Rand Paul: Trump’s Antiwar Counterweight
The United States almost started a war with Iran only for President Donald Trump to change his mind at the last minute. Reports indicate that the usual suspect, National Security Adviser John Bolton, was the main advocate for airstrikes, with the backing of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and CIA head Gina Haspel, as well as encouragement from Senate war hawks Lindsey Graham and Tom Cotton.
Earlier on Thursday, responding to news that Iran had reportedly downed an unmanned American drone, Trump said, “Look, I said I want to get out of these endless wars, I campaigned on that, I want to get out.” Trump’s cautiousness seemed as much a response to the Washington chorus crying for military action as the event itself.
More importantly, if the swamp wants war—who has the president’s back in pushing peace?
This might be the most important question in American politics right now.
TAC’s Barbara Boland reported in early June that the purpose of wedging the now-outgoing Patrick Shanahan into his acting defense secretary position was to put Bolton at the top of the foreign policy food chain (the incoming Mark Esper could fill a similar role).
“He’s likely to default to whatever Pompeo or Bolton wants,” retired U.S. Army colonel and defense analyst Douglas Macgregor said of Shanahan. “Pompeo and Bolton have agendas. They’re not Trump’s, but in the absence of strong leadership, Shanahan is unlikely to put up much resistance.”
In mid-June, Pompeo blamed alleged attacks on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman on Iran. TAC noted that Pompeo “did not cite specific evidence as to why the U.S. believes Iran, or its proxies, are responsible for the attacks.” One oil tanker owner said the U.S. account was wrong. Some wondered whether this could be another Gulf of Tonkin incident.
Luckily—as the world was reminded Thursday night—one person who says he doesn’t want war happens to be their boss.
“I’m not somebody that wants to go in to war, because war hurts economies, war kills people most importantly—by far most importantly,” Trump told Fox News in mid-May when asked about Iran. The likely death toll was reportedly also a major factor in why the president called off airstrikes Thursday night.
Trump appears to understand the hawkish nature of the Washington foreign policy establishment that surrounds him. “Don’t kid yourself, you do have a military industrial complex. They do like war,” Trump told Fox News. “I say, ‘I want to bring our troops back home,’ the place went crazy…. You have people here in Washington…they never want to leave, they always want to fight.”
“No, I don’t want to fight,” Trump added.
Trump’s impulses, if not always his policy actions, are generally anti-war. Unfortunately, most in his immediate orbit do not share those inclinations, with unrepentant Iraq war cheerleader Bolton topping the list.
But as Bolton’s influence reportedly grows, who is the only person the president talks to who shares his more restrained “America First” foreign policy vision?
“While Trump tolerates his hawkish advisers, the [Trump] aide added, he shares a real bond with Paul,” Politico reported in August. “He actually at gut level has the same instincts as Rand Paul,” the White House aide reportedly said. (I covered Politico’s revelations at the time for TAC.)
Politico noted, “Trump has stopped short of calling for regime change [in Iran] even though Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, and Bolton support it, aligning with Paul instead, according to a GOP foreign policy expert in frequent contact with the White House.”
“’Rand Paul has persuaded the president that we are not for regime change in Iran,’ this person said, because adopting that position would instigate another war in the Middle East,” Politico reported.
That was 10 months ago. Today, in addition to almost bombing Iran on Thursday, the saber rattling and accusations are ratcheting up along with the troop deployments, no doubt making Pompeo and Bolton happy and likely reflecting their handiwork.
But despite these moves, Trump’s gut still seems to be closer to Paul’s realism than what Republican hawks seek. Politico reported on May 20, “The president has fashioned himself far more in the mold of Paul than the hawkish Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who was shocked by Trump’s plans to pull out of Syria and only was able to convince Trump to leave a small force in the country.”
Politico further noted: “Trump’s hiring of John Bolton as national security adviser may have changed the approach inside the White House, but Trump’s dovish core hasn’t changed, senators said. Perhaps that can’t prevent conflict with Iran if it strikes first, but they said they were confident that Trump’s aggressive posture is far more about a Trumpian brand of diplomacy than it is about marching to war.”
Let’s hope. Amid the constant tug-of-war for Trump’s favor between his hawkish advisers and his realist champions, the president still hasn’t launched a war against Iran or anyone else.
But Trump will continue to need sound minds and advice. The Daily Beast reports that in addition to Paul’s counsel, the president might also be getting the right encouragement from Tucker Carlson. “A source familiar with the conversations told The Daily Beast that, in recent weeks, the Fox News host has privately advised Trump against taking military action against Iran,” The Daily Beast notes. “And a senior administration official said that during the president’s recent conversations with the Fox primetime host, Carlson has bashed the more ‘hawkish members’ of his administration.”
The president obviously needs all the backup he can get. Because unless I‘m missing something and sane foreign policy thinkers like Andrew Bacevich or Jim Webb have had some secret correspondence with the president, there is almost no one else talking to Trump who wants to avoid war.
Rand Paul’s continuing role as unofficial adviser to the president might be his most important. Some might ask what one man could possibly accomplish.
Just ask John Bolton.