A warmonger is the latest to lose his dignity to Donald Trump.
Say this for Donald Trump. He may be transforming American politics into a kleptocratic fascist reality show and turning our once-great country into a global laughingstock, but as least he’s humiliating John Bolton in the process.
Many people who get involved with this president end up diminished, embarrassed or, in quite a few cases, indicted. Rex Tillerson, once known as a corporate titan, will now be remembered for his brief, ineffectual record as secretary of state. Michael Cohen, Trump’s former attorney, and Paul Manafort, his former campaign manager, are in prison.
Bolton’s comeuppance is of a different kind. By taking to Fox News to kiss up to Trump, he became national security adviser, a job that no other president would have ever given to a discredited warmonger. His reward is that, after devoting his life to the expansion of American power globally, he’s a hapless party to its contraction. For a person to sell out his putative ideals for such a hollow victory would be like a Greek drama, if the Greeks had written dramas about such small men.
Bolton is sometimes described as a neoconservative, but that’s not really right. Neoconservatives purported to champion the expansion of American values, while Bolton just wants to impose American might. On the surface, he seems an excellent fit with Trump, who is also uninterested in human rights and contemptuous of multilateral institutions. Both are
- bellicose nationalists,
- dismissive of climate change,
- eager to empower the Israeli right,
- hostile to Islam but
- solicitous of Saudi Arabia.
But the uber-hawk Bolton, who still refuses to admit that the Iraq war was a mistake, has long believed that America’s most implacable enemies include North Korea, Russia and Iran. One multilateral organization he appears to value is NATO, a counterweight to Russia that he once called “the most successful political-military alliance in human history.” Now, at the summit of his career, he’s part of an administration that makes a mockery of his longtime foreign policy philosophy.
When the George W. Bush administration, in which Bolton also served, lifted some sanctions on North Korea in 2008, Bolton seemed almost heartsick. “Nothing can erase the ineffable sadness of an American presidency, like this one, in total intellectual collapse,” he wrote in The Wall Street Journal.
So one can only imagine the ineffable sadness he felt over the weekend, when Trump stepped into North Korea to shake the hand of his friend Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s totalitarian leader. On Sunday, The New York Times reported that the Trump administration was considering putting aside the goal of getting North Korea to surrender the nuclear weapons it already has, instead trying to get the country to stop making new nuclear material.
Given Trump’s limitations as a statesman, that’s probably the best that can be hoped for. But it’s almost certainly not what Bolton, who was calling for pre-emptive strikes on North Korea just before Trump appointed him, thought he was signing up for. In response to the Times article, Bolton tweeted angrily that he’d heard of no such plan, though he might have simply been out of the loop. After all, while Trump was flattering Kim, Bolton was in Mongolia.
Also on Sunday, Politico reported on a white paper prepared for the Joint Chiefs of Staff about expanding Russian power. “Russia has a growing and demonstrated capacity and willingness to exercise malign influence in Europe and abroad, including in the United States,” the paper said.
Bolton used to decry this influence. Vladimir Putin’s efforts in the 2016 election, wrote Bolton in 2017, was “a casus belli, a true act of war, and one Washington will never tolerate.” When Putin lied to Trump’s face during their first meeting in Hamburg, Germany, Bolton hoped Trump would take it as a “highly salutary lesson about the character of Russia’s leadership.” Obviously, Trump learned no such lesson. At the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan, last week, the president joked with Putin about election interference and the murder of journalists, a scene that will now be part of Bolton’s legacy.
There is one major issue left on which Bolton could shape history. On Monday, news broke that Iran had breached a limit on how much nuclear fuel it can possess under the 2015 nuclear deal, which the Trump administration abandoned. That comes after months of escalation on both sides, and the threat remains that Bolton could goad an erratic Trump into war.
Standing between us and that apocalyptic possibility is the Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who has been urging Trump away from a military confrontation with Iran. Last month, Carlson used his opening monologue to eviscerate Bolton, calling him a “bureaucratic tapeworm” for whom war is “always good business.” In normal administrations, national security advisers have more authority than cable news hosts, but it was Carlson, not Bolton, who was with Trump at the Korean Demilitarized Zone this weekend. (Carlson later called into “Fox & Friends” and rationalized North Korean atrocities, said that leading a country “means killing people.”)
It’s nightmarish to live in a country where our foreign policy has been reduced to an intramural battle between Fox News reactionaries. And there’s still a danger that Bolton could outmaneuver the isolationists. But right now there is a thin, bitter consolation in knowing that he, like so many others who’ve worked for Trump, sacrificed his principles for power and will likely end up with neither.
In March 6, 2018, the grand ballroom at the Sphinx Club in Washington was packed with aerospace-industry executives waiting to hear from Michael D. Griffin. Weeks earlier, Secretary of Defense James Mattis named the 69-year-old Maryland native the Pentagon’s under secretary for research and engineering, a job that comes with an annual budget of more than $17 billion. The dark-suited attendees at the McAleese/Credit Suisse Defense Programs Conference were eager to learn what type of work he would favor.
