By Robin Wright
The New Yorker
Hawks are closing in on the White House. John Bolton, arguably the most abrasive American diplomat of the twenty-first century, will soon assume the top foreign-policy job at the National Security Council. As is his wont, President Trump announced yet another shakeup of his inner circle in a tweet late on Thursday. He dismissed General H. R. McMaster, who couldn’t survive a testy relationship with the impatient President despite his battle-hardened career and three stars on his epaulets. Trump tapped Bolton to take over. A former U.N. Ambassador currently best known as a Fox News pundit, Bolton has advocated far harder positions than Trump, including bombing campaigns, wars, and regime change. The late-day news flash sent chills across Washington, even among some Republicans.
With Mike Pompeo, the C.I.A. director, due to take over from the ousted Rex Tillerson at the State Department, the team deciding American actions across the globe will now be weighted by hard-liners and war advocates. Defense Secretary James Mattis, a retired marine general, is the most pragmatic policymaker left. What an irony. (And how long will Mattis stay? He was photographed having dinner with Tillerson on Tuesday.)
Bolton, a Yale-educated lawyer whose trademark is a white walrus mustache, championed the invasion of Iraq in 2003, which produced chaos followed by waves of extremist violence in the region. He also advocated international intervention to oust Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. He has repeatedly urged military action in Iran and North Korea, which he has called “two sides of the same coin.”
In an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, written two months ago, Bolton condemned the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran as a “massive strategic blunder”—then went further. American policy, he wrote, “should be ending Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution before its fortieth anniversary,” next February. “Recognizing a new Iranian regime in 2019 would reverse the shame of once seeing our diplomats held hostage for four hundred and forty-four days. The former hostages can cut the ribbon to open the new U.S. Embassy in Tehran.”
Shortly before the Iran deal—brokered by the world’s six major powers—Bolton wrote a piece in the Times entitled “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran.” In it, he predicted, “Iran will not negotiate away its nuclear program. Nor will sanctions block its building a broad and deep weapons infrastructure. The inconvenient truth is that only military action like Israel’s 1981 attack on Saddam Hussein’s Osirak reactor in Iraq or its 2007 destruction of a Syrian reactor, designed and built by North Korea, can accomplish what is required. Time is terribly short, but a strike can still succeed.” Three months later, Iran accepted the nuclear deal, the most significant nonproliferation treaty in more than a quarter century. The deal was endorsed unanimously in a U.N. resolution. Trump has vowed that he will withdraw from the deal without fixes by mid-May, a move that Bolton clearly supports.
Bolton has also long backed a cultlike Iranian opposition group, the Mujahideen-e Khalq, or M.E.K., which has been held responsible for the murder of multiple American military personnel, the attempted kidnapping of a U.S. Ambassador, and other violent attacks in Iran before the 1979 revolution. The M.E.K. was based in Iraq during the regime of Saddam Hussein, who provided arms, financial assistance, and political support. In 1997, it was among the first groups cited on the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations. It wasn’t removed until 2012. Bolton spoke at an M.E.K. rally last year—for the eighth time—in Paris. Other speakers at M.E.K. rallies have reportedly been paid tens of thousands of dollars for their appearances.
Bolton’s policy recommendations on North Korea are also militant, and they break with the man who just hired him. Earlier this month, Trump pledged to meet Kim Jong Un by May. “Talking to North Korea is worse than a mere waste of time,” Bolton wrote in The Hill, in August. “Negotiations legitimize the dictatorship, affording it more time to enhance its nuclear and ballistic-missile capabilities. Today, only one diplomatic option remains, and it does not involve talking to Pyongyang. Instead, President Trump should urge President Xi Jinping that reunifying the Korean Peninsula is in China’s national interest.”
The answer to China’s fear of an uncontrolled collapse, Bolton wrote, “is a jointly managed effort to dismantle North Korea’s government, effectively allowing the swift takeover of the North by the South.” Not even the South Korean President, Moon Jae-in, supports that idea; he has been trying to broker a rapprochement with the North.
