When National Security Adviser John Bolton demanded military plans to oust the government of Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela, Trump demurred, reportedly saying his national security adviser was trying to pull him “into a war.”
“He is not comfortable with all this ‘regime change’ talk,’ which to his ears echoes the discussion of removing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein before the 2003 U.S. invasion,” one unnamed official told the Washington Post.
When push comes to proverbial shove, Trump balks at shoving.
When U.S.-backed opposition leader Juan Guaido attempted to lead a popular uprising on April 30, Trump did not lend his voice to the call. As Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo cited the alleged danger of Russian involvement, the president rubbished his message saying Vladimir Putin was “not looking at all to get involved in Venezuela, other than he’d like to see something positive happen for Venezuela.”
The uprising failed, and Bolton moved on to Iran.
Last week, Bolton warned the Tehran government that “any attack on United States interests or on those of our allies will be met with unrelenting force.” On Wednesday, Trump spoke of negotiations, saying, “I’m sure that Iran will want to talk soon.”
The national security adviser wants war, but his boss doesn’t want to be a war president. Trump’s combination of bluster (“bomb the shit out of them”) and antiwar rhetoric (“Bush lied”) is a political asset he doesn’t want to squander. Bolton’s job isn’t in any danger, because to Trump, tough talk is good politics. Insults, threats, sanctions, and covert operations are fine—as long as they don’t lead to an actual shooting war.
Some hope it’s a “good cop/bad cop” routine, designed to get Trump to the global stage of negotiations. But that is not how Bolton thinks. He has never suggested that any negotiated settlement between the United States and any adversary is worth pursuing.
When Trump came to office, official Washington hoped generals like Defense Secretary James Mattis and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster would act as the “adults in the room.” In Washington-speak, the phrase expressed the bipartisan hope that Trump’s non-interventionist instincts, grounded in domestic politics, would be curbed.
Now, the dynamic has flipped. Now the generals are gone, replaced by Bolton and Boeing lobbyist Patrick Shanahan. As Bolton pursues regime change in Venezuela and Iran, the only restraining force is Trump himself.
It’s a thin orange line. Will it hold?
Trump’s Obama-like determination to stay out of wars shouldn’t be underestimated. Hillary Clinton, who advocated strongly for Timber Sycamore, would never have abruptly withdrawn 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria as Trump did in December.
While Obama refused direct U.S. involvement in Syria, he did acquiesce to the CIA’s $1 billion covert arms transfer program, code-named Timber Sycamore. The goal was to aid the “moderate” rebels, who, unfortunately, did not exist. The program flooded the country with weapons, many of which wound up in the hands of Al-Qaeda and its offshoots, funded by U.S. allies in the Persian Gulf.
Trump ended Timber Sycamore in the summer of 2017. His withdrawal order in December 2018 not only triggered Mattis’ resignation; it also deprived Bolton of real estate from which he planned to confront Iran. Bolton has been trying to walk back Trump’s order ever since, with some success. Approximately 400 U.S. troops remain in the country.
On Venezuela, it was Trump who started talk of “military option” in August 2017 before Bolton had even joined his administration. Bolton escalated confrontation, with the help of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, repeatedly saying “Maduro must go” and that his “time is up.” Trump, pondering the reality that U.S military intervention can only undermine the goal of ousting Maduro, now resists the option he put on the table.
The problem for the war-wary Trump is threefold.
First, Bolton is, objectively speaking, a warmonger. He has favored attacking Iran and North Korea, just as he favored attacking Iraq in 2003. The disastrous consequences of the invasion have had no effect on his impermeable thinking. He doesn’t want any advice on his schemes, and he doesn’t get any. If the policy doesn’t work, he changes the subject, not directions.
Second, because Bolton’s policies are developed in private, without the usual input from other sectors of the government, especially the military, they are underinformed and unsustainable. In Venezuela, Bolton failed to understand Venezuelan political realities leaving talk of military intervention as the only face-saving option.
Third, and most important, Trump’s regional allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia, are also seeking to goad the U.S. into taking action against Iran, their regional rival.
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought authority to attack Iran in 2011, only to be thwarted by the opposition of President Obama and his own security Cabinet. Obama is gone and Trump has given Netanyahu everything he wanted: an embassy in Jerusalem and recognition of the Golan Heights. Why not a unilateral attack on Iran to degrade its infrastructure?
Saudi Arabia is openly calling for war. After four oil tankers last week suffered damage from some kind of attack, the United States and Saudi Arabia blamed Iran. Why? The New York Times reported that “Israeli intelligence had warned the United States in recent days of what it said was Iran’s intention to strike Saudi vessels.” The Times said the information came from a “senior Middle Eastern intelligence official.”
An Iranian parliamentary spokesman described the attacks as “Israeli mischief.” To date, there is no conclusive evidence about who was responsible.
Nonetheless, the Arab News, a Saudi outlet owned by the brother of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), is now calling for “surgical strikes” on Iran.
It is one thing for Trump to privately rebuke Bolton. If and when Netanyahu and MBS ask for war, Trump will have more difficulty saying no—which is what Bolton is counting on.
It is no exaggeration to say Bolton is the most dangerous man in the world. It is a title he will only lose if Trump wants it.
Jefferson Morley is a writing fellow and the editor and chief correspondent of the Deep State, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has been a reporter and editor in Washington, D.C., since 1980. He spent 15 years as an editor and reporter at The Washington Post. He was a staff writer at Arms Control Today and Washington editor of Salon. He is the editor and co-founder of JFK Facts, a blog about the assassination of JFK. His latest book is The Ghost: The Secret Life of CIA Spymaster, James Jesus Angleton.
This article was produced by the Deep State, a project of the Independent Media Institute.