After months of mostly battling domestic political foes, the Trump White House is suddenly juggling a handful of potentially volatile situations from South America to the Middle East to East Asia.
President Donald Trump, his top White House aides and outside surrogates have largely spent the months since November’s midterm elections pre-butting, then rebutting special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report on Russian election meddling. But since its release last month, the commander in chief has been forced to deal with Venezuela’s political strife, a defiant North Korea, a chill in trade talks with China and a newly aggressive Iran.
Last week, the president sent a U.S. aircraft carrier strike group and a bomber group to the Middle East to counter what officials said are new threats toward American forces in the region. His administration also confiscated a massive North Korean ship purportedly used to violate sanctions. And his national security adviser, John Bolton, floated the notion of U.S. military force in Venezuela.
Together, the muscular foreign policy approach was a departure from Trump’s “America first” worldview. Bolton’s hawkish foreign policy philosophy appears, for now, to be moving his boss from isolationist to something of an interventionist.
Trump on Thursday gave Bolton a vote of presidential confidence, in the face of reports that he has grown frustrated with the aggressive views of his top national security adviser. But the president, notably, opted to take a jab at his adviser’s hawkishness.
“John’s very good. He has strong views on things, which is OK,” Trump said. “I’m the one who tempers him, which is OK. I have John Bolton, and I have people who are a little more dovish than him.”
Some Democratic lawmakers have long raised concerns about Bolton’s influence on Trump, whom former strategist Steve Bannon said recently had no discernible worldview when they first met a half-decade ago. Bolton was a big supporter of the 2003 Iraq War and a leading proponent of military force.
Foreign policy and national security experts agree, and some worry anew that Bolton’s views are pushing Trump toward multiple conflicts — especially with Iran.
“These actions the last few days toward Iran have John Bolton’s fingerprints all over them. I don’t think there’s any question,” said one former U.S. military official, granted anonymity to be candid.
“It looks like Bolton is looking for reason to convince the president to take more and more provocative actions against Iran. Moving the carrier group and the bombers is such an overreaction,” the former official said. “I’m not saying that we shouldn’t defend our troops in the region — a president certainly has a responsibility to do that.”
“Our overreaction to what is a reasonable response to the sanctions by the leaders of Iran — moving the missiles out to defend themselves — could cause them to overreact. That’s when very bad things can happen,” the former official added. “None of this is good for the country — or the president’s re-election campaign, frankly.”
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Democrats like Senate Intelligence member Dianne Feinstein are warning that Trump and Bolton have “raised tensions” to a point that their moves are “pushing us closer to another Middle East conflict.
“The president should reconsider his bellicose posturing and instead search for a diplomatic solution,” the California Democrat said in a Thursday statement. White House policies such as exiting a multi-country nuclear pact with Tehran and other moves are the reasons the Iranian government “expanded its hostile behavior,” making it “clear the president’s approach is failing,” Feinstein said.
Republican members, like Senate Foreign Relations member Mitt Romney, a sometimes Trump critic, sidestepped when asked last week by CNN if the Trump administration is marching toward war in Iran.
“I'm not going to speculate on a future that we can’t possibly see at this stage,” the Utah Republican said.
But he also contended the Trump team merely is trying to use forceful sanctions “to cripple their economy, hoping that by doing so, they would get Iran to come to the table and enter into an agreement to abandon their nuclear ambitions.”
What Trump and Bolton are signaling if Iran does not cease its missile movements and support of proxy groups is an American air assault via warplanes operating from the carrier and heavier strikes via the bombers. But that carries its own risk.
That’s because it is not immediately clear that airstrikes alone would be viewed in Tehran as “significant enough [of a] threat to force the Iranians to refrain from aggressive actions in the region,” according to George Friedman, the chairman of Geopolitical Futures, a Texas-based global risk strategy firm. “The U.S. is trying to reassert its power [in the region] without redeploying ground forces.”
Trump campaigned on untangling the United States from conflicts in the region, ground wars Bolton advocated.
At the same time, the Trump team is trying to salvage stalled trade negotiations with China while also trying to force Nicolás Maduro from power in Venezuela.
The former U.S. official — who has been involved in high-level negotiations, including in Asia — sees major flaws in the Trump foreign policy and deal-making style. The 45th president has demanded North Korea give up its entire nuclear arms program before agreeing to major sanctions relief, staunchly stuck to a list of strict demands in the China talks and raised tariffs on Chinese goods Friday after not getting his way, and sent mixed messages to Iranian leaders.
“You simply have to be able to give something to get something,” the former official said.
“There’s really no other way, be it a trade deal or the nuclear talks with North Korea or when you’re trying to write domestic legislation that has a chance in Hell of passing. … I don’t care what it is that you want at the end of the day, you just can’t do things this way if you want to succeed.”