Despite trying to give the appearance of boundless confidence in his foreign policy, President Trump appears very aware that a lot of Americans, including parts of his political base, are profoundly uncomfortable with the war-mongering tone of recent months.
This is fueling criticism from hawkish pundits, who like their president the way he was: shaking his fists with rage and promising great suffering the world over. They are accusing Trump of showing weakness and undercutting his previous “maximum pressure” strategy.
Trump may struggle to complete this shift in tone, with top members of his cabinet heavily committed to the more hawkish language. It is hard to envision John Bolton, for instance, advocating something that doesn’t involve a region-wide war.
Indeed, John Bolton is in the United Arab Emirates at the same time, and continues to talk up the need for a “strong response” to Iran, accusing Iran of doing things that there is no evidence they did, on the grounds that “who else would you think is doing it?” Trump’s attempts to convey a sense of calm in the Middle East are clearly and dramatically being undercut by Bolton.
Some analysts are downplaying the Trump-Bolton split, even though Trump is openly seeking consultation with Sheldon Adelson on how to deal with him. They are suggesting the differences are deliberate, and meant to be a good cop, bad cop strategy. In reality this is a war Bolton has wanted for decades, and it seems like he’s not going to allow facts or policy to get in the way of his advocacy.