Donald Trump’s decision to ungracefully usher out soldier-scholar General H.R. McMaster (whom Trump never really fancied and represented a consensus-backed face-saving choice after the Michael Flynn debacle ) as his National Security Adviser in favor of arguably the most dangerous man in the western world, John Bolton is an appropriate capstone on 15 years of collapsing American credibility and influence abroad. It was after all 15 years ago, this week when Bolton and his neo-conservative cohorts succeeded in getting the anti-intellectual President George W. Bush to invade Iraq, an invasion correctly characterized by Senator Chuck Hagel (R-Nebraska) as “the worst foreign policy blunder of the post-Vietnam era.”
For 15 years, with the exception of the brief four-year period in President Barack Obama’s second term where he and his Secretary of State John Kerry brightly led the world forward, the US has made one mistake after another on the global stage and has seen its ability to exercise soft power internationally, wane.
The Iraq War was a blunder of monumental proportions from a foreign policy standpoint which we have outlined through the years here. It was also the decisive event in the eventual collapse of American global soft power and credibility. The appointment of Bolton to replace the well-respected General McMaster has sent trepidation through capitals across the globe, representing a final nail in America’s coffin as the global leader with any degree of soft power.
John Bolton’s history and the collapse of American global leadership under George W. Bush
Bolton’s hawkishness and unilateral assertion of American influence knows no bounds – in 2007 as a member of the Bush Administration he was aggressively pushing internally for a war with Iran. Out of government from 2009 to 2018 he’s advocated on FOX News and on the pages of conservative publications at various times, US military intervention or an expanded presence in Libya, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan and North Korea. Bolton remains to this day unrepentant about intervening in Iraq, despite the heavy toll and in his time as UN Ambassador brought the most aggressive and undiplomatic tone ever heard from a US representative at that high body into the public frame.
By the time Bolton and neoconservative cohorts left the important offices of foreign policy at the end of the Bush years, American credibility globally was at a post World War II low thanks to the Iraq debacle, the unilateralism of American rhetoric and the embarrassingly humbling botched response to Hurricane Katrina. In the eight years under George W. Bush, America had been transformed from the envy of the world, to victim after 9/11 to imperialist state, finally to a global pariah who couldn’t even take care of its own residents after a storm and whose policies had plunged the globe into a great recession.
Bush’s Presidency was in many ways the end of America as we knew it. A nation that had been the world’s foremost superpower, and exporter of culture as well as liberal values had in a short period of time become among the least admired places on the planet. Incidents of gun violence increased as Bush’s policies polarized the country and turned the world against America. The global economy collapsed as Bush’s focus was on making war while maintaining the role of economic elites at home and abdicating America’s responsibilities to its allies, to the environment and the global order. His Presidency was by any objective measure a disaster for the planet as a whole.
Obama’s first term was a continuation of failed Bush policies
President Obama’s election probably more due to the debacle in Iraq than any other factor (contrary to the analysis of the global financial crisis being the trigger for the victory). Obama governed exceptionally well domestically in his first term, but his foreign policy was a haphazard mess and a disappointment to those of us who wanted to see a more humble and honest American foreign policy. The war in Afghanistan was expanded, drone strikes in Pakistan in violation of that nation’s sovereignty became the norm (though it must be noted the Pakistani government has little control over large portions of the country) and the US eventually got involved in a French-led initiative to make war on Libya. The war in Libya was a strategic blunder, while not on the level of the Iraq War, it led to a further destabilization of North Africa and the emergence of more radicalized terrorist cells in the region. The President also conducted a bilateral relationship with Russia, which had invaded Georgia in 2008 based on the same sort of naive premises that his predecessor had operated under. With the kid glove handling of Russia, came more independent assertive push back from the United Kingdom and Germany toward Vladimir Putin.
Obama’s second term brought American back to the forefront
Obama’s reelection in 2012 produced an almost entirely different President in foreign policy terms. Confident and assertive not having to face the electorate again, and flanked by a new Secretary of State John Kerry, President Obama reasserted American leadership using soft power and tough diplomacy. Out of it came the averting of a potential military action in Syria which Obama had seemingly promised in his first term but wisely pulled back from in the fall of 2013. Russia was handled more realistically, especially after the occupation of the Crimea in early 2014 and the instability she was promoting in Eastern Ukraine. After nearly 60 years of failed hard-line initiatives, Obama wisely thawed relations with Cuba, which is of particular significance here in Florida. Most significant was the nuclear deal with Iran, a historic diplomatic breakthrough that represented a strategic pivot in American foreign policy. This was a pivot that had it been followed up on by a new President, could have made the US once again the undisputed world leader and arbiter of disputes abroad.
Obama’s accomplishments undone by Trump election
But instead Donald Trump got elected. Trump’s victory sent shock-waves across the globe, but some of his early choices of foreign policy advisers seemed reasonable. Besides, Trump appeared ready to listen and “make deals.”
But instead what has ensued is a President whose instincts are bombastic while his actions tend to be manipulated by flattery. The likes of Putin, Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Chinese communist dictator Xi Jinping and worst of all the Saudi and UAE royal families have all flattered Trump publicly, and thus won his favor while traditional allies like the United Kingdom, France, South Korea and Germany have been left scratching their heads.
The hope of Tilleron, McMaster and Mattis
A hope early on was the sensible trio of General McMaster, General Jim Mattis, the Secretary of Defense and Rex Tillerson, the former ExxonMobil CEO appointed Secretary of State could tame Trump’s dangerous impulses and continue to good work of the second Obama term.
I unlike most on the left liked the appointment of Tillerson. I felt his soft spoken tenor and history as a corporate CEO that had to do deals in some of the most hostile foreign environments would be useful for American foreign policy and perhaps even showed a maturity on Trump’s part with his selection.
But it became obvious within months, if not weeks that Tillerson was a show appointment to placate critics who shared my world view and that he had a limited or more likely absolutely no influence on Trump. Tillerson after all is a real CEO coming from a world where you can be hard-edged but ultimately must develop consensus in a board room with competing interests – Trump on the other hand only plays a CEO on TV and has run a family business around a cult of personality. The partnership was never going to work and Tillerson in fact limped through a year meekly before being fired either via Twitter or while visiting a restroom during travels depending on which accounts you believe.
Tillerson and McMaster replaced by far more hawkish and dangerous individuals
Tillerson’s replacement will be former Kansas Congressman Mike Pompeo, a hawk who has a much more aggressive view about the use of American force than Tillerson did. Pompeo whose public statements and votes as a member of the House of Representatives show a strong neoconservative and interventionist flavor will shift American foreign policy to harder right position almost instantly.
Meanwhile McMaster, who was one of the few commanding generals during the Iraq War which really “got it,” and whose views and ideas were undercut actively by Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld, Bush appointed tin-pot wanna be Iraqi dictator Paul Bremer and Bolton himself had limited influence with Trump. At the same time, in flagrant disregard to much of what Tillerson seemed to be telling foreign leaders, Trump was trashing the Iran deal and trying to provoke conflicts abroad including with North Korea.
The move to remove McMaster and replace him with Bolton similar to the Pompeo choice erases any pretense of Trump attempting to govern sensibly or work with our allies to create a foreign policy consensus. Now it is truly America alone, starting trade wars in wake of the departure of centrist Gary Cohn on the economic side and likely taking a dark, dim view of diplomacy and consensus building in the Pompeo/Bolton era.