But who is the real John Bolton? Sometimes, he’s a man of deep civility. One old friend and Yale Law School contemporary, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, says so. In a 2013 discussion with Duke Law students, Thomas recalled the time Bolton found the future justice’s lost wallet.
“He found my wallet and returned it, and I got to meet him,” Thomas explained. “He treated me very honestly and decently and gave me some advice about studying that helped me from then on, [regarding] outlining and reducing outlines. He always treated me, not as a black student, but as a fellow student. And I really appreciated that at Yale.”
Many of Bolton’s acquaintances would suggest that Thomas’ experience casts a revealing and accurate light on Bolton’s character. If politics is not on the agenda, Washington figures such as Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page say that Bolton, who grew up in working-class Baltimore, is respectful, even kind.
But if politics is the topic, as it often is, the man can be more than a little different. In his positions under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, Bolton was renowned for his blunt style dealing with underlings and superiors alike, including those presidents.
As Peter Baker reported in 2008, Bolton fell out with Bush over what he regarded as the president’s insufficiently hawkish approach to countering North Korea. Although Bush might not have liked Bolton’s repudiation — “I don’t consider Bolton credible,” he told Baker at the time — the ambassador’s record on North Korea fits another major politician. And that man is going to be Bolton’s new boss.
Trump often argues that previous administrations utterly failed to resolve the challenge of a North Korea armed with nuclear weapons. Bolton’s ideology is not well-understood. Though he expresses his views with great force that sometimes seems to shade into stridency, Bolton is a hawkish nationalist and not a neoconservative.
Reuel Marc Gerecht, neoconservative scholar at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, who was an acquaintance of Bolton’s when they were colleagues at the American Enterprise Institute, says Bolton is “not really interested in democracy” but rather in the binding of American sovereignty and security. Gerecht offers the anecdote of a trip to France with Bolton and another AEI scholar, Gary Schmitt, during the Iraq War.
“We were being interviewed by French journalists,” Gerecht explains, “and the journalist asked John his opinion about whether Iraq could become a functioning democracy under American guidance. John pointed to Gary and me and said, ‘That’s not for me. Ask them.'”
Translation: Questions about democracy are for the neoconservatives, not for Bolton.
In a 2007 interview with BBC host Jeremy Paxman, Bolton argued that consolidating Iraqi democracy should no longer be considered a relevant American policy interest. “I don’t think there’s an American interest in what kind of Iraq emerges from the present circumstance,” Bolton said, adding, “I think the American strategic interest is in making sure that no part of Iraq be used by terrorists against us. That’s what we should focus on, not how to structure the country.”
It’s America first, stupid
Bolton’s deep suspicion of big ambitions as opposed to American strength and security does not begin and end with the occupation of Iraq.
During his 2005-06 tenure at the U.N., Bolton frequently blocked efforts to create new multilateral power structures. And he didn’t have much time for people, such as U.N. Deputy Secretary General Mark Malloch Brown, whom he believed were interfering in American domestic politics. It would be a mistake, however, to equate Bolton’s aversion to multilateralism with a dislike of alliances.
While Gerecht said Bolton is both “tenacious” and predisposed to “ruffling feathers,” he rejects as “false” the suggestion that Bolton has no regard for foreign allies. On the contrary, Bolton cares particularly about effective “transatlantic diplomacy.”
This seems clear in relation to Britain.
In a recent Fox Business appearance, Bolton challenged host Lou Dobbs in his assertion that America should distance itself from supporting aggressive British responses to Russia’s March 4 nerve agent attack on a former MI6 agent, Sergei Skripal.
Instead, the new national security adviser suggested that Britain should expel Russia’s entire diplomatic staff and shutter its embassy and all its consular offices.
United Kingdom’s Prime Minister Theresa May should find ardent U.S. support, Bolton said.
This leads to the big question about America’s policy toward Russia and Trump’s relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Bolton’s appointment to head the National Security Council is no victory for Moscow. Indeed, Russian state-funded media outlets such as RT now overflow with stories about Bolton, treating him as a “hawk” who might start World War III.
Bolton’s impact as national security adviser won’t be defined solely by his own views, but rather by his management of the National Security Council bureaucracy. So, what might we expect there? Bolton’s critics fear that on sensitive issues such as North Korea and Iran, he won’t offer policy suggestions other than the ones that fit his objectives. The current White House national security team is concerned that Bolton might purge its more moderate voices.
