When John Bolton was asked in a 2016 interview in the highbrow Octavian Report what he considered “the top threat to global order,” the uber-hawk did not quickly respond that it was Iran.
Nor did he finger North Korea.
Instead, the foreign-policy iconoclast that many would place to the right of a Dick Cheney or a Donald Rumsfeld said that for him the main threat was the withdrawal of the United States from its position of leadership and from “vigorously asserting its interests” around the world.
Under President Barack Obama the US had accelerated this retreat based on “the mistaken impression … that if the US is less assertive, less visible, less present in the world that there will be enhanced international peace and security,” Mr. Bolton opined. “I think exactly the opposite is true.”
The condemnation of a weakened America with its implied argument for an aggressively nationalist foreign policy was to some extent the intellectual’s version of “America First” – the worldview that would help carry Donald Trump to the White House and form the basis of President Trump’s first year of foreign policy decisions.
Now as the piercingly intelligent and fiercely uncompromising Bolton prepares to take the helm of the White House national security apparatus as the president’s third national security adviser, Washington is in an uproar.
The majority thinking among Democrats and many Republicans alike is that Bolton’s replacement of H. R. McMaster, who frequently clashed with the president, coupled with the nomination of the hawkish Mike Pompeo to follow Rex Tillerson as secretary of State, portends the most single-mindedly aggressive and nationalist national security team since at least President George W. Bush’s first term.
Most foreign policy experts consider Bolton – whose go-to solution to national security challenges tends to be the military – the exact wrong choice to guide an impulsive and brash but untested president at a particularly dangerous moment in world affairs.
But others, even if not happy with the choice, see reason to hope that the glimmers of foreign-policy realism Bolton has exhibited – plus the moderating influence of less-extreme voices around the president – will prevail.
Iran, North Korea, Russia
For those who are cringing at Bolton’s rise, it’s above all the international context that makes Trump’s hawkish shift of his national security team so frightening. In the coming weeks the president will determine the fate of the Iran nuclear deal, is planning to sit down to talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, and must decide whether or not to renew arms control negotiations with Russia.
“The president has three humongously important decisions coming up in a very short span of time, and John Bolton has a very stark and aggressive prescription for each of them – and none of which involves much if any diplomacy,” says Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Washington-based Arms Control Association.
Like Trump, Bolton believes fervently that the Iran nuclear deal, Obama’s signature foreign-policy achievement, should be scuttled. Going farther, he has said US policy on Iran should be regime change. That view harks back to Mr. Bush’s Iraq war – for which Bolton, at the time in charge of the State Department’s weapons of mass destruction nonproliferation efforts, was perhaps the administration’s loudest cheerleader.
On North Korea, Bolton has publicly stated his support for Trump’s decision to sit down with Mr. Kim – but only because what he predicts will be fruitless talks can make way quickly for the preemptive military strikes on the North’s nuclear installations (and, yes, even regime change) he says are the only solution.
As for arms reduction talks with Russia, Bolton is a strident critic of Obama’s New START accords and has said that rather than limiting its own arsenal, the US should just allow the aging arsenal of an economically weakened Russia to deteriorate.
“In each of these cases,” argues Mr. Kimball, “if the president followed Bolton’s prescription it would lead to war and to foreign-policy disaster for the United States.”
Benefit of strategic vision
Yet even if no one seems to doubt that the hawks have landed, there are nevertheless some voices suggesting that there could be distinct benefits to Trump’s overhaul of his national security team.
Some analysts (and even some generally horrified foreign diplomats) are holding out hope that Bolton will be able to give some order and intellectual underpinning and strategic vision to the president’s unpredictable actions. Others assume that a Secretary of State Pompeo – a former House member from Kansas who has built a close relationship with Trump as CIA chief – will know how to develop a strong relationship with Congress and to represent the administration’s policies effectively, something Mr. Tillerson never did.
Even some analysts who dislike the Bolton choice say the initial sky-is-falling (or raining hawks) reaction to Trump’s tweet Thursday evening announcing his choice to replace McMaster may be overstating the martial tilt of the national security team.
