Will Trump Be the Sage One?

Only one person can save us from the dangerous belligerent in the White House.

And that person is Donald Trump.

How screwed up is that?

Will the president let himself be pushed into a parlous war by John Bolton, who once buoyed the phony case on W.M.D.s in Iraq? Or will Trump drag back his national security adviser and the other uber hawks from the precipice of their fondest, bloodiest desire — to attack Iran?

Can Cadet Bone Spurs, as Illinois senator and Iraq war vet Tammy Duckworth called Trump, set Tom Cotton straight that winning a war with Iran would not merely entail “two strikes, the first strike and the last strike”? Holy cakewalk.

Once, we counted on Trump’s advisers to pump the brakes on an out-of-control president. Now, we count on the president to pump the brakes on out-of-control advisers.

.. “On one side, you have a president who doesn’t want war, who simply wants to do with Iran what he has done with North Korea, to twist the arm of the Iranians to bring them to a negotiation on his terms,” said Gérard Araud, the recently departed French ambassador. “He thinks they will suffer and at the end, they will grovel in front of his power.”

But in a way, Araud said, the face-off with the Iranians is more “primitive and dangerous” because, besides Bolton, other factions in the Middle East are also “dreaming of going to war.”

“Even if Trump doesn’t personally want war, we are now at the mercy of any incident, because we are at maximum tension on both sides,” said Araud, recalling Candidate Trump’s bellicose Twitter ultimatumsin 2016 when Iran’s Revolutionary Guards held American sailors blindfolded at gunpoint for 15 hours.

Given their sour feelings about W. shattering the Middle East and their anger at Trump shredding the Iran nuclear deal, Europeans are inclined to see the U.S. as trying to provoke Iran into war. This time, the Europeans will not be coming along — and who can blame them?

I’m having an acid flashback to 2002, when an immature, insecure, ill-informed president was bamboozled by his war tutors.

In an echo of the hawks conspiring with Iraqi exiles to concoct a casus belli for Iraq, Bolton told members of an Iranian exile group in Paris in 2017 that the Trump administration should go for regime change in Tehran.

And that’s why, before 2019, we here will celebrate in Tehran!” Bolton cheerily told the exiles.

When Bolton was the fifth column in the Bush 2 State Department — there to lurk around and report back on flower child Colin Powell — he complained that W.’s Axis of Evil (Iran, Iraq, North Korea) was too limited, adding three more of his own (Cuba, Libya, Syria). Then, last year, Bolton talked about “the Troika of Tyranny” (Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela). His flirtations with military intervention in Venezuela this month irritated Trump.

The 70-year-old with the Yeti mustache is an insatiable interventionist with an abiding faith in unilateralism and pre-emptive war. (The cost of our attenuated post-9/11 wars is now calculated at $5.9 trillion.)

W. and Trump are similar in some ways but also very different. As Trump biographer Michael D’Antonio notes: W. was interested in clarity. Trump wants chaos. W. wanted to trust his domineering advisers. Trump is always imagining betrayal. W. wanted to be a war hero, like his dad. Trump does not want to be trapped in an interminable war that will consume his presidency.

Certainly, the biographer says, Trump enjoys playing up the scary aspects of brown people with foreign names and ominous titles, like “mullah” and “ayatollah,” to stoke his base.

But Trump, unlike W., is driven by the drama of it. “It’s a game of revving up the excitement and making people afraid and then backing off on the fear in order to declare that he’s resolved the situation,” D’Antonio said. “Trump prefers threats and ultimatums to action because that allows him to look big and tough and get attention without doing something for which he will be held responsible. This is who he is at his core: an attention-seeking, action-averse propagandist who is terrified of accountability in the form of coffins arriving at Dover Air Force Base.”

David Axelrod, who had the military briefing about what a war with Iran would look like when he was in the Obama White House, said: “I’m telling you. It’s not a pretty picture.”

He says he is not sure which movie Bolton is starring in: “Dr. Strangelove” or “Wag the Dog.”

If part of your brand is that you’re not going to get the U.S. into unnecessary wars,” he said, “why in the world would you hire John Bolton?

This Isn’t the Foreign Policy Trump Campaigned On

He is proving more aggressive and adventuresome than Obama was.