The audience was already familiar with Griffin, an unabashed defender of American military and political supremacy who has bragged about being labeled an “unreconstructed cold warrior.” With five master’s degrees and a doctorate in aerospace engineering, he was the chief technology officer for President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (popularly known as Star Wars), which was supposed to shield the United States against a potential Russian attack by ballistic missiles looping over the North Pole. Over the course of his career that followed, he wrote a book on space vehicle design, ran a technology incubator funded by the C.I.A., directed NASA for four years and was employed as a senior executive at a handful of aerospace firms.
Griffin was known as a scientific optimist who regularly called for “disruptive innovation” and who prized speed above all. He had repeatedly complained about the Pentagon’s sluggish bureaucracy, which he saw as mired in legacy thinking. “This is a country that produced an atom bomb under the stress of wartime in three years from the day we decided to do it,” he told a congressional panel last year. “This is a country that can do anything we need to do that physics allows. We just need to get on with it.”
In recent decades, Griffin’s predecessors had prioritized broad research into topics such as human-computer interaction, space communication and undersea warfare. But Griffin signaled an important shift, one that would have major financial consequences for the executives in attendance. “I’m sorry for everybody out there who champions some other high priority, some technical thing; it’s not that I disagree with those,” he told the room. “But there has to be a first, and hypersonics is my first.”
Griffin was referring to a revolutionary new type of weapon, one that would have the unprecedented ability to maneuver and then to strike almost any target in the world within a matter of minutes. Capable of traveling at more than 15 times the speed of sound, hypersonic missiles arrive at their targets in a blinding, destructive flash, before any sonic booms or other meaningful warning. So far, there are no surefire defenses. Fast, effective, precise and unstoppable — these are rare but highly desired characteristics on the modern battlefield. And the missiles are being developed not only by the United States but also by China, Russia and other countries.
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Griffin is now the chief evangelist in Washington for hypersonics, and so far he has run into few political or financial roadblocks. Lawmakers have supported a significant expansion of federal spending to accelerate the delivery of what they call a “game-changing technology,” a buzz phrase often repeated in discussions on hypersonics. America needs to act quickly, says James Inhofe, the Republican senator from Oklahoma who is chairman of the Armed Services Committee, or else the nation might fall behind Russia and China. Democratic leaders in the House and Senate are largely in agreement, though recently they’ve pressed the Pentagon for more information. (The Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member Jack Reed, a Democrat from Rhode Island, and House Chairman Adam Smith, the Democratic representative for Washington’s ninth district, told me it might make sense to question the weapons’ global impact or talk with Russia about the risks they create, but the priority in Washington right now is to get our versions built.)
In 2018, Congress expressed its consensus in a law requiring that an American hypersonic weapon be operational by October 2022. This year, the Trump administration’s proposed defense budget included $2.6 billion for hypersonics, and national security industry experts project that the annual budget will reach $5 billion by the middle of the next decade. The immediate aim is to create two deployable systems within three years. Key funding is likely to be approved this summer.
The enthusiasm has spread to military contractors, especially after the Pentagon awarded the largest one, Lockheed Martin, more than $1.4 billion in 2018 to build missile prototypes that can be launched by Air Force fighter jets and B-52 bombers. These programs were just the beginning of what the acting defense secretary, Patrick M. Shanahan, described in December as the Trump administration’s goal of “industrializing” hypersonic missile production. Several months later, he and Griffin created a new Space Development Agency of some 225 people, tasked with putting a network of sensors in low-earth orbit that would track incoming hypersonic missiles and direct American hypersonic attacks. This isn’t the network’s only purpose, but it will have “a war-fighting capability, should it come to that,” Griffin said in March.
Development of hypersonics is moving so quickly, however, that it threatens to outpace any real discussion about the potential perils of such weapons, including how they may disrupt efforts to avoid accidental conflict, especially during crises. There are currently no international agreements on how or when hypersonic missiles can be used, nor are there any plans between any countries to start those discussions. Instead, the rush to possess weapons of incredible speed and maneuverability has pushed the United States into a new arms race with Russia and China — one that could, some experts worry, upend existing norms of deterrence and renew Cold War-era tensions.
Although hypersonic missiles can in theory carry nuclear warheads, those being developed by the United States will only be equipped with small conventional explosives. With a length between just five and 10 feet, weighing about 500 pounds and encased in materials like ceramic and carbon fiber composites or nickel-chromium superalloys, the missiles function like nearly invisible power drills that smash holes in their targets, to catastrophic effect. After their launch — whether from the ground, from airplanes or from submarines — they are pulled by gravity as they descend from a powered ascent, or propelled by highly advanced engines. The missiles’ kinetic energy at the time of impact, at speeds of at least 1,150 miles per hour, makes them powerful enough to penetrate any building material or armored plating with the force of three to four tons of TNT.
They could be aimed, in theory, at Russian nuclear-armed ballistic missiles being carried on trucks or rails. Or the Chinese could use their own versions of these missiles to target American bombers and other aircraft at bases in Japan or Guam. Or the missiles could attack vital land- or sea-based radars anywhere, or military headquarters in Asian ports or near European cities. The weapons could even suddenly pierce the steel decks of one of America’s 11 multibillion-dollar aircraft carriers, instantly stopping flight operations, a vulnerability that might eventually render the floating behemoths obsolete. Hypersonic missiles are also ideal for waging a decapitation strike — assassinating a country’s top military or political officials. “Instant leader-killers,” a former Obama administration White House official, who asked not to be named, said in an interview.
