As President Donald Trump was in Florida kicking off his bid for a second term, his national security team was in Washington hatching plans that make that prospect much less likely.
The architects of the failed George W. Bush foreign policy rightly derided by Trump as a “big, fat mistake” on the campaign trail today exercise undue influence inside this White House. The end result could be a war with Iran.
Just as their last turn at the wheel wrecked the Bush presidency and eventually left Barack Obama in power alongside three-fifths Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, the Republican Party’s wildest hawks could now ensure that Trump is a one-term president. The president once understood this, telling Jeb Bush, “Your brother and his administration gave us Barack Obama…. Abraham Lincoln couldn’t have won.”
Trump defeated Jeb, Lindsey Graham, and Marco Rubio, running on a foreign policy of “America First” and repudiating a decade and a half of unwinnable wars. He then won in an upset over Hillary Clinton, who voted to invade Iraq, pushed “kinetic military action” in Libya, and otherwise hasn’t seen a war she hasn’t liked since Vietnam.
Now Trump is on the precipice of ceding the war issue to his political opponents, as the border crisis metastasizes and the suburbs turn blue. Joe Biden would be the third Democratic presidential nominee to have voted for the Iraq war—the exception, Obama, twice won the White House—just as Chuck Schumer is the third straight Senate Democratic leader to have done so.
If Trump follows Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his Bush retread national security advisor John Bolton into a preventive war with Iran, he will make Biden and Schumer look like Tulsi Gabbard—and perhaps pave the way for a different Democratic nominee against whom the anti-Hillary playbook of 2016 will prove less useful.
The president began the year promising to end the war in Syria, which Congress never authorized in the first place, and wind down the war in Afghanistan. Alongside low unemployment, the job growth that followed deregulation and tax cuts, and remaking the Supreme Court in Antonin Scalia’s image, keeping ISIS at bay without launching a new war in the Middle East—though he has surely escalated some ongoing conflicts—stands among his top accomplishments.
Perhaps that is the soft bigotry of low expectations, to use a Bush-era phrase, but in an era of forever war, it counts for something. That is, it will count for something until the Trump team invokes the congressional authorization of force used for the Afghan war to start a new one in Iran, a move too brazenly unconstitutional for even the Bush-Cheney contingent of old.
The cakewalk crowd has reemerged to assure us that pinprick strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities are possible and that the regime in Tehran will prove a paper tiger. But everywhere their promises have turned to ash. There were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq or cheering throngs greeting America’s finest as liberators. Groups ideologically similar to the Islamists who attacked us on 9/11 emerged from Iraq and Libya as more powerful, not less.
Iran has long been the unprincipled exception to Trump’s opposition to Middle Eastern quagmires. His desire to undo the Obama presidency predisposed him to unraveling the nuclear deal and led him to folly in Yemen. Now it might prompt him to redo the foreign policy mistakes that toppled the Bush dynasty, paving the way for a socialist to become the next commander-in-chief.
Still, there remains a powerful voice inside the White House who could halt this march to war. “The president, who campaigned against getting the U.S. bogged down in unnecessary foreign wars, is considered the primary internal obstacle to a counterattack,” Politico reports.
Not even Trump’s opinion should matter most. The Constitution vests the power to declare war in Congress. To justify a new war based on an outdated resolution passed nearly 20 years ago to authorize retaliation against the 9/11 attackers would be an unconscionable power grab by the executive branch that lawmakers should not countenance. Yet time and again, Congress has shirked its constitutional duties.
The Democrats in the House have an opportunity to put their money where their mouths are. But maybe they won’t. An Iraq-like war in Iran would go a long way toward accomplishing their main goal: making Donald Trump a one-term president.
W. James Antle III is the editor of The American Conservative.