Donald Trump goes full neocon, embracing torture and war with Iran: Why should we be surprised?

With John Bolton and Gina Haspel, Trump has reanimated Bush-era zombies and doubled down on decades of bad policy

Published May 13, 2018 12:00PM (EDT)

Dick Cheney; George W. Bush; Gina Haspel; Donald Trump (AP/Getty/Salon)
Dick Cheney; George W. Bush; Gina Haspel; Donald Trump (AP/Getty/Salon)

By rejecting the Iran deal and nominating torture-tainted deputy CIA director Gina Haspel to head the agency, Donald Trump is doing the exact opposite of what he promised Republican primary voters in 2016. If anything, he is doubling down on the George W. Bush-era neoconservative agenda he so cynically ran against.  

"Anyone can go to Baghdad. Real men go to Tehran," was a half-joking neocon catchphrase from back in the day, during Bush’s first term. By ripping up the Iran deal, that's where Trump has us headed again, with the Israeli government cheering us on, as Heather Digby Parton noted here on Wednesday. (And indeed as Patrick Lawrence observes in a column published a few hours ahead of this one.) As for Haspel, she was an integral part of the Bush-era torture program, which — as a prime feature, not a bug — helped generate the false intelligence that justified the Iraq War.

In a Democracy Now! interview, former CIA agent John Kiriakou — who served two years in prison for exposing the torture program — said, "Gina and people like Gina did it, I think, because they enjoyed doing it. They tortured just for the sake of torture, not for the sake of gathering information." 

That may be precisely what Trump finds appealing about it — as Digby noted, “He's a bully. It's his nature” — and it’s virtually guaranteed to lead us into similar tragic mistakes in the future. Even if torture is never resumed, the underlying attitudes remain, and interest in getting things right or finding reliable information has nothing to do with it. 

That’s not how Trump and his apologists spin it. “When I make promises, I keep them,” Trump claimed, in his speech announcing that the U.S. would break the Iran deal — which he had actually promised to police or renegotiate. It was yet another spectacular act of gaslighting, as if it were crazy to remember his broken promises to be faithful to his wives, to repay his bank loans, to provide the best, handpicked teachers for students at “Trump University,” to “drain the swamp,” or to release his taxes (at one time, in return for Obama releasing his birth certificate).

In reality, Trump merely did what a bullshitter always does: He said what he needed to in the moment, with no regard for truth, falsehood or consistency, as H.G. Frankfurt described in his book "On Bullshit." Trump needed to talk tough in the Republican primaries and attack the GOP establishment, so he pretended to oppose (and to have always opposedthe now-universally-unpopular Iraq war, and the neocon agenda that produced it. 

But Trump also needed to talk tough against Obama, in order to secure the GOP base — especially in the general election. So he promised to get tough on Iran. He never worried about inconsistencies then, and he’s not worried about them now, either. He doesn’t worry, he just gets irritated. And when he gets irritated, he lashes out. Problem solved — for the moment.

Still, the calculus has changed. Different irritants are involved now. The GOP establishment has entirely wilted, but Trump is still haunted by Obama’s legacy, every last shred of which he is determined to destroy. Also, Obama got a Nobel Prize, so Trump wants one, too — along with a war or two, if that’s what it takes to make a really good deal. Trump is also burning out his other options on the personnel side, and now wants people who will endlessly stroke his ego. No one remotely competent will do that to his satisfaction, except for the hardline ideologues who have begun seeping into his administration.

As with Bush and the Iraq war, ideologues are required to get the “intelligence and facts” to be “fixed around the policy.” Otherwise, reality will not cooperate. Trump got a big boost on this front from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has claimed to have proof that Iran lied. When the New York Times tweeted about its story reporting on this, former FBI agent Ali Soufan quote-tweeted in response:

It's another reminder of how pathetically the current Iran war hysteria mirrors the neocons' Iraq war hysteria of a decade and a half ago.

Even before that, Israel's military chief of staff, Gadi Eiskenkot, told Haaretz that the Iran deal is working. "We are investing vast resources in obtaining the best intelligence about Iran and its operational ability,” he told Haaretz. “If its intentions change, we will know. Right now the agreement, with all its faults, is working and is putting off realization of the Iranian nuclear vision by 10 to 15 years.”

Trump’s top intelligence officials have likewise confirmed that the Iran deal was working. In a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Angus King, I-Maine, asked Dan Coats, the director of National Intelligence, “Is it the judgment of the intelligence community that Iran has, thus far, adhered to the deal's major provisions?”

Coats replied, “Yes. It has been -- the judgment is there's been no material breach of the agreement.”

