National security adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo conceded in their respective Sunday interviews that the administration does not harbor a policy of regime change in Iran or North Korea. That’s a change for them, which makes it acceptable for President Barack Obama’s harshest critics on the right to accept that position without blinking an eye. Such is tribal politics these days.
In fact, a more nuanced position is essentially the one President Ronald Reagan adopted during the Cold War: Of course our long-term interest is in seeing oppressive, aggressive regimes join the “ash heap of history,” but in the short run we need to devise policies to contain them, side with oppressed people and bolster our allies who are literally on the front lines. I find it inexplicable that our most senior national security officials cannot articulate that simple principle.
At any rate, it is striking how little strategic sense Bolton displays. For Bolton, ending the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is a good unto itself. So wedded to the idea of undoing it and so enamored of his own criticism of it, however, he fails time and again to explain how our absence from a deal, separating from our allies and casting Iran as the wronged party makes us safer right now. His interviews become circular:
JAKE TAPPER: Can you explain to me how you’re going to be able to get Iran to agree to a new tougher deal without the participation in sanctions of China and Russia and Europe?
BOLTON: Well, I think you have to start first with the fundamental deficiencies of the deal itself. It would not stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons. Quite the contrary, it provided cover for Iran to continue its efforts. And if it continued, it would have given Iran extraordinary economic benefits, without any guarantees of Iranian performance. So, the rationale for getting out of the deal is that it was contrary to American national security interests when we entered into it, and it hadn’t gotten any better with age.
He didn’t answer Tapper’s question, and he never quite explains how extricating ourselves from a flawed deal in and of itself puts us now in a better spot. When pressed on how we are going to get the better deal, Bolton lapses into platitudes:
TAPPER: The U.S. essentially, at least as of now, going it alone, how will that force Iran back to the table?
BOLTON: But we’re not going it alone. We have the support of Israel. We have the support of the Arab oil-producing monarchies and many others. And the consequences of American sanctions go well beyond goods shipped by American companies, because of our technology licenses to many other countries and businesses around the world.
But of course we had these countries’ “support” before, but they were not party to the deal. Tapper’s question goes unanswered.
With zero evidence, Bolton insists the Europeans will leave the Iran deal. But even assuming that he is right, what evidence is there that Iran would agree to terms more favorable to the United States after we left an existing agreement when, at the very least, they have support from Russia and China? Moreover, the excuse that we could not address Iran’s nonnuclear conduct while we were in the deal is fundamentally untrue. Bolton declares:
If you look at the enhancement of Iran’s strategic position in Iraq, in Syria, in Lebanon, the arc of control that they’re seeking to construct with conventional forces all the way from Iran to the Mediterranean, if you look at what they’re doing in Yemen to support the Houthi rebels, to gain a position of control there behind the lines, in effect, of Saudi Arabia and the other oil-producing monarchies, they have used the obsession with the nuclear deal to continue to expand and threaten dominance throughout the Middle East. I think getting out of the deal says to Iran, those happy days are over, from the U.S. perspective.
Trump has been in office for about 16 months and has done little if anything to address these issues. To the contrary, he has signaled he wants out of Syria, thereby ceding to Iran and Russia a dominant position. We still lack an approach to addressing these challenges.
In sum, Bolton is foreign policy by polemics and gestures, not by strategy. This works if you are a Fox News contributor or a lively dinner speaker, but not if you are in charge of assembling viable options for the president. Perhaps Trump will put Pompeo front and center to mop up the pieces of the Iran deal. Pompeo certainly seems keen on repairing the alliance with our European friends. (“President Trump and President Macron have both said we want to get a deal that is right, a bigger deal,” Pompeo said on “Face the Nation.” “We will be hard at that in the weeks ahead. I hope to be a central part of achieving that.”)
Even if Pompeo is successful in getting the European members of the deal and the United States back on the same page, there is no reason to believe that Iran (which successfully recouped funds that were frozen under the sanctions regimen, has the Europeans anxious to preserve the deal and has China and Russia on its side) will give up more than it did before. Pompeo may learn the hard way that making deals is harder than undoing them and that remaking deals we abrogate is harder still.