A Preview of Trump's World: Torture, Drones, and John Bolton
November 18, 2016
Jason Ditz / AntiWar.com & Gina Doggett / Agence France-Presse & Gareth Porter / Middle East Eye
President-elect Donald Trump made a lot of promises on the campaign trail, trying to out-hawk rivals during the Republican primaries. Human Rights Watch has expressed alarm that President-elect Trump has promised to revive the torture of detainees and has called for killing the families of suspected terrorists. Among the candidates for Trump's Secretary of State is John Bolton, a bellicose loose-cannon who has called for "regime change" in Iran -- essentially a unilateral declaration of war.
Rights Group Warns of Trump's
Talk of Torture, Drone Strikes
Jason Ditz / AntiWar.com
(November 17, 2016) -- President-elect Donald Trump made a lot of promises on the campaign trail, trying to out-hawk rivals during the Republican primaries and offering broad policy changes during the general campaign. The comments raised a lot of eyebrows, and continue to now that he's won the election.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) is the latest to express alarm at things Trump promised during the campaign, including reviving the policy of torturing detainees, as well as talk of killing the families of suspected terrorists. HRW warned that President Obama's "half-measures" on moving away from torture, including not prosecuting anybody, would make it pretty easy for Trump to quickly lower standards.
At the same time, HRW conceded that they aren't sure which of Trump's pledges to take seriously, saying in particular that they don't take the talk of killing families at face value, as it is "just a blatant war crime." Still, that he said it at all has people wanting to keep a close eye on him.
Trump was an outspoken advocate of torture during the primaries, saying he wanted "waterboarding and worse" done to detainees, saying he supported such actions even if they don't actually work for the sake of interrogation because "they deserve it anyway."
Though Trump initially called for the killing of terror suspects' families, he later denied doing so. When initially confronted about the illegally of killing civilians, he insisted it wasn't "fair" that the US couldn't do so.
Trump Tough Talk on Torture,
Drones Has Human Rights Watch on Guard
Gina Doggett / Agence France-Presse
PARIS (November 17, 2016) -- Human Rights Watch chief Kenneth Roth said he was keeping a close eye on "warning signs" from US President-elect Donald Trump after the Republican's tough talk during his campaign about torture and drone strikes.
"I don't take entirely seriously what he said on the campaign trail . . . I don't take entirely at face value that he is going to kill families (which) is just a blatant war crime," Roth told AFP. "We are not assuming the worst, but we are also pushing to ensure that the worst doesn't become official policy," the HRW executive director said during a visit to Paris.
Last December Trump said that as president he would order the United States to "take out" the families of terrorists.
Roth said outgoing President Barack Obama left the door open for Trump to revive disturbing policies from the George W. Bush years by taking "half steps".
"Torture is a good example. Obama stopped the Bush torture but he refused to prosecute the Bush torturers," Roth said. "Even though he tightened the law against torture, which is clearly illegal, the fact that no one has been prosecuted makes it easier for Trump to resume it. So it was a positive step, but only a half step."
Trump has "backed off . . . a little bit but he said during the campaign that he'd like to use waterboarding or worse . . . even if it doesn't work."
On the use of drones, Roth said Obama had spelt out the "proper standard" for strikes outside war zones, for example in Yemen and Somalia, which is that "lethal force can be used only to meet an imminent lethal threat." But in practice, "he has allowed the CIA and the Pentagon to use an extremely elastic definition of imminence," Roth said.
As a result, "even participation in a terrorist plot, which is extremely weak, often just a young male associated with a known suspect," can be used as justification. "It could be the pizza delivery guy," Roth said, adding that Obama's approach had made it "easier for Trump" to use a looser standard.
On Obama's failure to close the Guantanamo Bay prison camp, Roth said he had "taken steps to do so by reducing its population but refused to end Bush's long-term detention without trial."
On Obama's failure to close the Guantanamo Bay prison camp, Roth acknowledged that he had released dozens of inmates but stressed that he had failed to end long-term detention without trial.
