PHILIP H. GORDON is the Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. He was Special Assistant to the President and White House Coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa, and the Gulf Region from 2013 to 2015.
... With all the public talk about the potential for conflict with Iran, Trump appears to be looking for a way out. He said last week that he would “like to see [Iran’s leaders] call me,” and he reportedly told the Pentagon that he did not want to go to war. His continued outreach to Chinese Leader Xi Jinping and Kim Jong Un, despite their defiance, also suggests that he may well understand the risks of escalation. Perhaps Trump has, after all, envisaged a future that includes inadvertent U.S. military conflict and doesn’t like what he sees.
Less reassuring, however, is that the Trump administration’s overall approach to these issues—and the president’s personal approach to dealmaking—has not changed and risks ending in catastrophic failure. The pattern seems to be one of hoping that threats, sanctions, and bluster force an adversary to concede or accept a “great deal”; then, having failed to anticipate the actual results of such tactics, the United States finds itself backed into a corner with no obvious way out. In an apparent effort to assuage fears of war with Iran, one senior U.S. official said to The Washington Post this week, “because we are applying levels of pressure that don’t have any historic precedent, I think we can expect Iran to increase its threats and to increase its malign behavior.” That such a response from Iran might be explicable does not make it reassuring.
While Trump may not want war, moreover, he is no longer surrounded by advisers who can help him avoid it. Former Defense Secretary James Mattis, someone who had seen war up close, was a voice of restraint, but he has now been gone for six months, and his acting successor has neither the stature nor apparently the willingness to challenge Trump. The president’s two closest foreign policy advisers are now Secretary of State Mike Pompeo—an uber-hawk on Iran who seems to tell Trump only what he wants to hear—and National Security Adviser John Bolton, who has long advocated the very sorts of wars Trump apparently seeks to avoid. Bolton has argued that the only way to stop Iran’s nuclear program is to bomb it and advocated supporting Iranian ethnic and internal resistance groups in order to accelerate regime change. He has also called on the United States to revisit the “one China” policy and “see how an increasingly belligerent China responds”; refused to rule out the use of U.S. forces in Venezuela while insisting that the Monroe Doctrine is “alive and well”; and written that “it is perfectly legitimate for the United States to respond to the current ‘necessity’ posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons by striking first.”
In 2017, when I imagined various ways the United States might stumble into a conflict, I got some things right and some things wrong. What I certainly failed to anticipate was that two years further on, we would be relying on the instincts of Donald Trump to keep us out of war.
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