The departure of President Trump’s hawkish national security adviser John Bolton was expected to be widely welcomed by U.S. foes abroad on Wednesday, in an indication of how much they perceived him to stand between their interests and what they hope to be those of Trump.
Western reactions were more ambiguous. Even though there was widespread skepticism when Bolton was named national security adviser last March — given his prior support for invasions and wars abroad — some came to consider him as a sometimes welcome check on the president’s spontaneous impulses in recent months.
Those impulses have at times been criticized for playing into the hands of authoritarian leaders such as North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, who was granted several historic photo ops with Trump without having to make significant concessions.
Especially North Korea, Iran and Russia considered Bolton to be a key obstacle and are unlikely to miss him. But between the lines, their reactions to Bolton’s ouster also reflected analysts’ skepticism whether the disliked adviser’s ouster would really alter the Trump administration’s overall aims and strategy.
On his official website, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was quoted as welcoming Bolton’s departure as an opportunity for the Trump administration to “abandon warmongering and its maximum pressure policy.”
Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal last year, angering U.S. allies in Europe who stuck to the agreement. As U.S. sanctions were stepped up in recent months, tensions increased in the summer when Iran was accused of attacks on tankers in the Persian Gulf and downed a U.S. drone in the region.
Throughout this, Bolton remained vehemently opposed to talks with the Iranian leadership. In response to the hard-line stance, Iran breached some of the restrictions it had committed to under the nuclear deal.
Bolton’s stance as national security adviser certainly shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone who had been following his past remarks. Months before becoming national security adviser, he openly advocated an overthrow of the Iranian regime, backed by the United States. “Our goal should be regime change in Iran,” Bolton told Fox News last January.
Though Bolton’s departure from the Trump administration may pave the way for direct talks with the Iranian regime, Trump owns his withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal. He himself had called for that deal to be torn apart. Even without Bolton, making substantial concessions to Iran is expected to remain difficult for Trump.
There was no immediate official reaction from North Korea on Wednesday, but the regime in Pyongyang had previously voiced particularly harsh criticism of Bolton, calling him a “defective human product” and “warmonger.”
North Korea’s animosity toward Bolton preceded the Trump administration.
As U.N. ambassador and undersecretary of state for arms control during the George W. Bush administration, Bolton was among the most hard-line commentators on Pyongyang, for instance suggesting the necessity of a preemptive war.
In an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal last February, before joining the Trump administration, Bolton explained his position: “It is perfectly legitimate for the United States to respond to the current ‘necessity’ posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons by striking first.”
Concerns inside the White House that Bolton may complicate the subsequent first meeting between Kim and Trump turned out to be justified. Two months into his new role, Bolton suggested that Libya may serve as a role model for persuading North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program, which threw preparations into turmoil.
Even though Bolton appeared to refer to the need to build trust and verify any denuclearization progress, North Korea viewed the comments as a suggestion that Bolton was advocating for a violent overthrow of the regime — similar to what happened in Libya when its leader Moammar Gaddafi was ousted and killed.
After North Korea called Bolton’s suggestion “awfully sinister,” Trump also contradicted Bolton, saying, “The Libya model isn’t the model that we have at all when we’re thinking of North Korea.” Trump added that Kim would “be in his country; he’d be running his country” in case of a deal.
During the subsequent Kim-Trump summit, Bolton found himself on the sidelines. After the second summit of the two leaders in February, U.S. officials blamed Bolton for the meeting’s failure.
His departure could raise new hopes for progress, especially after North Korea said on Monday that it was willing to resume talks with the United States. But analysts remain skeptical, as they see more fundamental differences between Kim and Trump as the core reason for the lack of progress in persuading Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons program. The United States maintains North Korea should denuclearize unilaterally; North Korea rejects that idea.
Bolton’s takes on Russia may not have triggered rhetorical responses as fierce as the ones from North Korea and Iran, but Bolton wasn’t exactly welcomed in Moscow either.
Before joining the administration, he rushed to the support of U.S. allies in Europe — many of whom remain deeply skeptical of some of his other stances in regard to North Korea or Iran — saying that “we will not let Russia push the U.S. or its allies around.”
Those comments set the stage for several awkward moments during his time as national security adviser. As the United States threatened to withdraw from a key nuclear arms pact with Russia last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin implicitly accused Bolton of a provocation face-to-face.
“As far as I can remember, the U.S. seal depicts an eagle on one side holding 13 arrows and on the other side an olive branch with 13 olives,” Putin told Bolton, who was visiting.
“Here’s the question: Did your eagle already eat all the olives and only the arrows are left?” Putin asked.
“Hopefully I’ll have some answers for you. … But I didn’t bring any more olives,” Bolton replied.
“That’s what I thought,” Putin responded, amid laughter from Bolton.
Bolton was a key force behind U.S. threats at the time to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, citing Russian violations of it. He ultimately prevailed, and the United States left the pact.
As recently as this month, Bolton traveled through eastern and central Europe in a trip that was widely viewed as an attempt to bind a region previously under Soviet control and still dependent on Moscow closer to the West.
Unsurprisingly, Bolton is unlikely to be missed in Moscow. But in remarks on Wednesday, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said he did not expect the departure to result in immediate improvements in U.S.-Russian ties, according to Russian news agency RIA.