The deepest disagreement between Bolton and Trump may be over Russia—especially its President, Vladimir Putin. In an op-ed last July, Bolton wrote that undermining the U.S. Constitution “is far more than just a quotidian covert operation. It is in fact a casus belli, a true act of war, and one Washington will never tolerate.” He charged that Trump had been duped by Putin in their meeting on the sidelines of the G-20 summit last summer.
Bolton has worked for three Republican Presidents—Reagan and both Bushes. He gained his reputation as a feisty hawk after George W. Bush appointed him to be Under-Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security. By 2005, he was so controversial that his nomination to be U.N. Ambassador failed to win Senate approval, and Bush appointed him as a “recess appointment” when Congress was not in session.
The United Nations was an odd fit. In 1994, Bolton said, “There is no United Nations. There is an international community that occasionally can be led by the only real power left in the world, and that’s the United States, when it suits our interests and when we can get others to go along.” He later said about the world body, “The Secretariat Building in New York has thirty-eight stories. If you lost ten stories today, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.”
When I covered the George W. Bush Administration, I often heard grumbling about Bolton being irascible and argumentative. He had deep disagreements with both Secretaries of State, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. He ultimately had a falling out with President Bush, who lamented his support for Bolton. “Let me just say from the outset that I don’t consider Bolton credible,” he said, according to an account in the Times, in 2008. The same year, Bolton countered in the Wall Street Journal, “Nothing can erase the ineffable sadness of an American presidency, like this one, in total intellectual collapse.”
After Bolton’s appointment, on Thursday, I spoke to John B. Bellinger III, the former legal adviser to the N.S.C. and the State Department, who worked with Bolton for two years. “John may be the only senior person in the White House with significant diplomatic experience, both bilateral and multilateral,” Bellinger said. “He has negotiated with most of the governments in the world, which is helpful, given that Trump has not. John tends to annoy and frustrate and try to steamroll other countries. But at least he’s not ignorant of diplomatic relationships.”
Bolton negotiated strong U.N. resolutions on North Korea, Bellinger told me. “He also famously repudiated the U.S. signature to the Rome Statute on the International Criminal Court. He’s not a fan of international law or international institutions, which he may think can challenge U.S. sovereignty.” Bellinger was more sanguine about how stubborn Bolton will be at the National Security Council. “We’ll have to hope that some of the aggressive actions John suggested when he was not in government—and more of a provocateur—may look a lot different to him when he’s responsible for the actions or advising the President on final decisions and he has other Cabinet secretaries telling him what the consequences will be.”
Although Bolton has experience in the White House Situation Room, navigating the interagency process may be challenging when he is surrounded by the many people with strong views in this Administration, Bellinger said. “John does not suffer fools gladly. He may have a challenging time as national-security adviser with a President who is not interested in facts or history.”
The Bolton nomination provoked strong reactions in Washington. On the Hill, the Democratic Senator Edward Markey, of Massachusetts, tweeted, “With the appointments of Mike Pompeo and John Bolton, @realDonaldTrump is successfully lining up his war cabinet. Bolton played a key role in politicizing the intel that misled us into the Iraq War. We cannot let this extreme war hawk blunder us into another terrible conflict.”
Jon Soltz, an Iraq War veteran and chairperson of VoteVets, the largest progressive veterans group, called Bolton’s appointment “downright frightening.” In a statement, he said, “A man who was key in sending me and thousands and thousands of my fellow troops to Iraq is now the National Security Adviser to Donald Trump. Let there be no mistake—there is no war for regime change, anywhere, that John Bolton wasn’t for. He sees troops not as human beings, with families, but as expendable resources, in his real-life game of Risk. We are undoubtedly closer to a war in Korea, now, and a war with Iran.”
Soltz added, “To the Trump voters out there we say: You were suckered. You were lied to, and now our troops are going to have to pay the price, for that.”