I am some mix of hoping and thinking that the administration’s extremely aggressive signals towards Iran are some kind of bluff. But I’m not confident that is the case. Trump came in, scrapped the Iran deal and put new sanctions in place to force the Iranians to the bargaining table on US terms – obviously terms they hoped would be far more favorable than the ones that produced the scrapped deal. That never made sense even on its own terms. Now they’re frustrated and at least threatening a military confrontation. There are at least some signs that administration officials believe that a heavy volley of cruise missiles or a sustained aerial bombardment – as opposed to an actual invasion – will put the Iranians in a mood to negotiate, an idea belied by decades or even a century of military history.
This is really all madness. But I want to focus on something specific and equally worrying, the current top appointees of the President.
After the brief Flynn period, Donald Trump had a cabinet filled with hawks. He had H.R. McMaster, Jim Mattis, John Kelly, Dan Coats, Mike Pompeo. Mattis was the most important of these as Secretary of Defense. He was also a fabled Iran hawk. But each of these men, particularly McMaster and Mattis who were in the two most important positions, were experienced, capable people. Mattis was an opponent of the Iran Deal but like most of the more sane opponents was also against withdrawing from it.
The picture today looks very different. John Bolton is the most notorious of war hawks. He’s the worst kind as he’s never had to deal with the consequences of protracted military action. He’s a caricature of a militarist. At the Defense Department you have an unconfirmed non-entity, basically an aerospace executive with no real experience for the job in Patrick Shanahan. The Chief of Staff (who carries an ‘acting’ label even though Chiefs of Staff don’t need confirmation) is a principled yes-man who advertises his policy of ‘letting Trump be Trump’. By comparison Secretary of State Pompeo stands at as comparatively experienced. But in fact he was one of the most jingoistic members of the House hothead caucus. The simple reality is that there is no one around the President with the experience, stature or brains to provide any restraint on the most impulsive or cockamamie actions.
This is, lest there’s any question, not to romanticize the original Trump foreign policy team. Far from it. But they did provide some restraint or – a problem in itself – simply chose to ignore him a lot of the time.
Here an analogy to the Russia probe is helpful. As we know, the best argument the White House has against an obstruction charge is that his staff frequently refused his demands or even more often simply ignored them. On the domestic and law enforcement side those folks are mostly gone too: McGahn, Sessions, Rosenstein, etc. They weren’t any great shakes. But they did repeatedly say no. They sometimes threatened to resign. There’s a similar changing of the guard there.
The point here is that there’s no one in the current national security team who we should have any confidence would stand up and apply some restraint if the administration were trying to gin up some phony casus belli for war with Iran – what I suspect is currently happening. There’s no one who would provide any brake on doing something tragically stupid or indulging the President’s desire to embark on a military adventure to boost his popularity for reelection.
It’s time to be very worried. And yes, it’s been time to be worried. But now it’s at a different level.