John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. under President George W. Bush and a controversial foreign policy commentator, officially started his duties as President Donald Trump’s third national security adviser on April 9.
His resume for the position is long and his reputation is polarizing. Bolton held various roles in the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, working at times in the State Department, Justice Department and USAID.
In 2000, Bolton, a Yale-educated native of Baltimore, Md., was a lawyer for George W. Bush’s presidential campaign during the Florida recount. Following the election, he was sworn in as undersecretary of state for arms control and international security. Over Senate opposition to his nomination as U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Bush gave Bolton a recess appointment to the post in August 2005 — an unlikely choice given Bolton’s disdain for multilateral diplomacy and his infamous declaration that if the U.N. Headquarters “lost 10 stories, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.”
Although Bush re-nominated Bolton as U.N. ambassador in November 2006 at the end of his recess appointment, Bolton resigned in the face of another divisive confirmation battle.
While he is perceived as a radical risk-taker for his advocacy of pre-emptive strikes on Iran and North Korea, Bolton is firmly within the Republican establishment. Indeed, he helped define the Republican mainstream as a top adviser to George W. Bush and as a staunch proponent of the Iraq War, which he continues to defend as necessary to this day, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Bolton was also a foreign policy adviser to Republican Mitt Romney during the 2012 presidential campaign.
Together with the move of Mike Pompeo from CIA director to secretary of state, however, many in Washington see a hawkish new foreign policy team taking shape that reinforces Trump’s most aggressive impulses.
Bolton “is going to aid and abet the president,” said Edward Gnehm, a former U.S. ambassador to Jordan and Kuwait who now teaches at the George Washington University.
Ticking Time Bomb on Iran?
One of the most pressing decisions this new foreign policy team faces is whether to recertify the Iran nuclear deal by May 12. That’s when Trump could very well reinstate U.S. sanctions on Iran that were suspended under the agreement, which in turn could scuttle the landmark 2015 deal to curb Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
Trump, a fierce opponent of the deal, now has two chief foreign policy advisers who have also repeatedly slammed it. In a 2015 New York Times op-ed, Bolton argued that “to stop Iran’s bomb, bomb Iran” and push for regime change. Bolton, in fact, worked to derail European talks with Tehran during his time with the Bush administration, when Iran’s nuclear program was far less advanced.
“Mr. Trump correctly sees Mr. Obama’s deal as a massive strategic blunder, but his advisers have inexplicably persuaded him not to withdraw,” Bolton wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed lambasting the Iran deal in January.
Indeed, Trump cited his differences with former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Iran in his decision to replace him.
“Bolton and Pompeo will reinforce the president’s gut feeling” on the Iran deal, according to Thomas Countryman, a veteran diplomat and former acting undersecretary of state for arms control and international security who was pushed out by the Trump administration last year and is now at the Arms Control Association.
Having held the same position at State as Bolton, Countryman told The Diplomat that there are “essential skills” learned in a position dedicated to dealing with arms control and nuclear nonproliferation that would be useful background for a national security adviser. He also provided some insight into Bolton’s combative history with arms control agreements.
“There are very few nonproliferation agreements of which Bolton is a fan,” Countryman told us.
As Spencer Ackerman reported for the Daily Beast in a March 31 article, Bolton was a principal architect of the George W. Bush administration’s abandonment of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia, which Moscow argued underpinned the entire framework of international security. Leaving the treaty enabled the Bush administration to further its ambitions to build a ballistic missile shield. But many experts believe the move reignited an arms race between Russia and the U.S.
Now some arms control experts worry Bolton may turn to dismantling other arms control agreements without acknowledging the consequences of doing so.
The Iran deal is but one example of some major agreements Bolton and Trump could tear up.
Another is the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, the first major U.S.-U.S.S.R. treaty signed by Reagan. While Russia has committed violations of the INF Treaty, it gives the U.S. an advantage by limiting missiles with a range of 300 to 3,500 miles, according to Ackerman.
“Giving up the [INF] Treaty would allow the Russians to deploy intermediate-range missiles that would threaten our European allies,” Countryman said.
Countryman also voiced concern with the fact that the Trump administration’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review does not acknowledge or recommit to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), as President Obama’s review had. Under the NPT, which entered into force in 1970, the U.S. and other nuclear-weapon states committed to pursue nuclear disarmament.
