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No, Bolton Is Not a Pragmatist

Reihan Salam wants us to see the “pragmatic” side of John Bolton:

Consider his condemnations of the Iran deal. Ever since the idea of a nuclear agreement was first floated, Bolton insisted that it would empower rather than restrain Tehran in its efforts to sow chaos. Many thoughtful observers who were once favorably disposed towards the deal, including some on the left, now acknowledge that Iranian military adventurism has gotten worse since the deal was signed. It’s hard to deny that Bolton’s skepticism has been borne out, at least in part.

It is debatable whether Iranian “military adventurism has gotten worse,” but the problem here is that Bolton is using other Iranian behavior as an excuse for scrapping a deal that is doing exactly what it is supposed to do. Suppose for the sake of argument that Iran has become significantly more meddlesome since 2015. How does that justify reneging on a deal that restricts their nuclear program? It doesn’t. It’s a silly argument.

Citing other aspects of Iran’s foreign policy as proof that an opponent of the nuclear deal has been vindicated doesn’t make the least bit of sense. It is akin to the complaints about New START that ratifying the treaty didn’t change other Russian behavior that Washington didn’t like. The complaints about the other behavior may or may not be legitimate, but they are absolutely irrelevant to the merits of the agreement. Incidentally, Bolton is a vocal opponent of New START (he calls it an “execrable deal”), and his appointment makes extending the treaty again even less likely than it was before.

A pragmatist would be very interested in keeping the treaty alive because of the significant benefits that the U.S. gets from it, but of course Bolton is not really a pragmatist and never has been. Bolton’s argument against New START is risible. He claims that the 2002 Moscow Treaty (no verification) was superior to New START (including a verification mechanism) because it was “short (three pages), with broad exit ramps and sunset provisions.” Bolton thinks arms control treaties that bind the U.S. are good because they expire or are easy to get out of, but nonproliferation agreements that other states sign are terrible because some of their provisions eventually expire. Bolton’s “pragmatism” looks a lot like knee-jerk, ignorant hawkishness.

Arms control and nonproliferation agreements need to be judged on whether they do what their supporters said they would do. Has the JCPOA verifiably restricted Iran’s nuclear program and blocked all of their paths to developing a nuclear weapon? The IAEA has told us that it has exactly done that ten times in a row, and Iran remains in compliance with an agreement that our hard-liners said they would never abide by. Bolton’s hostility to such an agreement is driven by his ideological aversion to compromise with an adversarial regime, and there is no agreement that could be negotiated with Iran that would satisfy him. That is one reason why he favors attacking them instead. A genuine pragmatist would accept the nuclear deal for what it does and seek to maximize the benefits that the U.S. gets from it. A blinkered ideologue wants to burn it to the ground. Bolton is obviously the latter.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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