John Bolton Wants a War With Iran. Trump Doesn't. So Why Did Trump Hire Bolton?

by Michael C. Dorf

Yesterday, President Trump tweeted: "If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran.  Never threaten the United States again!" The saber rattling seems calculated to undercut the emerging view of Trump as the dovish good cop to National Security Adviser John Bolton's bad cop. After all, just a few days earlier, the Washington Post reported that Trump has been frustrated by the hawkish views of Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, both of whom seem to be itching for a war with Iran.

Despite yesterday's tweet and Trump's denial of any "infighting," the WaPo report rings true. After all, Pompeo and especially Bolton have long been hawks on Iran, whereas Trump came to office exaggerating his past opposition to the Iraq War but genuinely seeming to disdain further commitments of US troops to war in the Middle East. It was one area where he seemed to outflank Hillary Clinton to her left, and sensibly so, even if Trump's primary motivation was backwards (chiefly aiming to save treasure and only secondarily hoping to avert bloodshed).

Given the difference in perspective, some tension was inevitable. So why did Trump select Pompeo and Bolton? I'll offer a few thoughts here, none of them especially reassuring.

Trump came into office without any foreign policy (and hardly any other relevant) experience and, to his credit, assembled a reasonably mainstream foreign policy team (after Mike Flynn's short stint). Rex Tillerson was a poor manager with no real understanding of the staffing needs of diplomacy, but he was not a hothead. Meanwhile, James Mattis and H.R. McMaster were highly qualified leaders who could have served in any administration of either party.

We don't really need an ideological explanation for Pompeo moving from the CIA to State. Given the reluctance of qualified people to risk permanently destroying their reputations by working for Trump, there just aren't that many plausible candidates for any particular important job. Indeed, some high-ranking positions are filled by grossly under-qualified hacks (the leading hacks being Rick Perry, Betsy DeVos, and Ben Carson, who was by all accounts a gifted neurosurgeon but is not qualified for his current position). Accordingly, when a vacancy opens, Trump finds it tempting to shuffle existing office holders (or simply to ask Mick Mulvaney or Jared Kushner to take on another assignment). Pompeo's hawkish views on Iran probably were not salient to his selection for the CIA Director position; once he was there, he was an obvious choice to slide over into State.

Meanwhile, the replacement of Mattis with Pat Shanahan leaves the Defense Secretary seat essentially vacant, because whatever Shanahan's virtues with respect to procurement, he will be drowned out by Pompeo and Bolton on strategy. So how do we explain Bolton?

The answer, I think, is that Trump missed the obvious fact that Bolton has been trying to go to war with Iran for decades. How could Trump miss that? Because as a commentator on Fox News, Bolton was a vociferous critic of the Iran nuclear deal, which led Trump to regard him as a kindred spirit. Sure, had Trump paid attention to policy issues at all during the George W. Bush administration or if he had the capacity to seek or listen to sage advice, he would have realized that Bolton is an unreconstructed warmongering neocon. But instead, Trump probably just saw Bolton on tv saying bad things about Iran and figured that he and Bolton were on the same page.

The real mystery is not why Trump hired Bolton but what Trump thinks his own policy is. If you're Bolton seeking forcible regime change in Iran, then you want to end the nuclear deal, reimpose sanctions, and generally ramp up the tension. But why on Earth would you do those things if you want peace with Iran?

Trump has occasionally stated that his goal is to replace a flawed nuclear deal with a better one. For example, he recently said
What the[ Iranians] should be doing is calling me up, sitting down and we can make a deal, a fair deal.  . . . We just don’t want them to have nuclear weapons. It’s not too much to ask. And we would help put them back into great shape.
That statement is at best ill-informed, because we had in place a deal that prevents Iran from developing nuclear weapons. True, it has a time limit, but when it was negotiated all parties expected there to be further negotiations about extending it. If the objective of US foreign policy is simply to deny Iran nuclear weapons, the pressure policy is less effective than building on the existing deal.

To be sure, there are other objections to the nuclear deal, including its failure to cover other conduct by Iran (such as its support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and for Houthi rebels in Yemen). Those are legitimate concerns. I don't think they should scuttle the nuclear deal, but note that Trump himself did not cite these objections. His condemnations of the nuclear deal from which he withdrew the US have been entirely conclusory. He has called the nuclear deal “horrible,” “disastrous,” “incompetently negotiated,” and “laughable,” but almost certainly hasn't read it, doesn't know what's in it, and doesn't understand the objections that have been raised to it or the responses to those objections.

All of this leads me to conclude that Trump's "thinking" on Iran goes much more like this:
(1) I don't like Obama, because he embarrassed me at the White House Correspondents Dinner in retaliation for my not-at-all-racist statements that he's a Muslim from Kenya. 
(2) Therefore, the overriding goal of my presidency is to repudiate Obama's accomplishments. 
(3) I don't understand or care what's in Obamacare, the Paris Climate Agreement, or the Iran Nuclear Deal, but they were all accomplished under Obama, so I'm against all of them. 
(4) I have a further reason to dislike the Iran Nuclear Deal: Bibi and the Saudis dislike it, and they're my buddies in the Middle East.
Put slightly differently, whereas for Bolton, withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal facilitates war with Iran for the goal of regime change, for Trump, withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal was always more like an end in itself, with a post hoc rationalization that it was a bargaining tactic that will enable him, master dealmaker that he believes himself to be, to fashion a brand new much better agreement.

Whether the difference in ultimate goals will lead to Bolton's ouster remains to be seen. I certainly hope it does, but the matter will be complicated by the fact that Trump's rational impulse to want to avoid an unnecessary war competes with his desire to want to look and sound tough. Bolton talks a very tough game, which could appeal to Trump. With no sober grownups remaining sufficiently high up in the ranks of the administration to counter Bolton (and Pompeo), we may need to depend on Trump to temper Bolton.

The good news is that Trump has actually said that he tempers Bolton on Iran. The bad news is that, given Trump's recent track record on North Korea and Venezuela, foreign leaders are coming to see Trump's threats as mere bluster, which will embolden them and increase the risk of a miscalculation that leads to a military confrontation that no one (other than the likes of Bolton) wants.