The president, who had made the camp's closure a top campaign pledge in 2007, "refused to spend the political capital to veto the legislation that has made it harder for him to transfer people to the United States," Roth said.
"In terms of counterterrorism (Obama) was obviously a big step forward from Bush, but he didn't really close off the abuse of counter-terrorism practices, meaning that it will be easier for Trump to revive them if he wants."
John Bolton Calls for US to Impose Regime Change on Iran
Jason Ditz / AntiWar.com
(November 17, 2016) -- Still considered among the candidates for President-elect Donald Trump's Secretary of State, John Bolton is continuing to underscore his longstanding aversion of trying to come up with diplomatic solutions by urging the US to impose a regime change on Iran.
Bolton has long called for bombing Iran, and long criticized the nuclear deal with Iran. Today he said he thinks Iranians would probably welcome a "new regime," though he conceded that whoever the US ended up installing might not be particularly democratic.
Bolton suggested in his comments that the US regime change would mostly involve picking an opposition group to start backing, suggesting it might not even require the direct use of US military force. The opposition factions with Iran are fairly limited. The main rebel groups in Iran are regional, though as with fellow State Dept. candidate Rudolph Giuliani, Bolton is seen as particularly keen on long-time terrorist group the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MeK).
While reports of Giuliani giving paid speeches on behalf of the MeK appeared to severely hurt his candidacy, Bolton's own history of advocacy for the group has mostly gone under the radar, despite him being an outspoken supporters of both MeK and regime change for a long time.
Bolton provided no good reason for a regime change in Iran after the P5+1 nuclear deal, insisting simply that they are a "long-term problem" in his view. Bolton had similarly made Iraq a "long-term" subject of interest through the 1990s, and was seen as one of the architects of the 2003 US invasion and occupation. Despite how badly that went, he seems eager to give it another shot with the even larger nation of Iran.
The Bolton Threat to Trump's Middle East Policy
Gareth Porter / Middle East Eye & AntiWar.com
(November 14, 2016) -- Post-election comments on Middle East policy last week by President-elect Donald Trump and one his campaign advisers have provoked speculation about whether Trump will upend two main foreign policy lines of the Obama administration in the Middle East.
But the more decisive question about the future of US policy toward the region is whom Trump will pick for his national security team -- and especially whether he will nominate John Bolton to become Secretary of State. Bolton, one of the most notorious members of Dick Cheney's team plotting wars in the George W. Bush administration, would certainly push for the effective nullification of the main political barrier to US confrontation with Iran: the 2015 multilateral nuclear deal.
Trump created a minor stir by giving an interview to the Wall Street Journal last Thursday in which he reiterated his criticism of the Obama administration's involvement in the war against Syria's Assad and supported cooperation with Russia against the Islamic State group. And a Trump campaign foreign policy adviser once connected with an extremist sectarian Christian militia in Lebanon named Walid Phares suggested in an interview with BBC radio that Trump would demand that Iran "change [a] few issues" in the agreement and that "the agreement as it is right now . . . is not going to be accepted by a Trump administration".
The significance of that interview, however, is very unclear. Trump himself had avoided threatening such a move during the campaign, denouncing the nuclear agreement as "disastrous" but avoiding any pledge to renounce it as his Republican rivals Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio had done. In his speech to AIPAC, Trump thundered against the agreement but promised only to enforce it strictly and hold Iran "accountable".
Trump has consistently embraced the long-standing official US animosity toward Iran, but thus far he has given no indication that he intends to provoke an unnecessary crisis with Iran.
In any case, Trump's own views will only be the starting point for policymaking on Syria and Iran. His national security team will have the power to initiate policy proposals as well as effective veto power over Trump's foreign policy preferences. That is why Trump's choices of nominations for the top positions on national security will certainly be the crucial factor in determining what policy lines ultimately emerge on those issues -- and why the real possibility of Bolton's nomination as Secretary of State now represents the greatest threat to international peace and security.
