The return of the regime change hawks

The most fanatical wing of the foreign policy establishment is running the show under Trump – and the consequences for the world could be dire, writes Ashley Smith.

They’re back.

After nearly a decade in exile from the headquarters of US imperialism, foreign policy extremists so radical that even known neoconservatives dismissed them as kooks have returned to power in the Trump administration.

Together with Trump, they have set the US and its allies Israel and Saudi Arabia on a path to intensified conflict with Iran by ripping up the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – the nuclear accord – with Tehran.

Trump’s latest appointees to his cabinet of horrors, Mike Pompeo as secretary of state and John Bolton as national security advisor, have long been on record as calling for military action against Iran.

Just last year in a meeting in Paris, Bolton thundered that “the declared policy of the United States of America should be the overthrow of the mullahs’ regime in Tehran”.

Trump’s regime change fanatics hope to restore US foreign policy to what it was during their glory days under George Bush Jr.

Bush’s ‘strategic disaster’

At the tail end of the administration of Bill Clinton, the self-described neoconservatives came together to form the Project for a New American Century. Its signatories included past and future war criminals Bush, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz and, perhaps the most radical of them all, Bolton.

The neocons agitated for the US to adopt a policy of rolling back any and all rivals and so-called rogue states that opposed the Washington consensus of free trade globalisation.

While championing unilateral tactics in pursuit of this project, the neocons were careful to stress that such aggressive assertion of American power was in the interests of US allies and the world system.

They identified Saddam Hussein’s Iraq as one of the pivotal regimes that had to be overthrown to christen a new epoch of US hegemony. The neocons reached their pinnacle of dominance under the Bush administration, especially after 9/11, which they used as a pretext to try to enact their regime change fantasies in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Their aim was to impose US supremacy over the Middle East and Central Asia, and their strategic oil reserves. Washington hoped to thereby lock in US control over its European allies, as well as its rising rivals, especially China, all of which relied on the region for their energy supplies.

In the Middle East, the neocons, especially Bolton, agitated for regime change not only in Iraq, but also in Syria – and, most importantly, Iran. As one British official put it at the time, “Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran”.

The neocon’s imperialist fantasies collapsed in Iraq. The 2003 invasion produced mass resistance, which bogged down the US occupation in endless counter-insurgency warfare.

Ironically, instead of imposing a new government loyal to the US, Bush ended up backing a sectarian Shia government whose leaders’ allegiance was to Iran.

Iran, one of the countries on Bush’s so-called axis of evil, along with Iraq and North Korea, emerged as the real victor of the Iraq War, with the predominant influence of the Shia-dominated post-Hussein government. 

Thus, the war, the intent of which was to impose US rule throughout the region and the world, turned into, in the words of retired general William Odom, the single “greatest strategic disaster in United States history”.

Obama’s balancing act

With the US defeat in Iraq compounded by the Great Recession, the US ruling class turned to Barack Obama to restore and rehabilitate the power and credibility of American imperialism. Taking up the Bush administration’s own retreat in his second term, Obama abandoned regime change as a policy.

Instead, he developed a new imperial strategy of extracting the US from ground wars in the Middle East, not as an abandonment of the project of American imperial domination of the world, but so that the US could conduct what his secretary of state Hillary Clinton called a “Pivot to Asia” to contain China’s rise and force it to accept Washington’s hegemony and its free trade policies.

Unfortunately for Obama, the Arab masses weren’t content with the existing Middle East order of despotic capitalist states co-existing with Israeli apartheid. In 2011, they rose up in the Arab Spring, staging mass protests for democracy and equality that challenged both US allies and antagonists.

The Obama administration at first tried to back the existing order. When that proved untenable, the US opted not for regime change, but an “orderly transition” – getting rid of dictators (mostly), but preserving the repressive core of the state. This was the outcome of the pro-democracy uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt and of the US intervention in support of a rebel army in Libya.

Elsewhere, the US tolerated suppression of democratic risings, ignoring, for instance, Saudi Arabia’s orchestration of a brutal counter-revolution in Bahrain. Then, when the nightmare in Iraq led to the rise of ISIS, the Obama administration focused all its military firepower on the self-proclaimed caliphate in Iraq and Syria.

As part of this retrenchment, Obama opted to reach a negotiated deal with Iran over its nuclear program. In return for a shutdown of the program and stringent inspections, much of the onerous sanctions regime on Iran was lifted.

In the process of all of this, the US suffered a relative decline as the region’s imperial overlord, while Iran continued its rise as a regional power, consolidating its network of allies – from Syria, where it and Russia helped the Assad regime crush the Syrian revolution, to Iraq, to Hezbollah in Lebanon and its Houthi allies in Yemen.

Faced with the rise of Iran as a regional power, its bitter regional rivals Israel and Saudi Arabia intensified their effort against Tehran. Israel increased its strikes against Iranian and Hezbollah targets in Syria, and Saudi Arabia intensified its proxy war with Iran in Yemen.

Enter Trump

Trump seized the presidency with the promise that he would “make America great again” by implanting a unilateralist strategy he called “America First”.

In the administration’s National Security Strategy document, it made its intentions plain: abandon free trade globalisation for economic nationalism, including protectionism; impose racist and Islamophobic border controls; downplay the so-called War on Terror to focus on the great power competition with China and Russia; and confront so-called rogue states Iran and North Korea.

