Former State Dept. official Matthew Hoh says he supports the removal of National Security Advisor John Bolton, who advocated for war and the interests of the military industrial complex
JAISAL NOOR: I’m Jaisal Noor and this is The Real News Network.
President Trump has parted ways with National Security Advisor John Bolton, who was known as one of the most hawkish figures in the administration. Trump tweeted, “I disagreed strongly with many of his suggestions, as did others in the Administration, and therefore I asked John for his resignation.” Bolton, who had served since March of 2018 was an ultra-hawkish neo-con who pushed the US towards military confrontation with Iran and North Korea, two countries he previously called on the US to bomb. Bolton repeatedly clashed with Trump’s efforts towards negotiations in the Korean Peninsula, and most recently, in peace talks in Afghanistan. He also backed regime change efforts from Syria to Venezuela, and remained an unapologetic supporter of the Iraq War, of which he was a key architect.
Joining us to discuss this is Matthew Hoh, a Senior Fellow at the Center for International Policy, a former Marine Corps officer who took part in the Iraq War. In 2009, he resigned his State Department position in Afghanistan in opposition to the escalation of the Afghan War. Thank you so much for joining us.
MATTHEW HOH: Hi. Thanks for having me on again.
JAISAL NOOR: So I want to get your reaction and response to the departure of Bolton, a figure who had pushed the Trump administration towards a more aggressive, bellicose foreign policy. Trump had run on this anti-war message, but really had an aggressive foreign policy overall. Where there were times he was pushing for negotiations, you saw these reports of Bolton sort of pushing back.
MATTHEW HOH: Yeah, absolutely. Someone who is close to Bolton today said that when asked for comment about Bolton’s firing, their response was, “Well, in the 18 months or so he was with President Trump, no bad deals were made with Syria or Iran or Russia or China.” So even in his departure, those around him, those who support him are still holding onto this line that somehow John Bolton represents a realistic form of foreign policy. And sadly, you’ve seen that actually too coming off of Capitol Hill from Democrats. Senator Chris Murphy, Senator Chuck Schumer, Senator Mark Warren, all Democrats, all fairly high ranking Democrats, particularly Schumer and say Warner, upset that Donald Trump has fired John Bolton, saying that this shows a crisis in the White House, that we need a steady hand in foreign policy.
The reality was John Bolton represented – I guess he represents the establishment of the United States’ militarized foreign policy, but to the rest of the world he represented the very worst aspects of it. Certainly, as many people have said, there wasn’t a war john Bolton didn’t like. There wasn’t a war he didn’t want to get into. I think if you were to talk to him over a cup of coffee, he’d say his biggest disappointment was not getting into more wars while he was in the White House this time around.
JAISAL NOOR: Those Democrats you mentioned sort of contrast with Ilhan Omar who tweeted, “Bolton has been one of the most dangerous proponents of making the world a more dangerous place. Good riddance.” Do you see this as a positive development? [crosstalk] Should people be happy? Should people be celebrating this moment right now?
MATTHEW HOH: I think it is. I think it’s one of the few moments of good news coming from this White House in nearly three years. I’m upset that people are going to take a political spin to this, that people like say, like I just mentioned, Schumer, Warner, Murphy are playing politics with it. I imagine John Bolton right now is negotiating his appearances on Fox and CNN and MSNBC. And I imagine that there are some who are so upset with Donald Trump that they’ve lost sight of principles, and that they’ve lost sight of what the United States is actually doing overseas, and the dangers of what we’re doing, and the possible dangers.
So now, of course, he could be replaced with someone similar. I’ve heard that General Jack Keane is a possible replacement. General Keane’s a retired army general. He is a very big Fox News contributor. He is just as much a hawk as John Bolton is. But I’ve also heard that, Colonel Douglas Macgregor, a retired Army Colonel who is the antithesis of that in many ways, who is for restrained foreign policy, who is not in favor of going to war with Iran, who’s in favor of negotiating with North Korea, is also in the running.
Then I’ve heard some people who kind of fall in between are also in the mix. And then you never know who the folks are who haven’t been discussed, or who aren’t being leaked to The Washington Post or to the Hill in terms of possible replacements. But as today, right now at this point, I think everyone can be happy that John Bolton is no longer in a position of power.
