The Trump administration is dispatching a bomber task force and carrier strike group to the Middle East, national security adviser John BoltonJohn BoltonThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden, Democrats inch closer to legislative deal The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Uber - Manchin, Sanders in budget feud; Biden still upbeat We've left Afghanistan — but its consequences are just starting to arrive MORE said Sunday, in “response to a number of troubling and escalatory indications and warnings” from Iran. “The United States is not seeking war with the Iranian regime,” Bolton added, but it is sending “a clear and unmistakable message … that any attack on United States interests or on those of our allies will be met with unrelenting force.”
For all its brevity, Bolton’s statement included multiple inaccuracies and raised troubling questions about who, exactly, controls the Trump administration’s foreign policy. It is an unnecessarily reckless framing which engages in exactly the escalation Bolton himself decries.
The first glaring problem with Bolton’s remarks is how misleading they are about what prompted the deployment. While Sunday’s statement describes it as a “response” to Tehran’s behavior, the reality is the Navy announced this “regularly scheduled deployment” a month ago following “almost two years of intense training and preparation” for the carrier involved. This was not a spur of the moment reaction to anything Iran did or failed to do.
More dangerous than that deception, however, is the way Bolton casts the deployment as a means of avoiding escalation toward conflict while actively bolstering its likelihood. (Fortunately, Iran’s response so far has been tepid).
Contrary Bolton’s intimation that an attack on the United States may be imminent, conflict with Iran is, for America, indefinitely deterrable and therefore avoidable. There is no immediate threat, but this saber-rattling will not have a calming effect — and that’s probably the point.
Yes, the regime in Tehran is oppressive at home and meddlesome in its near abroad, but it is ultimately a weak state surrounded by enemies and ferociously outmatched by the United States. We spend about as much to build a single aircraft carrier—like the carrier now beginning its routine deployment — as Iran spends on its entire military each year. The Pentagon’s budget alone is about 50 percent larger than Iran’s whole GDP.
For Washington to be cowed by Tehran is not the elephant afraid of the mouse — that’s too generous to the Iranian regime. It’s the elephant afraid of a flea.
And the flea, as wiser voices than Bolton’s can tell you, has no imminent plans to bite. No vital U.S. interests are threatened by Iran. American security does not depend on regime change in Tehran, however much we would like to see the Iranian people liberated. Moreover, “[h]ow engineering regime change in Tehran will benefit the United States is [not] clear,” notes Ret. Col. Andrew Bacevich, a military historian, at "Spectator USA."
“This is especially true if taking into account the results of America’s ‘success’ in overthrowing governments in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya since 9/11. The facts speak for themselves: When U.S. forces oust an undesirable government in the Islamic world, the inadvertent result is to make things worse.”
Washington should realize conflict with Iran will have disastrous consequences for all parties; we can be certain Tehran already realizes it cannot win a conflict with the United States. That is why any war between Iran and the United States will, for the foreseeable future, be of Washington’s making — specifically, perhaps, of Bolton’s instigation.
The national security adviser is well known for his enthusiasm for regime change, as his eagerness to use the American military to police the world exceeds even the standard interventionist bias of the broader foreign policy establishment. Attacking Iran is something of an idée fixe for Bolton, an obsession he burnishes regardless of fact, cost, or strategy.
Lip service to de-escalation is meaningless when paired with steady efforts to increase tensions via a perpetual “maximum pressure” campaign which does much to hurt ordinary Iranian citizens and nothing to change Tehran’s behavior for the better.
“Yet here’s the irony,” as Bacevich observes: “As a candidate for president, Trump seemed to understand that U.S. military interventionism in the Middle East had exacted huge costs while accomplishing next to nothing. If elected, he was going to extricate the United States from endless war.”
As president, with the likes of Bolton apparently calling the shots on his foreign policy, Trump still speaks of ending “endless war,” but in practice he risks inciting more of it. Bolton’s aggressive tactics are exactly the sort of thing candidate Trump deplored, yet President TrumpDonald TrumpYoungkin ad features mother who pushed to have 'Beloved' banned from son's curriculum White House rejects latest Trump claim of executive privilege Democrats say GOP lawmakers implicated in Jan. 6 should be expelled MORE has evidently placed the United States’ Iran policy in Bolton’s bellicose hands.
The routine carrier deployment Bolton and others in the Pentagon have framed as a reaction to Iranian provocation is nothing of the kind. This framing is part of the maximum pressure approach, which is far more likely to end in crisis or war than Trump seems to recognize.
And the message Bolton’s statement sends is not that the United States will respond forcefully to an Iranian attack — Tehran and any other government in the world, could already assume as much — but that the Trump administration’s Iran policy is helmed by a man who has learned nothing from the last two decades of foreign policy missteps and is determined to pursue his regime-change agenda against Iran regardless of what is best for the United States.
If he is serious about rejecting endless war as America’s status quo, Trump would do well to cut Bolton loose and pivot — fast — to a realistic approach which rejects the false premise that we cannot co-exist with Iran. The stubborn, discredited strategy Bolton is pursuing here will escalate conflict with Iran, failing to keep us safe, make progress toward peace, or honor the foreign policy promises that helped Trump win the White House.
Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities and contributing editor at The Week. Her writing has also appeared at Time Magazine, CNN, Politico, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, The Hill and The American Conservative, among other outlets.