The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion With all the world’s crises, this is John Bolton’s top concern?

National security adviser John Bolton said Sept. 10 those who cooperate with an International Criminal Court probe of U.S. actions would be punished. (Video: The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

IN A normal U.S. administration, the president’s national security adviser would be preoccupied by the daunting array of current global crises, including: the incipient Russia-backed offensive in Syria that could kill or displace hundreds of thousands; the massive wave of refugees pouring out of Venezuela, which U.N. officials say is the largest such exodus in Latin American history; and China’s campaign against Muslims in its Xinjiang region, the most sweeping mass repression the regime has conducted since the Mao Zedong era. That’s not to mention Russia’s continuing effort to sabotage Western democracy, including the upcoming U.S. midterm elections.

Thus, it was remarkable to hear the content of John Bolton’s first significant public address as President Trump’s top foreign policy strategist: a narrow and essentially irrelevant assault on the International Criminal Court (ICC). Rather than address the most urgent challenges to U.S. strategic interests, Mr. Bolton chose to champion a pet peeve.

Mr. Bolton has crusaded against the ICC for decades, and spent much of his tenure in the George W. Bush administration trying to neuter the court. Though the court has its defects, some of his own colleagues regarded his efforts as, at best, a waste of time and, at worst, harmful: Mr. Bolton endangered security cooperation programs with key allies, such as Mexico, by insisting they sign agreements pledging never to cooperate with the ICC in a case involving an American — an entirely theoretical prospect. Mr. Bolton called that pointless campaign “one of my proudest achievements.”

In reality, the ICC has devoted its prosecutions almost entirely to Africans. Though investigators have begun a preliminary inquiry of possible war crimes in Afghanistan, no cases against Americans have been opened.

Mr. Bolton, nevertheless, has made it a priority to combat the possibility that the ICC could, someday, target a U.S. citizen. He announced a series of steps that would be taken “if the court comes after us, Israel, or other allies,” including imposing sanctions on its judges or “any company or state that assists an ICC investigation.” This, from an administration that has been resisting congressional legislation mandating sanctions on Russia if it again interferes in a U.S. election — a far more tangible prospect.

The only concrete measure in Mr. Bolton’s speech was the announcement that the Palestine Liberation Organization would be required to close its office in Washington, which was established following the 1993 Oslo accords. The shutdown appeared attached to no discernible Middle East strategy by the Trump administration, which has yet to release a long-promised peace plan. Mr. Bolton blamed the Palestinians for not negotiating with Israel while lobbying for the ICC to investigate alleged Israeli crimes. But closing the office will make a U.S.-backed negotiation even less likely — and again, the ICC has brought no charges against anyone in Israel and isn’t likely to do so anytime soon.

When Mr. Bolton took over the national security post in April, some of his former colleagues wondered why a man of rigid views would join an administration pursuing policies he had strenuously opposed, such as negotiations with North Korea. This week’s speech offered one possible explanation: In a White House consumed by chaos, Mr. Bolton is free to make his personal bugaboos those of the nation.

Read more:

Josh Rogin: Trump is failing to counter China’s diplomatic assault on Taiwan

Jennifer Rubin: John Bolton and GOP senators are enabling Trump’s attacks on dissent

The Post’s View: John Bolton’s extremism could lead the country to catastrophe