While it pains me to say this, President Trump is not the figure in the administration with the least common sense and prudence. That distinction goes to the advisers who nearly led him and the United States into a military confrontation with Iran for which there was no off-ramp and no clear objective.
The job of the national security adviser is to make sure the president has the best information and the best options to make decisions. It was obvious from the outset, and has become inescapably true with time, that national security adviser John Bolton is not that person. By the president’s own admission, Bolton is an unbridled advocate of military conflict, a man for whom any attainable diplomatic deal is an anathema.
“I have some hawks. Yeah, John Bolton is absolutely a hawk. If it was up to him he’d take on the whole world at one time,” Trump said in his “Meet the Press” interview on Sunday. That is petrifying — especially regarding a national security adviser whose job is essentially that of an honest broker. Not only is that apparently not happening, but by the president’s own admission — and as seen in incoherent Venezuela and Iran policies — Bolton’s lack of foresight and judgment has led to embarrassing retreats for the president. The longer Bolton is there, the greater risk that one of his reckless suggestions comes to fruition.
And by the way, if Trump really never got a casualty assessment until that late in the process — or more likely, never sufficiently focused on it — that is unforgivable negligence on Bolton’s part.
And what about Secretary of State Mike Pompeo? His propensity to mislead the public and Congress (on progress on North Korea talks, on the Saudi crown prince’s involvement in the gruesome murder of Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi) have severely diminished his credibility. Moreover, he too seems to be raising the stakes, prodding the president to be ever more bellicose and failing to provide a rational path to achieve our ends. It’s not even clear, candidly, what ends Pompeo seeks.
Pompeo’s speech last year laid down 12 conditions for Iran that amounted to “regime suicide.” His pursuit of “maximum pressure” without allies at our side — and without contemplating that Iran would lash out — was bound to fail and/or to embarrass the president, who has no stomach to back up words with orders.
Republicans once believed that Trump’s ignorance, recklessness and erratic tendencies would be checked by wise men and women. That was fanciful from the get-go, since the president ultimately calls the shots. In any case, the Iran debacle underscores the absence of wise advisers. To the contrary, a president who is ignorant, reckless and erratic does not have the tools to select good advisers — or to hold onto them.
Certainly, a heavy responsibility rests with Republicans such as Sen. Tom Cotton (Ark.) who have posited that a couple of strikes would wipe out Iran and who have continued to agitate for war. (On Sunday, Cotton seemed undeterred by the president’s retreat.) However, it is ultimately the president and his advisers who bear the responsibility for a coherent, rational foreign policy. So long as Trump and his current crop of advisers are there — and we lack a qualified, confirmed secretary of defense — that won’t be possible. The risk of gross miscalculation continues.