One important step in restoring national safety is identifying demonstrable disinformation from public figures.
Case in point: National Security Adviser John Bolton’s explanation of why he dismantled the National Security Council’s Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense less than two years ago.
Jeremy Konyndyk, a senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development, writes in Just Security.
After the Ebola outbreak, one of the key lessons was that the White House must be better organized the next time around. This prompted the creation of a new directorate on the NSC, focused on global health security and biodefense – in effect, preparing the homeland against future outbreak threats by emphasizing both U.S. and international preparedness. The directorate formalized the whole-of-government, domestic-and-international focus that Ron Klain had instituted as Ebola czar, and created a hub for expertise and institutional memory. The architect and initial leader of that Directorate, Beth Cameron, recently wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post criticizing the Trump administration’s historic error of judgement in closing it.
Claims that streamlining NSC structures impaired our nation’s bio defense are false. Global health remained a top NSC priority, and its expert team was critical to effectively handling the 2018-19 Africa Ebola crisis. The angry Left just can’t stop attacking, even in a crisis.
The key lies in the bureaucratic details, says Konyndyk.
[Bolton] eliminated the Senior Director position entirely, closed the biodefense directorate, and spread the remaining staff across other parts of the NSC. That’s the opposite of streamlining. Instead of giving the issue a distinct institutional presence, expertise, and voice in the policy process, Bolton’s reorganization left it fragmented across other directorates that were focused on other higher priorities.
Bolton’s organizational choices meant the NSC didn’t have a cohesive team able to elevate pandemic readiness expertise directly to senior leaders. Instead, the NSC had director-level subject-matter experts scattered around with limited influence and little ability to reach decision-makers. These people were highly capable and impressive, but their influence was diluted by the new structure.
The Senior Director couldn’t call attention and demand action from the White House staff because there was no Senior Director. Bolton did not want leadership in that position, so he abolished it. He got what he wanted: no leadership.
Nothing demonstrates the failure of U.S. national security policymaking in the Trump era more than the president’s decision to downgrade the White House’s National Security Council Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense less than two years ago.
Trump and National Security adviser John Bolton had a conception of “national security” that downplayed the well-known risks of pandemics in favor of focusing on more other threats like the possibility that Iran might be able to start a nuclear weapons program in ten years.
They were far from alone. Trump’s critics in the intelligence community did not call attention to the move. In our militarized foreign policy, terrorism and weapons of mass destruction loomed large as threats. Incurable diseases did not.
In the Washington Post, Beth Cameron, former director of the pandemic office, explains how Trump and Co. let down the nation’s defenses.
It’s unclear whether the decision to disband the directorate llll was a tactical move to downgrade the issue or whether it was part of the White House’s interest in simplifying and shrinking the National Security Council staff. Either way, it left an unclear structure and strategy for coordinating pandemic preparedness and response. Experts outside government and on Capitol Hill called for the office’s reinstatement at the time.
Its absence now is all too evident. In his remarks Wednesday night, the president talked about travel bans and the resilience of the U.S. economy but made little specific mention of the public health crisis unfolding across America — exactly the kind of detail a dedicated NSC pandemics infrastructure would have pushed to address. A directorate within the White House would have been responsible for coordinating the efforts of multiple federal agencies to make sure the government was backstopping testing capacity, devising approaches to manufacture and avoid shortages of personal protective equipment, strengthening U.S. lab capacity to process covid-19 tests, and expanding the health-care workforce.
A former Trump administration official counters that the directorate was not dismantled but reorganized. It was not dissolved but combined with offices on arms control and weapons of mass destruction, says Tim Morrison. Yet Morrison’s defense contains not a single example of what the directorate has done in the last two months. Brief the president? Develop guidelines for federal employees. Ramp up production of masks and ventilators? Morrison doesn’t say.
Politico reports that pandemic experts says Trump’s reorganization hurt the the governmental response to COVID-19.
former officials who worked on the Ebola and H1N1 responses worry that the steady downsizing of the NSC and the elimination of a unit charged with global health and security has further hindered a government response that was bungled early on by confusion and mismanagement.
