WASHINGTON – Two days after President Donald Trump tried to tamp down U.S. tensions with Iran, his national security adviser, John Bolton, dialed the administration’s hawkish rhetoric back up.
Bolton on Wednesday essentially accused Iran of seeking nuclear weapons and said the regime was behind the alleged sabotage of four oil tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates.
Bolton’s remarks came during a visit to the UAE, during which he said the oil tanker attacks were “almost certainly (conducted) by Iran.” He did not offer specific evidence to support that claim. Bolton also told reporters there was “no reason” for Iran to back out of its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers unless it was planning to seek nuclear weapons.
“These kinds of action risk a very strong response from the United States,” said Bolton, a longtime foreign policy hardliner.
Bolton’s remarks stood in stark contrast to Trump’s own comments on Monday during the president’s visit to Japan.
“We’re not looking for regime change. I want to make that clear,” Trump said during a joint news conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. “We’re looking for no nuclear weapons.”
At that same news conference, Trump seemed to minimize Bolton’s assessment of another global hotspot: North Korea. Bolton had said North Korea’s recent missile tests violated U.N. resolutions.
“There is no doubt about that,” Bolton told reporters ahead of Trump’s news conference with Abe.
But Trump downplayed the missile tests.
“All I know is there have been no nuclear tests, no ballistic missiles going out, no long-range missiles going out and I think that someday we’ll have a deal,” Trump said, adding that he is in “no rush.” Trump also praised Kim, calling him a “smart man” who might have launched the missiles earlier this month to “get attention.”
Bolton’s role exaggerated, experts contend
The apparent disconnect has raised questions across the globe about Trump’s foreign policy. With Iran in particular, some fear Bolton is driving Trump into a perilous military confrontation with America’s principal foe in the Middle East.
In this Friday, May 24, 2019, file photo, U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton is surrounded by reporters at the prime minister's official residence in Tokyo, Japan. North Korea on Monday, May 27, 2019, has called U.S. National Security Adviser Bolton a "war monger" and "defective human product" after he called the North's recent tests of short-range missile a violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions. (Photo: Yohei Kanasashi, AP)
But national security experts inside and outside the White House say Bolton’s role has been exaggerated – and his influence with the president has been overstated, particularly when it comes to the prospect of a costly war with Iran.
For starters, Trump has made it clear he doesn’t like the idea and is generally averse to foreign military entanglements.
Asked earlier this month if his administration is marching toward war with Iran, Trump offered a three-word response: “I hope not.”
Asked if U.S. is going to war with Iran, President Donald Trump responds: ‘I hope not’
Bolton is simply playing his part in a geopolitical dance designed to send a hard-line message to the Iranian regime, said Mark Dubowitz, the chief executive of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based foreign policy research institute that supports strong pressure on Iran.
“Bolton in many ways is from central casting if you were looking for a consummate hawk,” said Dubowitz, who has advised the Trump administration and previous presidents on Iran policy. “It’s all useful from the psyops perspective.”
Dubowitz said the White House has deliberately trumpeted its decision to send B-52 bombers and other military forces to Iran, purposefully said that move was in response to threats from Iran and intentionally used Bolton as a key messenger.
“I think it’s actually a well-orchestrated campaign that has a public relations piece, a military positioning piece, (and) obviously the economic financial piece” of escalating sanctions, Dubowitz said. Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are the perfect “bad cops,” he said, to make Iran – and the rest of the world – nervous about Trump’s intentions.
“Trump can go from fire and fury to writing love letters, so he has a certain amount of diplomatic flexibility,” he said. One minute he can be as bellicose as Bolton, and the next he can shout, “‘Hey, hi there. Do you want to talk.'”
That’s what Trump seemed to be doing earlier this month, when he met with the president of the Swiss government, which is known for its role in mediating potential conflicts between Iran and the U.S.
“I’m sure that Iran will want to talk soon,” Trump tweeted on Wednesday in a pair of messages seen directed in part at Bolton. The president used social media to downplay reports of divisions within the administration over Iran.
“There is no infighting whatsoever,” Trump said then. “Different opinions are expressed and I make a decisive and final decision – it is a very simple process.”
Concern in Congress over statements
Lawmakers are not reassured.
“This president has surrounded himself with people – Pompeo and Bolton in particular – who believe that getting tough on a military basis with Iran is in our best interest. I do not,” said Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the chamber’s No. 2 Democratic leader.
Durbin and other lawmakers said Bolton’s past statements on Iran, and his trumpeting of questionable intelligence in the lead-up to the 2003 Iraq war, are deeply concerning.
Before Bolton joined the Trump administration, he vocally advocated for regime change in Iran. He also played a key role in pushing for the U.S. invasion of Iraq during the George W. Bush administration, which relied on faulty intelligence about Saddam Hussein’s chemical and nuclear weapons program.
Now with Iran, Durbin said the situation has become so tense and the rhetoric so hot, that even if Trump has no desire for war, he may stumble into it.
He noted, for example, that the Houthi rebels, who are backed by Iran and at war with Saudi Arabia in Yemen, could launch an attack that inadvertently kills an American service member.
“I fear … we’re going to have a Gulf of Tonkin moment, where there is some American or serviceman who is going to be injured or killed and people are going to be calling for retribution,” Durbin said.
But Bolton is only one of many advisers Trump speaks to about Iran and other foreign policy issues, said current and former officials. He hears a lot of different views, and often throws out ideas of his own – sometimes ideas he doesn’t really plan to pursue.
Throughout his presidency, Trump’s sounding boards have ranged from super hawks like Bolton to cautious types like former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. From anti-China tariff warriors like Peter Navarro to more market-oriented types like Larry Kudlow.
At some point – no one knows how or when – Trump suddenly makes a decision. He often announces things before informing unwitting staff members, sometimes by tweet and sometimes by statements to inquiring reporters.
“It’s not exactly chaos,” said one former staff member. “But it’s not orderly.”
Garrett Marquis, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said Bolton and the president are on the same page.
“Working closely with President Trump’s national security team, Ambassador Bolton continues to coordinate the President’s guidance to protect American personnel and interests from Iranian threats abroad,” he said.
Trump and his advisers chafe at claims that Bolton is some kind of “puppet master” leading Trump into war. Having campaigned against “stupid wars” in Iraq and Afghanistan, Trump is highly unlikely to order military action against Iran, administration officials said, despite the rising beat of war drums from Bolton and others.
While giving free rein to his aides to express dissenting views, Trump is annoyed at Bolton for being so publicly bellicose toward Iran, fearing it increases the chances for accidental war.
Talk of war with Iran is “way ahead of where things are” within the administration, particularly with Trump, one official said.
The exception would be if Iran attacks U.S. personnel in the Middle East, officials said – a development that may be more likely in part because of a Trump management style that is haphazard at best and chaotic at worst.
But Trump often sticks with his pre-existing views, and his default position in foreign policy tends to be against intervention. He has pushed to withdraw U.S troops from Afghanistan and Syria, over the objections of military advisers. Mattis resigned in part over Trump’s plan – later modified – to withdraw troops from Syria.
The flip side, officials say, is that Trump may be getting painted into a corner, and would have to respond if Iran does something to U.S. personnel.
For all his criticism of the George W. Bush administration’s actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, Trump has as his national security adviser a major proponent of those interventions.
Durbin said he fears he’s watching a replay of the debate for the Iraq war.
“The weapons of mass destruction turned out to be a fiction, and we were just stampeding into this invasion at that time,” he aid. “I see it again, all over again.”
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