Trump is no dove

His administration still longs for war with Iran, even without John Bolton.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics USA World

Donald Trump’s dove-ish turn didn’t last long.

Just over a week ago, all the talk was of the America’s long-awaited withdrawal from Afghanistan, after an 18-year-long war in which the putative enemy, the Taliban, holds as much territory today as it did when the US invaded in 2001. Not content with finally ending one ill-fated US-led intervention, Trump was even readying the US for potential talks with Iran, its long-term Middle Eastern nemesis, over its nuclear ambitions. And to cap it all off, Trump said ‘you’re fired’ to his infamously hawkish national security adviser, John Bolton, a ‘neocon’ militarist so utterly unrepentant that he still thinks the 2003 invasion of Iraq was a good idea.

But all of that went out of the window following a drone attack on Saudi oil facilities in Khurais and Abqaiq on Saturday, which has taken out 5.7million barrels per day of total Saudi oil output, and sent global oil prices rocketing. Yemen’s Houthi rebels claimed responsibility for the attack. But Team Trump was having none of it. Within a few hours, US secretary of state Mike Pompeo had already fingered Iran as the culprit. And then Trump himself followed up with a tweeted promise that the US was ‘locked and loaded’ for retaliatory action, just as soon as the verification that it was Iran came through.

Just like that, the softer, conciliatory climate that had settled over the Trump administration had evaporated. In its place, we have Trump once again firing off threats of war on a social-media platform, and his secretary of state desperately attributing blame without evidence. Yes, the drones used in the attack might have diverged from those typically used by the Houthis. And, yes, at over 600 kilometres, the distance from Yemen to Khurais and Abqaiq is a long way for the drones to travel. But the Houthis, engaged in a brutal conflict with Saudi Arabia, have a motive, and having attacked Saudi oil infrastructure using drones before, they have previous. Oh, and they claimed responsibility.

But such is the animus towards Iran among America’s foreign policymaking establishment that, well, it’s just gotta be the Mullahs’ regime, as Bolton once called the Islamic Republic. It doesn’t matter that the provenance of the drones is still in doubt – they could just have easily been sent from Iraq by a Shia militia as from Iran by the Revolutionary Guards. Any opportunity to portray Iran as the destabilising force in the region, and move in on it, appears too good to resist for Team Trump.

It seems, then, that even without the hawkish Bolton, Team Trump can be belligerent and warmongering. For anti-Trumpers this is testament to his impulsive tweet-happy approach to diplomacy, and his disregard for the rules-based international order. What Trump wants, Trump gets.

But this misses what is odd about US foreign policy under Trump. Because in some ways, there is a welcome consistency to his foreign policy, based, as it is, around a principle of non-interventionism. It is difficult to imagine Trump indulging the same lust for ethical grandstanding that underwrote the disastrous Western ventures in Iraq, Libya and Syria. Trump’s approach even has a name: America First. Which means operating according to the business and economic interests of the US, rather than the interventionist imperatives of a so-called rules-based international order.

And you can see how it has played out, with Trump attempting, albeit badly, to disentangle the US from conflicts in Syria and Afghanistan. You can see it, too, in the trade war with China. And you can see it at work in the US retreat from postwar international institutions such as NATO. Trump has no interest in the so-called neoconservative dreams of a US-led global order, or of striking liberal-democratic poses atop a fallen dictator’s statue in far-flung places.

And yet, his idea of protecting American interests quickly loses all definition under the impact of the other major impulse driving US foreign policy: Trump First. This is where Trump’s much-remarked-upon narcissism comes into play, diverting foreign policy down dark cul-de-sacs, depending on where Trump’s thirst for legacy, self-aggrandisement and, most importantly, domestic appeal leads. It’s less a pragmatic foreign policy, based on the strategic pursuit or protection of American interests, than it is a spectacle of foreign policy, based on Trump’s desire to be recognised, praised, esteemed. He wants to be the guy who finally tamed North Korea, the guy who brought Iran to heel, the guy who protected US business from the rise of China. He’s the peacemaker, the dealmaker and the strongman all rolled into one. And he is especially this in the run-up to next year’s presidential elections.

And this is what lends Trumpian US foreign policy its chaotic, whimsical character. It is torn between often conflicting impulses, the one pragmatic and strategic, the other PR-driven and spectacular. Hence Trump can sensibly want to withdraw from Syria one moment, and then be dropping the ‘mother of all bombs’ on it the next. Or, as has happened over the past week, he can be mooting the possibility of a rapprochement with Tehran, and, then, within a matter of hours, threatening it a ‘locked and loaded’ military assault. The idea of America First is too easily lost amid a Trump First need for likes and retweets.

Which brings us back to Bolton. Make no mistake, he was a problem. But not because he pushed Trump, against his inclinations, in a hawkish direction. No, he was a problem because he affirmed Trump’s Trump First instincts – to look tough, to project power, and, above all, to stand up to Iran. Remember, Trump was always determined to scrap the Iran nuclear deal. Bolton, having appeared frequently on the Fox News casting couch prior to his appointment, merely validated Trump’s existing desires.

