“The President has made his position eminently clear, and in the next weeks and months, we shall see what we shall see,” said John Bolton.
Not this week, but in November 2002, when he was undersecretary of state, not national security adviser. And not about Iran, or Venezuela, or North Korea; but about Iraq.
Nearly 17 years later, and the Trump administration is still dealing with the fallout of George W. Bush’s charge to depose Saddam Hussein. And they are still dealing with it, and most other ongoing crises, with a familiar cast of people. The key difference: President Donald Trump has not made his position “eminently clear” and instead has left foreign policy to be loosely squabbled over by a handful of career Republican hawks.
It has been a startling week, in which the Trump administration seemed to want to rush through what it took the Bush administration about two years to do over Iraq. Intelligence was leaked, and then downplayed by a senior, allied UK officer, suggesting Iran was shipping missiles in a threatening manner. The New York Times leaked word of plans to send 120,000 troops to the region, which Trump himself both dismissed as “fake news” and confirmed, in essence, by saying if they were going to send troops, they would send a lot more.
Come Thursday, and according to people familiar with the matter, Trump is frustrated with his hawkish advisers’ march towards war with Iran. Then the Wall Street Journal reports officials believe actually Iran may have been acting defensively by shipping missiles, as it was itself responding to fears of an American attack.
Recent intelligence has shown that some Iranian boats the US claims were carrying missiles have returned to port and have unloaded some of the missiles, according to two US officials familiar with recent intelligence. The officials said it’s not clear if the missiles have been put into storage to keep them hidden from the US or to give a signal of de-escalation.
We’ve come full circle though, with Washington’s attention span so violently short now, that it’s possible to dispute intelligence, debate war plans, threaten a full-scale conflict, and then back off the entire idea, just inside of one working week.
Generous analysts might note a corollary to Nixon’s so-called “Madman theory,” in which the 1969-1974 US President wanted his North Vietnamese adversaries to think he was unpredictable, “a little crazy” even, and to fear his wrath. If he seemed capable of anything, Nixon’s logic went, his adversaries would presume a disproportionate, irrational response, without Nixon having to give one.
As if to prove this hypothesis, Trump tweeted at the end of the week: “The Fake News Media is hurting our Country with its fraudulent and highly inaccurate coverage of Iran. It is scattershot, poorly sourced (made up), and DANGEROUS. At least Iran doesn’t know what to think, which at this point may very well be a good thing!”
Advisers with agendas
But these are different times, and Trump was not left with a Vietnam to clear up. Instead, what slowly emerges from Trump’s inner circle is often a picture of a President whose advisers see his changing moods as a chance to try to pursue their own agenda, and hope he falls in with it. (Recall Michael Flynn putting Iran “officially on notice,” Jim Mattis’ support for short and focused bombing runs against the Syrian regime, and Rex Tillerson’s brief belief the US should talk to North Korea “without pre-conditions”). The characters depart, and it remains unclear what the enduring policy goal is, or was. Not just in the Middle East, but in South America too.
“All options are on the table,” said John Bolton. This was actually in 2003 about Iran, but it has been a common catchphrase for Venezuela this year. Bolton and Pompeo have led the charge here, replicating the Bush-era conviction of neo-cons who hoped that the world would bend to the order they wanted to impose: that they had to bid something be and then just watch it happen. It didn’t work then – they had to invade Iraq and lengthily occupy it to even find Saddam – and it hasn’t worked so far in Caracas.
Their bid to remove President Nicolas Maduro – beleaguered and vulnerable enough through his own economic mismanagement and kleptocracy – relied on declaring another man president, having their allies follow their lead, and hoping that would see Maduro on a plane to Cuba.
This may have initially appealed to Trump – both internationally as an easy win, and a vote-getter in Florida – but it has failed to work, repeatedly. And after Pompeo’s more explicit suggestions that the US could invade, the White House has begun briefing that Trump was again unhappy with the march towards war in Venezuela.
Again, the cast of characters is familiar, with Elliott Abrams, who helped lead the charge into Iraq as Bush’s Middle East adviser on the NSC, leading Trump’s effort. Back in 2002, a senior administration official told the New York Times, that, when it came to Abrams “whatever controversy there was in the past is in the past.” Back then, they were not referring to his role in Bush’s Middle East, but to Abrams’ conviction over the Iran-Contra affair.
Venezuela is Abrams’ third time around. Back in 2003, when officials fed a glowing New Yorker profile of him, someone suggested people from Abrams’ academic background tend to see things in black and white, before they join government and realize it’s more complicated. Yes, as Abrams returns to the fold again from academia, it’s now even more complicated.
In early March, Abrams told senators, “Maduro’s back is up against the wall. Surrounding him on all sides, he has people who despise him – people just waiting for the right moment to show him the door.” After a failed bid to get the military’s top brass to turn to the opposition, he accepted wearily on April 30, “it seems that today they are not going forward.”
Threats but no follow-through
Again and again, the goal is far down the road but the rhetoric turbocharged enough to hope to reach it. There is just no presidential follow-through. With Iran, Venezuela, even North Korea, in which personal entreaties have led nowhere so far, a flurry of activity and threats leads certainly nowhere good, if not nowhere at all.
The same clique of neocons has perhaps felt they have a glowing opportunity to realize goals they’ve held for decades, by imposing a foreign policy on a president who would prefer to have none. They lurch forwards, and for a week like this one you can genuinely feel like it’s 2002 again, and history repeats always more as tragedy than farce. But then the true nature of the Trump presidency emerges – forged on isolationism, on ending wars about places that his base does not understand or care for.
There is an enduring consequence however, of the empty bombast. It builds on an image – hatched in the Obama era when Iraq and Afghanistan’s forever wars made the hyperpower hanker for a break – of a tired and bankrupt US that would prefer to let others take the front seat.
Trump wants to act “bigly,” but instinctively doesn’t follow through. The risk for the current, tired world order is that the United States opponents see this flurry – perhaps correctly – as enduring weakness, and act to fill that vacuum, dismissive of US rhetoric that has time and again proven hollow.
This story has been updated to reflect the correct amount of time that’s passed since John Bolton’s statement about Iraq in November 2002.
CNN’s Barbara Starr contributed to this report.