“I don’t go quite as far in the vein of the conventional wisdom out there in terms of the uber-hawkishness of this team,” says Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow in defense and foreign policy issues at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “Actually I’d say Bolton is the only obvious hawk on it.”
Secretary of Defense James Mattis “projects confidence without swagger, I wouldn’t consider him a hawk,” he says. (Some reports over the weekend had Secretary Mattis confiding in associates that he doesn’t expect to have an easy time working with Bolton).
“And we’ll have to see about Pompeo, but remember it’s easy to be a hawk when you’re at CIA,” Mr. O’Hanlon adds. “It’s not so easy when your role is to find solutions to the problems you’ve been so aggressive about.”
Influence on expulsion of Russians?
Bolton has clearly exhibited disdain for international organizations (including the United Nations, where he served as US ambassador under Bush) and treaties limiting American power – a stance that jibes with Trump’s visceral instincts. But Bolton is a staunch defender of the NATO alliance, and in recent years has argued for a tougher NATO approach to a revanchist Russia – an area where he would seem to clash with the president.
Indeed some analysts were already seeing a hint of Bolton’s influence (he won’t officially step into his White House role until April 9) in Trump’s decision Monday to expel several dozen Russian diplomats, plus a dozen “intelligence operatives” assigned to Russia’s UN mission, and to close Russia’s consulate in Seattle over the poisoning by a Soviet-era nerve agent earlier this month of a former Russian spy and his daughter in Salisbury, England.
In announcing the measures, administration officials underscored that the actions were taken “to demonstrate our unbreakable solidarity with the United Kingdom” as well as to impose “serious consequences” on Russia for “its continued violations of international norms.”
Looking back over recent decades, O’Hanlon says there have been several cases of presidents who either didn’t take their national security adviser’s advice or who weighed those of the secretaries of State and Defense more heavily. And especially in the case of Trump, a president who seems to act based on what he sees on television, he says Trump may have picked Bolton more for his aggressive style in frequent TV appearances than for his policy prescriptions.
“This is a president who seems to know what he likes when he sees it,” O’Hanlon says, “so he may be bearing down much more on the style he’s seen Bolton display on Fox TV.”
Indeed Trump recently picked TV talking head and free marketer Larry Kudlow as his new chief economic adviser. But as some economics analysts pointed out, the choice is unlikely to mean that Trump, who recently announced a raft of anti-free-trade measures, including steel tariffs and billions of dollars in trade measures against China, is suddenly buying whole hog into Mr. Kudlow’s anti-protectionist philosophy.
What Bolton testified about UN
O’Hanlon says it’s clear that Bolton harbors a disdain for international organizations that would bind the US in pursuing its national interests. But at the same time he recalls an experience testifying before Congress on UN peacekeeping in the late 1990s when Bolton, also testifying, displayed an appreciation for some UN work.
“A member of Congress who was looking for some UN bashing was frustrated when I pointed out cases where UN peacekeeping had been vital and successful, so he turned from me to Bolton,” O’Hanlon recalls. The questioner “used kind of a dismissive tone in asking ‘Do you agree with Mr. O’Hanlon that the UN has in some cases been successful?’ but Bolton answered, ‘Yes basically I do.’”
The Arms Control Association’s Kimball says he hopes that when it comes to Bolton that Trump “doesn’t go with every position he presents, otherwise it’s likely to lead to exactly the kind of disastrous wars [Trump] condemned as a candidate.”
But he says it would be folly to discount the influence of the people the president keeps closest to him on national security issues.
“These people are the gatekeepers to the information the president gets, and the national security adviser in particular is supposed to be a fair arbiter of the alternatives presented to the president,” he says.
Bolton was once again on Fox News after being picked by Trump, and he insisted he would be an “honest broker” who would present the president with a panoply of options on any given issue. But Kimball isn’t buying it.
“I just don’t see someone with as strong views as Bolton has,” he adds, “making space for alternatives he has so consistently rejected as weakness.”