Barack Obama became president with a firm intention to get US combat forces out of Iraq within 16 months as he had promised during the campaign. But in his very first meeting with CENTCOM Commander Gen. David Petraeus, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen in late January 2009, Petraeus and his two allies pressed Obama to back down on his pledge, arguing that it wasn't realistic.
In the end, Obama accepted a scheme devised by the military and Pentagon officials under which combat brigades remained in Iraq long after the August 2010 Obama deadline for their withdrawal with no reduction in combat capability. They were simply given additional tasks of advising and assisting Iraqi military units and renamed "advisory and assistance brigades."
Later in 2009, Obama's national security team, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, pushed for a major US military escalation in Afghanistan in 2009-2010. Obama didn't buy the arguments by Petraeus, Gates and Mullen for a huge increase in US troops in Afghanistan.
He and Vice-President Joe Biden argued that the implosion of Pakistan was a much bigger problem than Afghanistan and that there was no evidence of a threat that al-Qaeda would return to Afghanistan. But the war coalition leaked a story to the press that the White House was ignoring a new intelligence assessment that the Afghan Taliban would invite al-Qaeda back into the country if they won the war.
In fact, the intelligence community had produced no such assessment, but the proponents of a big counterinsurgency effort in Afghanistan were demonstrating their power to use the media to raise the political cost to Obama of resisting their demand. Obama gave in on the additional troops, again imposing a deadline for their withdrawal, and the US is still engaged in a losing war in Afghanistan seven years later.
Those largely unknown episodes underline just how vulnerable Donald Trump will be as president to pressures from his national security team to support policies with which he may disagree -- unless he chooses people who agree with his policy preferences.
But Trump has a peculiar problem in that regard. Because he has already alienated virtually the entire Republican Party national security elite by attacking sacred cows such as NATO, and he has been boycotted by the corps of senior officials from the George W. Bush administration -- except for Bolton.
Although he is best known as US Ambassador the United Nations in the George. W. Bush administration, it was in his previous role as Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security from 2001 through 2004 that he played his most important role in US foreign policy.
Although the story was never covered in the corporate news media, I have recounted in my history of the Iran nuclear issue how Bolton, with the full approval of Vice-president Dick Cheney and in coordination with Israel, began in 2003 to implement a strategy aimed ultimately at maneuvering the US into a military confrontation with Iran. The strategy relied on the accusation that the Islamic Republic was carrying out a covert nuclear weapons program.
Bolton and Cheney failed to get their war with Iran, and Bolton was moved to the United Nations in the second Bush term. But Bolton has never stopped talking about the need for the United States to bomb Iran.
In a New York Post op-ed on 14 November, he called on Trump to "abrogate" the nuclear agreement on his first day in office. He wants to be Secretary of State in order to pursue just such a policy, and he is under serious consideration, according to news reports last week. If he were nominated as Secretary of State it would be an open invitation for more plotting of schemes within the Trump administration for the war against Iran that Bolton still craves.
Bolton would not necessarily prevail in pushing for a direct military confrontation with Iran over the nuclear issue, because the US military would probably exercise its veto over any policy that risks war with Iran. But he could nevertheless provoke a crisis with Iran by subverting the agreement itself. He would begin by trying to get Trump to stop using his presidential waiver power to carry out its provisions on lifting sanctions against Iran.
Under normal circumstances, Bolton would never have a chance to reprise his role as war provocateur, but the political circumstances today are anything but normal. There is a very real danger that the Trump transition team will turn to him because it sees no alternative among the usual suspects.
The only alternative is to turn to a seasoned diplomat who has not served in senior national security positions in a Republican administration. And if the choices for other top positions are not determined to avoid the kind of confrontation that Bolton would try to provoke, he could conceivably succeed.
So the disintegration of the political order controlled by the old Democratic and Republican party elites could spawn new threats of war unless Trump and his advisers are clever enough to see the need to avoid them in their choices of national security officials in the coming days.
Gareth Porter, an investigative historian and journalist specializing in US national security policy, received the UK-based Gellhorn Prize for journalism for 2011 for articles on the US war in Afghanistan. His new book is Manufactured Crisis: the Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
Reprinted from the Middle East Eye
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