Last spring, as the Trump administration began to act on the world stage, many were relieved to see relatively stable figures in top foreign policy positions. This was especially so after Sec of State Rex Tillerson offered cautious words regarding North Korea, Qatar, and Iran that conflicted with aggressive statements from the White House. But Tillerson's out now.
Michael Flynn's ouster as NSC head was also welcomed. HR McMaster, a three-star general, stepped in. It was hoped he'd be a check on reckless interventionism. After all, he'd authored a book critical of the lead-up to the Vietnam debacle. He's out too.
The new National Security Adviser is John Bolton who's supportive of bold military action -- uncritically so but given his military experience, perhaps understandably so.
The making of a modern hawk
The incoming NSC chief gained prominence as UN ambassador in GW Bush's administration. He acceded to that position via a recess appointment in order to avoid potentially problematic confirmation hearings amid the costly insurgency in Iraq. The war was becoming almost as divisive as the one forty years earlier.
Born in 1948, Bolton avoided the Vietnam draft by getting into the Maryland National Guard. Many years later, as political opportunities began to appear, he expressed unwillingness to risk his life in a war we were not going to win. In so doing, he advanced the remarkable principle that duty to America is conditional upon being on the winning side.
Avoidance of military service, especially in circles where priorities lay elsewhere, can give rise not only to bemusing rationalizations, but also to compensatory, uncritical support for military action. This modern militarism finds expression in words, entertainment, demeanor, and among the political elite, policymaking. Further, it leads to unrealistic expectations about what the military can accomplish.
Iran -- actions and obstacles
UN ambassador Bolton called for military action against Iran, which he insisted was proceeding headlong on a nuclear weapons program. (His view was not supported by the November 2007 National Intelligence Estimate.) Bolton will renew calls for action against Iran, as he and the Trump foreign policy team believe that Iran will return to weapons development one day, if it hasn't already, and that it's destabilizing the Middle East.
Likely actions against Iran include sanctions, of course, but also support for assassinations and bombings inside the Islamic Republic, aid to insurgent groups, and strikes on Iranian and Iranian-aligned assets in Syria. Bolton will play a role in designing them from Washington.
Ten years ago the Bush administration wanted regime change in Iran but faced opposition from the military. The brass saw the country deeply committed in Iraq and Afghanistan and wanted to avoid a third conflict. The generals today will be less oppositional as attacks on Iranian nuclear facilities do not seem to be on the agenda, and proxies, not US troops, will bear the brunt of fighting in Syria.
There is no domestic constituency opposed to actions against Iran, save for a small Iranian e'migre' community. But even that group has a hawkish component.
European allies pose a more formidable obstacle to the administration's Iran policy. They see the Islamic Republic as a lucrative trade partner, not a threat to Middle-Eastern security. However, the Trump administration now listens more to the newly-forming Sunni-Israeli coalition than to longstanding NATO partners.
Public opinion scarcely figures. Interest in foreign policy, even if entailing American troops, is low if not negligible. The same opposition to military service that led to Bolton's robust militarism dug a wide chasm between the public and its soldiers. The former is largely indifferent to risks faced by the latter. And the denouement of the Vietnam turmoil is, paradoxically, a presidency with a free hand to intervene in the world.