Once upon a time there were hopes that Donald Trump as president might pursue a different kind of American foreign policy; call it non-interventionist, or isolationist, or transactional.
He certainly broke with conventional Washington discourse. When the foreign policy establishment of Washington almost unanimously urged President Obama in September 2013 to punish the Syrian government for a chemical gas attack, Trump tweeted, “Do not attack Syria” three times in two days.
Trump denounced previous administrations, Democratic and Republican, for casting America as the “policeman of the world.” He criticized President George W. Bush even more harshly than many liberal critics did.
“Bush murdered thousands of r troops & wasted trillions $ in a needless & senseless war-Iraq. TRUE!” Trump tweeted during the campaign. The New Republic’s Jeet Heer jested that Trump was the “candidate of the antiwar movement of 2003.”
No longer. For the first year of his presidency, Trump intensified U.S. military action in every war theater he inherited from Obama. He sent more troops to Afghanistan. He dropped more bombs on Somalia than Obama and Bush combined. He loosened the rules of engagement in Syria. And he supplied Saudi Arabia with the bombs to besiege the civilians of Yemen.
Only on the issue of Iran did Trump exercise a degree of restraint. While he repeatedly disparaged the 2015 international agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, he deferred to the triumvirate of his national security advisers: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary James Mattis and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster.
They all told Trump that international inspectors confirm Iran is abiding by the terms of the deal, and the results serve American security interests by blocking Iran’s path to a nuclear weapon at least until 2025.
But Tillerson’s “differences” with Trump on Iran chafed the president and finally cost Tillerson his job.
“When you look at the Iran deal, I thought it was terrible,” Trump said of Tillerson Tuesday. “He thought it was okay. I wanted to either break it or do something, he felt a little differently.”
Trump is now moving toward renouncing the deal in May, a move Pompeo has long advocated. Along the way, Trump is adopting the worldview of the neoconservatives he once scorned.
“For anybody who thought that Trump was bluffing about his May 12 deadline to fix the deal or nix it, the appointment of Mike Pompeo as secretary of state should be a wake-up call,” said Mark Dubowitz, an executive at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which has close ties to the Trump administration.
The foundation, created in 2001, embodies the continuity between the neoconservative policies of the Bush administration and the Trump administration. Founded by a “group of visionary philanthropists and policymakers who understood the threat facing America, Israel and the West,” the foundation’s advisers include former Sen. Joe Lieberman, columnists Bret Stephens and Charles Krauthammer, and neoconservative guru William Kristol.
Even before the invasion of Iraq, the foundation’s ideologues were dreaming of invading Iran. “Everyone talks about going to Baghdad,” said one British official of the neoconservatives. “Real men talk about going to Tehran.”
The personnel has changed—Kristol is now a Never Trump conservative—but the song of “regime change” in Iran remains the same.
“The potential for a democratic transition exists in Iran, where such aspirations have been growing for over 100 years,” Reuel Marc Gerecht, senior fellow at the foundation, wrote last week in the Wall Street Journal. “As regime-shaking street protests have repeatedly revealed, the country is a volcano. We want it to erupt. For the U.S. and the Middle East, sooner is better than later.”
The ostensible goal of reaching a better agreement with Iran cannot conceal a larger ambition. In 2016, Pompeo said, “Congress must act to change Iranian behavior, and ultimately, the Iranian regime.”
Pompeo, much more than Tillerson, identifies with Israel, which has sought to kill the Iran agreement even while it was being negotiated. He was much more energetic than Tillerson in cultivating the Persian Gulf oil states that feel most threatened by Iran.
Jim Lobe notes that Pompeo met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia in December to promote an anti-Iran coalition of Israel and the Gulf Arab states. The Jerusalem-Riyadh axis wants to enlist the United States in their campaign to confront and disrupt Iran.
“We absolutely need Sunni partners,” Pompeo said in a talk at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute. “This administration has broadly reached out to Sunni countries all throughout the Middle East to form coalitions… not only against ISIS, but against Iran as well.”
“Tillerson’s dismissal has also deepened speculation about the departure of the national-security adviser, General H. R. McMaster,” says Robin Wright of the New Yorker. “The former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton, an über-hawk on foreign policy, visited the White House last week; Republicans in previous administrations told me that he is an increasingly likely candidate to replace McMaster, whose long-winded lectures Trump has grumbled about.”
Bolton’s policy goals are not subtle. In a 2015 New York Times opinion column, he advocated bombing Iran immediately.
Trump’s firing of Tillerson and his chumminess with Bolton is a reminder that the president once harbored the belief that instigating war with Iran would be a good move for a president in need of a boost at the polls.
In 2011 and 2012, Trump tweeted six times that Obama was going to attack Iran in order to win the election.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 3, 2012
Now that Obama’s poll numbers are in tailspin – watch for him to launch a strike in Libya or Iran. He is desperate.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 9, 2012
Don’t let Obama play the Iran card in order to start a war in order to get elected–be careful Republicans!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 22, 2012
Trump’s tweets said less about Obama—who never contemplated any such move—than about himself. Trump clearly believed that war with Iran was a surefire way for an embattled president to win re-election. He thought so in 2012. He may be thinking the same thing about 2020.
Jefferson Morley is AlterNet’s Washington correspondent. He is the author of The Ghost: The Secret Life of CIA Spymaster James Jesus Angleton (St. Martin’s Press).