JAISAL NOOR: So we had you originally booked to discuss what could be a related topic: the unraveling of peace talks in America’s longest war— Afghanistan. Here’s a clip of President Trump.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: You’re talking about war. There are meetings with war. Otherwise, wars would never end. They thought that they had to kill people in order to put themselves in a little better negotiating position. When they did that, they killed 12 people. One happened to be a great American soldier and you can’t do that. You can’t do that with me, so they’re dead as far as I’m concerned.
JAISAL NOOR: So you resigned your position in the Obama administration 10 years ago now against the administration’s policy towards Afghanistan. Ten years have passed now, and there seems like maybe no end in sight to this longest war. What was your reaction to Trump canceling these secret talks, that it was reported that Bolton had strongly opposed, and his clash with Pompeo might have contributed to his exiting from the administration?
MATTHEW HOH: Yeah, absolutely. But there had been reports a couple months back that Bolton may be fired. There’s been reports for months now that he does not get along with, is not speaking with the White House Chief of Staff, Mick Mulvaney. As anyone knows in any type of organization, if you don’t get along with the Chief of Staff, things aren’t going to be good. Pompeo, I think too, there is reports that they clashed, even though they’re very similar ideologically in terms of what they want to see the United States doing in the world.
I’m very disappointed that the talks fell apart. By no means were the talks perfect. By no means was what was occurring perfect. A lot still had to be done, but the basis of a negotiated deal to withdraw American forces for a Taliban commitment of a limited ceasefire, with then an advancement to a next stage of talks, but intra-Afghan talks, talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. I think that was very important. It’s the first time in decades that this has occurred.
In the United States, we like to say that the Afghan war is 18-years-old. It’s not. This war goes back to the 1970’s. Look, the King was deposed in 1973. The same year I was born. So if I was an Afghan man, I would have lived my whole life with my country either at war, or at best in political chaos. By the time the Soviet Union invades in 1979, 100,000 people have been killed. The United States actually starts funding Islamist rebel groups in Afghanistan for at least six months before the Soviet Union invades in 1979. The idea being that we’re going to bait the Soviet Union into a trap, give them their own Vietnam.
After the Soviets leave, the United States continues to fund rebel groups in Afghanistan for years. The idea in this country, in the United States is that when the Soviet Union left, the United States turned its back on Afghanistan. I mean, that’s what you get from watching things like Charlie Wilson’s War and other type of silly, military-industrial-complex fantasies. But the reality is, when the Soviet Union leaves, the United States keeps funding the rebel groups because the United States doesn’t want peace. It wants victory. That ends up causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, prolongs the war. It leads to the creation of the Taliban. And then all throughout, whether it was under Bush or Obama, there was never any intention of the United States to negotiate, never any intention to find peace. It was always about victory.
One of the reasons I resigned was because there was no willingness in the US government to negotiate. We had clear instructions as political officers in Afghanistan, US State Department political officers in Afghanistan, that we would not be involved in talking to the insurgency. The insurgency would come in and talk to us— either through interlocutors or probably through themselves, and they would want to talk. They would want negotiations.
There’s all types of media reports now. There’s all types of journalistic reports. There’s all types of academic reviews that have been done that note that from 2001 up until the Obama surge, the Taliban were often actively looking to negotiate. Maybe not the whole Taliban, but segments of the Taliban were, and that never occurred. Then what we do though instead under the Obama administration is we escalate the war because the Obama administration wants a political victory. They want to be better at war making than the Bush administration was, and that failed spectacularly. President Trump comes into office and he does basically the same thing that Obama does. He escalates the war, but then a year ago he sends Zalmay Khalilzad, his representative to Afghanistan, to negotiate with the Taliban. I think what Trump was trying to do— and this gets back to Bolton— is I think Trump was trying to escalate the war.
The United States is bombing Afghanistan more than it ever has. We’re killing more Afghans than it ever has, and I think that Trump wants to then have his peace negotiations occur, gets to [inaudible] a deal, and then be able to say on the campaign trail, “Look, I was able to do this. Bush couldn’t do it, Obama couldn’t do it, but I won the war in Afghanistan.” Very similar to what Nixon and Kissinger do in Vietnam in 1972 into 1973, particularly with the idea of getting a decent interval. The idea that we pull our forces out, some time goes by, and then when everything falls apart and the North Vietnamese take Saigon or the Taliban take Kabul, we blame it on the Vietnamese, we blame it on the Afghans.
