President Donald Trump says he called off a US strike on Iran 10 minutes before it was planned to begin on Thursday night. To understand how we got to this point, you need to understand the people in charge of Trump’s foreign policy: National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
These two men are longtime supporters of regime change in Iran. Bolton, in particular, has elevated advocacy for a US strike on Iran into something of a personal North Star. In the absence of a confirmed secretary of defense — the last one, James Mattis, last one resigned six months ago — Bolton and Pompeo have been the key figures in Trump’s foreign policy. And while they’ve clashed at times, they have successfully guided the president toward a campaign of “maximum” economic pressure on Iran and military deployments to the Middle East that have helped bring us to the brink of armed conflict.
Now, Trump did campaign on withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal. But he also campaigned on the idea that the Iraq war was a mistake and that more major wars in the Middle East like it would be a mistake.
The deep irony is that Trump has picked two foreign policy principals who champion the thinking that produced George W. Bush’s war. The result is an increasingly dangerous standoff with Iran that could still spiral into a wider, devastating conflict.
John Bolton’s yen for war
To understand the backstory, we need to start by understanding John Bolton’s career.
In May 2001, then-President Bush appointed Bolton to be undersecretary of state for arms control, basically the top diplomat focusing on weapons of mass destruction. This position became fairly important in the run-up to the Iraq War, as the Bush administration’s case against Saddam Hussein focused on allegations that he had or was developing nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons.
Bolton took the hardest of possible lines. He forcefully argued that Iraq had WMDs — “we are confident that Saddam Hussein has hidden weapons of mass destruction,” as he put in one 2002 speech. After Bush’s 2002 State of the Union speech connecting North Korea, Iraq, and Iran as an “axis of evil,” Bolton insisted that this wasn’t just rhetoric — that there was “a hard connection between these regimes — an ‘axis’ along which flow dangerous weapons and dangerous technology.’’
He was involved in shaping US intelligence in the run-up to the war — and not in a good way. In 2002, Bolton’s staff prepared a speech alleging that Cuba had an active biological weapons program. This wasn’t true, and the State Department’s lead bioweapons analyst at the time would not sign off on the claim. Per the analyst’s sworn testimony to Congress, Bolton then called the analyst into his office, screamed at him, and then sent for his boss.
Carl Ford, then the assistant secretary of state for intelligence and research, testified that Bolton’s behavior had a “chilling effect” throughout the department, freezing out dissent on proliferation issues beyond Cuba.
John Prados, a fellow at George Washington University’s National Security Archives, came to an even broader conclusion in a study of declassified Bush administration documents: Bolton bears a significant amount of blame for the politicized intelligence used to justify the decision to attack Iraq. “Analysts working on Iraq intelligence could not be blamed for concluding that their own careers might be in jeopardy if they supplied answers other than what the Bush administration wanted to hear,” Prados writes.
This is the most important thing to understand about Bolton for the Iran standoff: He’s not only an ideologue, someone who believes deeply in the use of US military force against hostile regimes, but a vicious bureaucratic infighter who is willing to twist intelligence and bully opponents into submission in service of his hawkishness.
Nothing about Bolton’s views appear to have changed since 2002.
While some Iraq War supporters have been repentant, Bolton represents the wing of the conservative movement that continues to believe that wars of regime change can solve America’s problems with rogue states. He not only was a leading advocate for the Iraq War, but actually remains intellectually stuck in 2002.
Bolton served as US ambassador to the UN during the later Bush years, bringing the same aggressive approach to the table he used at the State Department. During the Obama years, Bolton emerged as one of the leading critics of the administration’s attempt to negotiate a solution to the Iranian nuclear program — and perhaps the most prominent advocate for war as an alternative.
“The inescapable conclusion is that Iran will not negotiate away its nuclear program. Nor will sanctions block its building a broad and deep weapons infrastructure,” Bolton wrote in a 2015 New York Times op-ed. “A strike can still succeed.”
