President Trump’s apparent drift toward war with Iran is taking on qualities that seem eerily similar to the run-up to another big armed conflict that Trump once cast as the height of elite corruption and folly.
Trump successfully campaigned for president on the (false) claim that he opposed the war with Iraq. Yet now his administration seems to be running a sequel: There’s the alarming, inescapable sense that the administration’s actions cannot be explained by any rationale other than a concerted effort to make war more likely.
And there are leaks from officials warning that the intelligence doesn’t justify the ramping up that is taking place, and that war is the deliberate aim.
Now is the time for elected officials to sound the alarm about this looming disaster as loudly as possible. In an interview, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), the chair of the Intelligence Committee, said the administration’s actions at this point strongly suggest that war is the end goal.
“Iran is and has been for decades a malevolent actor and a state sponsor of terror,” Schiff told me. “But I’m also gravely concerned about actions taken by the administration that appear calculated to put us on a collision course.”
“Armed conflict with Iran,” Schiff continued, “would be an unmitigated disaster.”
Trump, of course, pulled us out of the Iran nuclear deal, apparently motivated by little more than the belief that if President Barack Obama negotiated the agreement, it must have represented nothing but capitulation and weakness. After that, the administration reimposed sanctions on Iran and has continued to ramp up pressure.
In reality, Iran was complying with the deal, and as Schiff points out, Trump simply didn’t offer any credible rationale for pulling out of it. “The administration has never articulated how getting out of the Iran nuclear agreement was in our national security interest,” Schiff told me.
What appears to have happened since then is that pulling out created a vacuum that is now being filled by hard-line officials such as national security adviser John Bolton, who apparently has wanted war with Iran since he wore short pants.
Bolton was behind the administration’s newly drawn-up plans to send as many as 120,000 troops to the Middle East, if Iran attacks U.S. forces or steps up its nuclear work. The administration has been warning of various threats posed by Iran to U.S. interests in the Middle East.
But we’re now learning that European officials — and even some U.S. ones — say the administration’s war preparations are based on an inflated reading of those threats. Behold these remarkable paragraphs in the New York Times, which will seem chillingly familiar to anyone who paid close attention to the run-up to Iraq:
Intelligence and military officials in Europe as well as in the United States said that over the past year, most aggressive moves have originated not in Tehran, but in Washington — where John R. Bolton, the national security adviser, has prodded President Trump into backing Iran into a corner.
One American official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss confidential internal planning, said the new intelligence of an increased Iranian threat was “small stuff” and did not merit the military planning being driven by Mr. Bolton. The official also said the ultimate goal of the yearlong economic sanctions campaign by the Trump administration was to draw Iran into an armed conflict with the United States.
If this is right, Bolton appears to have maneuvered Trump into making war with Iran more likely. As a recent Post editorial pointed out, pulling out of a deal that was working, and escalating the pressure on Iran, has created the risk of provoking Iran into actions that the United States would have to respond to militarily. Which may be the whole point.
Put simply, it appears Bolton may have cornered Trump into cornering Iran. And what’s particularly alarming is that there are no signs Trump has thought through where this might end up.
“It looks like they’re steering our ship of state into very troubled waters without any idea what to do when they get there,” Schiff told me.
It’s also alarming that American officials, per the Times report quoted above, are now basically confirming this analysis.
If it’s true, as the Times reports, that the intelligence does not reflect a threat that merits the scale of war planning Bolton has initiated, then House Democrats will have to gear up and try to shed some light on what’s happening here.
Schiff told me that the Intelligence Committee is in the course of examining what, exactly, the intelligence does indicate about Iran.
“We’re going through the intelligence now,” Schiff said. “We’ll be riding shotgun to make sure that the intelligence agencies continue to give us their unfettered analysis and that this analysis is not any way affected by the president’s political agenda.”
However, when I asked Schiff whether there is cause for worry that the administration is publicly misrepresenting what the intelligence indicates, he demurred.
“My concern at the moment is that the administration [is] putting us on the path that is more likely to lead to armed conflict, not less, without great thought for the consequences,” Schiff said.
That is of course worrying enough on its own. But before long, we may discover that it’s worse than that, and that we’re seeing a repeat of the manipulation of intelligence that led us into disaster the last time.