It wouldn’t be wild speculation on my part to suggest that Donald Trump doesn’t know what is included in the agreement reached with Iran to halt its nuclear weapons program. For example, one item that he mentions consistently is that it gave Iran $150 billion in cash. Not only did he get the amount wrong (by about $100 billion), those were funds that had been frozen during sanctions that were released as the basis of the agreement. As so often happens with this president, no matter how many times that accusation is fact-checked as wrong, he continues to repeat it.
In the end, the most likely explanation is that Trump has assumed that the Iran nuclear agreement is one of Barack Obama’s most consequential legacies and he is determined to destroy it, regardless of what’s in it or the fact that it is working.
On the other hand, there are a lot of Republican hawks who probably have more knowledge of what is included in the agreement, but have wanted to see it fail from the get-go. They too might have some interest in damaging Obama’s legacy, but their position on the Iran nuclear deal goes deeper than that. They want regime change in Iran and, much like George W. Bush used the contrived threat of “weapons of mass destruction” to invade Iraq to depose Saddam Hussein, they want to do the same thing in Iran. If the U.S. pulls out of the agreement, Iran has threatened to re-start their nuclear weapons program. At that point, military intervention is back on the table.
The Republican hawks are supported in these goals by both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and many of the Sunni Gulf States. In other words, abandoning the Iran nuclear agreement sets off a powder keg that is practically guaranteed to incite yet another war in the Middle East. Those are the stakes.
In the midst of all of that, things are also coming to a head with North Korea. I found it interesting that Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton (one of the most ardent Republican hawks) went on news shows yesterday to talk about the administration’s plans and used the case of Libya as a model for disarmament in North Korea.
When John R. Bolton looks at North Korea, he sees Libya. It is not a perfect comparison, he acknowledges, but if there is a model for how to peacefully rid a hostile dictatorial state of its nuclear program, he points to the disarming of Libya some 15 years ago.
It is easy to grasp why the United States views that as a success. A ruthless despot with a history of sponsoring terrorism surrendered his efforts to build a catastrophic weapon.
That article goes on to explain why North Korea’s Kim Jong-un might not find the comparison with Libya encouraging. About seven years after Qaddafi gave up his nuclear weapons program, he was killed by rebels following the NATO military intervention.
But what I find interesting about Bolton’s use of Libya as a model is that back when it was negotiated, regime change was not on the table. The Bush administration, where Bolton served as UN Ambassador, was content with Qaddafi staying in power while voluntarily giving up his nuclear weapons—which is similar to what happened in Iran. If that is the goal in North Korea as well, it suggests why the hawks are approaching that country very differently than they are Iran. In other words, they are content with Kim Jong-un staying in power, but not the mullahs of Iran.
What this all comes down to is that the Republican hawks like Bolton are using Trump’s ignorance and narcissistic need to destroy Obama’s legacy to lead him down the path towards breaking one of the most consequential campaign promises he made in 2016: to avoid another war in the Middle East. That removes one of the last vestiges of any distinction between this president and his Republican predecessors and will make the Bush/Cheney catastrophe in Iraq pale in comparison. In other words, we not only have a president who is mentally unfit for office, but one who will simply magnify the mistakes the Republican hawks made in the past.