When Donald Trump sacked his national security adviser, John Bolton, the international relations academic Lawrence Freedman tweeted, “I never thought I’d feel sorry for John Bolton and actually I’m not.”
Some American liberals are so obsessed with opposing Trump that they did mourn Bolton’s passing.
But his dismissal can be traced back to an earlier Republican presidency in which Bolton served, that of George W Bush. Bolton was one of the most strident advocates of invading Iraq, as part of a broader offensive against Bush’s “Axis of Evil”. Bolton wanted to extend this beyond Iraq, Iran, and North Korea to Cuba, Libya, and Syria.
This offensive never took off because the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 led to the most serious defeat the United States has ever suffered. Armed resistance to the occupation forced the US to rely on parties based on the Shia Muslim majority, who had been oppressed under the previous regime of Saddam Hussein.
These politicians have many links with the Islamic Republican regime in Iran. Meanwhile the Iranian Revolutionary Guards backed the insurgency against the American occupation of Iraq. And of itself the removal of Saddam strengthened Iran’s hand.
It was able further to extend its influence by successfully backing the regime of Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian civil war.
Enter Trump. His Middle East policy has struggled with a basic contradiction. On the one hand, like his predecessor Barack Obama, he is determined to avoid getting the US involved in another land war.
On the other, egged on by his cronies in Israel and Saudi Arabia, Iran’s two main regional rivals, he has sought to curb Iranian influence.
So he withdrew from the nuclear deal that Obama had negotiated with Iran and re-imposed full-scale sanctions.
Trump thought this “maximum pressure” would force the Iranian president Hassan Rouhani to surrender. Instead, the strategic intelligence website Stratfor comments, “Iran may be weak, but its strategy is working.”
This has involved a combination of tight economic controls, pressurising the European signatories to the nuclear deal, and attacking ships and installations in the Gulf. Last weekend highly precise drone attacks on two key installations forced Saudi Arabia to cut more than half its oil production.
According to Stratfor, “Ultimately, Iran’s summer brinkmanship paid off. First, Tehran demonstrated that it poses a highly credible military threat to the Strait of Hormuz. Second, it exposed Trump’s extreme reticence about engulfing the United States in another Middle Eastern war.
“Third, rather than bring European powers closer to the US sanctions strategy on Iran, Tehran’s threat to commerce in one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes sent the [French government] into a diplomatic frenzy, paving the way for Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif’s surprise visit to the G7 in Biarritz to discuss a French proposal for a $15 billion oil?backed credit line.”
So now it is Trump who has been pleading for a summit with Rouhani. Rouhani contemptuously brushed him off, saying if Trump wants a nice picture he can always photoshop them together. Iran is making the suspension of sanctions as a precondition for negotiations.
Bolton by contrast continued to support Bush-style regime change. He opposed the talks with Kim Jong-un and, after Iran shot down a US drone in the summer, advocated sending 120,000 troops to the Gulf. Instead Trump called off the airstrikes he had originally ordered in retaliation.
Bolton seems to have been fired for objecting to another headline-grabbing initiative of Trump’s, an abortive summit at Camp David with the leaders of the Taliban to end yet another war the US has lost, in Afghanistan.
To quote Stratfor again, Iran’s risky tactics have “succeeded in pushing Trump to the brink of war and forced him to internalise one of his worst presidential nightmares—drowning the United States in yet another military quagmire in the Islamic world.” Iraq still haunts US policy-making.
Not just a national struggle