Within the next decade, these new weapons could undertake a task long imagined for nuclear arms: a first strike against another nation’s government or arsenals, interrupting key chains of communication and disabling some of its retaliatory forces, all without the radioactive fallout and special condemnation that might accompany the detonation of nuclear warheads. That’s why a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine report said in 2016 that hypersonics aren’t “simply evolutionary threats” to the United States but could in the hands of enemies “challenge this nation’s tenets of global vigilance, reach and power.”
The arrival of such fast weaponry will dangerously compress the time during which military officials and their political leaders — in any country — can figure out the nature of an attack and make reasoned decisions about the wisdom and scope of defensive steps or retaliation. And the threat that hypersonics pose to retaliatory weapons creates what scholars call “use it or lose it” pressures on countries to strike first during a crisis. Experts say that the missiles could upend the grim psychology of Mutual Assured Destruction, the bedrock military doctrine of the nuclear age that argued globe-altering wars would be deterred if the potential combatants always felt certain of their opponents’ devastating response.
This position worries arms-control experts like Thomas M. Countryman, a career diplomat for 35 years and former assistant secretary of state in the Obama administration. “This is not the first case of a new technology proceeding through research, development and deployment far faster than the policy apparatus can keep up,” says Countryman, who is now chairman of the Arms Control Association. He cites examples of similarly “destabilizing technologies” in the 1960s and 1970s, when billions of dollars in frenzied spending on nuclear and chemical arms was unaccompanied by discussion of how the resulting dangers could be minimized. Countryman wants to see limitations placed on the number of hypersonic missiles that a country can build or on the type of warheads that they can carry. He and others worry that failing to regulate these weapons at the international level could have irreversible consequences.
“It is possible,” the United Nations Office of Disarmament Affairs said in a February report, that “in response [to] the deployment of hypersonic weapons,” nations fearing the destruction of their retaliatory-strike capability might either decide to use nuclear weapons under a wider set of conditions or simply place “nuclear forces on higher alert levels” as a matter of routine. The report lamented that these “ramifications remain largely unexamined and almost wholly undiscussed.”
So why haven’t the potential risks of this revolution attracted more attention? One reason is that for years the big powers have cared mostly about numerical measures of power — who has more warheads, bombers and missiles — and negotiations have focused heavily on those metrics. Only occasionally has their conversation widened to include the issue of strategic stability, a topic that encompasses whether specific weaponry poses risks of inadvertent war.
An aerospace engineer for the military for more than three decades, Daniel Marren runs one of the world’s fastest wind tunnels — and thanks to hypersonics research, his lab is in high demand. But finding it takes some time: When I arrived at the Air Force’s White Oak testing facility, just north of Silver Spring, Md., the private security guards only vaguely gestured toward some World War II-era military research buildings down the road, at the edge of the Food and Drug Administration’s main campus. The low-slung structure that houses Marren’s tunnel looks as if it could pass for an aged elementary school, except that it has a seven-story silver sphere sticking out of its east side, like a World’s Fair exhibit in the spot where an auditorium should be. The tunnel itself, some 40 feet in length and five feet in diameter, looks like a water main; it narrows at one end before emptying into the silver sphere. A column of costly high-tech sensors is grafted onto the piping where a thick window has been cut into its midsection.
Marren seemed both thrilled and harried by the rising tempo at his laboratory in recent months. A jovial 55-year-old who speaks carefully but excitedly about his work, he showed me a red brick structure on the property with some broken windows. It was built, he said, to house the first of nine wind tunnels that have operated at the test site, one that was painstakingly recovered in 1948 from Peenemünde, the coastal German village where Wernher von Braun worked on the V-2 rocket used to kill thousands of Londoners in World War II. American military researchers had a hard time figuring out how to reassemble and operate it, so they recruited some German scientists stateside.
Inside the main room, Marren — dressed in a technologist’s polo shirt — explained that during the tests, the tunnel is first rolled into place on a trolley over steel rails in the floor. Then an enormous electric burner is ignited beneath it, heating the air inside to more than 3,000 degrees, hot enough to melt steel. The air is then punched by pressures 1,000 times greater than normal at one end of the tunnel and sucked at the other end by a vacuum deliberately created in the enormous sphere.
That sends the air roaring down the tunnel at up to 18 times the speed of sound — fast enough to traverse more than 30 football fields in the time it takes to blink. Smack in the middle of the tunnel during a test, attached to a pole capable of changing its angle in fractions of a second, is a scale model of the hypersonics prototype. That is, instead of testing the missiles by flying them through the air outdoors, the tunnel effectively makes the air fly past them at the same incredible pace.
For the tests, the models are coated with a paint that absorbs ultraviolet laser light as it warms, marking the spots on their ceramic skin where frictional heat may threaten the structure of the missile; engineers will then need to tweak the designs either to resist that heat or shunt it elsewhere. The aim, Marren explains, is to see what will happen when the missiles plow through the earth’s dense atmosphere on their way to their targets.
It’s challenging work, replicating the stresses these missiles would endure while whizzing by at 30 times the speed of a civilian airliner, miles above the clouds. Their sleek, synthetic skin expands and deforms and kicks off a plasma like the ionized gas formed by superheated stars, as they smash the air and try to shed all that intense heat. The tests are fleeting, lasting 15 seconds at most, which require the sensors to record their data in thousandths of a nanosecond. That’s the best any such test facility can do, according to Marren, and it partly accounts for the difficulty that defense researchers have had in producing hypersonics, even after about $2 billion-worth of federal investment before this year.