The irony to all this is that as much as some accentuate what is different about the US approach to foreign affairs under Trump, too often, Trump, in pursuit of Trump First, merely continues where his predecessors left off. His desire to pose and posture, to create that presidency-defining moment, proves too much for him to resist. And so, in his need to solve the problem of North Korea, he continues the interminable dance of threat and appeasement performed by Obama, Bush and Clinton before him. And in order to be the slayer of the Islamic Republic, he continues with the regional alliances his predecessors cultivated in the Middle East, linking arms with the brutal theocracy of Saudi Arabia, even as it devastates Yemen.

Trump’s presidency offers up a paradox. The problem with his approach to Iran, and with his approach to US foreign policy in general, lies not in his break with precedent and the postwar order, but in his failure to break away properly. Putting Trump first rather than America first, he repeats the errors of his predecessors. He goes along with the so-called international community’s demand that Bashar al-Assad be punished for an alleged chemical-weapons attack. He continues to try to defang Iran. Like Obama, Bush and Clinton, not to mention their European counterparts, Trump still feels the need to be seen to be doing something.

Tim Black is a spiked columnist.

Picture by: Getty.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.


James Walker

18th September 2019 at 10:03 am

Trump’s America is also taking a stick to China in Hong Kong.

The current insurrection has been fomented by US-funded and guided agitators.

US intends to hollow out HK of western banks and businesses, divide its society and turn it into a ghost-town.

Winston Stanley

17th September 2019 at 7:21 pm

It would be breath-taking to see Iran and Saudi bomb each other’s oil capabilities. Seems unlikely. US/ UK/ Saudi intervention in Yemen seems to be the problem around there.

> How high could the oil price go, if full-blown conflict breaks out?

Simona Gambarini of Capital Economics think they could more than double from today’s levels. In a worst-case scenario.

She told clients:

We continue to think that US-China trade tensions and the outlook for Fed policy remain more important drivers of oil prices.
Nonetheless, we would not rule out entirely the possibility of an escalation in tensions, leading to an outright conflict in the Middle East. In that case, we would not be surprised to see oil prices reach, and perhaps even rise above, $150 per barrel by end-2019. (Guardian)

cliff resnick

17th September 2019 at 11:45 am

It might be worth noting that although it’s almost unanimous in condemning the Iraq as a failure what would the middle east look like if had not happened, your nightmarish guess is as good as mine, or maybe Iraq would have soon become a “liberal democracy” within a few years! I would assume those that still think the Iraq war was necessary would have concluded that although it was mostly a military catastrophe; but given the belligerence of Iran, a strategic success. As to a conflict with Iran, now that’s pretty scary! But it’s all about the bomb and how Iran would behave if it had one and how to stop them from getting that prized weapon.

Amin Readh

17th September 2019 at 11:52 pm

Saddam Hussein would still be ruler of Iraq. And Syria would still be Syria – no war. No ISIS. Sure, Iraqi people would bear the brunt of it. Which they are already doing and have done on an even bigger scale.

Ven Oods

17th September 2019 at 11:13 am

I never thought that Bolton was the only Hawk in that particular woodland.
Even so, as others point out, Trump’s not been as trigger-happy as his predecessors.

Michael Lynch

17th September 2019 at 9:06 am

Highly unlikely, Trump might talk the talk but he certainly doesn’t walk the walk when it comes to war. Everyone called him a warmonger during his initial dealings with North Korea. I remember the Western Press hysteria; we were all going to die in a nuclear Armageddon at the beginning of his term! As far as he is concerned war is bad for business. Why would he even want to drag America into another conflict in the Far East anyhow? They certainly don’t need the oil now they no longer need to import.

Jerry Owen

17th September 2019 at 11:36 pm

Absolutely as I see it !

Amin Readh

17th September 2019 at 11:57 pm

@ Michael Lynch

So imagine having such a large Arms industry that USA has. And then imagine no wars… what do you think happens to peace time armies? Tehy inevitably get smaller and smaller…

It was Steve Bannon in his camp who is anti-war in the sense that he wanted to scale back USA military interventions and involvement in ME.

Let us put one myth to bed. USA most certainly DOES NOT need Middle East Oil.

Philip Humphrey

17th September 2019 at 7:14 am

I disagree. So far he has resisted starting or being dragged into a conflict, unlike Obama and GW Bush. He may not be a dove, but I think he is a pragmatist, and realizes that “America first” does not involve dragging the US into yet another conflict in the middle east unless it cannot be avoided.

Dominic Straiton

17th September 2019 at 1:16 pm

As The United States ,thanks to fracking, is self sufficient in energy and as American oil companies did not benifit (except for a few small contracts to Haliburton) from the Iraq war any sane person could only conclude that America is in the Middle east for the same reason the British were. For its strategic sea lanes and the protection of the world economy. The Iranian leadership on the other hand believe in an end of times scenario, much like isis.

Amin Readh

18th September 2019 at 12:06 am

@ Dominic Straiton

Most of your comment i agree with. USA does not need ME Oil. It does need to control its flow. Especially with China sniffing about.

“The Iranian leadership on the other hand believe in an end of times scenario, much like isis.”

Nope. Not much evidence of it. Try looking at Iran’s “strategic” deals with both India and especially China. And then one can begin to figure out why USA is so upset.

Amin Readh

17th September 2019 at 11:58 pm

That is Bannon you are describing and not Trump. He gets an actual excuse and he in there. At the moment he is being held back. Trump has ALWAYS been a neo-con, if he has been anything.

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