During his confirmation hearings last month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (then the CIA director) said that “Iran wasn’t racing to a weapon before the deal, [and] there is no indication that I am aware of that if the deal no longer existed that they would immediately turn to racing to create a nuclear weapon.”

It all feels like a replay of the Iraq debacle: First time, tragedy; second time, farce. Nothing in the underlying power structures seems to have changed. When it comes to U.S. foreign policy, Seinfeld’s “no learning” rule applies. No hugging either, obviously. Which brings us to the subject of torture.

Coats and Pompeo’s disagreements with Trump in congressional testimony obviously carry no weight inside the White House, which is one obvious reason why Haspel’s tepid rejection of waterboarding in the future is hard to take seriously. But there’s a more basic concern, exposed by Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., at Haspel's confirmation hearing. Harris simply tried to get a straight answer about whether Haspel thought that torture (aka "enhanced interrogation") was immoral. Haspel’s response was worthy of George Costanza:

Harris: One question I have not heard you answer is do you believe that the previous interrogation techniques were immoral?

Haspel: Senator, I believe that CIA officers to whom you referred --

Harris: It's a yes or no answer. Do you believe the previous interrogation techniques were immoral? I'm not asking, do you believe they were legal? I'm asking, do you believe they were immoral?

Haspel: Senator, I believe that CIA did extraordinary work to prevent another attack on this country given the legal tools that we were authorized to use.

Harris: Answer yes or no: Do you believe in hindsight those techniques were immoral?

Haspel: What I believe, sitting here today, is I support the higher moral standard we decided to hold ourselves to.

Harris: Will you please answer the question?

Haspel: Senator, I think I've answered the question.

Harris: You've not. Do you believe the previous techniques -- now, armed with hindsight, do you believe they were immoral? Yes or no?

Haspel: Senator, I believe that we should hold ourselves to the moral standard outlined in the army field manual.

Harris: OK. So I understand that you have not answered the question, but I'm going to move on.

Why can’t Haspel answer the question? Perhaps because America as a whole cannot. The various narrative straws she clutched at are the best we can come up with, it seems. No wonder it’s easier for Trump to just double down, without apology, as he did on the campaign trail in 2015:

“Would I approve waterboarding? You bet your ass I would … in a heartbeat. In a heartbeat.”

“And I would approve more than that,” he continued. “And don’t kid yourself folks, it works, okay? It works.”

Trump said only a stupid person would argue otherwise. He said that he knows important people, who want to be politically correct, who go on television and question the effectiveness of waterboarding -- but then tell him privately later that it does work.

“And you know what? If it doesn’t work, they deserve it anyway for what they’re doing to us,” he said. “But it works. It works.”

Trump’s authentic sadism here comes through loud and clear, as well as his incoherence. Torture works, he assures us — no doubt because he’s seen it on TV. And we should use it anyway, even if it doesn’t work. After all, “they deserve it.” So what if we torture the wrong people? So what if it only inflames more terror in response? So what if we executed Japanese soldiers for waterboarding after World War II? There is a large body of knowledge about such things — as well as a large body of law.

But law and knowledge mean nothing to a man who seems to view the world through a scrim of narcissistic rage -- which may be the best way of understanding why Trump is itching to go to Tehran. That’s why he brought in John Bolton as national security adviser, after all. As Trita Parsi argued on March 22, when Bolton’s appointment was announced:

Donald Trump may have just effectively declared war on Iran. With the appointment of John Bolton, and nomination of Mike Pompeo at State, Trump is clearly putting together a war cabinet. ...

Bolton is an unhinged advocate for waging World War III. He has explicitly called for bombing Iran for the past ten years and has suggested the U.S. engage in nuclear first strikes in North Korea. Bolton’s first order of business will be to convince Trump to exit the Iran nuclear deal and lay the groundwork for the war he has urged over the past decade. Additionally, he has called for ending all visas for Iranians, shipping bunker busting weapons to Israel, and supporting the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK) terrorist organization and other separatist groups inside of Iran.

The same day, BBC correspondent Bahman Kalbasi tweeted this:

There are troubling parallels between the MEK and Ahmad Chalabi's Iraq National Congress, focus of so much Bush administration love — though the MEK is decidedly worse. Each has provided a good-enough fig leaf for “pro-democracy” rhetoric inside the Beltway bubble without anything remotely comparable on the ground inside their respective target countries. As Robert Mackey explained at the Intercept:

If the current government is not Iranians’ first choice for a government, the MEK is not even their last — and for good reason. The MEK supported Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War. The people’s discontent with the Iranian government at that time did not translate into their supporting an external enemy that was firing Scuds into Tehran, using chemical weapons and killing hundreds of thousands of Iranians, including many civilians. Today, the MEK is viewed negatively by most Iranians, who would prefer to maintain the status quo than rush to the arms of what they consider a corrupt, criminal cult.

