For all his own flaws, Trump was not well served by his national security team. The axis of adults manipulated Trump by delaying, blocking, or blunting his requests. Bolton manipulated him by advocating for the most extreme options—such as imposing secondary sanctions on European countries to truly destroy the Iran nuclear deal, and pulling out of the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty—when more modest ones would have sufficed. Bolton’s priority has always been to advance his unilateralist theory of international law, and he seems unable to think strategically about America’s interests.
It has been obvious for months that Trump did not want war with Iran, but Bolton kept the president from hearing from officials who would offer a contrary view to the hawks. Never one for protocol, Trump decided to go outside normal channels and started talking with Carlson, who now appears to be a confidant. It says a lot about Bolton’s own insecurity that he would prefer to put his boss in the position of relying on a talk-show host rather than allow an interagency meeting where a diversity of views might be raised.
In the reckoning, there is some clarity. It is now clear that Trump wants talks with Iran, just like with North Korea. Calling off the strikes was the right judgment call, but things should never have gotten to that point. Foreign governments now know what makes Trump tick. Pyongyang, Moscow, Beijing, Tehran, and others are no doubt taking copious notes. Trump’s team will be tempted to correct course—as it did by imposing tough new sanctions in the days after the Iran-strike decision—but the damage is done.