Nowhere is the threat of nuclear proliferation greater than with North Korea, which withdrew from the NPT in 2003, according to the Arms Control Association.
North Korea and China Wildcards
For North Korea, the timing of Bolton’s appointment was conspicuous. He took up the position the month before the highly anticipated meeting between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, helping to advise and prepare the U.S. president for what many hope will be a historic beginning to end the North’s rapidly expanding nuclear program.
But Bolton, who actively sought to undermine multiparty negotiations with North Korea during the Bush administration, has repeatedly stressed that military action is the only way to deal with Pyongyang, despite the incalculable human costs of such a war.
In a February Wall Street Journal op-ed, Bolton defended what he called the legal case for a pre-emptive strike on North Korea, which last year detonated its sixth and most powerful nuclear test and launched intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the U.S. mainland.
“Pre-emption opponents argue that action is not justified because Pyongyang does not constitute an ‘imminent threat.’ They are wrong,” he wrote. “The threat is imminent, and the case against pre-emption rests on the misinterpretation of a standard that derives from prenuclear, pre-ballistic-missile times. Given the gaps in U.S. intelligence about North Korea, we should not wait until the very last minute. That would risk striking after the North has deliverable nuclear weapons, a much more dangerous situation.”
But even assuming Kim masters the ability to fuse a nuclear warhead onto a ballistic missile capable of striking the continental U.S. — a feat that may only be months away, according to Pompeo — the theoretical danger may not outweigh the very real consequences of even a pre-emptive “bloody nose” strike, which most experts say could spiral into a conflict that kills millions.
“No one’s ever accused him of being a regional expert,” said Robert A. Manning, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council who previously served as an adviser for policy and public diplomacy to the assistant secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific affairs.
Pursuing regime change in North Korea, which both Bolton and Pompeo have at times supported, would be “reckless and stupid,” Manning told The Diplomat.
Bolton is “very clear that there should be regime change in Iran and North Korea, and military force should be used to achieve those goals,” Michael McFaul, U.S. ambassador to Russia under Obama, told The New York Times in a March 24 article. “If you hire him, you’re making a clear signal that’s what you want.”
Bolton could also upend longstanding U.S. foreign policy as it relates to China. In a January 2017 op-ed, Bolton called for re-evaluating the “one-China policy,” whereby the U.S. recognizes that Taiwan is part of China.
Bolton’s proposals included negotiating the return of U.S. military personnel and infrastructure to Taiwan, which Beijing views as a renegade province. While many independence-minded Taiwanese may welcome the increased U.S. engagement, other worry about being used as a pawn in Trump’s showdown with China, particularly after Trump slapped China with massive tariffs, igniting fears of a trade war.
“The whole U.S.-China relationship is very volatile,” said Manning, who also served on the secretary of state’s policy planning staff during the George W. Bush administration and as a counter-proliferation senior strategist in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence from 2010 to 2012.
Manning argues that the assumptions underpinning decades of bipartisan U.S. policy on China — that China would help sustain the capitalist tenets of global trade rather than rival them, and that China would continue making gradual internal reforms — have proven false.
As the “bipartisan consensus” on China breaks down, U.S. policymakers are still searching for a new one, Manning said.
‘Ruthless Bureaucratic Operator’
Bolton takes pride in being an unapologetic, at-times abrasive bomb-thrower who has little need for diplomatic niceties. Although he’s been accused of belittling subordinates and bending facts to suit his agenda, his take-no-prisoners attitude has also made him a shrewd operator — and a formidable opponent. Given the chaos and high turnover that have plagued the White House, Trump could probably use a man who by all accounts is skilled at navigating the foreign policy bureaucracy and using the levers of government to achieve his ends.
Gnehm, who as ambassador to Jordan during the Iraq War frequently consulted with Bolton, described him as “very knowledgeable of the system” and “very good at using the system to get what he wants.”
Gnehm also characterized Bolton as “more likely to undermine things than support things.”
“He knows what he wants to do and he’s a ruthless bureaucratic operator in making it happen,” Manning told The Diplomat.
However, there are those who dismiss the apocalyptic warnings about Bolton as national security advisor and those who believe his views will be moderated by a foreign policy decision-making apparatus that includes a variety of actors, among them Chief of Staff John Kelly, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and other top military leaders who are likely to disagree with Bolton on Iran and North Korea.