Nonetheless, Marren, who has worked at the tunnel since 1984, is optimistic that researchers will be able to deliver a working missile soon. He and his team are operating at full capacity, with hundreds of test runs scheduled this year to measure the ability of various prototype missiles to withstand the punishing friction and heat of such rapid flight. “We have been prepared for this moment for some time, and it’s great to lean forward,” Marren says. The faster that weapons systems can operate, he adds, the better.
Hypersonics pose a different threat from ballistic missiles, according to those who have studied and worked on them, because they could be maneuvered in ways that confound existing methods of defense and detection. Not to mention, unlike most ballistic missiles, they would arrive in under 15 minutes — less time than anyone in Hawaii or elsewhere would need to meaningfully react.
How fast is that, really? An object moving through the air produces an audible shock wave — a sonic boom — when it reaches about 760 miles per hour. This speed of sound is also called Mach 1, after the Austrian physicist Ernst Mach. When a projectile flies faster than Mach’s number, it travels at supersonic speed — a speed faster than sound. Mach 2 is twice the speed of sound; Mach 3 is three times the speed of sound, and so on. When a projectile reaches a speed faster than Mach 5, it’s said to travel at hypersonic speed.
One of the two main hypersonic prototypes now under development in the United States is meant to fly at speeds between Mach 15 and Mach 20, or more than 11,400 miles per hour. This means that when fired by the U.S. submarines or bombers stationed at Guam, they could in theory hit China’s important inland missile bases, like Delingha, in less than 15 minutes. President Vladimir Putin has likewise claimed that one of Russia’s new hypersonic missiles will travel at Mach 10, while the other will travel at Mach 20. If true, that would mean a Russian aircraft or ship firing one of them near Bermuda could strike the Pentagon, some 800 miles away, in five minutes. China, meanwhile, has flight-tested its own hypersonic missiles at speeds fast enough to reach Guam from the Chinese coastline within minutes.
One concept now being pursued by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency uses a conventional missile launched from air platforms to loft a smaller, hypersonic glider on its journey, even before the missile reaches its apex. The glider then flies unpowered toward its target. The deadly projectile might ricochet downward, nose tilted up, on layers of atmosphere — the mesosphere, then the stratosphere and troposphere — like an oblate stone on water, in smaller and shallower skips, or it might be directed to pass smoothly through these layers. In either instance, the friction of the lower atmosphere would finally slow it enough to allow a steering system to maneuver it precisely toward its target. The weapon, known as Tactical Boost Glide, is scheduled to be dropped from military planes during testing next year.
Under an alternative approach, a hypersonic missile would fly mostly horizontally under the power of a “scramjet,” a highly advanced, fanless engine that uses shock waves created by its speed to compress incoming air in a short funnel and ignite it while passing by (in roughly one two-thousandths of a second, according to some accounts). With its skin heated by friction to as much as 5,400 degrees, its engine walls would be protected from burning up by routing the fuel through them, an idea pioneered by the German designers of the V-2 rocket.
Officials will have trouble even knowing where a strike would land. Although the missiles’ launch would probably be picked up by infrared-sensing satellites in its first few moments of flight, Griffin says they would be roughly 10 to 20 times harder to detect than incoming ballistic missiles as they near their targets. They would zoom along in the defensive void, maneuvering unpredictably, and then, in just a few final seconds of blindingly fast, mile-per-second flight, dive and strike a target such as an aircraft carrier from an altitude of 100,000 feet.
During their flight, the perimeter of their potential landing zone could be about as big as Rhode Island. Officials might sound a general alarm, but they’d be clueless about exactly where the missiles were headed. “We don’t have any defense that could deny the employment of such a weapon against us,” Gen. John E. Hyten, commander of United States Strategic Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in March 2018. The Pentagon is just now studying what a hypersonic attack might look like and imagining how a defensive system might be created; it has no architecture for it, and no firm sense of the costs.
Developing these new weapons hasn’t been easy. A 2012 test was terminated when the skin peeled off a hypersonic prototype, and another self-destructed when it lost control. A third hypersonic test vehicle was deliberately destroyed when its boosting missile failed in 2014. Officials at Darpa acknowledge they are still struggling with the composite ceramics they need to protect the missiles’ electronics from intense heating; the Pentagon decided last July to ladle an extra $34.5 million into this effort this year.
The task of conducting realistic flight tests also poses a challenge. The military’s principal land-based site for open-air prototype flights — a 3,200-square-mile site stretching across multiple counties in New Mexico — isn’t big enough to accommodate hypersonic weapons. So fresh testing corridors are being negotiated in Utah that will require a new regional political agreement about the noise of trailing sonic booms. Scientists still aren’t sure how to accumulate all the data they need, given the speed of the flights. The open-air flight tests can cost up to $100 million.