So this has parallels to other parts of American history, but I think what happens this past weekend is Donald Trump expects to have these talks go— And then as these talks move forward, but a draft agreement signed, possibly a big show at Camp David where the President of Afghanistan comes and the Taliban come and there’s a big media to do and Donald Trump is at the center of it. Again, thinking about his reelection, thinking about his campaign promise to win the war in Afghanistan. That gets torpedoed by John Bolton and much of the rest of the war-making machine in Washington, DC because the idea of the United States withdrawing from a conflict, the idea of the United States getting peace somewhere or help bringing about peace someplace or being involved in peace someplace is anathema to the military-industrial-complex and everything that it supports.
I think what happens is Donald Trump, this weekend hears Fox News hosts saying that he’s failing, saying that he’s looking weak, saying that he’s losing the war. He hears retired generals— all who are on a dime of the defense industry— saying the same kind of thing. He gets upset at what he’s reading about Twitter. In a temper tantrum, which we’ve seen from Donald Trump plenty of times before, he cancels the talks. And now, he’s saying the talks are dead and that the Afghans are really going to pay for killing this American, which is absurd because they’ve killed 15 other Americans previously this year.
And, on the other side of it, the United States again is killing scores and scores of Afghans daily. The amount of killing going on in Afghanistan is something that in the West, we’re not appreciating. It is the most violent war in the world right now.
I think that leads to this point where the Afghan peace process is fundamentally dead, unless it gets resurrected. And it leads to John Bolton’s firing because I think as observers of this presidency, everyone knows that the last thing you do is make Donald Trump look bad, or the last thing you do is show yourself to be disloyal, or the last thing you do is come across as knowing better than him. I think that’s why Bolton gets shown the door. Whether or not he’d been on thin ice before, this certainly was the last misstep he was going to make.
JAISAL NOOR: Matthew, we’re almost at a time, but is there any candidate right now looking forward to 2020 that has bucked this military-industrial-complex that you’ve talked about, and indicated they might have a different approach to foreign policy and these wars that we’re engaged in all across the world?
MATTHEW HOH: None of the candidates, with the exception I think of Marianne Williamson who doesn’t have a record in Congress that we can we can look at, none of them have been what I think many of us would like to see. Bernie Sanders has had the best record according to Peace Action, who tracks these numbers. He’s had the best in terms of voting against the defense budget, but he has also supported various issues. He’s in favor of intervention in Venezuela to a degree. He was in favor of the F-35 trillion dollar fighter plane program, so he’s not terrific.
His recent discussion about the Green New Deal, which is great in the sense that $16 trillion looks like he really wants to do something about it. He hardly speaks about the military, which is the single largest polluter in the world. He doesn’t look to the defense budget as a place that we could de prioritize. Look, we’re spending over a trillion dollars a year on war-fighting, whether it be with the Department of Defense, the Veterans Affairs Department, Homeland Security, the intelligence agencies, The Department of Energy as well as the debt payments on all these past wars and past military spending. He doesn’t look to that as a place of when people say, “How are you going to pay for Medicare for all? How are you going to pay for college debt forgiveness?” He doesn’t point to that as a starting point.
Tulsi Gabbard is pretty good on some of these issues, but she’s also voted for a number of wasteful weapons programs. She’s voted in favor of defense budgets. And she talks in somewhat glowing terms about the drone program and targeted assassinations. Elizabeth Warren is probably third in line, again with the exception of Marianne Williamson, but she’s also fairly problematic in some areas. She was just asked about her past voting in favor of the defense budget and she gave an incredibly adept, incredibly well-done statement for a politician in terms of stepping away from the question and not addressing it.
So we don’t really see anyone out there, I think, who is really championing a new way in American foreign policy, particularly a way that would deescalate America’s militarized foreign policy and bring an end to these wars and tackle the Leviathan that is the military budget and the war-making machine in Washington, DC.
JAISAL NOOR: All right, Matthew Hoh, Senior Fellow at the Center for International Policy, you resigned your State Department position in Afghanistan in opposition to the escalation of the Afghan War in 2009. Thank you so much for joining us.
MATTHEW HOH: Thank you.
JAISAL NOOR: Thank you for joining us at The Real News Network.