“I think this notion everybody talks about, that the risks of war have gone up, is wrong,” Stephen Hadley, who served as George W. Bush’s national security adviser, told David E. Sanger and Gardiner Harris of The New York Times, arguing that Bolton’s tough talk can be used as leverage in an effort to deter, not provoke, war.
Bolton’s supporters argue that he is often portrayed as a warmonger, but they also point out that his hawkish views are very much in line with the conservative establishment. And those views may not necessarily be wrong when it comes to the dangers facing the U.S. today. “A nuclear-armed Iran is far more dangerous than John Bolton,” wrote David French in a March 23 article for National Review. “A North Korea capable of incinerating American cities is far more dangerous than John Bolton. The question is how we prevent those truly ‘horrifying’ risks. The foreign-policy debate is frequently between hawks and doves, and in the last administration, the doves repeatedly failed. It’s time to give a hawk a chance.”
Yet some observers say the fact that Bolton is squarely within the Republican mainstream is part of the problem, given that GOP hawks blundered the Iraq War and typically put more value in costly military adventures than in preventative diplomacy.
Harvard professor Stephen Walt, writing in a March 23 Foreign Policy article, said Bolton’s appointment harkens to a time of “Cheneyism,” referring to “a foreign policy that inflates threats, dismisses serious diplomacy, thinks allies are mostly a burden, is contemptuous of institutions, believes that the United States is so powerful that it can just issue ultimatums and expect others to cave, and believes that a lot of thorny foreign-policy problems can be solved by just blowing something up.”
But Bolton does not fit the typical neoconservative mold and is not in favor of humanitarian interventions or democracy promotion abroad. Rather, he is a firm believer that the U.S. should only intervene when it serves its geostrategic interests — and then withdraw — which is very much in line with Trump’s “America First” vision.
Former officials also downplay Bolton’s fire-breathing op-eds.
“Taking hardline stances in op-ed pages is all good and well, but reality begins to set in once you’re briefed on military plans,” Anthony Cordesman, a former Pentagon intelligence official now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Time in a March 23 article.
“The fact is that he is not alone in shaping these decisions,” Cordesman said. “There’s a new team coming into place and they will redefine each other’s views over time.”
When it comes to potential war with North Korea, “the actuality on the ground and the consequences of action are going to outweigh his bombastic comments,” Gnehm told The Diplomat.
Gnehm also foresees an “ultimate clash” between Trump and Bolton, whom he describes as “two strong personalities,” as a real possibility.
Trump bristles when members of his administration are in the limelight, Gnehm pointed out, but Bolton is unabashedly outspoken in his op-eds and frequent TV appearances as a former Fox News contributor. Moreover, he has diverged from Trump by praising NATO and declaring Russia’s interference in the U.S. elections to be a “true act of war.”
Bolton is also likely to clash with Defense Secretary Mattis, Gnehm said, and Bolton could use his “penchant for undermining those he disagrees with” to undercut Mattis.
Many observers say the ultimate key to Bolton’s success, or whether his head will be the next to roll, is how well he gets along with his unpredictable boss. On that front, Bolton has said that his past opinions as a private citizen are just that — in the past. “The important thing is what the president says and the advice I give him,” he said, noting that he will use his bureaucratic know-how to implement the president’s decisions.
“He is effective. He’s done some good things,” Manning conceded, citing Bolton’s role in helping to found the Proliferation Security Initiative, an effort to disrupt the black market trade in weapons of mass destruction components.
Countryman also cited the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism as an example of the positive contributions Bolton has made to U.S. national security and nuclear nonproliferation efforts.
But Manning argues that while Bolton may make some skillful tactical decisions, it is the “big strategic issues like North Korea that he gets wrong.”
Countryman agrees. “Mr. Bolton has damaged the U.S. national security in his approaches to Iraq, to China, to Russia, to Iran and to North Korea,” Countryman said. “He has learned nothing from his failures in those areas.”
Manning believes this stems from an outdated foreign policy mindset that is better suited to the 1950s, when the U.S. was better able to set the international agenda. Now, with regional actors like Iran and Saudi Arabia at odds and a rising China competing with the U.S., Manning says the U.S. cannot dictate foreign policy the way it once did.
“It’s a whole mindset that influences things across the board and I think it’s really out of touch,” Manning said of Bolton’s overall strategy views.
“I hope I’m wrong,” he added. “But he would surprise me.”
About the Author
Ryan R. Migeed (@RyanMigeed) is a freelance writer based in Boston.45102