President Trump was elected as a dove who swore that he would extract America from expensive conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. Yet more than two years later, America remains mired in those wars and the US has come closer to conflicts that could have caused tens of millions of casualties.
This covert hawkishness, which has largely remained hidden from public scrutiny, has not been driven by any ideological quest to re-establish American global predominance. Instead it is war driven by whim. This has led to an almost total collapse in confidence between the US intelligence community and the Pentagon, on the one hand, and the president on the other.
Now, America appears on the brink of war with Iran to the dismay of the Pentagon, which fears a very bloody conflict marked by casualties overseas and terrorism at home. Allies, too, are dismayed because they feel that, once again, it is Trump’s own whimsical view of conflict and the world rather than facts and intelligence analysis that is pushing the world to war.
Before the great love affair began with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, the president was urging his officials to go to war as a way of stopping North Korea expanding its nuclear weapons program. He has a simple belief that American firepower could destroy the nuclear program without any serious consequence. It was pointed out that if such an attack occurred, the North was certain to invade South Korea and American assessments showed that it was likely Seoul would be overrun and millions of people killed within days.
As China expanded its territory into parts of the South China Sea that were previously considered part of America’s sphere of influence, Trump also urged military action. Again, it was only once the human cost of such action was spelled out that he backed off. But even so, there have been several close calls in the South China Sea between US and Chinese warships where the slightest miscalculation could provoke war.
Central to restraint were Marine General James Mattis, Trump’s first secretary of defense, and Army General H.R. McMaster, the national security adviser, who both stayed in the cabinet because they felt that, without their presence, America would soon be at war on several fronts. Both men have now left and all the truly qualified replacements who were approached turned the jobs down because they had heard what a nightmare awaited them. Instead, Trump has ended up with Patrick Shanahan as acting secretary of defense, who has no previous national security experience. (Shanahan has withdrawn from consideration after several incidents of domestic violence were revealed). John Bolton, who even the most die-hard conservatives find worryingly irrational, is the national security adviser.
Since Mattis and McMaster finally left the administration, they have been regaling their friends with stories of Trump’s at times astonishing ignorance and about how close America has come to world war on his watch. Such stories have become common currency in Washington and have been relayed back to foreign capitals. This in turn has led to a dangerous disconnect between American leadership on the world stage and what allies might be willing to support.
To seasoned intelligence and Pentagon officials, relations have never been as bad as they are today between the national security establishment and the US president.
For more than 20 years, the CIA and NSA, based on intercepts and agent reporting, have seen President Trump as a potential asset of the Kremlin, in part because of his close relationship with Russian organized crime which in turn is closely allied to the Kremlin. Since his election, with the aid of Russian cyber attacks, the CIA and the Pentagon have become convinced that Trump is not to be trusted with the most sensitive secrets that relate to Russia.
Last week, the New York Times reported that America had launched a series of cyber attacks against Russia, including inserting malware into the power grid, in an effort to deter further Russian interference in the next presidential election. It also reported that the president – America’s Commander-in-Chief – had not been briefed on the operations for fear that he would discuss the cyber attacks with Russia or order them stopped.
Trump took to Twitter to furiously deny that the attacks were taking place and to attack the New York Times for ‘a virtual act of treason’ in reporting a story that was ‘not true’. In fact, the reporting was completely accurate. In addition, what was not reported is that the Pentagon and the National Security Agency have also specifically attacked and destroyed the computers of several individual who have been involved in launching attacks against US targets.
It is hard to overemphasize the disconnect that now exists between Trump and those he is supposed to command. The intelligence community and the Pentagon are now so fearful that President Trump will leak their most sensitive secrets to a foreign enemy that they neglect to inform him of covert actions that are being taken.
Over decades of close intelligence relationships, America has been able to rely on allies who see the same intelligence coming to similar conclusions about threats that might require military or diplomatic action. With Trump choosing to operate alone and based on whim or Jared’s whispers, the allied support for anything that Trump might choose to do can no longer be guaranteed.
Part of the gulf that now exists between the president and the national security establishment can be sourced to Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law whose arrogance is only matched by his ignorance about foreign affairs and the military. Ironically, Trump chooses to listen to Kushner in preference to the collective wisdom of the intelligence community and the Pentagon. To the CIA, Kushner has become known as ‘Bibi’s Bitch’ after his close relationship to Israel’s Prime Minister and his seeming willingness to faithfully follow the playbook created by Mossad.
As tension between America and Iran ratchet up, there are only two potential winners if war does break out: Israel and Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia follows the Sunni branch of Islam and is in a regional struggle to establish leadership over Iran which follows the Shia branch of Islam. Israel sees Iran as a key supporter of Palestinian militancy and would like to see regime change in the country. It is Saudi and Israel that have the ear of Jared Kushner and it is he, rather than the CIA and the Pentagon, who is pushing the president to wage a war nobody else really wants.
Trump seems to understand very little of the competing tensions that surround him. He has a visceral distrust of the national security establishment and has no appetite for learning. That distrust is now reciprocated by the intelligence community and the Pentagon where there is a real fear that America will embark on world war based nothing but a whim.