The most recent open-air hypersonic-weapon test was completed by the Army and the Navy in October 2017, using a 36,000-pound missile to launch a glider from a rocky beach on the western shores of Kauai, Hawaii, toward Kwajalein Atoll, 2,300 miles to the southwest. The 9 p.m. flight created a trailing sonic boom over the Pacific, which topped out at an estimated 175 decibels, well above the threshold of causing physical pain. The effort cost $160 million, or 6 percent of the total hypersonics budget proposed for 2020.
In March 2018, Vladimir Putin, in the first of several speeches designed to rekindle American anxieties about a foreign missile threat, boasted that Russia had two operational hypersonic weapons: the Kinzhal, a fast, air-launched missile capable of striking targets up to 1,200 miles away; and the Avangard, designed to be attached to a new Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile before maneuvering toward its targets. Russian media have claimed that nuclear warheads for the weapons are already being produced and that the Sarmat missile itself has been flight-tested roughly 3,000 miles across Siberia. (Russia has also said it is working on a third hypersonic missile system, designed to be launched from submarines.) American experts aren’t buying all of Putin’s claims. “Their test record is more like ours,” said an engineer working on the American program. “It’s had a small number of flight-test successes.” But Pentagon officials are convinced that Moscow’s weapons will soon be a real threat.
Analysts say the Chinese are even further along than the Russians, partly because Beijing has sought to create hypersonic missiles with shorter ranges that don’t have to endure high temperatures as long. Many of their tests have involved a glide vehicle. Last August, a contractor for the Chinese space program claimed that it successfully flight-tested a gliding hypersonic missile for slightly more than six minutes. It supposedly reached a speed exceeding Mach 5 before landing in its target zone. Other Chinese hypersonic missile tests have reached speeds almost twice as fast.
And it’s not just Russia, China and the United States that are interested in fast-flying military power drills. France and India have active hypersonics development programs, and each is working in partnership with Russia, according to a 2017 report by the Rand Corp., a nonpartisan research organization. Australia, Japan and the European Union have either civilian or military hypersonics research underway, the report said, partly because they are still tantalized by the prospect of making super-speedy airplanes large enough to carry passengers across the globe in mere hours. But Japan’s immediate effort is aimed at making a weapon that will be ready for testing by 2025.
This is not the first time the United States or others have ignored risks while rushing toward a new, apparently magical solution to a military threat or shortcoming. During the Cold War, America and Russia competed fiercely to threaten each other’s vital assets with bombers that took hours to cross oceans and with ballistic missiles that could reach their targets in 30 minutes. Ultimately, each side accumulated more than 31,000 warheads (even though the detonations of just 100 weapons would have sparked a severe global famine and stripped away significant protections against ultraviolet radiation). Eventually the fever broke, partly because of the Soviet Union’s dissolution, and the two nations reduced their arsenals through negotiations to about 6,500 nuclear warheads apiece.
Since then, cycles of intense arms racing have restarted whenever one side has felt acutely disadvantaged or spied a potential exit from what the political scientist Robert Jervis once described as the “overwhelming nature” of nuclear destruction, a circumstance that we’ve been involuntarily and resentfully hostage to for the past 70 years.
Trump officials in particular have resisted policies that support Mutual Assured Destruction, the idea that shared risk can lead to stability and peace. John Bolton, the national security adviser, was a key architect in 2002 of America’s withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia, which limited both nations’ ability to try to block ballistic missiles. He asserted that freeing the United States of those restrictions would enhance American security, and if the rest of the world was static, his prediction might have come true. But Russia started its hypersonics program to ensure it could get around any American ballistic missile defenses. “Nobody wanted to listen to us” about the strategic dangers of abandoning the treaty, Putin said last year with an aggressive flourish as he displayed videos and animations of his nation’s hypersonic missiles. “So listen now.”
But not much listening is going on in either country. In January, the Trump administration released an updated missile-defense strategy that explicitly calls for limiting mutual vulnerability by defeating enemy “offensive missiles prior to launch.” The administration also continues to eschew any new limits on its own missiles, arguing that past agreements lulled America into a dangerous post-Cold War “holiday,” as a senior State Department official described it.
The Obama administration’s inaction helped open the door to the 21st-century hypersonic contest America finds itself in today. “We always do these things in isolation, without thinking about what it means for the big powers — for Russia and China — who are batshit paranoid” about a potential quick, pre-emptive American attack, the adviser said, expressing regret about how the issue was handled during Obama’s tenure.
While it might not be too late to change course, history shows that stopping an arms race is much harder than igniting one. And Washington at the moment is still principally focused on “putting a weapon on a target,” as a longtime congressional staff member put it, rather than the reaction this capability inspires in an adversary. Griffin even projects an eventual American victory in this race: In April 2018, he said the best answer to the Chinese and Russian hypersonic programs is “to hold their assets at risk with systems similar to but better than what they have fielded.” Invoking the mantra of military scientists throughout time, Griffin added that the country must “see their hand and raise them one.” The world will soon find out what happens now that the military superpowers have decided to go all in.
As shocking as it is to write this sentence, it must be said: Donald Trump did something right.
He finally noticed the abyss once he was right on top of it, calling off a retaliatory strike on Iran after belatedly learning, he said, that 150 people could die.
“I didn’t like it,” Trump told Chuck Todd. “I didn’t think it was proportionate.”
And thank God — and Allah — that he stumbled out just as he stumbled in.