For the first year of his presidency, the establishment faction in the administration prevented Trump from implementing the full conclusions of these stated goals.

This past March, however, Trump conducted a housecleaning. Out were figures closely associated with the Republican and corporate establishment, such as Gary Cohn, Rex Tillerson and HR McMaster. Their rivals – neocon hawks Pompeo and Bolton and the arch-protectionist Peter Navarro – took the helm.

This team has begun to push further toward implementing Trump’s America First program, starting with protectionist measures against China, and continuing with the war threats against North Korea and Iran.

With the regime changers back in power, Trump ripped up the nuclear accord, based on the erroneous claim that Iran has continued to develop its nuclear weapons program.

Trump and his Israeli fellow reactionary Benjamin Netanyahu are lying – the UN watchdog assigned to monitor Iran’s program has repeatedly verified that it is in compliance, and US intelligence and military officials confirm this.

Never guided by fact, however, Trump nixed the agreement, throwing the Middle East and indeed global structure of imperialism into chaos and conflict. 

The revived regime changers believe that, despite Iran’s gains in the region, its regime is weak. It has run up debt to pay for the counter-revolutionary war in Syria to prop up Bashar al-Assad; its economy, though growing, has failed to benefit the country’s workers and poor; it faced insurrectionary protests at the end of last year; and it now confronts a wave of strikes.

Eager to take advantage, the Trump administration has begun to take us all down the path to war with Iran similar to that blazed by Bush in Iraq.

Trump has long been encouraging Saudi Arabia and Israel to confront Iran to stop it from consolidating its position in Syria once ISIS is finally defeated. Both states have taken his termination of the nuclear accord as a green light to attack.

The day after the announcement, Israel conducted a massive campaign of air strikes against Iranian military bases in Syria. Similarly, Saudi Arabia intensified its bombing campaign against the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.

Trump’s reneging on the nuclear accord has also disrupted Washington’s system of alliances.

Trump snubbed the four other United Nations Security Council members, including Germany’s Angela Merkel and especially French president Emmanuel Macron, who went out of his way to visit Washington and beg Trump to renew the treaty.

Not only that, but administration officials have threatened France and Germany, who have made significant investments in Iran over the last few years, with sanctions if they don’t heed American dictates and terminate those contracts.

The US has done the same with China and Russia. These imperial rivals will be forced to choose between backing sometime ally Iran and facing yet more intense conflict with the US – or conceding to the US and losing important ground they’ve gained in the Middle East.

It’s impossible to predict the consequences of all of this. The regime changers may not get their way in the end.

But we do know this much: if the US attempts to crack the Iranian regime, it could detonate a war far more severe than anything we’ve witnessed, including the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

The US would not be taking on a collapsing regime like Saddam Hussein’s. Iran has a strong state, buttressed by a modern economy, with significant backing from Russia and China, and a popular base that the hard-liners in the ruling class have already started to mobilise to stand up against US and Israeli war threats.

Even if Trump doesn’t start a direct US war, his administration has intensified a regional conflict between, on one side, Israel and Saudi Arabia, and on the other, Iran. So far, this conflict has been fought out over Syria and Yemen, but with sabre-rattling on all sides, it could degenerate into a larger war between these rival powers.

The consequences for relations among the imperialist states are similarly unpredictable. Will Germany and France buckle under US pressure? Already, French finance minister Bruno Le Maire has threatened to break with Trump and uphold the Iran nuclear accord and France’s investment in the country, declaring: “We have to work among ourselves in Europe to defend our European economic sovereignty”.

What will Russia and China do? And what will be the spillover effects of ending the Iran nuclear accord on Trump’s summit with Kim Jong-un over North Korea’s nuclear program? Any rational actor, which Kim certainly is, would certainly doubt the credibility of Trump in making any agreement with North Korea.

What’s more, the US and North Korea are miles apart to begin with. Trump is demanding rapid denuclearisation, while Kim wants a slow process so that he can use his missiles as a bargaining chip to preserve his regime.

A test for the left

Faced with the Trump administration’s implementation of America First unilateralism and threats of regime change in Iran, the international left will yet again be tested on the question of imperialism.

Much of the so-called anti-imperialist left failed that test in Syria, betraying international solidarity with a popular revolution to line up with Assad’s regime, Iran and Putin’s Russia.

The left can’t afford to fail this even more consequential test. Here in the US, we must first and foremost oppose the cancellation of the Iran accord, Trump’s threats of regime change and the encouragement of Israel and Saudi Arabia to launch attacks on Iran and its allies.

There should be no illusions about Trump’s Democratic predecessors in the White House. While they may have different strategies and tactics than Trump, they were no less committed to US imperialism’s domination of the world.

In particular, Obama’s Iran accord was negotiated not out of some pacifist morality, but to protect the US and Israeli monopoly on nuclear weapons in the region and set the stage for the so-called “pivot to Asia”.

At the same time, the left can’t give any political support to other imperial powers like France or Germany, Washington’s rivals like China and Russia, or regional powers like the Iranian state. Instead, we should build international solidarity for Palestine and for popular struggles for equality and democracy, like those of Iranian workers.

Only this combination of anti-imperialism and international solidarity is an adequate response to a system that is intensifying conflicts between imperialist and regional powers throughout the world.

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First published at www.SocialistWorker.org. Edited for length