The Good and “You’ve Got to Be Kidding” of John Bolton

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Now that John Bolton is going to be Donald Trump’s third national security adviser in a little over a year(!), it behooves us to consider what we might expect during Bolton’s tenure. The position of national security adviser is exceptionally influential–especially given the recent tendency over the span of several administrations to concentrate significant amounts of foreign and national security policymaking powers in the White House, with policy direction flowing out to various cabinet departments and executive agencies. So, what awaits us when Bolton occupies the post?

I am not one of those who thinks that Bolton has absolutely nothing positive to offer the country as national security adviser, and below, I’ll outline what I believe his strengths to be. But as readers will see, I think that the bad outweighs the good, and that while John Bolton is not as miscast as national security adviser as Donald Trump is as president, we would have been better off if Bolton decided to continue as a Fox News pundit, rather than becoming one of the key decision makers in the White House Situation Room.


John Bolton is a very smart and experienced foreign policy and national security figure. Bolton is very familiar with foreign policy and national security issues, and is, by accounts of even those who are horrified by his views, highly intelligent and capable. He does his homework on the issues of the day, and makes sure to know more about those issues than do his interlocutors More on this below.

John Bolton knows how to work the bureaucracy in order to get what he wants. As with the previous point, more on this below.

John Bolton was responsible for having created the Proliferation Security Initiative. Stewart Baker’s account regarding this issue is definitely worth reading. An excerpt:

. . . contrary to his trigger-happy anti-diplomatic reputation, Bolton quickly set about building a nonproliferation framework that avoided the foreign policy establishment’s earlier mistakes. The didn’t rely on endless multilateral set piece negotiation leading to a treaty. Instead, Bolton identified a group of like-minded European countries, and in 2003, this coalition of the willing signed on to a coordinated campaign to interdict shipments of missiles and weapons of mass destruction. Without a treaty, each country agreed to do what it felt was authorized under international law,—a pledge that Bolton cleverly expanded by making international law himself, negotiating bilateral ship-boarding agreements with the main countries supplying flags of convenience to merchant vessels.

Many states adopted domestic laws prohibiting trafficking in WMD, and the U.N. Security Council eventually adopted a resolution calling on all members to do so. By avoiding an international treaty negotiating scrum and a multinational centralized bureaucracy, PSI left the United States with the flexibility and initiative to seize on opportunities to expand PSI’s reach as they arose. (Much to China’s frustration, I’m pleased to add; it has spent fifteen years watching PSI tighten the screws on North Korea and railing ineffectually from the sidelines about PSI’s lack of formal treaty authority.)

Having started with like-minded countries, the PSI gradually expanded to include less enthusiastic members who nonetheless could not reasonably oppose interdiction of WMD. Several U.N. Security Council regulations requiring nonproliferation action were hung on the framework of the PSI principles, A hundred countries now belong, and Bolton’s initiative was largely embraced by the Obama administration—mainly because it works. When I was at the Department of Homeland Security, after Bolton had left the administration, we often had reason to rely on PSI’s authorities to investigate suspicious shipments bound for the United States. Thanks to its flexibility, the nonproliferation framework was easily adapted into a homeland defense measure.

We could do worse, quite frankly, than to replicate the process that led to the creation and implementation of the Proliferation Security Initiative in dealing with other knotty foreign and national security problems.

John Bolton helped reverse one of the most infamous decisions in UN General Assembly history. In November, 1975, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution equating Zionism with racism. But during the administration of George H.W. Bush, the United States reversed that stance. John Bolton was invaluable in having helped bring about that reversal. Frankly, civilized and decent people everywhere should be grateful for his efforts.

Unlike Donald Trump, John Bolton will actually be tough on Vladimir Putin and Russia. Plenty of evidence for this proposition can be found; here is but one article summarizing Bolton’s position on Putin and Russia. If Bolton can actually turn around Trump’s “thinking” regarding this issue, I would be quite pleased, though it is worth emphasizing that Trump’s softness on Russia may have something to do with the fact that the Russians have blackmail material on Trump.

So much for Bolton’s good points. And now for the less flattering portions of his background.


