According to Fox News prime-time star Tucker Carlson, the mainstream media is characteristically missing the big story. Carlson believes that the “real news” about American foreign policy in recent weeks isn’t U.S. President Donald Trump’s attitude towards Russia. To Carlson, the main event is what he describes as a drift towards war with Iran being orchestrated by the same shady forces of the Washington establishment that Trump was elected to depose.
Carlson’s lament is as ironic as it is somewhat illogical. Along with some others at the president’s favorite network, he has the kind of access to the White House that not many journalists can boast. Carlson did the only one-on-one interview with Trump in Helsinki. But he’s still clueless about the president’s attitude when it comes to Iran—a policy question about which the president has been consistent since he began his campaign in 2015.
Carlson both understands and applauds Trump’s ambivalent attitude towards NATO and his reluctance to talk tough about Russia. Like Trump’s retrospective opposition to the war in Iraq, these stances are in accord with Carlson’s own neo-isolationist views. It was Carlson who supplied the leading question that set off a mini-crisis for NATO when he asked Trump why the Fox personality’s son should have “go to Montenegro to defend it from attack.” Trump’s unwillingness to answer by citing the nation’s Article 5 obligations under the NATO treaty—a stance both he and various aides were quick to walk back afterwards—shone a light on the president’s well-known lack of enthusiasm for America’s European allies.
So it’s understandable that Carlson is flummoxed by Trump’s bellicosity directed at Iran, the nuclear deal with it struck by President Barack Obama, as well as the president’s willingness to answer Tehran’s threats with his own trademark style of bluster.
To Carlson, there is only one possible explanation for Trump’s willingness to talk tough, as well as to pursue equally tough policies like the withdrawal from the nuclear deal and the upcoming re-imposition of U.S. sanctions: the dreaded neoconservatives responsible for Iraq have hornswoggled the president, and are leading him down the same garden path towards Iran that destroyed the George W. Bush presidency.
The key disconnect for this theory is the lineup of villains responsible for this nefarious conspiracy that he mentioned in a monologue on his show. In Carlson’s view, Trump is being worked upon by the likes of Weekly Standard editor at large William Kristol, historian Max Boot and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Carlson’s citing of that trio is absurd since Trump is about as likely to listen to any of them as he is to the staff of CNN, as all are opponents of his presidency.
Carlson is on firmer ground when he cites National Security Advisor John Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and U.N. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley as advisers who want Trump to be tough on Iran. They are ardent advocates of a policy that would seek to roll back the gains Iran made during Obama’s eight years in terms of both gaining international approval for its nuclear program and its quest for regional hegemony.
That worries Carlson because he thinks their influence is pushing Trump into a confrontation with Iran that will lead inevitably to war.
But Carlson is wrong both about Trump being somehow being led astray, as well as the assertion that the only choices available to the United States are war or sticking with the nuclear deal, and allowing Iran to pursue aggressive policies and support international terrorism with impunity.
Trump’s aggressive tone towards Iran may seem out of place when set beside his soft approach to Russia. But it’s not the result of Bolton, Pompeo and Haley—all of whom were vociferous opponents of Trump during the Republican primaries—persuading the president to change his mind. Trump was an early and loud opponent of Obama’s policy that sought a rapprochement with Tehran. He blasted the nuclear deal as the worst negotiation in history and always vowed to spike the agreement.
This was consistent with the president’s attitude on Islamist terror, in which he vowed to defeat ISIS. Trump kept that promise, and by giving more autonomy to commanders than Obama and loosening the U.S. military’s rules of engagement, the international coalition was able to break the stalemate that had prevailed under his predecessor and rout ISIS.
Trump is uncomfortable with some elements of traditional GOP foreign policy, and that is regrettable. But he does understand that Iran is a problem for the United States—both in terms of its nuclear ambitions and the threat it poses to U.S. allies in the Arab world and Israel.
Carlson also seems not to grasp that much of Trump’s approach to foreign policy is rooted in his instinctive rejection of the foreign-policy establishment. Contrary to the Fox anchor, far from the establishment wanting the U.S. to get tough with Iran, it was those experts who were most fervent in their support for Obama’s approach to both Iran and Israel. It is precisely because he is the outsider the Republican base wanted that Trump has been willing to reject the advice of that establishment and the so-called “adults” that had prominent roles in his first year in the White House. That distrust of conventional wisdom is what led him to move the U.S. embassy to Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and to pull out of the nuclear deal.
Just as important, Carlson’s dire predictions of war are exactly the sort of disingenuous rhetoric that the Obama administration used to defend the nuclear pact, and to dismiss criticisms from Trump and other Republicans. Re-tightening the noose of economic sanctions that Obama loosened in his quest for a nuclear deal at any price does not put the United States on the path to war. To the contrary, it is, as Trump seems to understand, a matter of calling the Iranian bluff that fooled Obama. As the latest unrest inside the regime shows, it is extremely vulnerable to economic pressure. The notion that its leaders will never make concessions in order to avoid economic strangulation, or that they would be foolish enough to risk a war that would unite virtually the entire world against them was the foundation of Obama’s appeasement that Trump rightly rejects.
Nor is the administration’s encouragement of protests against the theocratic rule of the ayatollahs a guarantee of war. To the contrary, it is a signal to the Iranians that the United States understands the weakness to which Obama was blind.
It is those, like Carlson, who engage in conspiracy theories about neoconservatives hijacking the administration who are out of touch, not Trump’s advisers. His obvious faults notwithstanding, Trump isn’t being tricked into doing anything he opposes even if Carlson is unhappy with his choices. While—as Helsinki and his Carlson-induced gaffe about Montenegro illustrated—Trump’s approach to foreign policy can be hit and miss, he does seem to grasp that the best way to prevent war is to project strength, and to ignore the conventional wisdom embraced by Obama’s liberal cheering squad in the foreign-policy establishment and mainstream media. With Pompeo, Bolton and Haley giving him what might be the most able Republican foreign-policy team in place since Reagan, that is what Trump is doing on Iran.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS.org and a contributor to National Review. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.