National security adviser John Bolton has spent his adult life warning against fuzzy-headed foreign diplomacy in which we imagine that our enemies are just misunderstood and have the same peaceful aims as we do. He has been early to point out — with Iran, for example — the dangers of relying on empty statements. The regime will exploit every loophole and use every tactic to delay and deceive, he has said. We cannot appease bullies and tyrants, he has warned. It must therefore be painful for him to serve a president who is a caricature of the dimwitted liberals Bolton used to vilify. With that background, I offer this open letter:
We’ve known each other many years. You’ve long been a steely-eyed critic of happy-talk diplomacy. We should see our adversaries as they are, not as we would like them to be, you’ve warned. In that vein, last August you wrote:
America’s policy makers, especially those who still support the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, should take careful note. If Tehran’s long collusion with Pyongyang on ballistic missiles is even partly mirrored in the nuclear field, the Iranian threat is nearly as imminent as North Korea’s. Whatever the extent of their collaboration thus far, Iran could undoubtedly use its now-unfrozen assets and cash from oil-investment deals to buy nuclear hardware from North Korea, one of the world’s poorest nations.
One lesson from Pyongyang’s steady nuclear ascent is to avoid making the same mistake with other proliferators, who are carefully studying its successes. Statecraft should mean grasping the implications of incipient threats and resolving them before they become manifest. With North Korea and Iran, the U.S. has effectively done the opposite. Proliferators happily exploit America’s weakness and its short attention span. They exploit negotiations to gain the most precious asset: time to resolve the complex scientific and technological hurdles to making deliverable nuclear weapons.
That is the voice of sobriety that many have come to expect from you.
Keenly aware of the importance of status and legitimacy to rogue leaders, you warned against providing what they crave without anything of consequence in return. In February of this year, when you fiercely opposed even letting North Korea into the Olympics, you wrote:
Kim Jong Un’s dictatorship is seeking propaganda advantage of South Korean President Moon Jae In’s “sunshine policy” to make inroads into global public opinion, to split Seoul from Washington and Tokyo in dealing with Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic-missile programs, and to distract America and the international community from the imminence of North Korea’s ability to target any spot in the world with nuclear weapons.
By agreeing to a “unified” team marching in Pyeongchang’s opening ceremonies, flying a flag showing an undivided Korean Peninsula, by forming a joint women’s ice-hockey team and by sending a large delegation of North Korean officials and “citizens” to support their athletes, Kim Jong Un played on the naïve and the gullible, of whom unfortunately there are all too many in both America and South Korea. The capstone of Kim’s propaganda campaign was the invitation to President Moon to visit Pyongyang for an inter-Korean summit. Delivered by the North’s nominal top official, Kim Yong Nam, and Kim Yo Jong, sister of the current dictator, the invitation was accepted reflexively.
That was just the Olympics, of course. Could you in your wildest dreams have imagined escorting a president to a grin-and-grab propaganda show with Kim, and watching the president proclaim that the leader of the most repressive regime on the planet, one that starves and imprisons hundreds of thousands of people, “loves” his country? I don’t think even President Barack Obama went that far in his overly optimistic rhetoric about Iran — rhetoric that you routinely mocked.
You’ve known for years, John, that “diplomatic progress is not possible here because Pyongyang’s purpose is not to ‘open a dialogue’ for the umpteenth time with Seoul, Washington or Tokyo, but to conceal and distract from its menacing activities.” You excoriated the media, for goodness’ sake, for getting giddy about North Korea’s participation. “When P. T. Barnum allegedly said ‘there’s a sucker born every minute,’ he may have been understating the problem,” you wrote. “Not that you’d know it from our establishment media.” So what exactly does that make President Trump?
Trump has said all sorts of things you’ve decried in the past. Trump “trusts” Kim. He even cooed, “Anybody that takes over a situation like he did, at 26 years of age, and is able to run it, and run it tough — I don’t say he was nice or I don’t say anything about it — he ran it.” He has murdered relatives and enslaved his own people, mind you. He admired Kim’s real estate. “As an example, they have great beaches. You see that whenever they’re exploding their cannons into the ocean, right? I said, ‘Boy, look at the view. Wouldn’t that make a great condo behind?'”
He tweeted this morning: “Just landed — a long trip, but everybody can now feel much safer than the day I took office. There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea. Meeting with Kim Jong Un was an interesting and very positive experience. North Korea has great potential for the future!” That kind of delusional thinking used to disqualify someone for public office, in your mind.
And on and on. Surely you must have been cringing, all too aware that not only is Kim getting a laugh at America’s expense but also Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin also must think Trump a fool.
Nevertheless, you serve and defend this president. You offer up your prestige and your reputation for candor. Unless you’ve changed every idea and conviction you’ve ever had, I suspect you were mortified by all this. The president has demonstrated how gullible he is; the chances of any sort of deal with North Korea have now evaporated since Kim will want more and more. And worse, Trump is conducting the sort of mindless foreign policy you have spoken out against.
So what to do? At some point, when the president rejects not only your advice but also your worldview, it is time to reconsider what you are doing. He has morphed into (I would argue, always was) a walking, talking appeasement machine who denigrates American values and elevates the stature of tyrants. He’s a greater menace to the Western alliance than any predecessor.
If you feel proud of this outcome and confident in the president you serve, keep at it. If not, maybe it is time to get out and speak the truth, as you always have, in service of America.