John Bolton is a very smart and experienced foreign policy and national security figure, who knows how to work the bureaucracy in order to get what he wants. “Pejman,” I hear you cry, “you mentioned these points above as good points in favor of Bolton’s appointment as national security adviser. How can you also include them in the ‘”You’ve Got to Be Kidding”‘ section?”

Well, I can, because if you don’t like a number of Trump’s views, then the fact that Bolton is a very smart and savvy player and can help implement those views ought to worry you. Matthew Waxman lays out the reasons why:

. . . The Trump White House is something of a clown show, but Bolton is no clown. 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.

[. . .]

. . . Bolton brings to the president’s national security agenda a competence that this White House has lacked. I generally agree with Benjamin Wittes that some of the president’s worst instincts have often been . What makes Bolton dangerous is his capacity to implement those instincts effectively.

John Bolton is tempering actually laudable policy positions in order to curry favor with Donald Trump. Unlike Trump, whose trade policy positions are nothing short of odious and immiserating, Bolton has historically been a free trader. As a free trader, I find this to be welcome and outstanding, but unfortunately, Bolton is well into the process of acclimating himself to Trump’s views. Matthew Waxman’s link above states that Bolton is clever and careful about the fights that he picks; I cannot quite see him picking a fight with protectionists in the Trump administration–including Trump himself–regarding trade policy, so I fear that the new national security adviser will do little to nothing in order to turn Trump around on this issue.

John Bolton still thinks that the Iraq war was a good idea. Had I known that there were no weapons of mass destruction to have been found in Iraq, I never would have supported the effort to oust Saddam, notwithstanding my belief–then and now–that at some point in time, we would have gotten into a war with Saddam and his regime over something, and that Saddam may very well have tried to get his hands on nuclear and/or biological weapons eventually. My stance now is the same as Reihan Salam’s and Brent Scowcroft’s back in 2014:

In August of 2002, as George W. Bush and his allies were building the case for regime change in Iraq, Scowcroft warned in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that an attack on Iraq “would seriously jeopardize, if not destroy, the global counterterrorist campaign we have undertaken.” Though Scowcroft was confident that the U.S. could succeed in destroying Saddam’s regime, he was also confident that military action would be expensive and bloody, and that it “very likely would have to be followed by a large-scale, long-term military occupation.” As we all know, Scowcroft’s warning went unheeded by the Bush White House.

Scowcroft offered another warning in America and the World, a widely ignored book published in 2008 that collected a series of exchanges between Scowcroft and his fellow foreign policy wise man Zbigniew Brzezinski. Recognizing that Iraq remained riven by communal conflict, Scowcroft argued that the country would continue to need a U.S. military presence for at least a few more years.

Under Saddam, Iraq’s Shia plurality was subjugated by its Sunni minority. The fear among Sunnis has long been that once the Shias come to power, they would be the victims of all manner of reprisals. A similar dynamic has long been at play in Syria, where the Assad regime, closely tied to the Alawite minority, rules over a Sunni majority. It also played a role in the Bosnian civil war, where various ethnic groups fought desperately to avoid minority status, which many believed would amount to a death sentence.

This desire to escape subjugation has been the central driver of the various Sunni insurgencies that have rocked Iraq for more than a decade. Some Sunni militants seek not just to avoid oppression and brutality at the hands of Shias but to reassert their dominance, often on the grounds that Shias are deviants or apostates. These are the true bitter-enders, for whom no compromise is possible. Most of Iraq’s Sunnis, however, see themselves as essentially defensive in orientation, and willing to lay down their arms if they are promised the right to live in peace. It is only when U.S. officials came to understand the crisis in Iraq as a communal civil war that they knew what they had to do to contain it: reassure the Sunnis that the Shias would do them no harm, if only because U.S. forces would keep Shia sectarianism in check.

As Scowcroft explained to Voice of America News in January of 2012, just weeks after withdrawal was complete, Iraq’s political leadership still needed to learn to make compromises among various ethnic, sectarian, and ideological factions. And in his view, “those compromises are probably easier to make in the embrace of a U.S. presence.” The end of the U.S. presence meant that these compromises were less likely, and that a war of all against all was much more likely.

