President Donald Trump almost ordered a retaliatory strike against Iran over explosions on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman and a downed American surveillance drone, a move which would have pleased the Beltway’s war gurus. But Trump is proving that there’s a new sheriff in town, and he is willing to turn decades of Washington conventional foreign policy on its head.
In a fascinating series of interviews this weekend, Trump revealed that at the end of the day, it is he—as chief of executive of the country— who makes the decisions, and that he is not overly persuaded by the advice of his notoriously pro-war National Security Adviser John Bolton. He even touted what he called his “Make Iran Great Again” plan.
Responding to a question from a reporter about whether he has confidence in Bolton’s judgment Saturday morning, Trump said, “Yes, I do because I have John Bolton who I would definitely say is a hawk. And I have other people that are on the other side of the equation. Ultimately I make the decisions so it doesn’t matter.”
Revealingly, the president went on, “I disagreed very much with John Bolton, his attitude on the Middle East and Iraq [Bolton’s opinion was to go] …into Iraq. I think that was a big mistake, I think I have been proven right, but I have been against that war forever. John Bolton is doing a very good job. But he takes it generally a tough posture. But I have other people who don’t take that posture.”
“The only one that matters is me because I will listen to everybody and I want people on both sides,” Trump said. “Having people on both sides to me is very important.”
Trump’s assessment of Bolton is telling.
“John Bolton is absolutely a hawk,” said Trump in an interview recorded last week that aired in full Sunday morning. “If it was up to him he’d take on the whole world at one time.”
Trump’s assessment of Bolton makes sense, given that Bolton has spent his four decades of experience inside the Beltway advocating for regime change in regions as far flung as Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Cuba, Venezuela, North Korea, and Iran. As Trump’s national security adviser, Bolton’s rhetoric calling for the bombing of sundry lands has only amplified.
But it appears that Trump is not persuaded.
“I don’t want to kill 150 of anything or anybody unless it’s absolutely necessary. And most people very much agree with what I’m doing,” Trump said Saturday. “If the leadership of Iran behaves badly then it’s going to be a very, very bad day for them but hopefully they’re smart and hopefully they really care for their people and not themselves.”
In a move sure to flummox the hawks in Trump’s cabinet, and further fluster the Beltway policy establishment, the President then proposed what he dubbed his “Make Iran Great Again” plan.
“If Iran wants to become a wealthy nation again, a prosperous nation—we will call it ‘let’s Make Iran Great Again’… It’s okay with me. But they’re never going to do it if they think in five or six years they’re going to have a nuclear weapon. … They’re not going to have a nuclear weapon and when they agree to that they are going to have a wealthy country. They are going to be so happy. And I am going to be their best friend. I hope that happens. I hope that happens. But it may not.”
Trump’s riff was reminiscent of when he told North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong Un that “you could have the best hotels in the world” on North Korea’s “great beaches”—if the country agreed to denuclearize.
But on CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday Vice President Mike Pence doubled down on the narrative that the Trump administration is “not convinced” that the shooting down of the unmanned aircraft by the Iranians had been “authorized at the highest levels.”
Like they weren’t even listening to the president, the other war mongers in Trump’s circle stuck to their familiar scripts. Appearing Sunday in Jerusalem alongside Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Bolton said that Tehran should not “mistake U.S. prudence and discretion for weakness,” and that military action against Iran was still very much an option—even though Trump called off the strike.
“No one has granted” Iran “a hunting license in the Middle East,” Bolton said.
Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton, who argued previously that it would take just two strikes to “win a war with Iran,” told “Fox News Sunday” that he fears Iran may be emboldened by Trump’s decision to call off the retaliatory airstrikes.
“What I see is Iran steadily marching up the escalation chain,” Cotton said. “It started out with threats. It went to an attack on vessels in ports. It went to an attack on vessels at sea. Now it’s an unmanned American aircraft. I fear that if Iran doesn’t have a firm set of boundaries drawn around its behavior we’re going to see an attack on a U.S. ship or a U.S. manned aircraft.”
Many former senior members of the military, however, disagree with the assessment of those leading the U.S. ever closer to war.
Asked whether Bolton is pushing Trump into a confrontation with Iran, retired Navy Admiral Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, “It appears that we’re certainly headed in that direction. Certainly John Bolton has that reputation, he’s been hawkish forever and very focused on regime change in Iran.
“My biggest concern is the president is running out of room, running out of options,” Mullen added. “I think the politicians need to figure out a way to achieve the objective which is Iran without a nuclear weapon, … without regime change, without going to war.”
Another former senior member told TAC that despite the hawkish voices close to the President, Trump knows that a war with Iran will make him a one term president—a fate he desperately wants to avoid.
Barbara Boland is TAC’s Foreign Policy and National Security Reporter. Follow her on Twitter @BBatDC