world view

Could the Chaos of Trump’s Confused Foreign Policy Lead to an Accidental War?

National Security Advisor John Bolton talks to reporters outside the West Wing on May 1, 2019. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Disputes, differences of interpretation, and flat-out dishonesty about military intelligence are the stuff of which thrillers are made. It’s what brought us the Iraq War, and the decade of human carnage, depleted regional stability, and destroyed U.S. credibility that followed. So when there’s heated debate among a president, Cabinet officers, members of Congress, and private experts about what a military intelligence claim really means, it’s time to be concerned. When these arguments are focused on three regional hot spots simultaneously, it’s time to get very worried about an administration’s ability to make security policy and build popular trust based on depoliticized intelligence.

Welcome to the new normal.

Earlier this month, North Korea launched a rocket that Seoul, independent experts, acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, and National Security Adviser John Bolton all agreed was a short-range ballistic missile. It poses no threat to U.S. territory, but is capable of carrying a nuclear warhead to South Korea, Japan, and U.S. troops stationed in either country. All also agreed that this would be a violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions which have been in place since North Korea’s first nuclear test under the George W. Bush administration. Even North Korea didn’t strongly dispute this, although a spokesperson did refer to Bolton as a “war maniac” who “has a different mental structure than ordinary people” — a characterization with which Bolton would likely agree, with pride.

President Trump, however, begged to differ. He first tweeted and then reiterated during his visit to Tokyo that although “my people think it could have been a violation … I view it differently.” This was particularly awkward for Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, whose territory would be a primary target of such a missile. As Trump claimed that the North had not tested “rockets” in the last two years, Abe took a moment to bend over and adjust his sock.

That was odd and unprecedented — but then on Wednesday it was followed by an even more unusual counter-contradiction from Shanahan, who pointedly told reporters, “Let me just be clear: These were short range missiles. Those are a violation of the UNSCR [U.N. Security Council Resolution].”

What’s going on here seems fairly clear: Trump is still hoping that his diplomatic overtures to North Korea will bear fruit, and does not want to be pushed into admitting they’ve failed and returning to an escalating cycle of words and sanctions. Trump’s Cabinet wants to prevent Kim from achieving two of his goals: unraveling sanctions and securing concessions from the U.S. president, even as his nuclear program continues to grow.

As Shanahan was reinforcing a regional consensus about Pyongyang’s activities, Bolton was in the United Arab Emirates making a more controversial claim about Iran. Expanding on earlier statements from the Pentagon, Bolton accused Iran of blowing holes in the hulls of four commercial tankers in UAE waters earlier this month — without, however, providing any evidence to back his accusation. Now he says the U.S. will present its case to the U.N. Security Council next week.

Bolton’s assertion was certainly intended to show Washington’s solidarity ahead of a regional summit to discuss responses to Iran. It coincided with a Pentagon announcement that more troops would be sent to the Gulf, and some who are already there would have their stay extended, all in response to alleged Iranian threats against U.S. interests in Iraq.

But, as Bolton touched down in the UAE, his interlocutors were likely being briefed on another round of speculation that he is not long for his job, touched off by a New York Times report that Trump is now as fed up with him, as he was with Rex Tillerson a few months before the former secretary of State’s ignominious dismissal. The comparison seemed intentional; earlier this month, anonymous sources told the Washington Post that Trump was souring on Bolton, but his displeasure with the national security adviser had yet to reach Tillerson levels.

So, to sum up: Bolton is making assertions about intelligence, and U.S. policies, but may not be long for his job. Shanahan, who has backed Bolton’s assertions, will likely be confirmed by the Senate and move from acting to actual secretary of Defense, but this hasn’t happened yet. President Trump disputes the evidence on North Korea, which any private analyst can judge for herself based on satellite photos. In the case of Iran, Bolton offers no evidence, and Trump continues to talk about wanting negotiations with Iran’s leader — an unusual response to allegations that the country blew holes in ships owned by our Gulf and Norwegian allies.

Against this backdrop, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency and and a senior National Security Council official decided that, ahead of the release of a new intelligence estimate, Wednesday would be a good day to allege that Russia is violating a global ban on testing nuclear weapons.

Now, before you go running for bomb shelters, this is not new information or a new dispute. If it is true, it involves very small-scale tests that would be effective for checking the safety of weapons, not their usefulness. At least one prominent analyst argues that it is just as likely to be a mistake, reflecting the U.S. nuclear establishment’s belief that Russia wants to test — and its own not-so-secret desire to resume tests as well.

But here’s why this Marx Brothers routine of administration officials comically contradicting each other is so dangerous. It’s not because intelligence has never been misused or politicized before. It’s because we’ve reached a point where no one — not Americans and not foreigners, not Republicans or Democrats or journalists — can keep track of who is politicizing intelligence and why, or understand whether accusations are being made public by people who have power within the U.S. government, or by people who lack power and are using intelligence to try to get power back.

That has enormous immediate risks, making an inadvertent slide into war more likely because other actors can’t accurately predict what Washington will do next.

And it has enormous long-term consequences for anyone who is president after Trump and tries to tell their own citizens, or friends or foes abroad, that they are making decisions based on this same intelligence establishment. As in many other areas of American life, we have now passed the point that a new president can just say you should trust me and what I say the intelligence says. Indeed, we’re already seeing skepticism among our allies as intelligence professionals and senators from both parties try to argue that Huawei and other Chinese information-technology companies are irreparably compromised by the nation’s security establishment. We can expect increased skepticism as more and more intelligence gets invoked in the kind of clown show we’re seeing now.

The intelligence establishment — which is large, and which tried as hard as anyone to draw attention to the dangers of a Trump presidency — is not going to like the idea that its product is irreversibly politicized. But its leaders, and everyone who wants to be president after Trump, had better start thinking about what a very public fix would look like.

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