Ilan Goldenberg, a former Obama White House policymaker, predicts our paradigm for national security has been forever changed.
National Security adviser John Bolton pushed for the assassination of Iranian Gen Qassem Soleimani last summer, according to U.S. officials cited by NBC News. In a break with past U.S. policy, Bolton recommend killing the Iranian general whose battlefield successes had disturbed U.S. policymakers worried about growing Iranian influence in the region.
After Iran shot down a U.S. drone in June, John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser at the time, urged Trump to retaliate by signing off on an operation to kill Soleimani, officials said. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also wanted Trump to authorize the assassination, officials said. But Trump rejected the idea, saying he’d take that step only if Iran crossed his red line: killing an American. The president’s message was “that’s only on the table if they hit Americans,” according to a person briefed
While the chief of Israel’s Mossad had talked publicly about assassinating Soleiman last fall, the Israeli spy service, like President’s Bush and Obama, had declined to kill the Iranian general, even when it had the chance. On Bolton’s advice, Trump abandoned that policy.
When National Security Adviser John Bolton recently demanded military plans to oust the government of Nicholas Maduro in Venezuela, Trump demurred, reportedly saying his national security adviser was trying to pull him “into a war.”
“He is not comfortable with all this ‘regime change’ talk,” which to his ears echoes the discussion of removing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein before the 2003 U.S. invasion, one unnamed official told the Washington Post.
When push comes to proverbial shove, Trump balks at shoving.
When U.S.-backed opposition leader Juan Guaido attempted to lead a popular uprising on April 30, Trump did not lend his voice to the call. As Bolton and Secretary of State Pompeo cited the alleged danger of Russian involvement, the president rubbished his message saying Presdient Vladimir Putin was “not looking at all to get involved in Venezuela, other than he’d like to see something positive happen for Venezuela.”
The uprising failed, and Bolton moved on to Iran.
Last week Bolton warned the Tehran government that “any attack on United States interests or on those of our allies will be met with unrelenting force.” By contract, Trump spoke yesterday of negotiations, saying “I’m sure that Iran will want to talk soon.”
The national security adviser wants war but his boss doesn’t want to be a war president. Trump’s combination of bluster (“bomb the shit out of them”) and antiwar rhetoric (“Bush lied”) is a political asset he doesn’t want to squander. Bolton’s job isn’t in any danger, because tough talk is good politics. Insults, threats, sanctions, and covert operations are fine–as long as they don’t lead to an actual shooting war.
The Thin Orange Line
Some hope it’s a “good cop, bad cop routine,” designed to get Trump to the global stage of negotiations. But that is not how Bolton thinks. He has never suggested that any negotiated settlement between the United States and any adversary is worth pursuing.
When Trump came to office, official Washington hoped generals like Defense Secretary James Mattis and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster would act like the “adults in the room.” In Washington-speak the phrase expressed the bipartisan hope that Trump’s non-interventionist instincts, grounded in domestic politics, would be curbed.
Now, the dynamic has flipped. Now the generals are gone, replaced by Bolton and Boeing lobbyist Patrick Shanahan. As Bolton pursues regime change in Venezuela and Iran, the only restraining force is Trump himself.
It’s a thin orange line (or maybe a fat orange line.) Will it hold?
Trump’s Obama-like determination to stay out of wars shouldn’t be underestimated. Hillary Clinton, who advocated strongly for Timber Sycamore, would never have abruptly withdrawn 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria as Trump did in December.
While Obama refused direct U.S. involvement in Syria, he did acquiesce to the CIA’s $1 billion covert arms transfer program, code-named Timber Sycamore. The goal was to aid the “moderate” rebels, who, unfortunately, did not exist. The program flooded the country with weapons, many of which wound up in the hands of Al-Qaeda and its offshoots, funded by U.S. allies in the Persian Gulf.