It’s breathtaking that Washington’s conservative foreign policy mandarins would drag us back into Mideast quicksand when we haven’t even had a reckoning about the lies, greed, self-interest and naïveté that led U.S. officials to make so many tragic mistakes in the region.
We sweep in with oblivious swagger, with most Americans not knowing the difference between Shiites and Sunnis, assuming we’re going to swiftly kick butt in an asymmetrical cakewalk. And then we end up stalemated and playing into our enemies’ hands, with hundreds of thousands dead and a $5.9 trillion bill for the post-9/11 wars — not to mention that Trumpworld has ended up deeper in the murderous House of Saud’s embrace.
The president blundered into the crisis by canceling the Iranian nuclear deal, tweet-taunting about the “end of Iran” and hiring the hirsute Iran warmonger John Bolton. And our president is such a mercurial blowhard, he could screw it all up again before this column even hits The Times home page.
I’ve been at this treacherous juncture before with presidents. Once the gears in Washington get going, once the military-industrial complex is “cocked & loaded,” once the hawks around you begin Iago-whispering that if you don’t go forward, you’ll be unmanned, it’s awfully hard to reverse course.
Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld steamrollered W. into the forever war in Iraq by playing on his fears of being a wimp if he pulled back once the Pentagon had moved troops, carriers, covert agents and B-2 bombers into the Persian Gulf. The Saudis told W. that Saddam was not sitting on a cache of W.M.D.s, and was simply blustering like any Arab despot would, but W. dreaded being labeled a wimp, as his father had been in his first presidential campaign.
By Friday morning, Republicans were already painting Trump as a scaredy-cat and Iran as a feral cornered cat.
Representative Adam Kinzinger, a Republican from Illinois and Iraq war veteran, told MSNBC that the idea we could now negotiate with Iran “has the potential of inviting a look of weakness.”
Cheney came back to haunt us in the form of his dagger-tongued daughter Liz, the Wyoming House member, who said Trump’s inaction “could in fact be a very serious mistake.” She lobbed the nastiest insult she could think of, comparing Trump to Barack Obama.
Even “Fox & Friends,” which can always be counted on to fluff Trump’s ego, raised doubts. Brian Kilmeade warned: “North Korea’s watching. All our enemies are watching.”
But maybe something new could work with the impossible child-man in the White House: positive reinforcement.
That was very smart, Mr. President, not to tangle with the Persians, who have been engaged in geopolitics since 550 B.C., until you have a better sense of exactly what is going on here. Listen to your isolationist instincts and your base, not to batty Bolton. You don’t want to get mired in a war that could spill over to Saudi Arabia and Israel, sparking conflagrations from Afghanistan to Lebanon and beyond.
Just remember: The Iranians are great negotiators with a bad hand and you are a terrible negotiator with a good hand.
Trump told Todd that he thought the Iranians shot down a $130 million drone to get his attention because they wanted to talk. (Like when a little kid flicks a paper airplane at your head, but more expensive.) A rare case of Trump’s bloated ego working to our advantage.
It is not hard to imagine Bolton and Mike Pompeo conjuring a Tonkin specter, with a drone or U.S. plane buzzing Iranian airspace to provoke Iran to respond, so we can start a war. It’s also not hard to imagine the two uber-hawks doing this without Trump understanding what’s going on. And it’s certainly easy to think that Trump might not be leveling with us about how this went down.
At least, unlike W. — another underinformed president — Trump is not a captive of the neocons. He has outside advisers, after all: Fox News anchors.
It’s hard to believe that the man standing between us and another world war is Tucker Carlson, late of “Dancing With the Stars.”
But we must count on Carlson, who, The Daily Beast reported, has been calling Trump directly to counteract Sean Hannity, who has been cheerleading on air for a strike, threatening Iran: “You’re going to get the living crap bombed out of you.”
Carlson is pointing out something that Trump needs to hear: “The very people — in some cases, literally the same people who lured us into the Iraq quagmire 16 years ago — are demanding a new war, this one with Iran.” He compared the warped intelligence Bush officials used to justify the 2003 Iraq invasion with the “misplaced certainty” exhibited by Pompeo over iffy evidence that Iran attacked a pair of oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman.
Carlson also cogently noted that Bolton is goading Trump because, for him, a war with Iran would “be like Christmas, Thanksgiving, his birthday wrapped into one.”
Donald “I always attack back … except 100x more” Trump has always been a faux tough guy. In this case, the faux caused a pause — and that was a good thing.
On Saturday, the Times reported that President Trump has requested paperwork that would allow him to quickly pardon several Americans who have been accused or convicted of war crimes, and who have become causes célèbres on Fox News. They include a former Green Beret who has been charged with murdering a man in Afghanistan and a Navy seal platoon chief who has been accused of murdering multiple people in Iraq, including a schoolgirl walking along a river, and whose trial is scheduled to begin next week. A third potential exoneree is part of a group of former Blackwater military contractors who were found guilty of murdering fourteen unarmed Iraqis in 2007. The Times reports that Trump is pursuing an expedited pardon process so that he can officially pardon these men over Memorial Day weekend.