Gerecht disagrees, saying that the 69-year-old Bolton “knows how to work the system” and has “never been fearful of debate” and thus is not as likely as critics assume to throw dissenting voices overboard. One compensating influence here might be Mike Pompeo’s arrival at State Department headquarters in Foggy Bottom.
Pompeo, a former Republican congressman, has won fans for his energetic pursuit of the CIA’s core mission, which is human intelligence collection. Assuming he adopts the same approach at State, Pompeo will probably use his close relationship with Trump to push hard for more attention to be paid to foreign service officer reporting. If Bolton resists, the dispute could become a flashpoint for a new area of palace intrigue.
While Bolton is disliked by many in the State Department and intelligence services for his outspokenness, others value his ferocious work ethic and intellect. Rosemary Kimball, widow of Frank Kimball, a 36-year career USAID officer who worked closely with Bolton, says her husband always referred to Bolton as “the smartest, most level-headed man in the room.” Similarly, a mid-level Bush administration official who worked closely with Bolton suggested that while he can be prickly, he is “fucking formidable” and “one of the hardest working people I’ve ever met.”
The official added a caveat: “If you want to be smart, you appoint John Bolton to a position where his views are congruent to your own.”
This is necessary because Bolton will be “relentless” in advancing his views. We thus arrive back at the question of if Bolton will carry his existing agenda into his new, much more influential job. The national security adviser’s job is to manage the National Security Council and give the president various policy options. If Bolton skews the options, he’ll invite conflict with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.
Mattis has a fiercely powerful intellect of his own, but he deferred to Rex Tillerson, Pompeo’s predecessor, on efforts to renegotiate the Iran nuclear deal and to achieve a diplomatic breakthrough with North Korea. Whether Pompeo and Mattis will build a similar partnership is unclear, but it bears noticing that Bolton is deeply skeptical of the Tillerson-Mattis belief that a peaceful resolution to the North Korean nuclear crisis is possible. There is little time to resolve disagreements.
Intelligence assessments are that North Korea will be able to put a nuclear warhead on an intercontinental ballistic missile within the next six months. So, it seems highly likely that Bolton will push Mattis for military options immediately after he steps into the White House.
With Mattis also focused on checking Chinese and Russian threats, he’ll probably resist anything that he thinks risks drawing the U.S. military into simultaneous conflicts with North Korea and Iran.
The Iran problem
If Bolton is a hawk on North Korea, when it comes to Iran, he’s a dragon.
He isn’t so much opposed to the Iran deal as he is to the Islamic Republic of Iran itself. A fiery critic of Iran’s leaders, including the more moderate groupings around President Hassan Rouhani, Bolton believes Iran can be constrained only by force. He wants Trump to withdraw from the Iran nuclear agreement and then introduce a range of new sanctions targeting the mullahs’ ballistic missile program.
If this fails, Bolton says America should consider joint military action with Israel. Such views lead some to suggest that separating neoconservatism from Bolton’s views is to make a distinction where there is no difference. For Bolton, the priority is not a democratic Iran, but a pro-American Iran. Bolton has been flexible in pursuit of this end.
Enter the Iranian Mujahedin, or MEK. It was listed by the State Department as a terrorist organization between 1997 and 2012, is Marxist, and seeks the overthrow of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his theocratic regime. Its logo is the communist sickle, but the MEK uses old-fashioned greenbacks in large amounts to secure its American lobbyists.
Luminaries who have spoken for the MEK include senior U.S. political figures such as Rudy Giuliani, former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, and former CIA Director Porter Goss. Their efforts eventually helped remove the group from the terrorist list. But very few have made as many speeches for the MEK as has Bolton.
While Bolton refused to comment when asked if he was paid for his speeches, the Wall Street Journal’s Farnaz Fassihi and Seymour Hersh have accused Bolton of receiving payments. Another source, speaking to the Washington Examiner, supported these claims.
Bolton’s MEK connections may simply reflect his belief that the group serves an America-first agenda. After all, for Bolton and the MEK, the ayatollah’s fall is a shared win. But how does this play into Bolton’s advice to Trump on Iran?
It seems obvious why Trump and Bolton have clicked so well. Neither has much time for deference or protocol, both revel in speed of action, and both prioritize the pursuit of near-term U.S. interests. Will he last longer than his predecessors, H.R. McMaster and Michael Flynn? We’re about to find out.