President Trump’s selection of veteran diplomat and outspoken conservative John Bolton to replace General H.R. McMasters as his national security advisor is a signal to the world that the US will be taking a much more aggressive attitude towards its enemies, such as Iran and North Korea, and a more protective attitude towards its loyal allies, such as Israel.
Many supporters of Israel cheered the selection of Bolton, who has a long pro-Israel diplomatic track record. In 1991, Bolton as the assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs under the George H.W. Bush administration, was a behind the scenes force in the UN General Assembly’s vote that rescinded its notorious 1975 “Zionism is racism” resolution.
Bolton has been outspoken in defending the legitimacy of Israel’s claims to Yerushalayim and the West Bank, while challenging the legitimacy of the Palestinian cause. Bolton has long rejected the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as impractical. He was almost alone in the U.S. foreign policy establishment in urging Trump to carry out his promises to move the U.S. embassy to Yerushalayim and recognize the city as Israel’s capital. When Trump took those actions, Bolton praised them as “an injection of reality” in U.S. foreign policy.
Bolton agrees with Trump that the nuclear deal Obama negotiated with Iran in 2015 was a giveaway of enormous proportions and a strategic disaster for the US and its allies. Long ago, Bolton concluded that all diplomatic negotiations with the rogue regimes of North Korea and Iran were a waste of time. In 2008, he publicly called for the US to launch preemptive military strikes to destroy their nuclear programs and to punish them for their bad behavior. He has also said that the goal of US policy towards Iran should be nothing short of regime change.
Since he served as an arms control official for the George W. Bush administration, Bolton has publicly advocated the use of American military power to prevent rogue regimes, such as Iran and North Korea, from acquiring and proliferating nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.
“He is unabashed about this,” said Mark Groombridge, a former adviser to Bolton. “He has no problems with the doctrine of preemption and feels the greatest threat that the United States faces is the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.”
Democrats have long objected to Bolton’s outspoken advocacy of more aggressive US national security policies, regardless of the justification. Bolton also made many enemies during his years in government service as an effective bureaucratic infighter against opponents of his outspoken conservative views.
The firing of McMasters came as no surprise. Trump had indicated his dissatisfaction with him for months. But his selection of Bolton, who is so close to Trump’s own policies and point of view, was seen as a reflection of Trump’s growing confidence that his unique approach to the presidency is the right one for the nation.
The appointment of CIA director Mike Pompeo to replace Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State, days before the announcement that Bolton will replace McMaster, was another sign that President Trump wants advisors who more closely agree with his “America First” views on foreign policy and national security.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is now the lone member of Trump’s inner circle of national security advisors who supports the conventional approaches of the entrenched Washington foreign policy establishment.
TRUMP CHOOSES AN ADVISOR LIKE HIMSELF
In Bolton, Trump chose an adviser who is very much like himself, in being willing to talk tough against America’s adversaries. As George W. Bush’s Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, Bolton traded insults with Kim Jong Il, the father of the current North Korean leader.
In 2003, after the US confronted North Korea with evidence that it had cheated on its 1994 agreement to give up its nuclear weapons program, Bolton went to Seoul where he called Kim a “tyrannical dictator. . . While he lives like royalty in Pyongyang, he keeps hundreds of thousands of his people locked in prison camps with millions more mired in abject poverty, scrounging the ground for food. For many in North Korea, life is a nightmare.” This prompted an angry response from the North Korean government called Bolton the “envoy of evil.”
Bolton has long condemned the US agreement to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal as a “mistake” and publicly urged Trump to “tear [it] up.” When McMaster and Tillerson objected to Trump’s desire to walk away from the Iran deal as impractical, Bolton came up with his own plan for dealing with Iran, which he presented to Trump as a private citizen. Bolton’s plan would have enabled the US to extricate itself from the ill-advised nuclear agreement and take a series of measures in cooperation with America’s European allies which would pave the way for regime change in Iran.
Trump accepted the advice of McMaster and Tillerson to try and fix the deal with Iran instead of giving up on it, but so far that strategy hasn’t achieved anything, which means that Bolton will likely get a second chance to sell his plan as an alternative.
BOLTON’S NEW DUTIES
Bolton reportedly promised the president at their final meeting before his appointment was announced that when asked for his view, he won’t hesitate to share it, but will give Trump room to make his own decision.
After word of his appointment by Trump was announced, Bolton told a Fox News interviewer, “I have never been shy about what my views are, [but] frankly, what I have said in private is now behind me.” He declined to repeat his previous policy recommendations regarding North Korea, Russia or Iran.
Bolton will take over as national security advisor on April 9th. He emphasized that his duty will be to present all sides and arguments to the president, and then give his full support to the decisions of the commander in chief, even if he disagrees with them.
