Beware the Bolton path to US military strikes on Iran

National security adviser John BoltonJohn BoltonDiplomacy is still the best option for dealing with Iran North Korea praises Trump for call for 'new method' in talks Trump job approval rises amid record partisan gap: Gallup MORE, a recognized military hawk on Iran and a major cheerleader for the ill-fated American invasion of Iraq in 2003, seems to be gradually maneuvering a reluctant President TrumpDonald John TrumpJulián Castro: It's time for House Democrats to 'do something' about Trump Warren: Congress is 'complicit' with Trump 'by failing to act' Sanders to join teachers, auto workers striking in Midwest MORE, and therefore the nation, into a military conflict with Iran.

The latest news that a military strike was in fact ordered but that the president called it off when he decided the possible death of 150 Iranians was not a “proportionate” response to shooting down an unmanned drone would seem both to confirm the hawkish pressure and to offer some hope.

As I stated in my book on the U.S. intervention in the Balkans, Slobodan Milošević and others learned the hard way that only fools and madmen are easily drawn to war. And once wars are started, they often produce unexpected consequences and take the nations in unanticipated directions. These are not new realities. They are ancient ones repeated, unfortunately, over and over in history.

ADVERTISEMENT

The questions about a U.S. provoked conflict with hard-liners in Iran are huge and unanswered. First, what is the U.S. interest being served by such a conflict? Are we trying to bomb Iran back to nuclear talks with the U.S? In fact, just the opposite might be the outcome. Someone should remind those around the president of how that worked in Vietnam and elsewhere.

Critical questions go on. What are our specific military objectives in a conflict with Iran? What result do they expect to achieve? How will Iran’s friend Russia respond to a U.S. strike?

How will Iran react to an attack? Iran is not about to engage in a conventional war with the U.S., but it has a wide range of asymmetrical options. Iran can hit U.S targets in Afghanistan and Iraq very easily. American interests and activities in the Middle East, Europe and around the globe are all potential targets.

Why is it up to the U.S. to defend the Persian Gulf? The U.S. is virtually oil-independent. The ships attacked in the Gulf were Japanese and Norwegian. Where are they in this? Why are our pals the Saudis and the other Gulf states not defending the waters — or are they using the U.S. to serve their interests?

Why is this not an international issue? Where are the United Nations and our traditional allies? U.S. unilateralists such as Trump and Bolton despise international organizations, but the rest of the world does not. The White House either does not want to approach the UN for international authority, or it is sure that such an appeal would not succeed for a host of reasons, most related to the image of America the bully.

ADVERTISEMENT

Trump has trashed U.S. relations with virtually every one of our long-standing democratic allies in Europe. Except for half-hearted British support, no political leader in Europe — or many other places — can go to their electorate to promote their national participation in a largely unilateralist action by the Trump administration against Iran, especially after Trump walked away from the Iran nuclear agreement.

Aside from questions, a generally historic truth is in play as the nation considers a strike on Iran and a U.S. commitment deeper into the Middle East: Great powers in history have run headlong into this region, only to later withdraw drained and exhausted. The examples are many — Rome, the Ottomans, Napoleon’s France, Britain and Germany. Is the United States the next power to repeat this mistake? 

The president so far has proved to be incompetent on foreign and national security affairs. His international vision of American unilateralism supported by hollow threats is a complete break with decades of U.S. foreign and national security policy. He publicly insults and badgers longtime democratic allies as well as international institutions such as NATO that were created largely by this country and have been the basis for U.S. national security for more than 70 years. He caters to tyrants such as Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinWe, the People: A radical idea that must persist Trump's 'soldier of fortune' foreign policy Feehery: Impeachment fever bad for Democratic governing vision MORE, Kim Jong UnKim Jong UnOvernight Defense: Trump hits Iranian central bank with sanctions | Trump meeting with Ukrainian leader at UN | Trump touts relationship with North Korea's Kim as 'best thing' for US Trump laments Otto Warmbier wasn't freed faster from North Korea Trump calls relationship with North Korea's Kim 'the best thing' for US MORE, Xi Jinping and others.

Trump has reduced American military readiness in Korea and given North Korea greater international status all while Kim retains his nuclear strike capability. Trump’s tariffs are hurting the U.S. domestic economy, and he has set back response to international climate change and now is pushing Iran back toward the process of obtaining nuclear weapons.

At his core, the president is a political animal. He must know that since 1945, war brought down not only Lyndon Johnson but also, arguably, Harry Truman. And as George H. W. Bush discovered, taking the country to war — while perhaps initially popular — can have serious domestic political hazards in the long run.

ADVERTISEMENT

Yet it is political considerations that give Bolton and the hawks leverage over Trump. The president seems obsessed with avoiding any image of weakness. Trump’s justification for calling off the military strike — a machine is not worth 150 lives — jibes with his criticism of previous administrations on the campaign trail. But any serious provocation of the U.S. by Iran will paint the president into a position of perceived weakness, and he may lash out to show strength.

The other potentially effective political argument to sway the president to war is the idea that a minor clash with Iran will dominate the national press and push the nagging impeachment debate off the stage.

Foreign policy and national security are not typically the hot topics for most Americans until a crisis erupts or a disaster happens. Right now, the escalating U.S military confrontation with Iran is not yet a crisis, but it’s close — and U.S. policy looks half-baked in an administration without a confirmed and capable secretary of Defense and an interagency structure that is in disarray.

Lots of big questions need to be resolved before this country rushes into a conflict with Iran to achieve an unclear and ill-conceived objective.

James W. Pardew is a former U.S. ambassador to Bulgaria and career Army intelligence officer. He has served as Deputy Assistant Secretary General of NATO and is the author of Peacemakers: American Leadership and the End of Genocide in the Balkans.