National Security Adviser John Bolton clearly wants a war. The question just is where, and when.
Right now, the answers seem to be “Iran” and “soon.”
In a new report from the Daily Beast Tuesday night, reporters Betsy Woodruff, Adam Rawnsley found that some administration officials believe that Bolton and other top advisers to President Donald Trump are inflating the threat of Iran. Bolton alarmed the country and the globe on Sunday when he announced that a carrier strike group and a bomber task force would be sent to the Persian Gulf in light of new intelligence about provocative signs that Tehran is plotting to strike American forces near Yemen and Iraq.
The Daily Beast, though, said its administration sources believed the response outlined by Bolton was an “overreaction.”
“The risk is a low-level proxy unit miscalculating and escalating things,” one source said. “We’re sending a message with this reaction to the intelligence, even though the threat might not be as imminent as portrayed.”
But if there’s one thing Bolton isn’t afraid of, it’s escalation. A recent profile of the national security adviser in the New Yorker detailed his long history as an opponent of Iran and an advocate for aggressive measures.
When Bolton was nominated for the position of ambassador to the United Nations under President George W. Bush in 2005, the Senate had deep concerns about him, the profile said:
Tony Blinken, who was the staff director of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told me that the members began to reconsider as they examined Bolton’s work in the State Department. “We saw a pattern of Mr. Bolton trying to manipulate intelligence to justify his views,” Blinken told me. “If it had happened once, maybe. But it came up multiple times, and always it was the same underlying issue: he would stake out a position, and then, if the intelligence didn’t support it, he would try to exaggerate the intelligence and marginalize the officials who had produced it.”
Another event showed his troubling behavior and inclination for war:
As the Bush White House made the case to invade Iraq, Bolton came into conflict with José Bustani, who was in charge of overseeing the Chemical Weapons Convention—a treaty, endorsed by the U.S. and a hundred and ninety-two other countries, that bans the production of chemical weapons. Bustani, a former senior diplomat from Brazil, was negotiating with the Iraqi government to adopt the treaty, which mandated immediate inspections by outside technicians. He thought that, if inspectors could verify that Iraq had abandoned its chemical-weapons program, an invasion wouldn’t be necessary. But, he told me, when the Iraqis agreed to accept the convention, the Bush Administration asked him to halt his negotiations. “I think the White House was worried that if I succeeded it would mess up their plans to invade,” he said
Not long afterward, Bustani recalls, Bolton showed up at his office in The Hague and demanded that he resign. When Bustani refused, Bolton said, “We know you have two sons in New York. We know your daughter is in London. We know where your wife is.” (Bolton has denied this.)
Now, with a report saying that Bolton again is using manipulated intelligence to drum up a needless conflict, we should be cautious and skeptical of the information coming out of the administration. Especially when there are other signs that the threat is much less serious than some want us to believe.
USCENTCOM assessed that as long as Iranian-aligned forces are focused on supporting the Syrian regime’s fight against ISIS, they are not displaying the intent to attack U.S. forces. However, USCENTCOM reported to the DoD OIG that this calculus could change if Iran perceives a U.S. desire to ramp up anti-Iranian activities in a post-ISIS environment.
One of the escalatory steps the U.S. had already taken that likely precipitated this weekend’s rising tensions was the designation of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization — an unprecedented move. Moving the carrier strike group and the bomber task force to the Gulf is another escalatory step.
As the inspector general report shows, this is how Bolton could actually generate an Iranian threat if he wants to. Iran will see the aggressive actions the administration is taking, and prepare its own response, which Bolton will just declare to be confirmation of the initial threat. This is how wars get started, and it seems to be exactly what Bolton is hoping for.
“Country A threatens Country B. Country B increases its threat levels and contingency planning accordingly. Country A perceives that planning as threatening, and increases its threats and contingency planning accordingly,” said Zenko. “Repeat as needed.”
The national security adviser “may be trying to provoke Iran into striking first,” noted conservative columnist Max Boot of Bolton’s actions. “A Tonkin Gulf incident got us into one war. Will a Persian Gulf incident get us into another?”
And this isn’t just speculation and extrapolation — the Wall Street Journal has reported that Bolton asked the Pentagon to generate plans for a military strike on Iran.
There are others signs that top Trump officials are getting serious about a brewing conflict.
On Tuesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo took a previously unannounced trip to Iraq. He made clear that the possibility of Iran striking Americans forces in the country was his concern.
“First of all, we talked to them about the importance of Iraq ensuring that it’s able to adequately protect Americans in their country,” Pompeo told reporters. “We don’t want anyone interfering in their country, certainly not by attacking another nation inside of Iraq.”
They clearly seem to be laying the groundwork for military action, whether provoked or not. But all this posturing seems to stand in stark contrast with Trump’s desires which, for all his monstrous faults, do not appear to involve a wish for war. That doesn’t mean he won’t bring us there, though — with John Bolton leading him by the nose.
In the New Yorker’s profile of Bolton, it cited an anonymous source who reportedly overheard a conversation between Trump and Bolton’s predecessor, H.R. McMaster. It showed Trump had an inkling of where he might be headed.
“Bolton is a hawk like you,” Trump reportedly joked to McMaster. “He’s going to get us into a war.”