John Bolton is unshackled. So says John Bolton.
Speaking publicly earlier this week for the first time since his political defenestration last month, the former national security advisor was hardly coy in alluding to his policy differences with the president who sacked him.
In word choice that drew raised eyebrows around Washington, Bolton told a establishmentarian think tank, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), that he was “sure the leadership of North Korea is delighted I am here today, in a private capacity.” The former ambassador noted that he was now “free to speak, in unvarnished terms” about matters of the day.
Also on hand was Victor Cha, another Republican foreign policy grandee. Cha previously passed on serving as the administration’s Korea point man over policy disagreements that remain murky. Cha has noted publicly that Bolton was given the “Syria and Russia portfolio” by President Trump, and not the North Korea one, which instead went to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Bolton’s latest archrival in a career dotted with archrivalry. At the nadir, Bolton was humiliated with an assignment in literal Outer Mongolia as Pompeo held court with the Koreans.
President Trump may be content with foreign policy by divide and conquer, but his dispatched-with ex-deputy is most certainly not. Bolton repeatedly linked what he characterized an anemic strategy on North Korea with other theaters. America cannot accept a nuclear weapon in North Korea, Bolton said, all but explicitly contending that is the president’s de facto position. Trump’s amorous feelings for the North Korean leadership since talks began are a matter of public record.
For Bolton, the real danger is that Tehran will take its cues from Pyongyang. In the Boltonian view, time is always on the side of the “proliferators.” Trump may have been willing to obliterate Barack Obama’s nuclear deal, but that was a matter of personal grudge, not policy conviction. Bolton now worries that if the mullahs and their janissaries actually got in a room with America’s forty-fifth president, they’d actually secure a more favorable arrangement than they were able to procure from the forty-fourth.
Bolton on Monday also showed his Bush administration bona fides, floating wild speculation that, if nothing else, the North Koreans could sell their nuclear technology— even warheads—to Islamists, including the regime in Iran. Such talk was commonplace a decade ago, but has receded as the manifest absurdity of an anti-American axis of evil composed of the disparate forces of religious rule and zombie Stalinism has been laid bare.
The coup de grace of Bolton’s address was perhaps his resuscitation of the notorious “Libya model,” which he views as a masterstroke of “misunderstood,” downright Talleyrandian statecraft. Bolton famously invoked the example of the unilateral disarmament by Muammar Gaddafi as the precedent for dealing with Kim. The Libyan kingpin gave up his weapons in the face of American might after the U.S. took Iraq in 2003, so the regime in Pyongyang should do the same. Never mind that eight long years later, the strongman was bayoneted and brutalized by his own people, a menacing sight that was not lost on the globe’s autocrats, including Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
“Once again, John Bolton has proven he had no intention of trying to solve the North Korea problem through talks,” says Harry J. Kazianis, director of Korea Studies at the Center for the National Interest. “He has only two solutions: North Korea’s total surrender of its nukes or war to rid the world of them.” Kazianis is an ally of Bolton’s “Bolton lite” successor, Robert O’Brien. “We should all count our lucky stars John Bolton is out of the White House,” says Kazianis.
For Bolton, the 2000s approach to foreign policy may have been rocky at times, and the democratization aspects mushy nonsense for the weak-minded, but the course was fundamentally just—and successful. Consider a spring 2018 interview Bolton did with Tucker Carlson before becoming national security. In a broadcast Trump could have been watching (though I’m told he was not), Carlson savaged Bolton’s patchwork record.
But Bolton, unlike other ghosts of regime change past, does not regret Iraq. The mess in Mesopotamia was not a disaster “because you have to argue that everything that followed from the fall of Saddam Hussein followed inevitably, solely and unalterably from the decision to overthrow him. And that’s simply not true.” He’s lucky Trump, who criticized the Iraq war during the Republican primaries, didn’t see it.
What Trump did eventually see was a tenure by the ambassador at the National Security Council— though the lengthiest of any in his administration —that was fundamentally out of step with presidential prerogatives. “When he talked about the ‘Libyan model’ for Kim Jong Un,” Trump said at the White House days after firing Bolton, “That was not a good statement to make. … It set us back. And frankly, he wanted to do things, not necessarily tougher than me. You know, John’s known as a tough guy. He’s so tough he got us into Iraq. That’s tough.”
Now Bolton is back in familiar territory. Though he has cut an outsized figure on the American political scene, in recent years he’s been far more out of government than in it. The two roles for which he is most famous—U.N. ambassador under Bush and national security advisor under Trump—he served in under two years.
But Bolton doesn’t plan to go quietly into the good night. Last month, he told a private gathering at the Gatestone Institute, associated with the secretive, powerful and Trump-bankrolling Mercer family, that the president’s scuttled Afghanistan summit at Camp David was “disrespectful” and any talks with Tehran or the North Koreans were “doomed to failure.”
Still, Bolton cannot follow his fellow ex-Bush acolytes in the Trump era in their march leftward. He is not like writers Max Boot, Jennifer Rubin, David Frum or even the Bush family itself, which with one known exception (George P. Bush, the Texas land commissioner) did not vote for Trump. Bolton is not a neoconservative, always an uneasy fit on the Right; he is a nationalist uber hawk. Unlike that crew, Bolton did endorse Trump for president.
Often hailed as a lawyer, scholar and diplomat, Bolton is something else—a Republican. He volunteered for Barry Goldwater’s doomed 1964 campaign during his youth. He is so strident a free marketeer that he even told Edward Luce of the Financial Times in 2007 that he identified as a “libertarian.” While his foreign policy says otherwise, he’s not going over to a political party on second base with socialism.
What Bolton needs now is an old favorite: regime change. He needs the Trump presidency to end. This has spurred the rumor du jour in America’s capital city, that Bolton is somehow behind the leaks that have led House Democrats to launch an impeachment inquiry into Trump.
A former senior National Security Council official told me that after early Trump administration leaks, the White House took extraordinary means to ensure state secrecy. The New York Times in recent weeks detailed just how elaborate these measures were, and just how closed the circle around Trump is—at least as it pertains to seeing or hearing any details of what the president says to foreign leaders by phone.
The cloud of suspicion around Bolton is enormous. A former senior administration official characterized Bolton as “THE witness for the prosecution.” That the scandal has now ensnared Pompeo, his friend-turned-enemy who listened in on the call with Ukraine’s president, is just the cherry on top. Pompeo is vying to be Henry Kissinger as Democrats look to create more John Ehrlichmans.
Which all begs the question: Is John Bolton Deep Throat?
Curt Mills is senior writer for The American Conservative.