“The important thing is what the president says, and the advice I give him,” Bolton told a Fox News interviewer. “If the government can’t have a free interchange of ideas among the president’s advisers then I think the president is not well served.”
It will be interesting to see how closely Bolton’s well-known national security views align with Trump’s populist “America First” foreign policy positions.
Bolton and Trump are known to share a sharply critical of the United Nations and its notoriously cumbersome bureaucracy. However, Bolton will have to reconcile his continued support for the 2003 invasion of Iraq with Trump’s claim that he always opposed it and overcome Trump’s stated opposition to any new foreign US military interventions that are not clearly dictated by national security concerns.
BOLTON IS NOT A NEOCON
“I still think the decision to overthrow Saddam was correct,” Bolton told the Washington Examiner in 2015. “The people who say, oh, things would have been much better if you didn’t overthrow Saddam miss the point that today’s Middle East does not flow totally and unchangeably from the decision to overthrow Saddam alone.”
Unlike the “neocons” of the George W. Bush administration, such as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Vice President Dick Cheney, Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz and former CIA director James Woolsey, Bolton never harbored hopes that a US-dominated Iraq would become a model of democracy for the entire Middle East to emulate.
Bolton did not support the US nation-building enterprise which failed in Iraq. He supported the overthrow of Saddam strictly on national security grounds. As soon as Saddam was gone, he wanted US troops to leave.
Bolton recently argued in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that in the current era of rogue states seeking nuclear weapons, international law should be adjusted to permit a pre-emptive strike against states on the threshold such as North Korea, because the risk of annihilation is too great for any nation to tolerate. As a result, he argued that, “It is perfectly legitimate for the United States to respond to the current ‘necessity’ posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons by striking first.”
BOLTON CALLED FOR TOUGHER ACTION AGAINST PUTIN
Bolton, Pompeo and Trump appear to see eye-to-eye with regard to the right approach against North Korea and Iran, but Bolton has said that the current US sanctions against Russia are ineffective. He has argued that Trump needs to get tougher and punish Russian president Vladimir Putin for his interference in the 2016 presidential election and his general opposition to US interests around the world.
“If you want to punish a country for behavior you don’t accept, you need punishing sanctions that are broad, not targeted, and they need to be enforced,” Bolton tweeted on March 5.
Three days earlier, after Putin publicly boasted that Russia is testing a new generation of nuclear arms that is superior to those of the United States, Bolton said, “There needs to be a strategic response to Russia’s new nuclear missiles to show our allies in Europe that we will not let Russia push the US or its allies around.” Clearly, as national security advisor, Bolton will urge Trump to match or exceed Russia’s military buildup, and not give in to Putin’s bullying.
HIGH RISK TALKS
Some US allies, including the leaders of Japan, South Korea and the European Union, have expressed fears that Trump’s open threats which prompted North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to invite him to direct talks as soon as May could lead to war if that meeting fails to yield a breakthrough.
“We would desperately wish to see the United States in a constructive leading role as a steward of the international system,” said Norbert Rottgen, the chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the lower house of the German Parliament, who does not like the more aggressive direction which Trump’s policies are taking.
“We are concerned that the policy is coming closer to the rhetoric,” he said. Trump “has now surrounded himself with people who share his intuitions and his general views.”
“I am particularly worried that if the Trump-Kim summit fails, Bolton will take that as proof that we must hit North Korea,” said Robert Kelly, an American who teaches international relations at Pusan National University in South Korea.
WHY NORTH KOREA CAN’T BE TRUSTED
Bolton had a long and bitter experience during his years at the State Department trying to negotiate a nuclear deal with North Korean leadership. In 2007, he said about current leader Kim Jong Un’s father, Kim Jong Il, “He’s very good at negotiating about giving up his [nuclear] program… He’s done it four or five times in the last 15 years.” Bolton’s conclusion from that experience was that North Korea “was never going to relinquish its nuclear weapons voluntarily. No way!”
South Korean leaders fear that an outbreak of hostilities along the border with North Korea would put at risk many of the 25 million South Korean civilians who live in the greater Seoul region, within range of the North’s concentration of conventional artillery. Japan has also become increasingly concerned about its security after North Korea fired several missiles over Japanese territory and threatened to strike American military bases there.
Bolton’s selection as national security advisor was also criticized by former president Jimmy Carter, who played a role in the first U.S. effort to reach a negotiated settlement with North Korea over its nuclear weapons program.
Carter, now 93, told USA Today, “Maybe one of the worst mistakes that President Trump has made since he’s been in office is his employment of John Bolton, who has been advocating a war with North Korea for a long time and even an attack on Iran, and who has been one of the leading figures on orchestrating the decision to invade Iraq.” Carter also said that Bolton’s appointment is, “a disaster for our country.”