“Is John Bolton the most dangerous man in the world?”
That headline leaped from the pages of a British newspaper on Thursday, which declared the U.S. “is closer to war with Iran than it has been since the Bush years, or perhaps ever.” And, the opinion writer added, Trump’s national security adviser “is largely to blame.”
That view – that Bolton is driving Trump into a perilous military confrontation with America’s principal foe in the Middle East – is ricocheting across the globe, from Tehran to Washington.
But national security experts inside and outside the White House say Bolton’s role has been exaggerated – and his influence with the president has been overstated, particularly when it comes to the prospect of a costly war with Iran.
For starters, Trump has made it clear he doesn’t like the idea and is generally averse to foreign military entanglements.
Asked on Thursday if his administration is marching toward war with Iran, Trump offered a three-word response: “I hope not.”
A hard-line message to Iran
Bolton is simply playing his part in a geopolitical dance designed to send a hard-line message to the Iranian regime, said Mark Dubowitz, the chief executive of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based foreign policy research institute that supports strong pressure on Iran.
“Bolton in many ways is from central casting if you were looking for a consummate hawk,” said Dubowitz, who has advised the Trump administration and previous presidents on Iran policy. “It’s all useful from the psyops perspective.”
Dubowitz said the White House has deliberately trumpeted its decision to send B-52 bombers and other military forces to Iran, purposefully said that move was in response to threats from Iran and intentionally used Bolton as a key messenger.
“I think it’s actually a well-orchestrated campaign that has a public relations piece, a military positioning piece, (and) obviously the economic financial piece” of escalating sanctions, Dubowitz said. Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are the perfect “bad cops,” he said, to make Iran – and the rest of the world – nervous about Trump’s intentions.
“Trump can go from fire and fury to writing love letters, so he has a certain amount of diplomatic flexibility,” he said. One minute he can be as bellicose as Bolton, and the next he can shout, “‘Hey, hi there. Do you want to talk.'”
That’s what Trump seemed to be doing on Thursday, when he met with the president of the Swiss government, which is known for its role in mediating potential conflicts between Iran and the U.S.
“I’m sure that Iran will want to talk soon,” Trump tweeted on Wednesday in a pair of messages seen directed in part at Bolton. The president used social media to downplay reports of divisions within the administration over Iran.
“There is no infighting whatsoever,” Trump said. “Different opinions are expressed and I make a decisive and final decision – it is a very simple process.”
Hawkish past concerns lawmakers
Lawmakers are not reassured.
“This president has surrounded himself with people – Pompeo and Bolton in particular – who believe that getting tough on a military basis with Iran is in our best interest. I do not,” said Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the chamber’s No. 2 Democratic leader.
Durbin and other lawmakers said Bolton’s past statements on Iran, and his trumpeting of questionable intelligence in the lead-up to the 2003 Iraq war, are deeply concerning.
Before Bolton joined the Trump administration, he vocally advocated for regime change in Iran. He also played a key role in pushing for the U.S. invasion of Iraq during the George W. Bush administration, which relied on faulty intelligence about Saddam Hussein’s chemical and nuclear weapons program.
Now with Iran, Durbin said the situation has become so tense and the rhetoric so hot, that even if Trump has no desire for war, he may stumble into it.
He noted, for example, that the Houthi rebels, who are backed by Iran and at war with Saudi Arabia in Yemen, could launch an attack that inadvertently kills an American service member.
“I fear … we’re going to have a Gulf of Tonkin moment, where there is some American or serviceman who is going to be injured or killed and people are going to be calling for retribution,” Durbin said.
But Bolton is only one of many advisers Trump speaks to about Iran and other foreign policy issues, said current and former officials. He hears a lot of different views, and often throws out ideas of his own – sometimes ideas he doesn’t really plan to pursue.
Throughout his presidency, Trump’s sounding boards have ranged from super hawks like Bolton to cautious types like former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. From anti-China tariff warriors like Peter Navarro to more market-oriented types like Larry Kudlow.
Trump tends to be against intervention
At some point – no one knows how or when – Trump suddenly makes a decision. He often announces things before informing unwitting staff members, sometimes by tweet and sometimes by statements to inquiring reporters.
“It’s not exactly chaos,” said one former staff member. “But it’s not orderly.”
Garrett Marquis, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said Bolton and the president are on the same page.
“Working closely with President Trump’s national security team, Ambassador Bolton continues to coordinate the President’s guidance to protect American personnel and interests from Iranian threats abroad,” he said.
Trump and his advisers chafe at claims that Bolton is some kind of “puppet master” leading Trump into war. Having campaigned against “stupid wars” in Iraq and Afghanistan, Trump is highly unlikely to order military action against Iran, administration officials said, despite the rising beat of war drums from Bolton and others.
While giving free rein to his aides to express dissenting views, Trump is annoyed at Bolton for being so publicly bellicose toward Iran, fearing it increases the chances for accidental war.
Talk of war with Iran is “way ahead of where things are” within the administration, particularly with Trump, one official said.
The exception would be if Iran attacks U.S. personnel in the Middle East, officials said – a development that may be more likely in part because of a Trump management style that is haphazard at best and chaotic at worst.
But Trump often sticks with his pre-existing views, and his default position in foreign policy tends to be against intervention. He has pushed to withdraw U.S troops from Afghanistan and Syria, over the objections of military advisers. Mattis resigned in part over Trump’s plan – later modified – to withdraw troops from Syria.
The flip side, officials say, is that Trump may be getting painted into a corner, and would have to respond if Iran does something to U.S. personnel.
For all his criticism of the George W. Bush administration’s actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, Trump has as his national security adviser a major proponent of those interventions.
Durbin said he fears he’s watching a replay of the debate for the Iraq war.
“The weapons of mass destruction turned out to be a fiction, and we were just stampeding into this invasion at that time,” he aid. “I see it again, all over again.”