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Opinion Bolton is the new Dr. Strangelove

Democracy Post editor Christian Caryl says President Trump's new national security adviser is more capable than other officials. That's the problem. (Video: Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

If Stanley Kubrick were making his classic dark comedy “Dr. Strangelove” today, the part of Strangelove himself would be modeled not on a German scientist but on an all-American type, born in Baltimore, educated at Yale University and with no ominous physical tics — like a barely repressed Nazi salute. Instead, he would have a shoe-brush mustache and the steady glare of a true believer. John Bolton gets the part, hands down.

Bolton is now President Trump’s national security adviser. He sits at Trump’s elbow. Bolton has restructured the National Security Council to match his views. He has laid out strategies to eliminate North Korea’s missile capacity and its nuclear program, including a preemptive strike. Bolton thinks North Korea inevitably lies. North Korea thinks Bolton is “human scum and a bloodsucker.”

I think it’s time to worry.

It’s virtually impossible to put yourself in the shoes of Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader. Who is this guy? What accounts for that haircut? Did he really have his uncle killed ? Has he used antiaircraft weapons to execute his own government officials? Does he believe what he says?

The last question is likely to be answered by most Americans in the negative. How could anyone believe that the United States, the nicest of nations, would strike North Korea unprovoked? But Bolton has suggested there are ways to do that. In a Wall Street Journal opinion piece in August, Bolton outlined various military approaches, starting with a preemptive “strike at Pyongyang’s known nuclear facilities, ballistic missile factories and launch sites, and submarine bases.” In other words, war.

Bolton recognizes what would happen to South Korea as a result — and he’s sorry for that. But elsewhere he has written that the United States has to do what the United States has to do and cannot be constrained even by an ally. With Seoul within range of North Korean artillery — and the likelihood of taking out all its nuclear armed missiles uncertain — we are talking about huge casualties and immense devastation. Such a consequence ought to be out of the question.

Bolton’s plans for North Korea have an underlying theme: The regime is illegitimate. Even his most benign plan, the wish that China end the North’s misery and unite the two Koreas, means that Kim has to go, probably feet first. In other words, Kim would be fighting for his very life, not to mention the existence of a regime that has been in the family since his grandfather’s day. This approach is not going to encourage Kim to give up his nuclear weapons.

Here I must mention the late Stanislav Petrov, formerly a lieutenant colonel in the Soviet Air Defense Forces. On Sept. 26, 1983, he was on duty when the alarm sounded. The computers warned of a U.S. missile attack. Petrov had to decide whether to send the warning up the chain of command where a counterattack might be ordered — or do nothing. He did nothing, judging the alarm to be false.

Now, you might wonder how anyone would think that Washington would risk nuclear Armageddon. But the Soviets believed in the inherent evil of America just as firmly as Ronald Reagan believed it of them. That very year, in fact, Reagan had called the Soviet Union an “evil empire .” It’s likely Kim thinks the same of the United States.

Bolton exacerbates that paranoia. His saying just recently that he’d like North Korea to give up its nuclear arsenal just as Libya did jarred the North Koreans. Libya? The country voluntarily gave up its weapons program. Then it imploded and its leader, Moammar Gaddafi, was killed.

“We do not hide our feeling of repugnance,” North Korea said of Bolton in a statement. Libya, it added, met a “miserable fate.”

Trump has cleaned house of moderates. Rex Tillerson is gone from the State Department, H.R. McMaster from the National Security Council, White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly is no longer phone monitor and Bolton now influences the flow of intelligence to Trump. In certain circles, Bolton has a reputation as a straight shooter. But retired Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, once Colin Powell’s chief of staff, has a different view of Bolton from their time together at the State Department. “He lied repeatedly during his time at State,” he says in the current New Yorker magazine.

“Dr. Strangelove” was a comedy and the Strangelove character a parody of a one-time German scientist with a Nazi past. But the current White House is no film set, and the president and Bolton are no parodies. We can only hope Trump remains true to form. He fires everyone sooner or later. With Bolton, even sooner may be too late.

Read more from Richard Cohen’s archive.

Read more here:

Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar: What to do if the talks with North Korea succeed

David Ignatius: Trump and Kim Jong Un have a lot in common. Is that a good thing?

The Post’s View: Trump’s bet on a North Korea summit is looking riskier than ever

Marc A. Thiessen: North Korea is acting up because Trump has it cornered