It is important to emphasize that Scowcroft was not calling for a permanent U.S. presence in Iraq. Rather, he believed that the post-Saddam Iraqi state needed time to get on its feet, and its new elected rulers needed time and breathing room to repair trust among communities that had spent so long at each other’s throats.

By contrast, Bolton’s views regarding the Iraq war are entirely unchanged, which should cause significant concern and alarm amongst observers. In the face of the greatest strategic error committed by the United States since the decision to prosecute the Vietnam War, Bolton’s views are inflexible–either because Bolton is too embarrassed to climb down from his position supporting the Iraq war, or because Bolton genuinely believes that il ne faut rien regretter. Of course, it ought to go without saying that Bolton’s unwillingness to admit error in Iraq means that a similar error could be committed by the United States elsewhere in the world, while Bolton serves as national security adviser. And that leads to . . .

John Bolton advocates military action against North Korea and Iran, which are truly terrible ideas. Bolton’s argument that there is a “legal case” to strike North Korea preemptively can be found here, and it makes no mention whatsoever of the horrific consequences that could attend a war with the Hermit Kingdom:

In a letter sent last month, the Joint Chiefs of Staff informed us that, should hostilities erupt on the Korea peninsula, a ground invasion of North Korea would be necessary in order to locate and destroy its nuclear sites. They also noted that Seoul and its 25 million residents are only 35 miles from the border and well within range of North Korean artillery, rockets, and ballistic missiles.

The former deputy commander of US Forces Korea, Lt. Gen. Jan-Marc Jouas, also wrote to us to convey his concerns and cautioned that these weapons would take days to eliminate, during which time “an enormous casualty and refugee crisis will develop and include over a hundred thousand non-combatant Americans.”

In short, a Korean War II would be bloody. According to a Congressional Research Service report, in just the first few days of fighting, as many as 300,000 people could perish. Indeed, even if North Korea elected only to use conventional weapons, American troops would die in large numbers alongside South Korean forces and masses of innocent civilians.

North Korea could also opt to employ its unconventional arsenal to devastating effect. The Joint Chiefs warn that there is strong reason to suspect that North Korea would choose to make use of its stocks of chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons in a conflict. And though neither China nor Russia wants war in Korea, any fight there has the potential to spin dangerously out of control into a global disaster. The US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins has estimated dire consequences: “if the ‘unthinkable’ happened, nuclear detonations over Seoul and Tokyo with North Korea’s current estimated weapon yields could result in as many as 2.1 million fatalities and 7.7 million injuries.”

Bolton is similarly blasé about the prospect of war with Iran. He dismisses the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the formal name for the Iran nuclear deal), despite clear and convincing evidence that the deal is working. To be sure, I was skeptical of the JCPOA in the past, and to say the least, it is not a perfect agreement. But my view now is the same as Secretary Mattis’s; the JCPOA is the best that we can currently make of a difficult situation regarding Iran’s drive to become a nuclear power. To pull out of the deal would mean ignoring the successes that have attended its implementation, splitting on yet another issue with our allies, and causing friends and foes alike to doubt America’s word in the future. This is lunacy, but don’t tell Bolton that; he has already drawn up a plan-resembling-thing to exit the JCPOA, regardless of the facts on the ground. (It should be noted that one of the appalling policy recommendations that Bolton makes involves ending “all visas for Iranians, including so called ‘scholarly,’ student, sports, or other exchanges.” As mentioned above, John Bolton is a very smart man; he certainly knows how to get on Donald Trump’s good side by appealing to Trump’s nativist and bigoted sentiments.)

The notion that John Bolton would be an honest broker of ideas is truly laughable. There is something of a campaign afoot to convince us that John Bolton will be a latter-day Brent Scowcroft as national security adviser. We are told that “at least at the outset, Bolton plans to rein [his “hawkish views”] in — aiming to be seen more as an honest broker for the war cabinet, and less as blatant advocate,” and that “Bolton has always admired the way Brent Scowcroft handled the inter-agency process during the Bush 41 Administration, according to people familiar with his thinking.”

