Naked Politics Blogger
Last week Donald Trump announced he was pulling America out of the “Iran Deal”. Throughout the 2016 American presidential campaign, Trump derided the deal with his typical bombast and embellishment as the worst ever agreed to and vowed he’d walk away from over a decade’s worth of diplomacy to keep his promise.
Trump, who would surely struggle with the finer points of the deal if you were to corner him in an elevator, has one simple motivation: to spite Barack Obama and John Kerry, the key architects of the deal from the American side of the table. But for prominent members of Trump’s national security team, the unravelling of JCPOA is a necessary first step in re-imagining a new Project for the New American Century. Notably, John Bolton replaced H.R. McMaster as National Security Adviser shortly after he published two articles that rather succinctly summed up his objective: one that explained how the U.S. could abandon JCPOA, and another about how the U.S. could legally strike North Korea first.
For a president like Donald Trump, who prefers being told what he can do versus what he cannot, Bolton is a no-brainer – Bolton is vigilantly opposed to any international law that would hamstring American foreign policy. For Bolton, he has the perfect mark in Trump, a president far more interested in the way things are perceived versus the way that they are, and a man fuelled by personal confrontation.
Trump may have convinced himself long ago that Obama and Kerry negotiated a bad deal, but Bolton represents the perceived foreign policy heavyweight that was all too happy to confirm it when previous foreign policy aides McMaster and Rex Tillerson wouldn’t. In doing so, Bolton now has a president he can push toward his long-held goal of regime change in Iran – well thought out strategy be damned.
A notable split though, has formed in Trumpian foreign policy – one that makes certain the ideological fervour in which Iran policy is formed in neo-conservative circles.
At the same time the United States has scuppered the Iran deal, it is deep in the throws of negotiations with North Korea, with notable success. How Trump has personally handled each situation publicly over the last few weeks is notable. Though he once referred to Kim Jong Un as ‘rocket man,’ he lavished praise on North Korea’s leader when three American hostages were released, even going as far as to say that the hostages were treated exceptionally well. Simultaneously, Trump has ‘advised [Iran] very strongly not to re-start their programme. If they do, there will be severe consequences.’ Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was quoted as saying that the United States was prepared to offer significant financial incentives should North Korea abandon its nuclear capabilities – leaving commentators to wonder how, if at all, such an arrangement differed in principle with deal. He further clarified that any deal wouldn’t mean that American tax dollars would flow to North Korea, but that maybe, just maybe, American enterprises would want to do business in the country.
Politico’s Thomas Wright argues that Bolton will eventually butt heads with Pompeo, defining each man as an ideologue and a smooth political operator, respectively. So, while Bolton is advancing his pet policy project in Iran, Pompeo is offering legitimacy to a North Korean regime responsible for some of the worst human atrocities committed in recent times, all in exchange for plaudits and kudos (the not-at-all subtle push for Trump to receive the Nobel Peace Prize is very on-brand for the Trump administration). But one has to wonder what assurances North Korea feel they are getting from an administration led by Donald Trump in return for destroying their only bargaining chip in international affairs. The North Korean regime survives on Chinese trade and, now, its nuclear weapons – without the latter, they are theoretically more susceptible to foreign interference.
So its difficult to envision the Trumpian version of neoconservative foreign policy as anything less than naïve. Advancing America’s agenda – and that of the liberal west – globally is worthwhile, particularly with the growing strength of authoritarian regimes, real (China) or perceived (Russia). But as it was with the invasion of Iraq, Bolton’s strategy for Iran – undoubtedly centred on wholesale regime change – is shallow and without sufficient planning. For Bolton, it is never about the quagmire that might come to define action, it is the action. For Pompeo, it is about elevating the CV, regardless of the long-term prospects of any deal made with North Korea.
Stephen Walt calls out Trump’s policy on Iran – yes, the Iranian regime is still supporting Assad, still supporting Hezbollah, still hostile to Israel – but none of that explains the shredding of Iran deal. Instead, it is a demonstration of policy championed by Bolton: never, ever allowing the current Iranian regime to achieve any level of normalcy with the United States and most of the West. Diplomatic accords with Iran, though they might bring about degrees of normalcy and a sliver of hope for peaceful co-existence, are barriers to the goal.
With Bolton and with Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu in Trump’s ear, the push for regime change goes forward. As it was with Iraq, there is no plan for what comes next and, like Iraq, an incomprehensible amount of American treasure would have to be spent in order to accomplish the feat. Though Iran is ripe for a soft power push, Bolton’s policy will, as it did in Iraq, alienate generations of young people in the country, leaving the United States with a generational problem.
For neoconservatives like Bolton and for Dick Cheney, it has always been a generational war that they’ve been fighting. The only thing hanging in the balance is the possibility of Democratic gains in Congress and the whims of Donald Trump. The next six months are likely to be eventful.