I have spoken to seasoned diplomats who are extremely worried at the prospect of John Bolton’s appointment as US National Security Advisor. When neoconservative warmongers like Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Bolton previously ruled the roost at the White House, they envisaged the Iraq and Afghanistan invasions as only the first phase of “creative chaos” for remodeling the “broader Middle East.” Although their fevered plans were drastically curtailed and ultimately discredited, the current catastrophic state of the region can be largely traced back to this deranged worldview. Are the war drums about to start beating again?
In 2005, Bolton was appointed as America’s UN ambassador as an avowed enemy of multilateral diplomacy; summed up by his scathing claim that “there is no such thing as the United Nations.” The fact that this assertion has become increasingly accurate is partly due to acts of sabotage by Bolton, who under previous administrations lobbied successfully for the US to refrain from joining the International Criminal Court. Having interviewed Bolton and attended his briefings, I found him single-mindedly dogmatic, yet strikingly uncharismatic. This notorious “bomb thrower” (as he was described by the former boss of Fox News) may encourage Trump’s predilections for cutting support for those multilateral institutions which are supposed to underpin international law and global security, if only superpowers refrained from torpedoing them.
Trump’s foreign policy instincts during 2017 were often held in check by the “adults in the room” — figures like Bolton’s predecessor H.R. McMaster — who were regarded as level-headed advocates of the status quo. However, such advice clashed with Trump’s desire for a radically different approach to previous presidents, and he bristled each time they begged him not to tear up Obama’s Iran deal. Now that the adults have left the building in a stunning succession of departures, the mind boggles as to what the future holds.
With Trump slated to sit down with Kim Jong-un for face-to-face talks, there has never been a more inauspicious time to appoint such a unilateralist hawk. There are no longer any wise advocates of diplomacy whispering in Trump’s ear. A hollowed-out and marginalized State Department has been gutted at all levels through resignations and Rex Tillerson’s purges, with high-level positions vacant for over a year. Even if Trump and Kim do hit it off, this administration lacks the capacity and mentality for the complex negotiations that would ensue. Bolton would not be the only figure itching to derail these talks, pushing Trump toward a military option. For those who doubt where Bolton’s instincts lie, he recently wrote: “It is perfectly legitimate for the United States to respond to the current ‘necessity’ posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons by striking first.”
After a long period in the political wilderness, and now an office-holder with immense responsibilities, John Bolton may wish to draw a line under his most inflammatory previous positions.
Those who want to see Iran challenged and contained should not rush to applaud Bolton’s appointment. Bolton was a prominent architect of the 2003 Iraq War, and the consequences of a new regional conflict could be similarly horrific. Make no mistake, Iran’s regime with its third-rate conventional military capacity is hated by its citizens and is all-too-ready to collapse. Yet a botched invasion could further destabilize Central Asia and give rise to even nastier successor regimes, particularly as Bolton and Trump are ideologically opposed to nation-building — leaving us with the consequences of a widening chain of failed states dominated by terrorist warlords all the way from the Mediterranean through into South Asia.