He said that, if Assad were deposed, the country likely would fall to unsavory elements that hate the West—in other words, some of our worst enemies. He touted his oft-expressed desire to develop better relations with Russia, an Assad ally, and said he would work with Russia toward an end to the horrendous Syrian bloodshed.

.. many Americans interpreted that campaign rhetoric as signifying that this was one politician who would buck the conventional wisdom of the elites, that he would resist the call to flex American muscle wherever tragedy stalked the globe.

.. most Americans agreed with Trump’s harsh judgment on George W. Bush’s Iraq War, though some may have been uncomfortable with the billionaire’s characteristic allegation that our national leaders actually lied to the American people in taking America to war (as opposed to having been tragically mistaken about whether Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and was consorting with anti-Western terrorist organizations).

A confrontation with China, and other foreign-policy complications, might force Washington to seek a rapprochement with Russia

Mr. Trump will have to find an accommodation with the Republican Party establishment. His administration’s foreign-policy and defense appointments may well become a bargaining chip in that difficult process. As a result, some very unexpected figures, including outspoken hawks, may be put at the helm of the State Department and the Pentagon.

.. On foreign policy, both Mr. Trump’s campaign and Bernie Sanders’s Democratic primary bid highlighted a renewed American proclivity toward isolationism. Large segments of the American public are tired of endless military campaigns in the Middle East, and weary of the burden of America’s foreign commitments.

.. The American political elite remains almost universally interventionist and supportive of globalization.

.. And Moscow has very little to offer to Washington at the moment. There are few areas for possible cooperation. Even if Mr. Trump does want to improve relations with Russia, he will find out when he moves into the Oval Office that the United States has little to gain from such an improvement.

.. The new president is unlikely to be willing to pay the steep domestic political price, especially since improving relations offers no tangible benefits to America.

.. The basic problems in Russian-American relations stem from Moscow’s fundamental aspiration to return to the global arena as a great power, and even to contemplate integration into the American-led, pro-Western world order only on the condition of being recognized as a great power that dominates most of its former Soviet neighbors.

.. A confrontation with China, and other foreign-policy complications, might force Washington to seek a rapprochement with Russia

The End of Interventionism

The era of the West’s enthusiasm for military intervention is over. Two reports on Iraq and Libya—written from the heart of the British establishment and published recently—have delivered its obituary. Each is damning; together, they dismember the case for intervention in both its neocon and liberal-hawk variants. Although their focus is almost exclusively on decision-making within Whitehall—the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), the Ministry of Defence, and, above all, No. 10 Downing Street—Americans will recognize many of the same ills afflicting their own government.

.. Many liberals opposed the Iraq intervention because they disliked its architect and suspected its motives. But they still believed that Western, and especially U.S., military power, used assertively, could make the world a better place.

.. The 2011 Libya bombing was a swift response by liberal hawks to what most agreed was an imminent massacre. It was both opportunistic—a material interest in Libya’s oil industry, and bolstering French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s faltering political stature were strong motivations—and also a test of the noble doctrine of the “responsibility to protect,” adopted at the United Nations in 2005.

.. The Chilcot report on the Iraq War (so called after the investigation’s chair, Sir John Chilcot) reveals, most notably, that key war decisions were taken solely—during unminuted meetings—by British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who would ignore legal advice he didn’t like and circumvented official procedures for cabinet collective decision-making. The report, which catalogs numerous obfuscations and outright lies of the Blair administration, offers a verdict that is all the more damning because of its laconic understatement: “The circumstances in which it was decided that there was a legal basis for UK military action were far from satisfactory.”

.. The central failing of military intervention is not coordination, secretiveness, or dishonesty, though these certainly exist. At its core, the problem is the iron law of organized violence: intervention is war, and war commands those who choose to fight, however much they may believe they are its masters.

.. In order to deter Iran, and to appear strong across the region, Saddam needed to project an illusion of power. His army had been shattered in the 1991 Gulf War. Admitting that he had lost his weapons of mass destruction would be tantamount to conceding that he was defenseless. Not only would this have made Iraq seem vulnerable to Iran, but it would have stripped Saddam himself of his dignity and aura of strength, leaving him exposed to challenges from within his own ranks.

.. Having vilified Saddam, they could not make the necessary leap to see the world from his point of view.