Washington (AFP) - War drums are beating louder in Washington's long-festering standoff with Iran and National Security Advisor John Bolton, a veteran champion of regime change, is the bandmaster.
With his bushy mustache and beloved yellow legal pad, Bolton cuts a colorful figure at the White House.
He's also something of an oddity.
President Donald Trump ran on the promise to pull the United States out of unwinnable post-9/11 wars -- from Afghanistan to Syria -- that have consumed American lives and military budgets.
That retreat remains one of Trump's strongest points in his pitch to be the outsider president.
But Bolton, in the most powerful government position he has ever held, is working in exactly the opposite direction. Iran is only the latest country in his crosshairs.
At 70 and with a resume listing federal jobs back to the Ronald Reagan era, Bolton could easily have sidestepped into academia by now or continued taking paychecks from any number of think tanks. He's worked with a bunch of them.
Instead, he's in the heart of government and looking like he's having the time of his life.
In Cuba, Venezuela and North Korea, there's no shortage of battlegrounds for Bolton's crusade against leaders he sees as tyrannical enemies.
Communists and their ilk are one thing. But it's the Middle East that really stirs Bolton's geopolitical adrenaline.
- 'Unrelenting force' -
In the run-up to what is now widely acknowledged to have been the disastrous 2003 Iraq invasion, Bolton -- then the under-secretary of state for arms control and international security affairs -- was one of Washington's most energetic pro-war cheerleaders.
Now, analysts say, he's showing similar enthusiasm for action with respect to longtime US, Israeli and Saudi foe Iran.
The Pentagon's dispatch to the region over the last few days of an aircraft carrier group and nuclear-capable B-52 bombers was not meant to be subtle.
Bolton warned of "unrelenting force" in response to any attack by Iran.
But sending planes and ships would pale in comparison to Bolton's latest demand, reported by The New York Times -- the possible deployment of 120,000 troops to the Middle East.
Whether Trump would accept that, ditching his mantra of no more "stupid wars," is far from clear.
On Tuesday, Trump branded the Times' report "fake news" -- but went on to add that he wouldn't rule out sending "a hell of a lot more" troops one day.
What's certain is that Bolton, at a minimum, is getting heard.
"Bolton is in ascendancy at White House. He appears tough and strong -- two things Trump values," said Robert Guttman, at the Johns Hopkins University's Center for Advanced Governmental Studies.
- Slide to war? -
No one would appear more unlikely than Trump to target another Middle Eastern quagmire.
He's talked repeatedly, in remarkably undiplomatic tones, about the tragedy of sending US forces to die in places that Americans could barely find on a map.
But when it comes to Iran, the White House seems to be bristling for conflict.
Trump pulled out of an international agreement regulating Iran's nuclear activities, ramped up sanctions crippling the country's economy, and now has added the threat of firepower to increase the pressure.
Having backed Iran into a corner, the Trump administration is warning of severe consequences should Tehran harm US interests.
On Sunday, mysterious attacks by unknown assailants against four ships, including two from Saudi Arabia, sent war talk up another notch.
Paul Fritz, a foreign policy expert at Hofstra University, said the outside world will be "extraordinarily skeptical" about the White House narrative on Iran as a growing menace.
After all, the US-led invasion of Iraq was based on false accusations -- supported by Bolton -- against Saddam Hussein.
"It does ring awfully similar to the Iraq war. There's good reason to be skeptical," Fritz said.
- Trump decides? -
Some fear that Bolton and his fellow hawks are out of control.
"Sixteen years after the US invasion of Iraq, we are again barreling toward another unnecessary conflict in the Middle East based on faulty and misleading logic," senators Tom Udall and Dick Durbin, both Democrats, wrote Sunday in The Washington Post.
But the unpredictable president may never graduate from bluster to bombs, analysts say.
Trump himself said last week that he's used to reining in Bolton's "strong views."
"I actually temper John," Trump said.
Barbara Slavin, an Iran specialist at the Atlantic Council, said there have been discrepancies between Trump and Bolton on "numerous occasions."
Even if Bolton "has been advocating bombing Iran for as long as I can remember," she said Trump probably doesn't want a new war.
"On the other hand, I don't think the president minds this idea of looking tough and of putting more pressure on Iran," she said.