The New York Times report that President Donald Trump ordered and then withdrew a military strike against Iran—“planes were in the air and ships were in position”—is terrifying to nobody more than the president’s political opponents.
First, there are the neoconservatives who have weaseled their way into the Trump administration. No doubt John Bolton is the most flea-bitten Persiaphobe in Washington. Bolton is (or ought to be) known best as the architect of the two-state solution to the conflict in…Syria and Iraq. As he wrote in a Times op-ed back in 2015:
If…defeating the Islamic State means restoring to power Mr. Assad in Syria and Iran’s puppets in Iraq, that outcome is neither feasible nor desirable. Rather than striving to recreate the post-World War I map, Washington should recognize the new geopolitics. The best alternative to the Islamic State in northeastern Syria and western Iraq is a new, independent Sunni state.
Bolton is the neocon whom every other neocon dismissed as a paleocon fantasy. (Of course, that all changed when he was appointed Trump’s foreign policy advisor. Boltonism, the most extreme variant of neoconservatism to date, is now becoming orthodoxy among the foreign policy establishment. But I digress.) It’s not only that he hates Iran more than ISIS—which is itself insane, given that the vast majority of American casualties from terrorism have been inflicted by Saudi-style Salafists, not aspiring ayatollahs.
Rather, it’s Bolton’s unabashed conviction that we can use the U.S. military to redesign the Middle East from top to bottom. His ambitions go far beyond regime change: he wants to reshape every individual Arab into a democrat, a secularist, a consumer capitalist, and a Zionist. The Boltonized Arab loves and trusts the American hegemony—enough to fight and die for whatever government we impose on whichever state’s borders happen to encompass him. Whether that state is Iraq or “Sunnistan” is a matter of pure indifference to the Boltinized Arab. He knows that America has his best interests at heart.
Iran, of course, has no place in the Boltonized Middle East. There are no known conditions that Iran could meet where the Boltinists would determine that they no longer pose an “existential threat” to the United States; it’s literally inconceivable. Bolton and his cronies have some sort of animus against Persians, or else a purely sectarian dislike of Shiites.
Those are the only quasi-rational justifications for the airstrikes the president authorized, and then, in a fit of common sense, canceled. Trump’s about-face is the only evidence to date that the president himself hasn’t succumbed to Bolton’s mindless prejudice against Iranians.
Secondly, there are Trump’s would-be Democratic opponents. The presidential aspirants organized themselves into a circular firing squad after news broke about our stillborn strike on Tehran. Trump has “instigated another unnecessary conflict,” said Elizabeth Warren. He’s “governing by chaos,” said Jay Inslee, whoever that is.
Of course, that’s complete rubbish. Had an unnamed administration official not leaked the information, we wouldn’t know about the order or the retraction. Trump didn’t call a press conference to give a lengthy declaration of war and then change his mind mid-speech.
So however you want to spin it, Trump remains a fundamentally anti-war president. No: he isn’t as consistently opposed to regime change as a President Tulsi Gabbard (for instance) would be. And yes: his choice of advisers has proven spectacularly disappointing. Much as I dread a Sanders administration, at least John Bolton wouldn’t be a part of it.
But at the end of the day, Trump has declined every opportunity to declare war on Iran. That doesn’t mean he’ll continue to do so through the 2020 election. God help us if he does. But in the meantime, Democrats can’t convincingly cast themselves as an anti-war alternative.
In fact, as the Democratic hopefuls vie for the title of The Anti-Trump, they would draw a sharper contrast by falling back on Hillary Clinton’s hawkishness—claiming that Trump’s laissez-faire attitude towards Iran (and Syria and Iraq) is “putting our national security at grave risk.” Don’t be surprised if these same peacemongers are, in just a few months’ time, calling Trump a traitor and/or a wimp for appeasing these Russian-backed mullahs.
So ignore the incorrigible Persiaphobes in the GOP and Trump Derangement Syndrome sufferers in the DNC. Trump 2020 is our best bet for peace in the Middle East.
But let me go further. In 2016, the prospect of a Clinton presidency was certainly grim, foreign policy-wise. Had she been allowed to concentrate U.S. efforts on deposing Syrian president Bashar al-Assad instead of destroying ISIS (as Trump did), we would have been forced to commit ourselves to at least another generation of reconstructing the Middle East while battling off competing hegemons.
In 2020, however, the threat is much more immediate. There’s now a very real possibility that escalation in the Persian Gulf would endanger the American homeland. We shouldn’t dismiss the possibility that this would end in a declared war between the United States and Russia.
For the first time since he descended from that escalator and staked his permanent position in the 24/7 news cycle, we should be genuinely unnerved by the possibility of Trump’s defeat. Forget all the hysteria—on both sides—about the coming utopia or dystopia that would follow his election in 2016. In 2020, the threat of disaster is only too real. And it doesn’t come from crypto-fascists, alt-rightists, or any such Deplorables. Nor does it come from the Deep State spooks, Pizzagate pedophiles, or Soros-backed antifa mobs. It comes from the second-greatest military power in the world, which has twice as much resolve as the first, and 10 times the morale.
Of course, we should hope for some significant staffing changes between now and Election Day. Replace Bolton with Tucker Carlson, for starters. But Trump’s instincts are still fundamentally anti-war. Whomever the Democrats elect, their instincts will be fundamentally anti-Trump. And whether those instincts lead us to war or peace is anyone’s guess.
Michael Warren Davis is associate editor of the Catholic Herald. See more at www.michaelwarrendavis.com