by Mitchell Plitnick
Since John Bolton was appointed as Donald Trump’s national security advisor, I have spent a good deal of time talking about it. Those conversations have been with colleagues in the policy world, friends, and the media. In honor of the Passover season, here are four questions that have been broadly discussed, and my responses to them.
If Donald Trump has demonstrated anything, it is that he makes his own decisions and doesn’t listen to the counsel of others. That being the case, how much difference does his national security advisor make?
It’s true that Trump has his own course and he likes to stick to it. His stubbornness and arrogance about his own ability, despite his canyon-like dearth of experience, are defining Trump traits. His sacking of the so-called “adults in the room,” like Rex Tillerson, HR McMaster, and Gary Cohn is likely a reflection of his own increased comfort level with his job and belief that he doesn’t need people around him who will push back against his ideas. He’s ready for a room full of yes-men.
But there’s another Trump characteristic that needs to be considered, and that is how easily manipulated he is. For example, points made on FOX News immediately turn into presidential tweets. Saudi royals flatter Trump for hours, then present their picture of regional politics to him, and get the president to adopt their view and green-light an aggressive move that caused an ongoing rift in Gulf Cooperation Council. The National Rifle Association had one meeting with Trump and got him to back off of everything he’d said only a day before in the wake of one of the most horrific U.S. school shooting incidents.
John Bolton is the perfect person to play this president like a violin. Bolton is smart, tactically clever, proficient at speaking in the sound bites that Trump can digest, and he knows how to stroke his boss. The former assistant secretary of state for intelligence and research, Carl W. Ford Jr., testifying at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2005, called Bolton a “kiss-up, kick-down sort of guy.” Such a man is going to ingratiate himself to Trump. He won’t argue with Trump on policy or try to moderate his plans, as McMaster and Tillerson did. He’ll push Trump even farther down the path he has already blazed: a foreign policy characterized by unilateralism, belligerence, tough-guy posturing, and aggression. That last has not yet featured as prominently in Trump’s policies, and that is precisely where Bolton is so very dangerous.
Unlike most of Trump’s appointees, especially in his inner circle, Bolton is also an old hand at Washington politics. His government work dates back to the Reagan era. He knows how to get things done in DC.
But perhaps the most dangerous aspect of Bolton is his known willingness to fabricate evidence. As the NSA, Bolton will be in a perfect position to mold the intelligence that Trump receives. To build the case for the invasion of Iraq—which Bolton still believes was the right thing to do—he cherry-picked intelligence to create the picture that he wanted to see and, more importantly, that he wanted to present. It is difficult to imagine a president more susceptible to such machinations than Donald Trump.
How badly does Bolton tilt the scale toward war with North Korea and with Iran?
For those reasons, Bolton clearly raises the risk of war with both Iran and North Korea by a considerable margin. Bolton sees diplomacy as a waste of time, something whose only usefulness comes from being able to say “we tried, now let’s get on with the bombing.” If Trump goes through with his proposed meeting with Kim Jong-un—which is far from certain—Bolton will surely do what he can to see that the meeting ends on a sour note.
But as frightening as Bolton is on North Korea, he is a much bigger concern regarding Iran. The growing consensus, which seems undeniable, is that Trump is going to abandon the Iran nuclear deal on May 12, when he would need to once again waive sanctions. Bolton’s presence only makes that even more certain. More than that, it likely means that the United States will take further steps to antagonize Iran, with the goal of making Iran act in response and then using any Iranian action as a pretext for escalation.
Might that same pattern emerge with North Korea? Perhaps, but there are a few key differences between North Korea and Iran that put Iran in much more immediate danger than North Korea.
The obvious difference is that North Korea has a deterrent. Although Kim’s ability to hit the United States with a missile is debatable, he certainly can inflict enormous damage on places closer to him, particularly South Korea, including with a weapon of mass destruction. The possibility of nuclear escalation will give Trump pause and will certainly animate the US military leadership, as well as virtually all US allies. Though even all of this may not stop Trump if the situation escalates to a sufficient degree, it would take quite a few big events to get to that point.
