PARIS — Apparently, someone left Donald Trump’s bellicose national security adviser, John Bolton, alone in the White House with the fancy stationery last weekend.
As Americans were winding down from their weekend barbecues, Bolton was firing off a written threat to Iran on White House Press Secretary letterhead. It’s a step up in formality from the “5,000 troops to Colombia” note that Bolton had scribbled on a yellow legal pad before walking into a press conference to announce sanctions against Venezuela in January, sending the press scrambling to make sense of it.
The overwhelming consensus among experts is that Bolton has entered the realm of psychological warfare, or bluffing. That doesn’t mean it isn’t dangerous.
It’s one thing to troll countries on Twitter, but now it’s happening with weapons — like warships. The USS Abraham Lincoln was in the Mediterranean Sea with the USS John C. Stennis at the end of April to “represent 100,000 tons of international diplomacy” in opposition to Russian interests, according to U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman.
“Diplomatic communication and dialogue, coupled with the strong defenses these ships provide, demonstrate to Russia that if it truly seeks better relations with the United States, it must cease its destabilizing activities around the world,” Huntsman said.
Now it’s Bolton who’s using the multibillion-dollar USS Abraham Lincoln to troll another country, this time Iran. It’s the ship on which former President George W. Bush gave his notorious “Mission Accomplished” speech less than two months into the Iraq War.
“The United States is deploying the USS Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group and a bomber task force to the U.S. Central Command region to send a clear and unmistakable message to the Iranian regime that any attack on United States interests or on those of our allies will be met with unrelenting force,” Bolton said in a statement.
Trolling with weapons is something that most countries do, from fighter-jet flybys to troop exercises near a rival’s border. Every nation’s leadership knows this, even though its people may not.
It may come as a surprise that psychologically terrorizing people with threats of war isn’t illegal under international law. According to the Geneva Conventions: “Ruses of war are not prohibited. Such ruses are acts which are intended to mislead an adversary or to induce him to act recklessly but which infringe no rule of international law applicable in armed conflict … The following are examples of such ruses: the use of camouflage, decoys, mock operations and misinformation.”
So, international law decrees it perfectly legal to try to provoke a country into starting a war. It’s just not legal to fall for the ruse — which is what the war hawks in the Trump administration seem to be baiting other countries into doing. It’s not that the hawks don’t want war; they want to be able to say the other guy started it.
Trump’s neocons basically want to go up to a guy in a bar, stand an inch from his face, insult him, and hope the guy becomes angry enough to get physical so that the neocons can justify knocking his lights out. That’s basically where we’re at right now in international diplomacy.
If America ever fired the first shot in any of these standoffs, Trump could kiss a second presidential term goodbye. Americans aren’t going to support sending soldiers to fight the Iranian or Venezuelan armies halfway around the world. That’s not what they voted for when they elected Trump in 2016. Trump won largely because Americans are tired of sending their kids to die for causes on the other side of the world that have nothing to do with their own lives or interests.
In the absence of a direct attack on American interests — not just the threat of one — American troops aren’t going to invade Venezuela. Nor will Americans be sent to die in Iran just because Bolton, who has made paid appearances on behalf of the Israeli- and Saudi-backed Iran opposition, is writing anti-Iranian love letters on White House stationary.
Trump himself has echoed the war ruse strategy by talking about exerting “pressure” on everyone from China and North Korea to Iran, Russia and Venezuela.
The irony of constantly threatening your foes with war is that you ultimately leave the world at the mercy of their goodwill. The fact that we’re not currently in the middle of World War III can be attributed largely to the so-called “rogue nations” that have been levelheaded enough not to respond aggressively despite being frequently provoked.
While international provocation might be a fun hobby for some of the more psychopathic elements in the Trump administration, it’s not a very wise strategy for the long-term security and stability of either America or the world.
Rachel Marsden is a columnist, political strategist and host of an independently produced French-language program that airs on Sputnik France. Her website can be found at www.rachelmarsden.com.