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The Fanatic Running Trump’s Foreign Policy

Bolton's critics were right to be alarmed when Trump appointed him, and I fear that many of us are not worried enough about where U.S. foreign policy is headed over the next two years.
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Dexter Filkins has written an extensive profile of John Bolton. The profile recounts many familiar stories from Bolton’s career, and it has a few interesting details I hadn’t read about before. Among many other things, it covers his ties to the MEK and the payment he has received from them for promoting their cause:

In Bolton’s financial disclosure, he listed a forty-thousand-dollar payment, for a speech that he gave, in 2016, to Mujahideen-e-Khalq, an Iranian exile group dedicated to overthrowing the government in Tehran. The M.E.K., which professes an eccentric variant of Islam, has been characterized by many experts as resembling a cult. From 1997 until 2012, the United States listed it as a terrorist group, owing to a campaign of bombings and assassinations that it led in Iran. Bolton’s association with the group apparently went back at least to that time. During the speech in 2016, he told the crowd, “I just say again what I have been saying for ten years that I’ve been coming to this rally: the regime in Tehran needs to be overthrown at the earliest opportunity!”

Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a frequent critic of the regime, said that Bolton’s relationship with the group should have disqualified him from senior government jobs. “Anyone who pimps himself out to the M.E.K. fails the litmus test for integrity,” he said.

As I have said before, Bolton’s long-running involvement with the MEK is one of the clearest indications we have that the National Security Advisor holds dangerous views and has appalling judgment. He was one of the earliest and most consistent supporters of the MEK even before they were removed from the government’s list of foreign terrorist organizations, and he remained one of their biggest American advocates right up until he joined the Trump administration. While I’m sure they have paid him handsomely for all of his tedious speeches in favor of regime change, his fanatical anti-Iranian views make him a perfect fit for the group. If we had a remotely sane Iran policy debate, Bolton’s MEK ties would discredit everything he has to say about Iran. The fact that he has a major role in making U.S. policy towards Iran when he was very recently getting paid by a cultish group that seeks regime change should alarm everyone regardless of their views on what U.S. policy should be.

Another detail from the profile that is worth highlighting concerns Bolton’s “pro-Israel” hawkishness:

He has deep connections to the Israeli national-security establishment and to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In 2018, he gave a well-compensated speech to the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces. “John almost regards Israel as part of the United States,” [bold mine-DL] the former official who worked with Bolton told me. “He thinks our interests and their interest are identical.” [bold mine-DL]

That assessment of Bolton’s view of the U.S.-Israel relationship seems fair and consistent with everything he has said publicly, and it is a damning one. No two states ever have identical interests. It isn’t possible for interests to overlap that completely, and the only people that would claim that they could are extreme ideologues. It is no accident that U.S. policy on Israel and Palestine has been been reduced to giving Israeli hard-liners everything on their wish list since Bolton joined the Trump administration. U.S. and Israeli interests are not identical, and in fact they are diverging from each other more and more all the time, so the ideologue’s solution is simply to treat the other state’s interests as if they are ours and do what their government wants.

On top of all this is Bolton’s well-known poor performance in doing his actual job as National Security Advisor:

“It’s chaos under Bolton,” the former senior national-security official told me. “The national-security adviser is supposed to facilitate the President’s directives and coördinate national policy among the various government agencies. That process has completely broken down.” The official added, “Bolton hasn’t set any priorities. No one knows what the policies are—what’s important, what’s less important. The head is not connected to the body.” Principals’ meetings—crucial gatherings involving the President, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the heads of intelligence agencies—have become rare.

Bolton isn’t interested in having a well-run policy process because they would expose the president to views other than the ones he wants Trump to hear. The more chaotic and disorganized the process is, the more that Bolton can impose his own preferences and effectively dictate what the administration’s policies will be. Trump is weak, poorly-informed, and easily distracted, and that makes it much easier for Bolton to get away with this. When we consider Bolton’s insane belief that an attack on North Korea is still a “viable” way to eliminate North Korea’s nuclear weapons, that should make us very worried:

But Bolton still believes that such a strike is possible, the source familiar with his thinking said: “We can still do it. We know where most, if not all, of their weapons are—we could destroy their nuclear capability. There are ways to deal with their artillery.” When I asked about potential casualties, he said that Bolton “wishes we weren’t at this point. But the military option remains viable.”

In order to believe that the U.S. won’t take military action against one or more countries at some point in the next two years, we would have to believe that Bolton won’t get his way when there is disagreement inside the administration about what to do. To date, Bolton has prevailed every time. The profile presents Trump as an “isolationist” who doesn’t want to intervene abroad, but that isn’t true. If Trump really were an “isolationist,” he would never have appointed someone like Bolton, and he certainly wouldn’t keep deferring to him on one issue after another. Bolton is able to get his way with Trump so often because he knows how to flatter the president and because Trump is a militarist who doesn’t have a problem with Bolton’s “bomb first and then keep bombing” approach to foreign policy. Above all, Trump’s desire to appear “tough” makes him receptive to brain-dead, hard-line arguments.

Bolton’s critics were right to be alarmed when Trump appointed him, and I fear that many of us are not worried enough about where U.S. foreign policy is headed over the next two years.