Bolton, a veteran “swamp” creature who held several national security posts in both Bush administrations, is poised to replace H.R. McMaster as national security adviser in early April. McMaster’s departure and Bolton’s appointment were both expected after weeks of White House whispers, but their tweeted confirmation on Thursday still set alarm bells ringing across the capital.
I am pleased to announce that, effective 4/9/18, @AmbJohnBolton will be my new National Security Advisor. I am very thankful for the service of General H.R. McMaster who has done an outstanding job & will always remain my friend. There will be an official contact handover on 4/9.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 22, 2018
There are few more notorious hard-liners in Washington than Bolton, a 69-year-old former diplomat known for being profoundly undiplomatic. He shares President Trump’s scorn for multilateralism, and his loathing for the United Nations (where Bolton served a brief stint as U.S. ambassador) is matched by his contempt for the European Union. He sees both institutions as forums for ponderous deliberations that undermine American sovereignty and impede Washington's ability to act decisively.
Bolton’s geopolitical impatience matches his rumored professional demeanor: Allegations of bullying and abuse trail his conduct in office. In 2005 congressional testimony, he was famously described as a “kick-down, kiss-up” manager by a State Department colleague. That insight derailed his chances of permanently securing the U.N. post (he was later chosen by recess appointment). But under Trump, Bolton’s bellicosity has catapulted him into the most important foreign policy position in the White House.
Bolton played a key role in laying the groundwork for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. As the undersecretary of state for arms control and international security affairs from 2001 to 2005, he helped push the fiction that Saddam Hussein was actively developing weapons of mass destruction. British officials noted in a now-infamous secret memo to the prime minister’s office in 2002 that “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy” of the Bush administration. During that time, Bolton allegedly moved to punish subordinates who sought to check his manipulation of intelligence.
Of course, there were no WMDs to be found. But Bolton and his neoconservative allies got the war they wanted, a seismic event in modern history that prefigured so much of the instability that wracks the Middle East.
“It is frequently said that the decision to invade Iraq was the worst U.S. foreign policy decision since Vietnam. Actually, it was worse than Vietnam, and the worst in American history,” conservative Washington Post columnist George Will wrote, excoriating Bolton’s appointment.
“America gradually waded waist deep into Vietnam without a crossing-the-Rubicon moment — a single clear, dispositive decision,” he noted. “In contrast, the protracted preparation for invading Iraq was deliberative and methodical.”
The costs of Bush and Bolton’s war are still being counted. “No one knows for certain how many Iraqis have died as a result of the invasion 15 years ago. Some credible estimates put the number at more than one million. You can read that sentence again,” Iraqi author Sinan Antoon wrote. “The invasion of Iraq is often spoken of in the United States as a ’blunder,’ or even a ‘colossal mistake.’ It was a crime. Those who perpetrated it are still at large. Some of them have even been rehabilitated thanks to the horrors of Trumpism and a mostly amnesiac citizenry.”
Bolton, one of the perpetrators, seems to have profited from that amnesia. He doggedly defends the decision to go to war to this day — and he’s not alone. Other pundits and chickenhawks who cheered the 2003 invasion remain ensconced in their perches in Washington. Trump, who lambasted the Iraq war on the campaign trail, has elevated one of its few remaining champions.
A host of critics are fretting over the growing possibility of armed conflict with North Korea and Iran — and with good reason. Last month, Bolton wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal touting the viability of a preventive strike on North Korea. He also seems unconvinced about Trump’s plans to hold talks with Kim Jong Un. He told Radio Free Asia just last week that Washington should not offer economic concessions and reiterated his interest in regime change, suggesting that Trump’s time at the negotiating table may be brief.
Bolton has undercut diplomacy with North Korea in the past, as well. In 2001, he helped convince President George W. Bush to step away from a faltering nonproliferation agreement with Pyongyang rather than reinforce it with new rounds of diplomacy. North Korea made significant advances in its nuclear program during the period of isolation that followed, as did its fellow “axis of evil” member Iran.
“For many arms control and non-proliferation experts, this case represents a cautionary tale about the risks of foreclosing diplomatic engagement,” wrote academics Colin Kahl and Jon Wolfstahl, who both served in the Obama administration. “In Bolton’s mind, however, North Korea’s actions simply prove that diplomacy doesn’t work with rogue states, and that the only solution is to end these regimes all together, through U.S. military might if necessary.”
Here is John Bolton, in his memoir, admitting that he supported talks with North Korea in 2002 only because he expected them to fail, which he could then use to discredit diplomacy and pursue more hawkish policies on North Korea. pic.twitter.com/6nVcDuUuzW— Jeffrey Lewis (@ArmsControlWonk) March 25, 2018
That’s all the more true with Iran. Bolton’s ascension, combined with former CIA director Mike Pompeo's nomination as secretary of state, makes it almost certain that the Trump administration will withdraw from the nuclear deal in May. Bolton has advocated regime change in Iran for years, has received money from a shadowy Iranian opposition group deemed a cult by the State Department and has called for the country to be bombed.
It seems that Bolton will conduct a thorough purge of the national security staff in the White House, a move that could deepen the aggressive militarism that has become the signature theme of Trump’s worldview.
“The Trump White House is something of a clown show, but Bolton is no clown,” wrote Matthew Waxman, who served in the Bush White House. “Rather than just adding a Fox-newsy ideologue who shifts the balance of the administration team’s view further toward the president’s most hawkish outlook, Trump has added someone who can actually help him make that outlook into reality.”
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