Trump ended Timber Sycamore in the summer of 2017. His withdrawal order in December 2018 not only triggered Mattis’ resignation. It also deprived Bolton of real estate from which he planned to confront Iran. Bolton has been trying to walk back Trump’s order ever since, with some success. Approximately 400 U.S. troops remain in the country.
On Venezuela, it was Trump who started talk of “military optiom” in August 2017 before Bolton had even joined his administration. Bolton escalated confrontation, with the help of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, repeatedly saying Maduro “must go” and that his “time is up.” Now Trump, pondering the reality that U.S military intervention can only undermine the goal of ousting Maduro, now resists the option he put on the table.
The problem for the war-wary Trump is three-fold
First, Bolton is, objectively speaking, a warmonger. He has favored attacking Iran and North Korea, just as he favored attacking Iraq in 2003. The disastrous consequences of the invasion have had no effect on his impermeable thinking. He doesn’t want any advice on his schemes, and he doesn’t get any. If the policy doesn’t work, he changes the subject, not directions.
Second, because Bolton’s policies are developed in private, without the usual input from other sectors of the government, especially the military, they are underinformed and unsustainable. In Venezuela, Bolton failed to understand Venezuelan political realities leaving talk of military intervention as the only face-saving option.
Third, and most important, Trump’s regional allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia, are also seeking to goad the U.S. into taking action against Iran, their regional rival. (There’s no one comparable in Latin America, which makes war in Venezuela less likely.)
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought authority to attack Iran in 2011, only to be thwarted by his his own security cabinet. Obama is gone and Trump has given Netanyahu everything he wanted: an embassy in Jerusalem and recognition of the Golan Heights. Why not a unilateral attack on Iran to degrade its infrastructure?
Saudi Arabia is openly calling for war. After four oil tankers last week suffered damage from some kind of attack, the United States and the Saudi blamed Iran. Why? The New York Times reported that “Israeli intelligence had warned the United States in recent days of what it said was Iran’s intention to strike Saudi vessels.” The Times said the information came from a “senior Middle Eastern intelligence official.”
An Iranian parliamentary spokesman described the attacks as “Israeli mischief.” To date, there is no conclusive evidence about who was responsible.
Nonetheless, on Thursday the Arab News, a Saudi outlet owned by the brother of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), published an editorial declaring “Iran Must Not Go Unpunished.” The editorial quoted MBS and called for “surgical strikes” on Iran.
It is one thing for Trump to privately rebuke Bolton. If and when Netanyahu and MbS ask for war, Trump will have more difficulty saying no. Which is what Bolton is counting on.
Joe Cirincione, chief of the disarmament group Ploughshares, has a cogent analysis of why the Hanoi summit of President Trump and North Korea leader Kim Jong-un failed.
The opportunity, he notes, was this:
In Hanoi, North Korea wanted to trade some of their nuclear capability for most of the sanctions. Trump offered some of the sanctions for most of their nuclear capability. There was a deal to be made, but Trump proved too incompetent to make it.
“We are not going to do denuclearization incrementally,” Biegun said during a nuclear policy conference organized by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, DC, on Monday.
Cirincione sees Bolton’s hand in the change, which he says North Korea will never accept.
Bolton has now raised the demand to all of everything before the United States does anything. Having convinced Trump to “go big,” likely knowing it would fail, he sabotaged an already difficult summit, popularized the myth that the failure of past agreements was entirely the fault of North Korea, and set U.S. policy on auto-destruct. Sanctions and military threats will not force Pyongyang to collapse or comply. Instead, this will lead to either acceptance of their nuclear status or war.
Oddly, leading Democrats in Washington are siding with Trump administration hawks in pressing for a harder line in negotiations rather than supporting Moon’s agenda of making a deal to reduce the nuclear danger and end the Korean war.
Trump, no fan of the costly U.S. military presence on the Korean peninsula, was open to the incremental approach, especially if it could lead to a Nobel Peace Prize.
Now, Cirincione says, U.S. policy is in “auto-destruct” mode.