Last Friday the news broke that Donald Trump had finally gotten around to ordering retaliatory strikes against Iran, but when U.S. planes were ten minutes out, he suddenly changed his mind and called it off.
This set the Internet into a frenzy, with most people getting the Iran story exactly backward because they were viewing it through the distorting lens of partisan domestic politics. In this case, oddly, the partisanship is not about Donald Trump. Rather, it’s driven by the demonization of National Security Advisor John Bolton, both by the left and by the new nationalist right.
The real story of Iran’s recent military escalation in the Persian Gulf is that it is Iran’s escalation. They are the ones who planned and carried out a campaign of strikes against shipping in the Strait of Hormuz and they’re the ones who decided to take potshots at our drones. That’s what all the available evidence shows. The screams of “false flag” are nothing more than reflexive denials by people who don’t want to admit Iran’s aggression and who think they have a sophisticated knowledge of intelligence analysis because they watched a couple episodes of Burn Notice.
The Iranian regime’s motive is obvious. They have been badly hurt by U.S.-led economic sanctions, and they followed up the recent tanker attacks by demanding the loosening of those sanctions. This is an attempt to blackmail the world—the recently targeted tankers were from Norway and Japan—by threatening the commerce in oil that moves through the Gulf.
More broadly, the Iranian regime is run by religious fanatics who believe in promoting their zealotry through force and violence. This is the essence of both Iran’s domestic policy and its foreign policy, which for decades has consisted of setting as much of the world on fire as it can reach.
So clearly, the cause of the recent tensions, and the real villain in all of this, is . . . John Bolton?
From the left, for example, Pete Buttigieg was asked to respond to Iranian “escalation” and had nothing to say about Iran. Instead, he went on at length about how “the fact that one of the architects of the Iraq War is the president’s national security adviser right now . . . is shocking.” A Democratic congressman denounced the prospect of a “John Bolton war.”
From the right, Tucker Carlson pioneered a curious new species of blame-America-first nationalism, offering only nice things to say about Iran—it’s a “big, rich, sophisticated country, with an ancient culture”—and instead spending the better part of five minutes denouncing Bolton as a “demented” “bureaucratic tapeworm.”
The conflict between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the United States goes back 40 years. America as the “Great Satan” is part of the founding mythology of the regime, and for all that time they have been seeking out conflict with us, either directly or more often through proxies, in a kind of miniature Cold War between ideological antipodes. This is a history that predates the current administration and any particular figure within the administration. So if you view this recent incident through the lens of your like or dislike for a single administration official, you’re going to get it wrong.
Yet that’s exactly what people are doing.
This is part of a larger trend of viewing all political issues through a lens of personal enmity. When applied to Donald Trump, this is known as Orange Man Bad, a politics in which everything Donald Trump does is evil because he does it. The current John Bolton fixation is the equivalent in foreign policy.
Call it Mustached Man Bad.
This cartoon caricature of Bolton is why people also get the second half of the story wrong.
In reality, what happened last Thursday is that the national security advisor and the secretary of state (we have no secretary of defense) managed to convince the president to take the absolute minimum military response to Iranian provocation: bombing a few Iranian radar stations and targeting them at night in order to reduce casualties. This is the kind of restrained pinprick strike Barack Obama or Bill Clinton might have ordered. But the president blinked at the last minute, coming out on Twitter Friday with a cockamamie story about how, at the last moment, he suddenly realized that people might die when we drop bombs on them.
Set aside the infantile simplicity of the moral reasoning here. (The principle of “proportionality” allows one to take into account deterrence of future attacks, not just immediate retaliation for a single act.) The real takeaway from this tweet storm is that Trump’s advisors almost certainly did brief him about civilian casualties and the question of proportionality before he made the original decision to attack—because that is a standard part of national security advice to presidents. Trump is either lying about his advisors now, or simply wasn’t paying attention then. (Inside accounts suggest the latter.) Then, when the wheels of action were in motion, the president’s mood suddenly altered and he changed his decision—sending a signal of vacillation and incompetence to his administration, to our armed forces, to our allies, and to our enemies.
In other words, this is a story of sober caution on the part of the president’s advisors—and reckless incompetence on the part of the president himself.
Yet if you saw it through the media fun-house mirror of either the partisan left or the nationalist right, the story was that John Bolton was about to plunge us headlong into an invasion of Iran, a military quagmire that would dwarf the Iraq War in scale, and it was only Trump who pulled us back, “saving his presidency from John Bolton.”
Of course, nobody was actually talking about invading Iran. No influential political or foreign policy figure has seriously contemplated it since 1980, when the Iranian regime released its American hostages (in part because they were afraid Ronald Reagan was contemplating it). Our long-term strategy for Iran, when we have followed it, has been to deter the regime from acts of aggression while seeking to undermine it and make it vulnerable to overthrow from within by young people eager for freedom.
You can argue about which tools we should use for this aim, whether military strikes are too much, or—far more plausibly, in my view—whether we’ve done too little. But hysteria about imminent invasion and “full-scale war” is a demonstration of aggressive ignorance.
The symbol of that ignorance is the John Bolton bogeyman that the anti-war critics have constructed. Many people rushed to inform us, as proof of their conspiracy theories, that Bolton has in the past called for increasing tension to lead to war with Iran. They cited a 2015 op-ed in the New York Times in which Bolton advocated “military action like Israel’s 1981 attack on Saddam Hussein’s Osirak reactor in Iraq or its 2007 destruction of a Syrian reactor, designed and built by North Korea”—in other words, limited strikes that did not, in fact, lead to full-scale war. He advocates that this be “combined with vigorous American support for Iran’s opposition, aimed at regime change in Tehran” from within. His goal? To prevent a nuclear arms race in the Middle East and the possibility of a much bigger and more devastating war.
A longtime rap against the post-Vietnam left is that they’re so focused on their domestic political enemies that they can’t bring themselves to acknowledge the reality of America’s actual enemies overseas. In the current case they are demonstrating that inclination again—but the big news is the extent to which they are being joined by the new nationalist right.
Both groups have domestic political scores to settle. The far left hates American capitalism, so following Marx they declare it to be “imperialist”—and everything that happens in foreign policy needs to be distorted to fit that narrative. This is particularly true when any American intervention overseas would be led by a Republican president, in which case knee-jerk anti-Americanism coincides with immediate partisan interests.
Our new nationalist right has a score to settle with the “neoconservatives,” whom they make out to be “globalists” pursuing an anti-authoritarian freedom agenda. This is an offshoot of the nationalists’ internecine battle against the pro-freedom “liberals” for the soul of the right.
Both of these domestic political goals are misguided and consist of different styles of opposition to liberty, and the differences between them keep getting smaller by the day. They also blind us to the reality of what is happening to the world and how it affects American interests.
Our current approach to foreign policy reminds me of the people who got hit by cars a few years back because they were walking through the streets staring at their smartphones while playing Pokemon Go. For all the bluster about opposing “warmongers,” we are far more likely to blunder our way into a bigger conflict because we are too distracted by petty political infighting on Twitter to see what is going on in the wider world.