Raise your hands if you believe this, and I’ll be sure to contact you about selling you a bridge in Brooklyn and a degree from Trump University. The two words that most closely follow any mention of Brent Scowcroft’s name is “honest broker.” Does anyone really believe that to be true of Bolton, what with his past record of interacting with those who disagree with his views?

Mr. Bolton was preparing for a speech in which he would accuse a range of nations, including Libya, Iran, Iraq, North Korea and Syria, of possessing chemical and biological weapons when he sought clearance from the intelligence officials for an assertion he wanted to make that Cuba was developing a biological weapons program, a claim that was not, in fact, fully supported by American intelligence.

Christian Westermann, a State Department intelligence analyst specializing in biological and chemical weapons, and an unnamed national intelligence official responsible for Latin America disagreed with the claims about Cuba that Mr. Bolton sought to make.

Senator Christopher J. Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut, told the committee that “trying to remove someone as an analyst from their job because you disagree with what they’re saying, I think, is dreadfully wrong.”

Mr. Bolton responded that he had targeted the two officers for reassignment, not for firing, because “If I may say so, their conduct was unprofessional and broke my confidence and trust.”

The next day, Mr. Ford, who had run the bureau where Mr. Westermann worked, rattled the committee by describing Mr. Bolton as a “serial abuser” of lower-level staffers.

“There are a lot of screamers that work in government,” Mr. Ford said. “But you don’t pull somebody so low down the bureaucracy that they are completely defenseless. It’s an 800-pound gorilla devouring a banana.”

[. . .]

Rexon Ryu, a former State Department official, told the panel he encountered Mr. Bolton’s ire after he neglected to forward a cable related to United Nations weapons inspections in Iraq. Mr. Bolton then tried to block Mr. Ryu’s appointment as a liaison on nonproliferation issues. Mr. Ryu was transferred elsewhere at the State Department, and then recently joined the staff of Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, a committee Republican.

The unnamed national intelligence officer for Latin America was revealed to be Fulton Armstrong, who in an interview last week said that Mr. Bolton had targeted him for “vicious attacks,” “rumor campaigns” and “infantile” character assassination.

It also emerged that Mr. Bolton had prevented Ms. Rice and her predecessor, Colin Powell, from seeing some State Department findings crucial to drafting policy on Iran, and had kept Ms. Rice out of the loop as he worked to replace Mohamed ElBaradei, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, seen by Mr. Bolton and his administration faction as too soft on Iran.

There was more.

The panel also learned that Mr. Bolton had bullied intelligence analysts who made more conservative assessments of Syria’s illicit weapons programs in the run-up to a 2003 speech and had requested classified intercepts from the National Security Agency, including the names of American companies and officials, raising concerns that he was seeking information about ideological opponents.

And consider this:

On a warm, windy morning last week, in front of a neighborhood coffee shop, Melody Townsel asks herself the question that hangs in the air. “Would I do it again?” she says. She doesn’t know the answer; she’s leaning, at this moment, toward a big, fat no. She says it with a rueful smile, though any smile at this point is a far cry from the way she felt the day before, when she answered the question “How are you doing?” with a simple “Suicidal.”

A month ago you did not know the name Melody Townsel, and a month from now you probably will have forgotten it, unless you are family or a friend or a client of the public relations woman whose business shrinks a little more each week. But now, her name shows up regularly in newspapers and weekly magazines and on Web sites devoted to the bickering of political partisans. There she is in last week’s Time, her picture next to that of Colin Powell; there she is being mentioned on CNN and Fox News Channel. She’s inescapable as the Senate Foreign Relations Committee ponders her allegations that President Bush’s nominee for United Nations ambassador, John Bolton, is a bully who, in the summer of 1994, put her “through hell.”

[. . .]

All this began on April 8, when Townsel wrote to the committee about an incident she says occurred while she was working for a private contractor on a U.S. Agency for International Development mission in Kyrgyzstan, a former Soviet republic. It was her job in the summer of 1994 to sell the economic reformation of that country, creating TV programs and T-shirts and even comic books informing citizens how to use their new privatization coupons that, more or less, gave them ownership in the formerly Communist republic.

