Heading into the Trump era, our American world already feels like it's overheating badly. The headlines careen from the president-elect's tweets against Meryl Streep ("one of the most over-rated actresses in Hollywood...!") to conflicts over conflicts of interest to secret briefings by the intelligence community on highly compromising (but unsubstantiated and possibly completely insubstantial) "personal and financial information" about the president-elect supposedly gathered by the Russians, including sex videos of him with prostitutes in Moscow ("'kompromat,' or compromising material, with the possible goal of blackmailing Mr. Trump in the future"). The Trump-Russian "dossier," paid for by his political opponents, including claims about contacts between his campaign and Russian officials, has reportedly been circulating for some time "among intelligence agencies, senior members of Congress, and other government officials in Washington."
In such an extreme hothouse atmosphere, it's not surprising when even the most curious of figures can start to look like -- as one former State Department official testifying before Congress put it recently -- a "stabilizing and moderating force, preventing wildly stupid, dangerous, and illegal things from happening." That was Eliot Cohen discussing retired Marine General James "Mad Dog" Mattis, Trump's nominee for secretary of defense, and it's true that if you're comparing him to retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, the new national security adviser, or Mike Pompeo, the prospective head of the CIA, Mattis may indeed look remarkably sane and even moderate.
But let's try to keep things in perspective. Recently, the Washington Post featured a piece by Greg Jaffe and Adam Entous on General Mattis's tenure as the head of U.S. Central Command that, amid the screaming headlines of this moment, came and went unnoticed. Embedded in it was this little gem: in 2011, when Iranian-backed insurgents in Iraq, using Iranian-supplied rockets, were killing American troops, Mattis grew increasingly incensed. As a result, he formulated a plan, which made it to (and was rejected by) the Obama White House, to launch a direct American "dead-of-night" attack on Iran either to take out a power plant or an oil refinery. This "World War III scenario" -- the willingness to take a chance, that is, on sparking a regional conflagration -- and the urge to act preemptively (including against "Iranian swarm boats" in the Persian Gulf) finally led to his being replaced as CENTCOM commander five months early.
This, then, is what we know of the man generally agreed to be the sanest, most down-to-earth figure on Trump's national security team. Keep that in mind as TomDispatch regular Michael Klare takes us on a quick tour of our present planetary hot spots (including Iran), any of which could blow sky high as Donald Trump and his team of "mad dogs" take office. Tom
Four Looming Flashpoints Facing President Trump
By Michael T. Klare
Within months of taking office, President Donald Trump is likely to face one or more major international crises, possibly entailing a risk of nuclear escalation. Not since the end of the Cold War has a new chief executive been confronted with as many potential flashpoints involving such a risk of explosive conflict. This proliferation of crises has been brewing for some time, but the situation appears especially ominous now given Trump's pledge to bring American military force swiftly to bear on any threats of foreign transgression. With so much at risk, it's none too soon to go on a permanent escalation watch, monitoring the major global hotspots for any sign of imminent flare-ups, hoping that early warnings (and the outcry that goes with them) might help avert catastrophe.
Looking at the world today, four areas appear to pose an especially high risk of sudden crisis and conflict: North Korea, the South China Sea, the Baltic Sea region, and the Middle East. Each of them has been the past site of recurring clashes, and all are primed to explode early in the Trump presidency.
Why are we seeing so many potential crises now? Is this period really different from earlier presidential transitions?
It's true that the changeover from one presidential administration to another can be a time of global uncertainty, given America's pivotal importance in world affairs and the natural inclination of rival powers to test the mettle of the country's new leader. There are, however, other factors that make this moment particularly worrisome, including the changing nature of the world order, the personalities of its key leaders, and an ominous shift in military doctrine.
Just as the United States is going through a major political transition, so is the planet at large. The sole-superpower system of the post-Cold War era is finally giving way to a multipolar, if not increasingly fragmented, world in which the United States must share the limelight with other major actors, including China, Russia, India, and Iran. Political scientists remind us that transitional periods can often prove disruptive, as "status quo" powers (in this case, the United States) resist challenges to their dominance from "revisionist" states seeking to alter the global power equation. Typically, this can entail proxy wars and other kinds of sparring over contested areas, as has recently been the case in Syria, the Baltic, and the South China Sea.
This is where the personalities of key leaders enter the equation. Though President Obama oversaw constant warfare, he was temperamentally disinclined to respond with force to every overseas crisis and provocation, fearing involvement in yet more foreign wars like Iraq and Afghanistan. His critics, including Donald Trump, complained bitterly that this stance only encouraged foreign adversaries to up their game, convinced that the U.S. had lost its will to resist provocation. In a Trump administration, as The Donald indicated on the campaign trail last year, America's adversaries should expect far tougher responses. Asked in September, for instance, about an incident in the Persian Gulf in which Iranian gunboats approached American warships in a threatening manner, he typically told reporters, "When they circle our beautiful destroyers with their little boats and make gestures that... they shouldn't be allowed to make, they will be shot out of the water."
Although with Russia, unlike Iran, Trump has promised to improve relations, there's no escaping the fact that Vladimir Putin's urge to restore some of his country's long-lost superpower glory could lead to confrontations with NATO powers that would put the new American president in a distinctly awkward position. Regarding Asia, Trump has often spoken of his intent to punish China for what he considers its predatory trade practices, a stance guaranteed to clash with President Xi Jinping's goal of restoring his country's greatness. This should, in turn, generate additional possibilities for confrontation, especially in the contested South China Sea. Both Putin and Xi, moreover, are facing economic difficulties at home and view foreign adventurism as a way of distracting public attention from disappointing domestic performances.
These factors alone would ensure that this was a moment of potential international crisis, but something else gives it a truly dangerous edge: a growing strategic reliance in Russia and elsewhere on the early use of nuclear weapons to overcome deficiencies in "conventional" firepower.
For the United States, with its overwhelming superiority in such firepower, nuclear weapons have lost all conceivable use except as a "deterrent" against a highly unlikely first-strike attack by an enemy power. For Russia, however, lacking the means to compete on equal terms with the West in conventional weaponry, this no longer seems reasonable. So Russian strategists, feeling threatened by the way NATO has moved ever closer to its borders, are now callingfor the early use of "tactical" nuclear munitions to overpower stronger enemy forces. Under Russia's latest military doctrine, major combat units are now to be trained and equipped to employ such weapons at the first sign of impending defeat, either to blackmail enemy countries into submission or annihilate them.
Following this doctrine, Russia has developed the nuclear-capable Iskander ballistic missile (a successor to the infamous "Scud" missile used by Saddam Hussein in attacks on Iran, Israel, and Saudi Arabia) and forward deployed it to Kaliningrad, a small sliver of Russian territory sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania. In response, NATO strategists are discussing ways to more forcefully demonstrate the West's own capacity to use tactical nuclear arms in Europe, for example by including more nuclear-capable bombers in future NATO exercises. As a result, the "firebreak" between conventional and nuclear warfare -- that theoretical barrier to escalation -- seems to be narrowing, and you have a situation in which every crisis involving a nuclear state may potentially prove to be a nuclear crisis.