blinked.” It would be too generous to assume that, next time, Trump, with Pompeo at the forefront of the most important foreign policy agency of the world’s most powerful country, will blink on the issues outlined above. As the centers of power in Congress and the federal government become increasingly detached from their traditional sources of institutional sustenance, a serious accounting is in order, namely, one that calculates the actual potential of resistance to the Trump program. Dwight MacDonald once scorned what he alleged to be an American idée fixe with “facts” at the expense of the richer intellectual dexterity that follows from an attunement to the arts. “Our politicians,” he wrote, “still are men of narrow culture; compare Eisenhower and Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose antipathy to reading is well known, with such early presidents as Jefferson, Madison and the two Adamses.” Current attacks on the humanities and the arts at our universities and research outfits reveal that politicians still revel in a familiar contempt, but the facts, rather being an object of mere fetishism, are now our closest ally. On all three issues raised, Americans, even a majority of Trump voters, support diplomacy and existing international consensuses. These are the numbers that are fueling the nearly dizzying assortment of local initiatives to address what are obviously extremely serious threats. How they fare in terms of legislation will depend on which of the two competing tendencies—deliberate snubbing of popular attitudes by people whose power depends on money and a decrepit and undemocratic electoral system; and a diverse network of local activism, mild business lobbying, and global inertia—accelerates faster.
Mir Alikhan is a recent graduate of the University of Chicago’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies. He writes frequently on U.S. foreign policy, and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
 Glenn Greenwald, “Gina Haspel, Trump’s Pick for CIA Director, Ran a Black Site for Torture,” Intercept, February 2 2017.