The Danger of Process-Free Foreign Policy

    Paul R. Pillar

    Security, Middle East

    Trump’s handling of Iran recalls one of the most extraordinary aspects of the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq: there was no policy process leading to the decision to launch that war.

    The disturbing parallels between Donald Trump’s policy toward Iran and the run-up to the disastrous U.S. offensive war against Iraq keep piling up. There is a drumbeat of belligerent rhetoric, with no limit to what the targeted country gets accused of doing. There is a highly selective, tendentious public use of intelligence, including presentations either to the United Nations or from an ambassador to the United Nations. There are even some of the same people—including John Bolton—who still says the Iraq War was a good thing, who has made no secret of welcoming a war with Iran, and who today is Trump’s National Security Advisor.

    Mark Landler’s reporting in The New York Times about the run-up to Trump’s reneging on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the agreement that restricts Iran’s nuclear program, points to a less obvious but no less important parallel. Bolton did not convene any National Security Council meeting to discuss the likely consequences of violating the JCPOA and whether doing so would be a good idea. This recalls one of the most extraordinary aspects of the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq: there was no policy process leading to the decision to launch that war. There was no options paper, no debate in the Situation Room and no other opportunity for members of the administration to discuss whether starting that war was a good idea. The question simply wasn’t on any meeting’s agenda.

    Of course, chaos in Donald Trump’s White House and the impulsive and personal nature of much of his decision-making are hardly news. But the effort to wreck the JCPOA has not been a passing impulse. Trump has long ranted about the accord, and there was ample opportunity to have a sober in-house discussion of the subject if he had wanted one. As with the Iraq War, the creation and timing of a crisis were all the White House’s own doing.

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