Issues & Insights

Iran Won’t Be Trump’s Iraq, and John Bolton Doesn’t Want It to Be

Donald Trump is almost certainly not going to “Iraq” Iran’s world, and contrary to a lot of misinformation being spread in woeful ignorance of the factual background and historical record, National Security Adviser John Bolton doesn’t want him to.

The President may be infamously erratic in some of his commentary, whether off the cuff or on the tweet. But don’t bet on the man, who last fall called his predecessor’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003 “the worst single mistake ever made in the history of our country,” doing the same thing in Iran — in spite of it being the world’s leading terrorist-backing state, plus a potential nuclear weapons threat.

After a report that the Pentagon had updated a plan to send as many as 120,000 troops to Iran, Trump responded, “Would I do that? Absolutely,” adding: “Hopefully we’re not going to have to plan for that. If we did that, we’d send a hell of a lot more troops than that.” But it’s the Defense Department’s job to have current plans to invade lots of places around the world.

Bolton Didn’t Help Plan the Iraq War

Regarding Bolton, Trump pointed out earlier this year that he was not one of the architects of President George W. Bush’s Iraq intervention, and wasn’t involved in the intelligence regarding Iraq possessing weapons of mass destruction.

Fred Fleitz, the top aide to Bolton when he was Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security under Bush 43, noted in an article after the 2016 election, when Bolton was talked about for Secretary of State, that “Bolton was frozen out of Iraq War planning” in 2002 and 2003.

“Bolton was not involved in any decision-making or planning for the Iraq War because Secretary of State Colin Powell and Deputy Secretary Richard Armitage froze him out,” Fleitz wrote. “As Bolton’s chief of staff, I witnessed this first hand. I remember well how State Department offices were told by Powell’s and Armitage’s staffs not to share any information with Bolton and his staff about Iraq war planning.”

Bolton himself, in his 2007 book Surrender is Not an Option, wrote: “I played no significant decision-making role on Iraq policy, because Powell and Armitage largely excluded me from these issues, no doubt fearing that my views would be similar to Cheney’s and Rumsfeld’s and not their own,” referring to George W. Bush’s Vice President and his Secretary of Defense. “It was the greatest favor Powell ever did for me, utterly unintentionally, to be sure, and my Iraq-related activities were only at the margins of the central decisions.”

Reflecting this, nearly eight months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, Bolton gave a speech to the Heritage Foundation in Washington on threats of weapons of mass destruction in various parts of the world, entitled “Beyond the Axis of Evil.”

It was the perfect time and venue to beat the war drums on Iraq — but Bolton did not do so.

After declaring in the speech that Iraq was one of “several states the U.S. government knows to be producing biological warfare agents in violation of” the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention, Bolton stated: “Foremost is Iraq. Although it became a signatory to the BWC in 1972 and became a State Party in 1991, Iraq has developed, produced, and stockpiled biological warfare agents and weapons. The United States strongly suspects that Iraq has taken advantage of more than three years of no UN inspections to improve all phases of its offensive BW program. Iraq also has developed, produced, and stockpiled chemical weapons, and shown a continuing interest in developing nuclear weapons and longer range missiles.”

Options Other Than All-Out War

Yet after pointing the finger so forcefully, it’s striking to look back at how Bolton refrained from talking up war of any sort, air, ground or sea, against Saddam Hussein. Or regime change.

“States that sponsor terror and pursue WMD must stop,” he said in the Heritage speech. “States that renounce terror and abandon WMD can become part of our effort. But those that do not can expect to become our targets.”

And what will America do to countries that are our targets in this first year of the global war on terror? According to Bolton, “This means directing firm international condemnation toward states that shelter — and in some cases directly sponsor — terrorists within their borders. It means uncovering their activities that may be in violation of international treaties. It means having a direct dialogue with the rest of the world about what is at stake. It means taking action against proliferators, middlemen, and weapons brokers, by exposing them, sanctioning their behavior, and working with other countries to prosecute them or otherwise bring a halt to their activities. It means taking law-enforcement action against suspect shipments, front companies, and financial institutions that launder proliferators’ funds.

“And it requires, above all,” Bolton said, “effective use, improvement, and enforcement of the multilateral tools at our disposal — both arms control and nonproliferation treaties and export control regimes.”

