If only acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney were alive and kicking, John Bolton wouldn’t be trying to start a splendid little war with Iran, creating such a hash of U.S. policy toward that country that in the space of a week, Trump has started, stopped, and restarted hostilities. Before Iran could hear of Trump’s de-escalation, a small explosion in the green zone in Baghdad inspired him to reignite his warnings that if Iran wants a fight, he’ll see to the “official end” of the country.
That Twitter threat was issued Monday, the day after Fox News had aired a taped interview with the commander in chief trying to de-escalate his own administration’s war-like moves toward Tehran. Those were largely the moves of Bolton, his national security adviser, who’s rarely met a regime he doesn’t want to change, Iran’s most of all.
What’s happened to escalate tensions with Iran is that Trump has gone through so many staff, he’s largely dispensed with them, including an actual chief of staff, freeing Bolton to wag the dog as hard as he’s always wanted to.
A real chief of staff wouldn’t let an adviser drive while drunk on power.
In a macabre celebration of the one-year anniversary of Trump tearing up Obama’s nuclear deal with nothing to replace it, Bolton has escalated tensions to the point where Trump, of all people, called his own national security adviser’s bluff. He doesn’t want to go to war with Iran, after all. He told Fox News’ Steve Hilton: “I’m not one that believes—you know, I’m not somebody that wants to go into war, because war hurts economies, war kills people most importantly—by far most importantly."
In a normal White House, an empowered chief of staff, as opposed to an acting one, would have a process in place for matters of war and peace to be reviewed by pertinent officials with options presented to the president, reduced to bullet points if needed. That includes those of the national security adviser, in his capacity as an honest broker, not an ideologue acting out his dreams of war.
Without that debate, the U.S. designated Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist organization. A destroyer and bombers moved into place in the Persian Gulf, and American diplomats were told to warn commercial airliners that they could be misidentified by Iran and attacked. By the time Trump realized his natural impulse to bully anyone who doesn’t succumb to his flattery, or flatter him, was mixing with actual war-like moves on the ground, his natural non-interventionist instincts kicked in. Although the president doesn’t know much foreign policy, he does know that once guns are in place anyone can start shooting. Thus his pulling back on his rhetoric on Fox News.
Until now, and before Bolton, Trump had only attacked a nuclear deal that had Obama’s name on it, a document, not a country. Into a vacuum of what should replace it walked Bolton, with no one left to counter him. H.R. McMaster, Rex Tillerson, and James Mattis are gone, having bored Trump with their process and note-taking. Those who’ve come since know the drill. Get with what you guess is the program—it’s not always clear—or be humiliated before being fired by tweet.
Former Boeing executive and Acting Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan is not leading but being led. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo aims only to please and not incur Trump’s anger.
The one person who could bring some order to the bunch, Mulvaney, says he’s just “enjoying” the job. That’s acting! He’d rather take some heat when things go wrong—like shouldering the blame for killing funds for the Special Olympics—than imposing a system on a bunch of freelancers.
Mulvaney saw what happened to General John Kelly, who did little more than scowl disapprovingly at Trump’s worst antics and keep Trump’s adult kids confined to the sandbox. He was driven out anyway, his first professional failure. That’s one reason it’s back to the future in the West Wing, to the days when Omarosa had walk-in privileges and Ivanka and Jared were Trump’s untouchable top advisers. Mulvaney’s told friends he’s hoping everyone can all get along until he can get a real job as Secretary of Something or Other, anywhere not under Trump’s thumb.
Any White House can be invaded by ideologues, but there is usually a system for weighing their passion amid a more seasoned, disciplined group of advisers who are there to serve the country, not one man. Without a strong organization, Bolton has an open field—as does his counterpart on immigration, Stephen Miller. They scorch the earth. Others just hope to stay out of their way.
Trump’s softening of Bolton’s rhetoric didn’t come soon enough to calm Iran. Rather Iran is wagging its own dog with the threat that there are more and bigger bombs where that tiny one in Baghdad came from.
Bolton’s warmongering has not ushered in a coalition of the willing bringing Tehran back to the negotiating table where magically a better deal would be hammered out.
What’s happened instead is more misery for Iran’s citizens from sanctions, more proxy fighters throughout the region, more protests. There’s a warship within shooting range of Iran.
Trump early on considered hiring Bolton but reportedly resisted because he couldn’t get past the mustache. That’s one time he should have followed his shallow instincts. And he should give Mulvaney that promotion to a backwater department. Commerce is going to be needing someone soon if Wilbur Ross doesn’t finally get his ethics clearance.
Or maybe not, since there’s no real chief of staff insisting he must have one.