Will the Trump administration embrace the Bolton doctrine? John Bolton, whom Donald Trump appointed in April to replace the stolid H.R. McMaster, has been trying to tailor administration foreign policy to match his hawkish views. Among his initiatives, the Wall Street Journal reported, is to make a move to do what he has long wanted done, which is to wage war against the mullahs in Tehran. The result is a schism in the administration.
With the resignation of Defense Secretary James N. Mattis, Pentagon officials are now starting to fight back publicly against the National Security Council, especially as Bolton tries to install his former deputy Mira Ricardel, who was fired from the National Security Council, after Melania Trump denounced her, at the Pentagon. What Pentagon officials revealed is that after Iranian-backed militants lobbed a few rockets near the US Embassy in Baghdad, Bolton seized upon the event as a possible pretext for military action against Tehran, asking the Pentagon for possible moves it could initiate, including attacking a military facility. Mattis rebuffed Bolton. Now Mattis is gone — and Bolton remains. Bolton is known as a cunning bureaucratic operator. He has hired a number of Iran hawks, including Richard Goldberg from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, an outfit that has been pushing for regime change against Iran. Their job will be to skew intelligence, much as in the run-up to the Iraq war, to demonstrate that Iran is developing nuclear weapons.
Bolton, you could even say, is in the catbird seat. With his post as national security adviser, he has inserted himself at the central node of foreign policy planning. Coming months will demonstrate whether or not Trump will sign off on Bolton’s grand plan to strike at what many Washington hawks see as the epicenter of global terrorism.
Bolton’s sidekick in wishing to focus on Iran is, of course, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who devoted his speech last week in Cairo to assailing Iran for its myriad shortcomings, while overlooking Saudi Arabia’s. In a turgid piece for Foreign Affairs titled ‘Confronting Iran,’ Pompeo limned what he called the ‘Trump administration’s strategy.’ So far, the strategy, such as it is, seems to consist of berating Tehran whenever and wherever possible. ‘No regime,’ Pompeo wrote, ‘has more of an outlaw character than that of Iran’ — a statement that defies credulity if Iran is contrasted with North Korea. Pompeo’s hope seems to be that regime change will occur from within: ‘the regime’s greed has created a chasm between the people of Iran and their leaders, making it difficult for officials to credibly persuade young Iranians to be the vanguard of the next generation of revolutionaries.’ According to Pompeo, ‘the United States is asking every nation that is sick and tired of the Islamic Republic’s destructive behavior to stand up for the Iranian people and join our pressure campaign.’
Bolton, however, palpably wants to do more than simply hurl anathemas at the Iranians. His thirst for martial acts suggests that he wants to wage a war against Iran, one that would result in regime change. Unlike the neocons, he doesn’t want to attack to turn Iran into a democracy. Instead, he wants to demonstrate that America can rumble over its foes with impunity.
Trump, of course, was elected on the promise that he would extricate America from the Middle East, not entangle it in a fresh conflict. For now, Trump appears to be reverting to his campaign incarnation. He’s signaled that he wants to withdraw not only from Syria but also Afghanistan. But whether he is prepared to engage in an additional shutdown — ousting Bolton — is another matter.