Bolton conspicuously fails to say a military strike may be necessary against any of these WMD threats, or even use the familiar code term “all options are on the table.” In fact, there were alternatives to a U.S. invasion of Iraq being actively contemplated at the time.

Shortly after the defeat of the Taliban in Afghanistan in early 2002, the CIA had commissioned what David Corn, now of the leftist Mother Jones, and Michael Isikoff, now with Yahoo News, described in Hubris, their 2006 book chronicling the prelude to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, as “an extensive covert operations plan … to destabilize and ultimately topple the regime of Saddam Hussein.”

That sounds a lot more like the CIA’s role in what happened to Chile’s socialist president Salvador Allende in 1973 than the 2003 Iraq invasion. And perhaps the Chilean coup is more what Trump contemplates (despite a U.S. intelligence community under far heavier legal restrictions today).

The Worst Decision on Iraq

“The Democrats had dug and dug and dug to see if I had done anything with respect to Iraq that they could latch on to” when he was up for U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in 2005, but “found nothing,” Bolton wrote in Surrender is Not an Option.

“I still think the decision to overthrow Saddam was correct. I think decisions made after that decision were wrong, although I think the worst decision made after that was the 2011 decision to withdraw U.S. and coalition forces,” Bolton said in 2015, as he was considering running for President.

It is true that John Bolton was one of the signatories of a 1998 letter to President Bill Clinton calling for “a new strategy that … should aim, above all, at the removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime from power.” But the letter fell far short of recommending what George W. Bush did in 2003 — an all-out pre-emptive air and ground war.

“The only acceptable strategy is one that eliminates the possibility that Iraq will be able to use or threaten to use weapons of mass destruction,” Bolton, Reagan Secretary of Education Bill Bennett, future Bush Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Richard Armitage and 14 others wrote. “In the near term, this means a willingness to undertake military action as diplomacy is clearly failing. In the long term, it means removing Saddam Hussein and his regime from power,” which “will require a full complement of diplomatic, political and military efforts.”

Both John Bolton and Donald Trump know there are “military action” alternatives to all-out war against Iran — even if the U.S. actively seeks regime change. Covert operations are one such alternative, as was the case made available in 2003. In sync with that option is material and moral support for freedom-seeking Iranians who want to overthrow the mullahs internally.

The charge that Bolton hasn’t “learned the lesson of Iraq,” found in numerous media sources, is based on the false narrative that he helped plan the war. Bolton, in fact, could have prevented the “lesson of Iraq” from having to be learned at all, if he had been given the chance.

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Thomas McArdle

Tom McArdle @MacArdghail, longtime Senior Writer for Investor's Business Daily, was a White House Speechwriter for President George W. Bush, National Political Reporter for Washington political columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, Managing Editor of Human Events, and has worked as a writer for CNN and the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. His work has appeared in National Review, the American Spectator, The Hill, the Washington Examiner, Newsmax, and the National Catholic Register. He has appeared on Fox News and numerous talk radio programs. He is a graduate of Trinity College, Dublin, M. Stanton Evans' National Journalism Center in Washington, Cardinal Hayes High School in the Bronx, and at 17 was one of Curtis Sliwa's original "Magnificent 13" Guardian Angels.


  • It’s interesting how often the name of Richard Armitage appears in this narrative — the man who was demoted by Dick Cheney because of has opposition to Cheney’s advocacy of restructuring our military policy to reflect asymmetrical warfare; them man who subsequently “outed” Valerie Pflame and launched Patrick Fitzgerald’s witch hunt that led to the process-crime conviction of Scooter Libbey.

    If Bolton was disliked by Armitage, he must have been doing something right.

    • Laura Ingraham was slamming Patrick Fitzgerald last night during a panel on the Durham appointment. I hadn’t heard his name in so long! As I wrote over a decade ago in IBD regarding the Plame hullabaloo, tbe facts show that Fitzgerald knew — from the beginning! — that Armitage was the one who “outed” Valerie Plame, yet he put my beloved old boss Bob Novak, Karl Rove and others through years of hell as he supposedly hunted for the culprit, ultimately only nabbing, of all people, a patriot by the name of Scooter Libby via a perjury trap. It was a dark hour for America. TMcA

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