Townsel says she sent a letter to U.S. AID officials complaining about “months of incompetence” on the part of contractor International Business & Technical Consultants Inc. (IBTCI) and a substantial lack of funds that resulted in “armed threats by Kyrgyz contractors” to herself and her staff. She says within hours of her sending the note, IBTCI’s attorney, John Bolton, began chasing her through the halls of a Russian hotel–“throwing things at me, shoving threatening letters under my door and, generally, behaving like a madman.” She claimed this went on for two weeks, during which time Bolton “routinely visited me…to pound on the door and shout threats.” She says Bolton began telling her fellow workers that Townsel was under federal investigation for misuse of funds and that she was bound for federal prison. Townsel says he also made “unconscionable comments about my weight, my wardrobe…and my sexuality, hinting that I was a lesbian (for the record, I’m not).”

Put simply, there is too much evidence out there in favor of the worrisome proposition that if you disagree with John Bolton, then at best, he will marginalize you. At worst, he will actively seek to sabotage your career and destroy your reputation. That, plus Bolton’s willingness to cherry-pick facts and intelligence makes him the wrong choice for national security adviser. (I should note that I never believed the claims that the Bush White House lied us into war in Iraq, but claims that Bolton shaded intelligence are, alas, far more credible.)

John Bolton cavorts with truly awful people. Let’s turn over the microphone to Peter Beinart:

In 2016, Bolton played a crucial role in Frank Gaffney’s rehabilitation inside the conservative movement. For close to two decades, Gaffney has been Washington’s most dogged peddler of anti-Muslim conspiracy theories. He’s traveled the country testifying against the construction of mosques, arguing that since Islam is a totalitarian political ideology, not a religion, American Muslims don’t deserve the protections of the First Amendment. Bolton’s intervention on his behalf is particularly intriguing because, in his own writing and remarks, he’s largely avoided anti-Muslim bigotry. But in today’s conservative movement, anti-Muslim activists are a legitimate constituency group, like people who support gun rights or oppose abortion. And Bolton has proved, in this case and others, all too willing to empower them.

Gaffney believes in the existence of a vast, secret network, run by the Muslim Brotherhood, to infiltrate the United States government and replace it with Sharia law. At various times, he’s suggested that figures as mainstream as former CIA Director John Brennan, former Director of National Intelligence Jim Clapper, and former Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano are dupes of—if not active agents in—this plot. And in the late Bush and early Obama years, Gaffney repeatedly insisted that the conspiracy had infiltrated the conservative movement via two men: anti-tax activist Grover Norquist and former Bush administration official Suhail Khan, both board members of the American Conservative Union (ACU). Norquist and Khan, Gaffney claimed in 2011, were running “an influence operation [that] is contributing materially to the defeat of our country, supporting a stealthy effort to bring Shariah here.”

[. . .]

The striking thing about Bolton’s push for Gaffney’s reinstatement is that Bolton hasn’t generally echoed Gaffney’s conspiracy theories. In fact, Bolton has largely avoided anti-Muslim bigotry in his own public statements. He even publicly opposed Trump’s 2015 proposal to ban Muslim immigration.

What Bolton has done, again and again, is to elevate the anti-Muslim bigotry of others. In 2010, he wrote the foreword to Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer’s book, The Post-American Presidency: The Obama Administration’s War on America. Bolton’s foreword begins with the words, “Barack Obama is our first post-American president.” But he leaves the meaning of those words vague. It is Geller and Spencer who declare that “Barack Hussein Obama” is pursuing the “implementation of a soft sharia: the quiet and piecemeal implementation of Islamic laws that subjugate non-Muslims.”

In 2010 and 2011, Bolton spoke at rallies against the “Ground Zero” mosque sponsored by Geller and Spencer’s organization, Stop Islamization of America. But Bolton has not echoed Geller’s wilder and uglier theories: among them that Obama is Malcolm X’s love child or that Muslims practice bestiality. He’s never said, as Spencer has, that “there is no distinction in the American Muslim community between peaceful Muslims and jihadists.”

And let’s also turn over the microphone to Jason Rezaian:

Bolton’s hawkish views on Iran mirror those of Israel, Saudi Arabia and one of his key ideological partners, the Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK).

