Move over Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney: Donald Trump is busy assembling the most belligerent US cabinet in living memory. His most senior appointees are not just super-hawks who like to bomb first and ask questions later; they share a sneering disdain for international law and multilateral institutions.
Let’s start with ex-CIA director Mike Pompeo, Trump’s pick for secretary of state, who is now only a Senate vote away from becoming America’s top diplomat. The former spy has been agitating for a military solution to the North Korean nuclear programme since joining the administration in January 2017. As a member of Congress in 2014, Pompeo opposed a nuclear deal with Iran and suggested launching nearly “2,000 sorties to destroy the Iranian nuclear capacity”. An evangelical and ultra-conservative Christian, Pompeo “appears to view American foreign policy as a vehicle for holy war”, according to a profile in Slate magazine.
Then there’s Gina Haspel, Trump’s nominee for director of the CIA. The Geneva Conventions don’t seem to bother her too much. “As a clandestine officer at the Central Intelligence Agency in 2002,” reported the New York Times, “Gina Haspel oversaw the torture of a terrorism suspect and later took part in an order to destroy videotapes documenting the brutal interrogations at a secret prison in Thailand.” Rather than being prosecuted, Haspel is on course to be promoted. Her commander-in-chief, remember, thinks torture “absolutely works”.
Don’t forget James Mattis, the defence secretary, often dubbed “the adult in the room”. The retired four-star Marine general is also a card-carrying hawk: he reportedly wanted the US Navy to intercept and board an Iranian ship in international waters less than a month after Trump took office. He is nicknamed “Mad Dog” for a reason.
Yet perhaps most worrying of all, there’s Trump’s new national security adviser: former Bush administration official John Bolton. One of the key architects of the catastrophic and illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003, which he continues to defend, Bolton now clamours for regime change in both Pyongyang and Tehran, regularly writing op-eds with headlines such as “The Legal Case For Striking North Korea First” (Wall Street Journal) and “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran” (New York Times).
He is a perfect fit with the Trump White House; the right mix of aggressive truculence and xenophobic nationalism. The president, with his neo-fascist “America First” mantra, made similar noises to Bolton throughout the election campaign – loudly and unashamedly endorsing war crimes such as waterboarding and the theft of Iraqi oil. Since coming to office, lawless policies have matched the lawless personnel.
Trump’s US has little respect for multinational institutions. Last June, the administration announced it would be withdrawing from the landmark Paris agreement on climate change. In September, Nicaragua said it would sign the agreement and, in November, Bashar al-Assad’s Syria agreed to join as well. The US is now the only country in the world to reject the pact.
Or take the Israel-Palestine conflict. In December, Trump unilaterally recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel – a move that violates decades of US policy, contravenes the Fourth Geneva Convention (under which East Jerusalem is considered occupied territory), and was condemned by 128 countries at the United Nations.
Or take nuclear weapons. Not only has the Pentagon issued guidance that makes it easier for the president to build and deploy so-called “low-yield” nuclear weapons but, as Time magazine pointed out, Trump recently signed a defence bill authorising the “development of a new road-mobile, ground-launched cruise missile”, which is currently “prohibited by a 30-year-old Cold War arms control agreement with Russia”. That agreement is the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty signed by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987.
Or take trade. Trump scrapped the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal on his third day in office and has since threatened stiff new tariffs against imports from both China and the EU. “Trade wars are good, and easy to win,” the president tweeted last month.
“Trade wars”, though, are probably the least of our concerns right now. Trump and his war cabinet of Pompeo, Bolton, Mattis and Haspel are gearing up for military action on two fronts: against the Iranians and the North Koreans (don’t be surprised either if Bolton succeeds in nixing the president’s proposed meeting with Kim Jong-un). Despite claims of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, nuclear tensions with Moscow could also escalate. Once again, it seems, the US is going rogue.
Is it any wonder that approval ratings for Trump and the United States are in freefall across the globe? Just 22 per cent of those interviewed by the Pew Research Centre in 37 countries expressed confidence in Trump to do the right thing in international affairs, compared with 64 per cent who had similar confidence in Barack Obama in his final years in office. “The share of the public with a positive view of the US,” noted Pew, “has plummeted in a diverse set of countries from Latin America, North America, Europe, Asia and Africa.”
America first; the world last.
“The scourge of our planet today is a small group of rogue regimes that violate every principle on which the United Nations is based,” declaimed the president in his speech to the UN General Assembly in September. Yet Trump, Bolton and Co seem hell-bent on having the United States join this “small group of rogue regimes”.
Welcome to an increasingly lawless presidency – at home and abroad.
This article appears in the 04 Apr 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Delusions of empire