To discuss what this decision would mean, and to understand the history of Americans wanting to place their own actions above the laws of war, I spoke by phone with Scott Shapiro, a professor of law and philosophy at Yale. Shapiro is the co-author, with Oona A. Hathaway, of “The Internationalists: How A Radical Plan to Outlaw War Remade the World,” about the attempts after the First World War to institute a legal regime that would prevent a second one. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed why the most outwardly patriotic Americans have long been skeptical of military law, the message President Trump is sending the military, and the dangers of placing troops above the law.
When you saw the news that these pardons were a possibility, what was it that went through your mind? Were there historical parallels, or did it seem like we were in another era?
I thought, immediately, Oh, pardon the war criminals to own the libs—that this was an attempt to trigger me and people like me. The reason I say I’m a little bit surprised at myself for having that reaction was that there is a long history, especially among conservative thinkers, of mistrusting the laws of war and thinking that the prosecution and punishing of American service personnel for defending our country, but not being punctilious about the particular rules of engagement, is unjust and unfair. This brought to mind the My Lai massacre—that was as horrific an act as a violation of the laws of war as you get.
And yet William Calley [a lieutenant who led the Charlie Company’s massacre of hundreds of civilians at My Lai] was somewhat of a folk hero in the United States. The heroes of My Lai, who saved many civilians and reported Charlie Company for what they had done, were vilified by many in the political establishment. Nixon was incredibly upset that William Calley was being prosecuted. He only got three and half years [of house arrest, after Nixon had him removed from prison]. It’s not clear to me how different what Trump is doing is from what Nixon did in the nineteen-seventies.
When you say that there is a long history of conservatives being mistrustful of laws of war, do you mean both international ways of regulating what our troops can do in war, like some sort of world court, and also our own laws or the military’s own laws?
Yes. So John Bolton, for example, has waged a war on the International Criminal Court for many years, since the beginning of its existence, and spent an enormous amount of time when he was in the State Department going around the world, trying to get countries to sign what we’ll call the Article 98 agreements, which basically said that these countries would not coöperate with the court in prosecution of American service personnel, and then denied them foreign aid if they didn’t.
But his objection has been very much about the notion that an international tribunal will prosecute American service personnel. Whereas there is another strand that objects even to our own government, our own military, prosecuting our own service personnel, and there are several strains to it, some of them being understandable, some of them being quite reprehensible. When I say understandable, I think that there are arguments. I don’t think they carry the day, but let me just say that there are at least arguments that make sense.
So one of them is war is hell, and shit happens, and it’s very hard to hold soldiers to such high standards. Oliver Wendell Holmes’s famous expression, that “detached reflection cannot be demanded in the presence of an uplifted knife,” comes to mind—the idea being that, if you’re in that situation, you can’t be expected to follow all the rules perfectly. There’s also the idea that there are too many rules, and that the rules are too constraining and that we’re tying, as they say, our boys’ hands. And it’s especially problematic in cases where there’s an asymmetry, where the U.S. military is fighting a group that doesn’t follow the rules. So it’s not just that we have a lot of rules, we’re fighting other militaries who are ostensibly bound by those rules, too. But, also, what do we do when they’re not following the rules, they hide among civilians.
Those, I think, are arguments that need to be taken seriously, and people have obviously debated them, and it’s not obvious what the solution should be in particular cases. I went and I watched a lot of the Fox News clips about these cases that it seems like Trump was responding to. And they sometimes use these arguments, but they also use the arguments like, “These are our guys and you need to protect them. They’re risking their lives for us and we have to protect them.” And it’s tribalism. Like, “These are our people and it’s ungrateful to turn on them.”
There’s also a sense, I think, that they’re killing terrorists, so what’s the problem? They’re eliminating evil people. And I think that there’s a particular Trumpian flavor to the assault here, which is that they’re attacking the integrity of the military-justice system much in the same way that Trump does when he attacked Mueller. The idea here being, Look, you can’t trust anyone.
Yeah. It’s particularly interesting to go after the military, which is, of course, the most trusted institution in the United States, about the worst people in the world, that is, the war criminals.
Trump had this aspect of his campaign where he would basically say, “I’m smarter than all the generals.” Do you remember that? Everyone remembers the McCain P.O.W. stuff, but there was this weird, understated, The military is not tough enough or smart enough anymore. It’s just another institution that’s been corroded with establishment figures.
And yet, one of the things that Trump has done is devolved a lot more responsibility down to the military, reversing the Obama scheme whereby military plans had to get extensive vetting by the political branches. So Trump is, on the one hand, saying, “I’m smarter than the military,” and yet, “Don’t bother me with this stuff. You deal with it.”
I assume, over time, the military has over all got better about investigating abuses within its ranks. Do you have some sense of even a hundred years ago, the period you wrote about, how much there was a system for investigating the American military for misbehavior?
So I can tell you that my colleague John Fabian Witt has written a lot about this. In “Lincoln’s Code,” he talks about how the system that we have now really evolved from the military commissions set up in the Mexican-American War and then the Civil War, whereby the U.S. military had to figure out what they would do with people who violated the laws of war.
And so, at least from the perspective of the U.S. military, we’ve been working on this for almost two hundred years—and, funnily enough, so much of the laws of war in their modern form was American-driven. It’s a classic example, I think, of Trump trying to undermine institutions that Americans helped create. So it’s this strange feature, but a lot of times there’s a sense that the laws of war are foreign impositions on the American military, interfering with our sovereignty, when in fact they were developed by the U.S. military as a way of enforcing military discipline.
