National Security & Defense

Does Trump Understand His Bad Cop?

National Security Advisor John Bolton watches as President Donald Trump gives a news briefing at the G7 Summit in the Charlevoix city of La Malbaie, Quebec, Canada June 9, 2018. (Leah Millis/Reuters)
The president, John Bolton, and Iran’s provocations

The Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s recent seizure of a British-flagged oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz looks like a prelude to greater conflict. National Review’s own editorial says that Iran is behaving like a country that wants to get bombed. Although, publicly, Iran greeted the arrival of new Prime Minister Boris Johnson with a message pleading: “Iran does not seek confrontation!”

And so far this conflict is at a standstill. Foreign-policy watchers have noted that Iran’s actions are very likely a response to the British seizure of a Panamanian-flagged ship carrying Iranian crude through the Strait of Gibraltar.

This is the third month in a row in which tensions between Iran and the United States have ramped up considerably. In May, the United States announced a more aggressive positioning of military assets. In June, President Trump prepared for and then called off military air strikes against Iranian targets.

In these moments of international conflict, it is still worth asking whether the president has a firm grip on the chain of command. Trump once announced the complete withdrawal of American troops from Syria but seems to have been overruled as his Cabinet and other creatures of policy pushed back against him; “White House officials” would announce a contrary policy.

In a report for Axios, Jonathan Swan outlines the relationship between national-security adviser John Bolton and president Donald Trump. It’s a relationship that has been the subject of a number of dissections in the past. Trump ran against a foreign-policy establishment that launched too many wars and never seemed to win them. Trump reportedly jokes in Oval Office meetings that “John [Bolton] has never seen a war he doesn’t like” and even once asked in front of an Irish delegation, “Is Ireland one of those countries you want to invade?”

Nobody has to guess what John Bolton’s position is vis-à-vis Iran. “The behavior and objectives of the regime are not going to change,” Bolton said of Iran a year ago. “Therefore the only solution is to change the regime itself.” In early May, it was Bolton who announced on Twitter and via press release that American naval assets were being moved toward Iran. There was no Pentagon briefing. This was accompanied by senator Tom Cotton suggesting that the United States would win a war with Iran in two strikes: “The first strike and the last strike.”

Trump is not nearly as hawkish on Iran as Bolton is. And dovish voices in the Republican ambit have been openly lobbying for the president to remove Bolton from his position. From his seat in a studio at Fox during prime time, and as an occasional informal adviser, Tucker Carlson is perhaps the most influential of these. But according to Axios, Trump thinks Bolton is a major asset in the administration. Foreign actors respect and perhaps fear Bolton. And Trump deploys him as a “bad cop” in meetings and in negotiations.

This is a time-honored part of presidential decision-making. Presidents like to see a range of views, and some of our most creative and successful presidents in the realm of foreign policy — think Nixon and China — developed their ideas by keeping a wide range of voices around them at all times. But this only works if the president fully understands the decisions he does allow his subordinates to make.

It was the U.S. that tipped off Britain to the passage of the Grace 1. The U.K.’s Navy is under-equipped to protect other British ships in the Strait of Hormuz, but beyond the capture of one British ship, globally important trade is still passing through these strategic waters. If that trade were to be slowed down significantly, the very well-heated global economy could begin its long-expected downward turn.

In other words, President Trump may be facing a choice even if he isn’t aware of it. He can head into 2020 running on peace and prosperity, or he can be a war president. The authority to choose between these courses is his. If he knows how to exercise it.

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