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A Madman on the National Security Council

John Bolton is that most ludicrous of creatures: the unreconstructed Bush-era foreign policy thinker.

Would that John Bolton were only a clown. The mustachioed alleged diplomat, briefly of the Bush administration—and initially criticized as too controversial even for that team—has now been appointed national security advisor. That position will give him the president’s ear on matters of foreign policy, as well as control over which other administration principals enjoy such access. Donald Trump pledged that if elected he would be a different kind of Republican president, and he’s delivered: under the last GOP administration, Bolton occupied a slightly lower-ranking position than he does now.

Bolton is indeed no circus act: he’s one of the sharpest and most dangerous national security operatives in Washington. To take just one example, last summer, Trump made it known that he was considering pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal, a campaign promise he wanted fulfilled but that had been discouraged by his then-secretary of state Rex Tillerson. Sensing an opportunity, Bolton wrote an essay for National Review explaining in breezy (i.e. Trump-digestible) terms just how to abrogate the agreement. The piece is chockablock with nonsense: at one point it claims sans any evidence that the Obama administration believed the JCPOA was “disadvantageous to the United States.” It also offers scant evidence to underpin its claim that Iran was in violation of the deal, an assertion that’s been repeatedly repudiated by the authorities at the IAEA. But the truth wasn’t the point: the piece was meant to water a seed in the president’s mind, to lend expert opinion to Trump’s burning preference that the JCPOA be reversed.

That Bolton did this shouldn’t surprise anyone because this is how Bolton works: shrewdly and always towards the goal of more war. As Gareth Porter detailed in a rigorously reported piece for TAC, during his tenure under Bush, Bolton maneuvered behind the scenes to pump up a pretext for conflict between the United States and Iran. Among his methods was to pretend that satellite images of a military base at Parchin demonstrated Iranian nuclear experimentation. That supposed smoking gun is cited to this day by neocons as proof of Iran’s atomic dreams.

What makes Bolton unique among hawkish operators is that he doesn’t feel the need to hide any of these machinations. The man wants to pulverize Tehran and he’s not afraid to say so. In 2015, Bolton wrote a piece for the New York Times subtly titled “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran.” Never mind that the adverbial clause in that sentence had no definitive evidence in its favor; it was off to war because, as Bolton put it, “extensive progress in uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing reveal [Iran’s] ambitions” (imagine if that standard was applied universally). The coming operation, Bolton promised, would be akin to Operation Opera in 1981 when Israel destroyed a single Iraqi nuclear reactor, except that this one would take out multiple installations at Natanz and Fordow and Arak and Isfahan and…

The details never add up because they’re not supposed to. Bolton’s wheelhouse has never been the tactical nitty-gritty; he’s an ideologue whose credo dogmatizes violence against enemies regardless of consequences or cost. On the Iraq war, he declared in 2015, “I still think the decision to overthrow Saddam was correct.” On Libya, in 2011 before the Obama administration launched its calamitous intervention, Bolton recommended that the United States assassinate Moammar Gaddafi. On North Korea, he innocently suggested there was a “legal case” for a first strike. On Russia, you will not be surprised to learn that he thinks Trump needs to get tougher, including launching a cyber-attack that would be “decidedly disproportionate” to anything the Russians have done. He also thinks it’s time to revisit the “One-China Policy” that prevents us from antagonizing Beijing by recognizing an independent Taiwan.

There are all manner of vexatious wrinkles amidst those pronouncements. For instance, a foreign policy realist might note that the deposal of Iraq’s regime and the ascendance of Shiite power in Baghdad, which Bolton supported, greatly availed Iran, which Bolton detests. But again, such nuances are dwarfed by the big-picture concepts in which Bolton deals, like American Power and Dictatorships and Strength. Most foreign policy gurus, despite supporting generally hawkish policies, have at least disowned the war in Iraq and made some perfunctory efforts to adjust for its failures. Not Bolton, who is that most ludicrous of creatures: the unreconstructed Bush-era thinker. He belongs behind a glass display in the American History Museum, not enjoying a second wind at the apex of the federal bureaucracy.

But alas, the president himself has spoken. There are conditions to Bolton’s employment. CNN is reporting that Bolton promised Trump—quote—“he wouldn’t start any wars” if he became national security advisor, and surely that’s a promise he’ll keep. Bolton, after all, has never started (or fought in) a war in his life. What he will do is counsel Trump to take the most belligerent course of action possible in every given situation. Up first will be the Iran deal, which, with Bolton now at NSC and Mike Pompeo at State, seems certain to be the subject of a hardened stance from the White House, which will further isolate America from its allies, as the Europeans, more commercially entangled with Tehran than we are, decline to go along.

That brings us back to Trump, the insurgent who won the 2016 election pledging to repudiate the George W. Bush legacy and keep the United States out of foreign wars. It’s a show of both neocon strength and Trump impressionability that a mere year and a half later the most warmongering personality in Washington has already clambered all the way up to national security advisor. I’m new here at TAC, but I’m quickly learning that part of the arrangement is that we lose 100 battles for every one we win.

Matt Purple is managing editor of The American Conservative.



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