Today the MEK bears little resemblance to the highly organized, influential and militant opposition force that it was in Iran while seeking to topple the shah during the 1979 revolution. Initially it worked in cooperation with the clerical government. In fact, children of several top officials in the Islamic Republic joined the MEK.

When it became clear that the MEK could no longer coexist with the ruling Islamic Republic Party, some MEK members withdrew from the group, while others were imprisoned. They either recanted and returned to society or were executed.

Those who were left fled to Iraq, where Saddam Hussein, who invaded Iran in 1980, gave them a haven. Many took up arms and fought against their Iranian countrymen, earning the group the unofficial nickname monafegheen, or the “hypocrites.” That title has stuck, and most Iranians inside the country, regardless of their political tendencies, refer to them as such.

The group is loathed by most Iranians, mainly for the traitorous act of fighting alongside the enemy.

But it is the group’s activities in the decades since that have cemented its reputation as a deranged cult. For decades its command center was a compound in Iraq’s Diyala province, where more than 3,000 members lived in virtual captivity. The few who were able to escape told of being cut off from their loved ones, forced into arranged marriages, brainwashed, sexually abused and tortured.

All this was carried out under the supervision of the group’s leaders, Massoud and Maryam Rajavi, the husband and wife at the top of the organization’s pyramid. He has been missing since the U.S. invasion in 2003 and is presumed dead. She now runs the group and makes regular public appearances with her powerful friends from the West — such as Bolton.

More on this issue here. What possible benefit does it serve for the United States to have the incoming national security adviser to the president hang around and spend precious time with such crazy people?

John Bolton has shown no ability whatsoever to design and implement a grand strategy for the United States. For nearly two decades, the United States has suffered from strategic drift that has allowed for rival nation-states to lessen America’s ability to dominate global affairs. Even now, the United States has no peer competitor, but that could change if the current state of strategic drift continues.

For all of his intelligence and familiarity with foreign policy/national security issues, Bolton has shown no ability whatsoever to formulate and put into place a grand strategy for the United States. At best, he puts forward in his many writings and speeches ways in which the United States can address a host of individual problems. But he doesn’t tie together his views into a big picture piece to guide American policymaking and policy implementation. Perhaps he is uninterested in doing so. Perhaps he simply cannot. But in any event, the national security adviser to the president ought to be a formidable strategist. Bolton does not fit the bill.

What are John Bolton and Donald Trump doing joined at the hip, anyway? Let us emphasize the following: John Bolton

  • Continues to believe that the Iraq war was a good idea;
  • Thinks that Vladimir Putin is a bad guy; and
  • Supports free trade.

By contrast, Donald Trump

  • Now states that the Iraq war was a disaster, even though at the time, he supported it, even though now, he pretends that he never supported it at all;
  • Sucks up to Vladimir Putin at every opportunity; and
  • Is bound and determined to wreck a highly successful free trading system that has led to better lives for millions of people in this country, and the world over.

It is astonishing that these two are working together. To be sure, Trump probably has no idea whatsoever what Bolton stands for and the degree to which Bolton’s views diverge from Trump’s; the president probably just likes Bolton because Bolton’s presence as national security adviser will help in the Fox Newsification of the United States government. But perhaps, someone ought to tell Trump that in many ways, Bolton’s record and career in government is a rebuke to just about everything Trump ran on in the 2016 campaign.


As indicated above, I am prepared to state that Bolton brings undeniable gifts and talents to the position of national security adviser. But when all is said and done, there are a great many more negatives to Bolton’s record than there are positives. Longtime readers of mine likely remember that I was a fan of Bolton’s when he was nominated as UN ambassador by George W. Bush, and may wonder why I take such a dim view of his appointment as national security adviser. Max Boot helps answer that question:

Among those who have soured on him is George W. Bush. “I don’t consider Bolton credible,” Bush told a group of conservative writers, including me, in the Oval Office in 2008. If the president who sent him to the United Nations can change his view of Bolton, so can I.

And so can I. America deserves better than John Bolton.

(Photo Credit.)


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