Iran is a very different story. It does not have deterrent weaponry. Yes, Hezbollah could launch thousands of missiles against Israel if the US attacks, but this is of little deterrent value. That’s because Israel, along with Saudi Arabia, has been pushing for an attack on Iran for years. Both countries hate the nuclear deal and want to see a much more aggressive stance against the Islamic Republic. Although Israel’s military leaders have a very different view, the Israeli political leadership, especially Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, would love to see the US abandon the nuclear deal and go after Iran. South Korea will passionately urge restraint while Israel and Saudi Arabia will be arguing with equal fervor for aggression. Bolton will bolster that case.
For Bolton, all of Islam is a threat. Bolton’s long history of Islamophobia has been so severe that it is likely that the threat of even more Mideast turmoil will deter him not at all. The hatred he has expressed toward Muslims is going to make him an even more passionate advocate for war on Iran.
Put bluntly, Iran is in terrible danger, as is the entire Middle East, with Bolton’s appointment. The Korean Peninsula is not doing much better, but it should, at least, have more time and more options to avert catastrophe.
Are Republicans supporting this appointment?
Congressional reaction has split along party lines, in another show of how far to the right the Republican party has jumped. Conservative columnist Max Boot, who has strongly opposed Bolton, illustrates the point by quoting one of Bolton’s former bosses. “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.”
Anti-Trump conservatives like blogger Jennifer Rubin of The Washington Post criticized Bolton’s appointment. Rubin wrote, “The Bolton pick should be a wake-up call to Republicans who always assumed wise, calm advisers would be there to constrain Trump. It should motivate both Republicans and Democrats to start reclaiming Congress’s power, for example, by declaring that congressional authorization is required for a first strike on either Iran or North Korea.”
Although Rubin has been against Trump from the first, it is remarkable to see a conservative writer like her, who enthusiastically supported George W. Bush’s actions and applauded every Israeli military action in memory, so frightened by Bolton mixed with Trump that she would call for reducing the president’s power to make war.
Still, even Republicans who are likely displeased with Bolton’s appointment, such as Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), have thus far been silent, while others like Lindsey Graham (R-SC) have applauded Bolton’s appointment. Granted, their objections would make no difference, so any Republican lawmakers who might not be thrilled about Bolton are being politically prudent by avoiding a conflict with the president. But it also reflects a belief that Republican voters are likely to be mostly supportive of Bolton’s appointment.
What can people do?
There is no way to prevent Bolton’s appointment. But if there were ever a presidential move that was a call to action, this is it. Now is the time for every US citizen, of all parties, to make it clear that they do not want the US to rush down a path to war. Given Bolton’s intense Islamophobia, it is also a time to make it clear, in the media, in the capitol and in the streets of every US city, that there is no place for such sentiments in US policy.
But most of all, since Bolton requires no congressional confirmation, it’s imperative to focus on those who do. As bad as Bolton’s appointment is, it will be even worse if he teams with Trump’s designated secretary of state, Mike Pompeo. At least one Republican, Rand Paul, will oppose Pompeo. But when Pompeo was confirmed for CIA director, 14 Democrats—Joe Donnelly (D-IN), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Maggie Hassan (D-NH), Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), Tim Kaine (D-VA), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Joe Manchin (D-WV), Claire McCaskill (D-MO), Jack Reed (D-RI), Brian Schatz (D-HI), Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Mark Warner (D-VA), and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI)— supported him. If they hear from enough constituents, that might change.
Brian Schatz said that “I think there are a number of us who voted for him last time who are actively reconsidering based on his service in the administration.” Secretary of state and CIA director also carry two different job descriptions. If Democratic senators hear from enough of us – and even a couple of Republicans – it might sway the vote.
It’s a thin reed to hold onto. But the time has never been more critical.