‘If you thought the Ides of March have been bad enough, beware the Ides of May’ – the private words of one senior Trump-sceptic Republican senator with a passion for Shakespeare and a profound fear that all is not destined to end well.
The Trump White House, of course, has long been depicted as a cross between a Shakespearian tragedy and comedy, not least in these columns.
A hotbed of intrigue, back-stabbing, plotting, betrayal, vanity and buffoonery on an epic scale that the immortal Bard would have revelled in as the richest of source material.
The Donald has been cast variously as the villain-clown, a composite of Julius Caesar, King Lear, Richard III or Falstaff sans the latter’s saving grace of awareness of his own foolish bluster.
Yes, the soothsayer senator is right. The Ides of March have indeed been ominous even by the ugly norm standards of the Trump presidency. They have witnessed right-wing hawks being called in by a beleaguered, belligerent POTUS. Gone is three-star General HR McMaster, the intellectual military man who wasn’t afraid to challenge Trump and counter his blood-curdling, Twitter-addicted rhetoric.
It’s almost beyond satire that one major reason for McMaster’s sacking as national security adviser was that The Donald, with his notoriously short attention span, found his briefings too detailed and complex. In addition, Trump publicly lashed out at the general last month for telling an international conference there was ‘incontrovertible proof’ Russia meddled in the 2016 presidential election.
Gone, too, Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state, who — like McMaster — wasn’t afraid to stand up to a narcissist, erratic president and paid the price for too often speaking truth to power and once calling POTUS a ‘moron’.
Meanwhile rumours grow that two more generals regarded on Capitol Hill as ‘grown-ups’ who can sometimes restrain the petulant man-child who is America’s commander-in-chief are now in the firing line. White House chief of staff General John Kelly, a longtime ally of McMaster, and secretary of defence General Jim ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis are said to have fallen out of favour and likely to be on the receiving end of The Donald’s reality show catchphrase ‘You’re Fired’.
Which takes us from the bloody and chaotic Ides of March to the potentially far more dangerous Ides of May. The month when Donald Trump is meant to be coming face to face with Kim Jong-un and when he’s also due to decide America’s stance on renewing the nuclear pact with Iran.
In Seoul, Pyongyang, Beijing, Moscow, Ottowa and across Europe, Trump’s choice of replacements has triggered shock waves and set diplomatic alarm bells ringing.
New national security adviser John Bolton is a highly-intelligent but ultra-conservative and nationalistic ‘hawk of hawks’ who — unlike McMaster, Mattis and the majority of US generals — champions military solutions to high-risk diplomatic problems like North Korea and Iran. He’s on record deriding diplomacy as a ‘sign of weakness’ and advocating employing US military power to bring about ‘regime change’ in both North Korea and Iran.
It’s a position he defends — in defiance of the UN and international legal restraints — by arguing (without any firm evidence) that Iran and North Korea’s alleged ‘collaboration’ on nuclear weapons development would justify it.
Last month Bolton, a regular Fox News commentator, wrote an opinion column for the Wall Street Journal, headlined ‘The Legal Case for Striking North Korea First’. Back before President Obama’s 2015 nuclear pact with Iran, Bolton penned a column titled ‘To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran’ and has remained a loud advocate of scrapping the deal ever since.
He’s even implied that the heavy South Korean civilian and US military personnel loss of life involved in attacking North Korea, destroying Kim’s nuclear capacity and bringing about regime change by force could be a price worth paying. On another occasion, he’s advocated the US arranging Kim Jong-un’s assassination.
Like Trump, and his previous presidential employer George W Bush, Bolton managed to evade serving in Vietnam, but America’s nightmare there has done nothing to temper his enthusiasm for dispatching American troops to overseas conflicts.
None of this augurs well for the delicate and dangerous May challenges of the Trump/Kim meeting and the US president’s D-day of May 12 when he must either sign the next sanctions waiver on Iran or carry out his threat to refuse and breach the 2015 agreement, putting him at odds with America’s allies in Europe, Canada, Japan and Australia as well as Russia and China and potentially plunging the Gulf states and the whole Middle East into a major new crisis.
Bolton is a former US ambassador to the UN who now frequently mocks the United Nations as ‘just a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time’. He’s also suggested ‘there’s no such thing as the United Nations’, losing ’10 storeys’ off its New York HQ ‘wouldn’t make any difference’ and ‘granting validity to international law is a mistake’.
As President Bush’s UN ambassador he was a leading defender of the Iraq war, a vocal supporter of the discredited claim Saddam had WMDs – something for which he’s never apologised or acknowledged to have been wrong. Significantly Richard W Painter, who served as ethics chief in the Bush White House, now labels Bolton ‘by far the most dangerous man’ in that administration and says Trump’s hiring of him as national security adviser is ‘an invitation to war, possibly nuclear war’.
Bolton’s hostility to the UN is something he shares with POTUS himself; the likely result a major cut in America’s contribution to the UN budget and a further reduction of its influence with the White House.
By contrast, however, Bolton is a staunch supporter of NATO and a much tougher critic of Putin’s Russia than The Donald himself – a factor some on Capitol Hill see as a further tactical reason for his appointment as a counter to the charge that POTUS remains ‘too soft’ on the Russian leader against the darkening shadow of the Mueller investigation. He is also a hardliner on China, fully behind Trump’s trade war declaration against Beijing.
That said, Bolton indicated his support for Trump’s controversial leaked phone call congratulating Putin on his election victory — despite the Salisbury nerve gas atrocity and the clear evidence of meddling in the US presidential election.
As national security adviser Bolton will definitely be at Trump’s side if his much-ballyhooed meeting with Kim Jong-un does go ahead in May. But his appointment must throw up new question marks about it happening at all and what sort of atmosphere will prevail if it does still happen.
South Korea’s liberal President Moon, whose painstaking diplomacy did more to create the opportunity than POTUS’s ‘fire and fury’ and ‘Little Rocket Man’ rhetoric, has maintained a diplomatic silence over the Bolton appointment and its implications. So, intriguingly, has North Korea to date.
But there is little doubt that it’s playing badly behind the scenes both sides of the demilitarised zone. Fears are mounting that with Bolton and another hardliner, former CIA director Mike Pompeo being installed as Rex Tillerson’s replacement as secretary of state (subject to Congressional confirmation), any meeting with Kim Jong-un will be even more confrontational with ultimatums rather than negotiations the US default position.
Kim Hack-yong, a conservative South Korean lawmaker who heads its parliamentary defence committee, warns grimly: ‘If Bolton takes office and talks with North Korea go haywire and yield bad results, I fear what could happen… all our work over the years to engage North Korea could turn to dust.’
Under a Trump/Bolton/Pompeo axis, South Korean leaders strongly suspect the scene will be set for a US demand that North Korea totally surrenders its nuclear capability rather than any compromise that allows Kim to keep some of his nuclear arsenal in return for a signed agreement not to use them first, agree to international inspection and end provocative missile tests. That, they fear, would trigger a Kim walkout blaming Trump for the talks failure while the US laid the blame at the North Korean leader’s door.
Either way, it would be guaranteed to raise the temperature to boiling point while reviving and escalating the dangers of nuclear conflict in the region, a prospect guaranteed to horrify neighbouring Japan, China and Russia as well as South Korea itself.
Come the Ides of May and the whole world could be well-advised to hold its collective breath.