He did not change his view after Trump took office. In 2017, less than a year before he would be appointed national security adviser, he gave a speech to a militant, quasi-cultish group of Iranian exiles calling for the new administration to overthrow Iran’s government.
“The declared policy of the United States should be the overthrow of the mullahs’ regime,” he said. “Before 2019, we here will celebrate in Tehran.”
Well before he became national security adviser, Bolton had made it clear who he was and what he wanted to do. The question was whether circumstances would allow him to do it.
Where Mike Pompeo stands on Iran
When Bolton took office, Trump’s foreign policy cabinet was in flux, both in terms of personnel and ideology.
Bolton’s predecessor at the National Security Council, H.R. McMaster, had supported staying in the Iran nuclear deal. So had recently resigned Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who would be officially replaced by Pompeo in late April 2018.
Prior to taking the job as America’s top diplomat, Pompeo had served as a congressman and as Trump’s CIA director. He had close ties to hawkish anti-Islam groups (as does Bolton), and was a vociferous opponent of the nuclear deal with Iran.
In 2014, he argued (incorrectly) that a US strike on Iran’s nuclear program would be relatively straightforward: “it’s under 2,000 Sorties to destroy the Iranian nuclear capacity. This is not an insurmountable task for the coalition forces.” In 2016, he wrote a Fox News op-ed arguing that “Congress must act to change Iranian behavior, and, ultimately, the Iranian regime.”
Importantly, Pompeo doesn’t seem to be quite as committed to the anti-Iran cause as Bolton is. During his Senate confirmation hearing, he disavowed previous comments that regime change was “the only way” to deal with the Iranian nuclear program, arguing that he’s currently a supporter of a negotiated solution to the situation.
But saying Pompeo is a dove relative to Bolton is like saying that Lenin was a liberal when compared to Stalin: It’s not a very high bar. The effect of replacing McMaster and Tillerson with Bolton and Pompeo is to shift the median opinion in the Trump cabinet toward the much more hawkish end.
How Trump’s war cabinet helped bring us to the brink of armed conflict
On May 8, 2018 — a month after Bolton took office, and weeks after Pompeo’s Senate confirmation — Trump publicly announced that the US would be withdrawing from the nuclear agreement and reimposing sanctions on Iran’s nuclear program. Trump had long wanted to quit this agreement, but reportedly was being restrained by a more cautious cabinet. With Pompeo and Bolton in office, this was no longer a problem.
The problem intensified when Secretary of Defense James Mattis resigned in December 2018. Mattis was an Iran hawk, to be sure, but a far less aggressive one than Bolton and Pompeo. Without his influence — and in the absence of any confirmed successor — Bolton and Pompeo would become the key figures shaping Trump’s relatively malleable foreign policy instincts.
The campaign of economic pressure that both Bolton and Pompeo have supported have inflamed tensions with Iran. Iran’s recent aggression — targeting oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz and the Gulf of Oman, shooting down a US drone — are likely responses to the US pressure campaign, an attempt to get the US to back down from a posture that has done real damage to the Iranian economy.
The question of what to do about Iran’s counter-escalation, then, is being put before an extremely slanted panel. The poles are Trump, who seems instinctively opposed to any kind of outright war with Iran, and Bolton, who clearly wants one.
In the middle, you have Pompeo, who’s hawkish but not quite so much as Bolton, alongside other administration officials like Vice President Mike Pence (also an Iran hawk, incidentally). Pompeo isn’t exactly a voice for deescalation. Even though he’s less hawkish than Bolton, he still supports an overall aggressive stance toward Iran that makes Iran more likely to respond with military provocations like the ones in recent weeks. The more incidents there are, the higher the chances are that Bolton could get his way in the internal policy debates, and the US respond to a future Iranian provocation with a deadly strike.
Trump, who isn’t exactly attentive to the minutiae of foreign policy, has appointed a team whose decisions seem to keep making war more likely. He may genuinely believe that he learned the lessons of the Iraq War, but he brought people who accept some of its core premises back into the halls of power. The result is that his overall policy is militating toward more confrontation with Iran — and next time, he may not issue an order to stand down.