The MEK had previously been identified as a terrorist group, as Mackey notes, and how that changed is worth understanding, for the light it sheds on the actual foreign policy differences between Trump and Hillary Clinton:

In recent years, as The Intercept has reported, the MEK has poured millions of dollars into reinventing itself as a moderate political group ready to take power in Iran if Western-backed regime change ever takes place. To that end, it lobbied successfully to be removed from the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations in 2012. The Iranian exiles achieved this over the apparent opposition of then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in part by paying a long list of former U.S. officials hefty speaking fees of between $10,000 to $50,000 for hymns of praise like the one Bolton delivered last July.

This is just one of countless examples of how Trump’s "opposite day" approach to draining the swamp helps structure his otherwise gut-driven and chaotic policy. The people best positioned to structure and implement that policy are primarily the same old elites who ran the show before Trump appeared on the scene. So it really should be no surprise that they long for a happier sequel to their last failed war. Nor should we be deceived into thinking that Trump’s narcissistic disdain for what others think is anything new. As Paul Krugman wrote on the eve of the Iraq war in 2003:

Victory in Iraq won't end the world's distrust of the United States because the Bush administration has made it clear, over and over again, that it doesn't play by the rules. Remember: this administration told Europe to take a hike on global warming, told Russia to take a hike on missile defense, told developing countries to take a hike on trade in lifesaving pharmaceuticals, told Mexico to take a hike on immigration, mortally insulted the Turks and pulled out of the International Criminal Court -- all in just two years.

Don’t forget that when George W. Bush was elected, he was openly recognized as a foreign policy naïf. “Grownups in the room,” such as Vice President Dick Cheney, would help ensure that he ruled with a steady hand. The whole world saw how well that worked out. Sure, Trump’s cluelessness and self-assured reliance on his gut exceed Bush’s by at least an order of magnitude. But both men are ultimately just individual symptoms of systematic dysfunction so long-standing and deeply rooted that even the long history of MEK only partially exposes it.

After all, MEK grew out of the 1979 Iranian revolution, but the CIA first overthrew Iranian democracy in 1953 — an event few Americans have any awareness of, that remains foundational to how Iranians view the U.S. to this day. The CIA, not incidentally, has been at odds with “our most cherished values” on a regular basis ever since, long before it embraced torture in the aftermath of 9/11. We are generally able to ignore this — thanks in large part to our “free press,” which keeps the CIA’s actual role murky at best in the public mind.

But Iranians are not so lucky. The fledgling democracy we overthrew 65 years ago was the pinnacle of their self-determination, crushed by a U.S.- and British-backed coup. Contrast that reality with the gaslighting fantasy that Trump spun in his speech withdrawing from the nuclear deal:

It has now been almost 40 years since this dictatorship seized power and took a proud nation hostage. Most of Iran’s 80 million citizens have sadly never known an Iran that prospered in peace with its neighbors and commanded the admiration of the world.

But the future of Iran belongs to its people. They are the rightful heirs to a rich culture and an ancient land, and they deserve a nation that does justice to their dreams, honor to their history and glory to God.

In fact, almost any recent American president might have said something similar, notwithstanding the brutal reality of Shah Mohammad Reza's rule.

As Ryszard Kapuściński explained in "Shah of Shahs," excerpted in Lapham's Quarterly here, Iran under the shah's regime created a vast expatriate intelligentsia in Europe and America, because having such people in Iran was the last thing he wanted:

A dictatorship that destroys the intelligentsia and culture leaves behind itself an empty, sour field on which the tree of thought won’t grow quickly. It is not always the best people who emerge from hiding, from the corners and cracks of that farmed-out field, but often those who have proven themselves strongest, not always those who will create new values but rather those whose thick skin and internal resilience have ensured their survival. In such circumstances history begins to turn in a tragic, vicious circle from which it can sometimes take a whole epoch to break free.

That is the true story of how Iran’s current government came to be. One with echoes in countries on every continent, save Antarctica. In the name of “freedom,” there’s hardly anyone else’s freedom that the United States hasn’t trampled on at some point, in one way or another. And we never cease to be shocked when, decades later, it comes back to bite us.

We are all, perhaps, a bit more like Donald Trump than we wish to acknowledge. Perhaps it’s time we stopped pretending he’s such an anomaly. Yes, he’s certainly an extreme example, sometimes shockingly so. Perhaps that’s what’s needed for Americans to see what’s in front of us when we look in the mirror. Gina Haspel can’t see it. But can the rest of us?

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By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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