That’s, in some sense, the general point that people misunderstand about the laws of wars: that they really have their origins in military discipline, that militaries around the world recognized the need to have constraints on soldiers for the sake of having a well-run military. And so it’s usually in the military’s interest for service personnel to be constrained in the way that they are. I would imagine that many military commanders are unhappy about this move.
Trump is often compared to authoritarian figures in history. He’s often been compared to Andrew Jackson. But to what degree does Trump remind you of a certain type that you’ve written about, which is someone from a hundred years ago having a certain isolationist streak, but also just a very warlike personality, with extreme jingoism and nationalism, and a contempt for or racism toward other countries and other people. This pardon news being paired with Trump’s apparent uninterest in a war with Iran was interesting.
Well, bellicosity and racism and Eurocentrism contributed enormously to imperialism and colonialism and genocidal wars of the past, for sure. What is interesting is that these attitudes normally led to war rather than what is happening with Trump, which is that it’s being matched with a kind of isolationism. My own view—and I obviously can’t substantiate it—is that the reason Trump is an isolationist is because I don’t think he wants to spend money on brown people. That is, I think he feels, Why are we spending our money and spending lives trying to bring democracy and improve Iraq, or Syria, or spending money on fighting in Iran, where we’re just going to have to pour money into that country? Here, the xenophobia and racism actually contribute to isolationism.
The America Firsters don’t want to get into World War Two in part because they think, Why are we trying to save the Jews? Why are we pouring money to protect these ethnic minorities in Europe when who the hell cares about them? There are definitely strong historical echoes.
I’m not trying to draw a direct parallel, but the America First types who did not want to get America involved in a war in Europe had no problem asserting the Monroe Doctrine in the Western Hemisphere and insuring business interests in the United States were taken care of and expanded. And that would be my hunch about the type of war that Trump would be at least open to.
I think that’s right, though it’s hard to imagine what that case would be like. I’ve actually been surprised that Trump hasn’t said, “If Mexico doesn’t pay for the wall, we’ll just go take the money from them somehow.” I’m surprised that he hasn’t threatened some war in order to get the money back for the wall. He has said crazy things—“fire and fury”—about North Korea. Threatening a nuclear war is an outrageous thing to do. Saying, “If Mexico doesn’t pay for the wall, we’ll get it in some way,” doesn’t seem that much crazier. Of course, he seems to have no interest in Venezuela, so it’s hard to see what, exactly, the economic interests would be there. It’s so hard to know, and also tiresome to try to guess, what are you going to do next?
What are your biggest concerns, going forward, about what pardons like these would do?
I’m very worried about it. I think, historically, the origins of these rules emanate from military discipline and the sense that the military has to have control over soldiers and control their behavior and keep them focussed on the military mission at hand. And to follow the rules is extremely important for the success of the mission. The golden rule of counterinsurgency is, you want to make sure that you kill more terrorists than you make.
One of the cases that the New York Times reports about is pardoning this group of marines who urinated on deceased Afghans. Is it really helpful for our counterinsurgency mission for people to know that that’s what U.S. military personnel do, and the President just pardons it because it’s no big deal to pee on a dead Afghan?
There are so many ways that this is both an insult to the military and bad for the military. And the ironies of that are plenty.
Yeah, right. So there’s that. This is also really bad for morale. I’ve taught in R.O.T.C., I’ve taught these young officers in training, and they’re taught that these rules are super serious and that they really go to the essence of what it is to be an honorable officer. And then to have the President of the United States say, “Actually, the rules don’t really matter”—what does it do to their sense of what enterprise they’re participating in, No. 1? No. 2, how do they get their men to follow the rules if the Commander-in-Chief is saying it doesn’t matter? It’s just a recipe for disaster.
There are so many ironies here, but one of the cases that Trump is considering, based on the New York Times reports, is the case of the Blackwater military contractors. The Bush Administration tried so hard to get the Iraqis not to prosecute these people, because, they said, “Don’t worry, trust us. You can trust the American criminal-justice system. We’ll take care of it.” And they really held the Iraqi government at bay at a very difficult time with the idea that, We can take care of it.
Why would countries accept that going forward? They’d say, “Look what you’re doing.” So it’s not only bad from a military-mission perspective, but it’s also bad from the sovereigntist perspective. If what you’re really worried about is other countries exerting control over American service personnel, you’re giving them every reason to do it if you do this.
Or to want to create an international system where these things are taken care of, since America’s not going to take care of it on its own.
Yeah, exactly. It’s just more fuel for the people who say, “America has lost its moral way. We can’t trust them. We really need an international criminal court.”
I should also say that, for all these complex reasons of history and how Americans think of this stuff, at the same time, there’s probably a fairly simple thing going on, which is that, if this was not going on in Muslim countries, this probably would not have become a cause célèbre on Fox and the President might not be doing this.
Yeah. When Charlie Company mowed down men, women, children, old people, on the one hand, they were Vietnamese, and so, “Who cares?” But also, talk about historical parallels, after William Calley was convicted of murder, George Wallace visited him and said, “Look, I don’t see why we should be so upset about a soldier killing more communists.” And so, there is a way in which when you dehumanize and vilify a group, the fact that the military killed some more of them, well, how bad, really, is it?