Donald Trump’s tendency to run the government of a military superpower in the style of a reality TV show ceased being amusing the moment it became clear that the anti-interventionist rhetoric of his campaign was a sham. The moment this happened in earnest was on the 6th of April, 2017, when Trump attacked Syria over matters similar to those which Trump criticised Obama for nearly attacking Syria over in 2013.
Don't attack Syria – an attack that will bring nothing but trouble for the U.S. Focus on making our country strong and great again!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 9, 2013
Less than one year later, the Syria attack which to some appeared to be an anomaly, now appears to be the rule. The moderate Rex Tillerson is being replaced by neo-con Mike Pompeo at the State Department while National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, never a dove by any stretch of the imagination, is being replaced by John Bolton, a man who stood out as uniquely blood thirsty, even in George W. Bush’s mother of all neo-con administrations.
Bolton is a man who has advocated and continues to advocate war with Iran and has supported a first strike against North Korea. Bolton remains one of the few people in the world not only to still support the 2003 Iraq war but he is on the record, saying that it did not go far enough. He wants regime change in Syria and thinks international law is a global anti-American conspiracy. Bolton is a man who goes further than Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfield, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle and Tony Blair when it comes to advocating war as a means of geopolitical policy manipulation.
On the face of it, Trump has gone full neo-con either because he always was one in the first place, because he’s been convinced of the ‘virtues’ of such a policy, because he somehow thinks it will win him votes or because the neo-con faction in Washington has promised to help cover-up details of whatever he and various women who were not his wife got up to in the past. Whatever the case may be, this will make little difference if Bolton is allowed to shape Trump’s foreign policy without any meaningful restrictions.
Then of course there are the Trump conspiracy theorists, those who believe that somehow Trump is a super-genius who pretends to be an idiot in order to play his domestic and foreign opponents like fiddles, all the while gradually implementing his genuine anti-interventionist policies around which he campaigned. Such individuals tend to point to the fact that after around a year of making blood curdling threats against North Korea and consistently insulting the DPRK’s head of state, Trump now apparently looks forward to meeting with Kim Jong-un to discuss de-escalation.
In reality, it was events in both Korean states, along with quiet diplomacy from Russia and likely some from China that turned the tide in the region. Whether Trump knew he would climb down and engage in direct talks with the DPRK at the right moment, or whether he simply seized a clear opportunity is anyone’s guess. It is a matter that is pointless to speculate over.
There remains a possibility that Trump somehow thinks that he can frighten the countries on John Bolton’s well known enemies list, while then reigning Bolton in at the last minute before crowning himself peace maker and then reaping the electoral benefits in 2020. This theory which is favoured by many of Trump’s increasingly conspiratorial supporters, may in fact have some truth to it, but what both the alleged author of such a strategy and the advocates of such a strategy do not understand is that failure in geopolitics has deadly consequences.
As a man who built dozens of casinos, Trump does not seem to realise that unlike losing a card game or even losing a bidding war for a parcel of land, when one ‘loses’ in geopolitics, especially when war is on the table, people die, regions are engulfed in crisis and a domino effect of terrorism and instability is unleashed. In the case of North Korea, nuclear fallout could be a result of an irresponsible John Bolton style game of provocation and aggression.
There is nothing genius about taking the Cold War policy of brinkmanship and the related concept of Richard Nixon’s ‘mad man theory’ and amplifying it one-hundred fold. Such a strategy is patently irresponsible, not least because the multi-polar world is getting increasingly hard for the US to contain and likewise, increasingly difficult for the US military to subdue when it tries.
Whether Trump has gone full neo-con or simply whether Trump simply thinks he can use John Bolton in the way that a homeowner uses a ‘guard dog on duty’ sign in order to frighten the world into submission, both realities would be equally dangerous for the wider world, including the civilians of the United States.
The world has moved on from both brinkmanship and the zero-sum mentality in both geopolitical strategy and economic strategy. Whether Bolton is leading Trump to war, or Trump is leading Bolton to the edge of the geopolitical cliff, both possibilities lead one to make an objectively grim assessment of a Trump administration whose real slogan has gone from ‘Make America Great Again’ to ‘Give War a Chance’.