John Bolton’s sudden departure from the White House last week cheered progressives who believe America has no enemies, just friends whose grievances we’ve failed to address, as well as those conservatives who believe if we leave our enemies alone, they’ll return the favor. And you thought there was no common ground between left and right.
Count me among those not cheered. Mr. Bolton calls himself an Americanist, meaning he believes this nation must be strong and resolute enough to daunt its enemies (because enemies we shall always have), and reassure its friends (because friends are good and useful to have).
President Trump’s former national security adviser is no proponent of nation-building in the sense of planting democracy in arid soils. At the same time, he recognizes that if the United States doesn’t shoulder some significant global responsibilities, no other nation — and certainly no transnational organization — will.
My point is not that you — or, more consequentially, Mr. Trump — should admire Mr. Bolton’s moustache and agree with his every policy preference. My point is that Mr. Bolton has been providing the president with strategic thinking grounded in a serious reading of our adversaries’ histories, ideologies, intentions and capabilities.
H.R. McMaster, who preceded Mr. Bolton as national security adviser, did the same. Their personalities are very different — Gen. McMaster is an even-tempered soldier/scholar, Ambassador Bolton a bit of a firebrand — but both brought to the Oval Office useful perspectives and reasoned policy options.
Mr. Bolton’s departure was reportedly precipitated when Mr. Trump began to consider giving in to demands from Iran’s rulers to relieve economic pressure on them as a pre-condition for new talks about their nuclear weapons program, support for terrorists, imperialist aggression and other malign activities.
To do so would repeat one of President Obama’s worst errors: The lifting of sanctions following an interim agreement with the Islamic Republic of Iran in 2013.
From that point on, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, perceiving that concluding a deal had become politically essential to Mr. Obama, made no concessions. Mr. Obama’s negotiators, led by Secretary of State John Kerry, made one after another. Had the talks been a poker game, Mr. Kerry would have come home shirtless.
Houthi rebels in Yemen, funded, armed and instructed by Tehran, quickly claimed credit. Almost as quickly, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he wasn’t buying it. “There is no evidence the attacks came from Yemen,” he tweeted. “Amid all the calls for de-escalation, Iran has now launched an unprecedented attack on the world’s energy supply.”
Based on U.S. intelligence reports, administration officials believe the guided munitions were launched from the north — from Iranian soil.
Wherever they came from, we can confidently conclude that Iran’s rulers were responsible. The reason for the Houthi claim: To provide those rulers with sufficient “plausible deniability” to satisfy their sympathizers and apologists, a not insignificant coterie in both Washington and Europe.
The benefit of such subterfuge became apparent when, just hours after the attack, Iran’s rulers offered to help shore up the global economy by increasing their oil output to make up for the 5 percent of global supplies that their act of war has put offline.
Talk about arsonists volunteering to assist the fire brigade. Oh and by the way, in exchange for that favor, they really must insist that the United States lift its silly sanctions.
The faux goodwill was soon replaced by menace. “Everybody should know that all American bases and their aircraft carriers in a distance of up to 2,000 kilometers around Iran are within the range of our missiles,” an Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard commander noted on Sunday. In case President Trump failed to catch his drift, he added: “Iran has always been ready for a ‘full-fledged’ war.”
Ambassador Bolton would not take such threats lightly. He’d suggest the president review a list of punitive responses. That does not imply another “endless war.” It does imply inflicting pain on the theocratic regime.
An interesting question: Did Iran’s rulers figure that with the administration’s leading hawk out of the picture, now would be the perfect time to flex their muscles and do some damage to an American strategic partner and the global economy? Sophisticated attacks require preparation but who’s to say that the pieces were not already in place awaiting the right opportunity?
As President Trump considers his options, he should remember a cardinal rule: If we reward aggression, we’ll get more of it. This episode also should remind us how foolish we would be ever to allow a regime whose slogan for 40 years has been “Death to America!” to acquire nuclear warheads and missiles that can deliver them anywhere on the planet.
I’m confident Secretary Pompeo, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and CIA Director Gina Haspel get all that, and are counseling Mr. Trump accordingly.
Nevertheless, I’d sleep better if Ambassador Bolton were still on the job. He’d be the loudest and most vehement voice opposing both appeasement and isolationism.
He’d tell the president plainly that America cannot become great again by submitting to Islamist bullies who will probe with their bayonets so long as they feel mush, stopping only when they hit steel. He’d warn against recycling Mr. Obama’s failed policies. You see why I’m not cheered by his departure from the White House?
• Clifford D. May is founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and a columnist for The Washington Times.
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