The president of the United States weighed retaliatory airstrikes on the Islamic Republic of Iran before pulling back at the eleventh hour, he confirmed Friday morning.
‘We were cocked & loaded to retaliate last night on 3 different sights when I asked, how many will die. 150 people, sir, was the answer from a General. 10 minutes before the strike I stopped it,’ Donald Trump tweeted. He said the planned response was not ‘proportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone,’ referring to the recent malign activity from the regime. ‘I am in no hurry,’ he caveated.
‘He just tweeted it out,’ Alex Ward, defense reporter at Vox, joked.
Ward refers to a swirl of chatter that engulfed Washington Thursday night. It was the second night in the last three, that I heard from two well-placed sources familiar with the matter, that the administration was weighing a strike on Iran. Near midnight eastern, I heard from my source: ‘Hearing now it’s off.’ And so it was.
The fact the United States is close to initiating a conflict with Iran is the culmination of a two-plus years ‘maximum pressure’ approach mainly spearheaded by the president’s advisers. The funny part, however, is that they underlings seem to have almost as much sway as the president.
A senior White House official told CNN Thursday ‘it’s Bolton vs. Trump on how to proceed…Trump does not want conflict. Pompeo, Pence, Esper are ‘swing votes.’ Pompeo is ‘a triangulator…the goal is re-establishing deterrence, but that is still very risky.’
The question, surely, should be: why is it ‘Bolton vs. Trump’? Is Bolton not subordinate to the president? Bolton takes pains to insist that, as national security adviser, he does not set policy — the president does. That doesn’t seem to be the case, however.
It’s a precarious position for the NSA to be in. The apex of one’s power can also be the apogee of one’s exposure. Ambassador Bolton has been jokingly referred to as ‘President Bolton’ in national security circles for months, a potential mark of death. Many Trump officials — Steve Bannon and James Mattis most prominently come to mind, for differing reasons — have been dubbed ‘deputy presidents’ for a time only to find that the president didn’t approve of the apparent diss to his authority. Only ties of family have saved the current deputy president Jared Kushner.
Bolton may not be so lucky. The president and the ambassador openly don’t agree, and aren’t personally close. Pompeo, who will seek the presidency after Trump, does not want to be the Donald Rumsfeld of the Iran war. And Bannon, who as I reported laid the original groundwork for Bolton to become NSA, told Virginia Trump chair and radio host John Fredericks Friday morning: ‘This Iran thing is very disturbing.’
‘NSAs are advisers, not policy makers,’ retired Col. Douglas Macgregor, a favorite of Fox News host Tucker Carlson told me Friday. Carlson has been instrumental in talking the president away from the course of his more wily advisers. And, as I’ve reported, Macgregor is seen in administration circles as an NSA in waiting. ‘Ideally,’ Macgregor says, national security advisers ‘should be seen, not heard.’
The national security council, currently helmed by Bolton, ‘is the president’s foreign policy staff and he can use it any way he wants,’ said William Ruger, vice president for research and policy at the Charles Koch Institute. ‘But the national security adviser]should be absolutely committed to the president’s vision.’
Trump has conceded in the past that Bolton is more hawkish than him. He values varied perspective, but can he really tolerate a situation in which his inner circle is calling for a war that he doesn’t want?
Designating Iran’s military terrorists, or nullifying Barack Obama’s nuclear arrangement, didn’t spook Trump. But being hauled into the Situation Room to ruminate on airstrikes on the Mid East’s preeminent power apparently has. The president is balking.
The current course, expertly crafted by hawkish, administration-friendly outfits like the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, is coming to the end of the line. The center cannot hold, and the US risks a belligerent overreaction — in this case, airstrikes in the style Trump approved on Assad’s Syria in 2018 and 2017.
Except Iran is not Syria; it’s center stage in the Middle East. The risk of miscalculation is immense, and war could eventually come to pass, as it did with Saddam Hussein. Iran’s population is double, its military more fearsome, its terrain more treacherous. Suiting young Americans in kevlar in Iranian cities spooks even the most inveterate critics of Tehran.
Except maybe John Bolton.