Why you should care
Because there’s no one better to make Trump’s threats look realistic.
A favorite, and revealing, phrase of Donald Trump’s is “central casting.” He enjoys advisers, aides and Cabinet secretaries who look the part in a presidency exquisitely constructed for the camera. That’s how you get a former Marine Corps general as chief of staff and a former TV anchor at one point tapped to be ambassador to the United Nations.
In the traditional sense, John Bolton does not look the part. He’s a bit short and sports a mustache unfashionable enough for him to have reportedly fallen out of Trump’s favor when he first formed his Cabinet.
I appreciate the grooming advice from the totally unbiased mainstream media, but I will not be shaving my #mustache.— John Bolton (@AmbJohnBolton) December 22, 2016
But by spring 2018, long-running tensions between Trump and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, a three-star Army general, finally snapped. McMaster was out, and Bolton was in.
A beefy general, he’s not. In fact, Bolton joined the National Guard to avoid serving in Vietnam. But to a generation in Washington and around the world, Bolton’s mustachioed face is the quintessential image of the use of American force.
Time and again, Bolton has advocated forced regime change, most notably in Iraq, where he played a role in hyping up the evidence of Saddam Hussein’s nonexistent weapons of mass destruction. As recently as 2015, Bolton was defending the Iraq invasion, generally regarded as one of the most disastrous blunders in U.S. history. More recently, he’s been a fan of bombing North Korea and removing Venezuela’s president by force. But at the moment, it’s his role on Iran policy that has the world most on edge.
Iran has started to step away from the 2015 agreement with world powers to limit its nuclear program by indicating it will enrich more uranium, a year after the U.S. unilaterally withdrew from the deal. Meanwhile, the U.S. accelerated an aircraft carrier deployment in the Persian Gulf and talked up intelligence about potential Iranian attacks on U.S. forces in the region, hyping mysterious sabotage incidents with oil tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates. It’s all starting to sound like winter 2003 talk of Iraq trying to purchase yellowcake uranium or summer 1964 phantom attacks on U.S. warships in the Gulf of Tonkin off the coast of Vietnam.
Amid press leaks about Pentagon plans to send 120,000 troops to the Middle East to counter Iran, a picture has also emerged of Trump’s frustration with his hawkish national security adviser.
The Fake News Media is hurting our Country with its fraudulent and highly inaccurate coverage of Iran. It is scattershot, poorly sourced (made up), and DANGEROUS. At least Iran doesn’t know what to think, which at this point may very well be a good thing!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 17, 2019
But if Trump is actually trying to wring changes out of the Iranian regime with threats, there’s no better figure to have at his side than someone with a demonstrated willingness and desire to attack. Bolton lends credibility to saber-rattling that might seem hollow otherwise, and he appears to relish playing the bad cop.
Rather than Gulf of Tonkin, this seems more like Trump’s finger-on-the-nuclear-button rhetoric with North Korea in 2017. The problem is, Iran is a far bigger and more sophisticated foe than North Korea. The risk of a deadly miscalculation is high.
Not to mention the end goals are fuzzy: to completely eliminate Iran’s nuclear program, which was essentially frozen in place by the nuclear deal? To get Iran to stop funding Hezbollah and other regional terror groups? To remove Ayatollah Ali Khamenei from power?
From his time in the George W. Bush administration, Bolton is known as a skilled bureaucratic operator who can neutralize foes and shape a decision-making process. In this White House, though, processes are haphazard at best and some of the most powerful voices don’t work there.
To wit, prominent Fox Newsers are urging against a war. Laura Ingraham said on Twitter that it would destroy Trump’s chances of reelection. On his show, Tucker Carlson said that for Bolton, war with Iran “will be like Christmas, Thanksgiving, his birthday wrapped into one. Mercifully, John Bolton does not control the military. President Trump does.… How is a war with Iran in America’s interest in any way?”
The camera awaits a good answer.