The Catastrophic Tenure of John Bolton

John Bolton (Christopher Halloran via Shutterstock)

by Joseph Cirincione

John Bolton’s tenure was a complete disaster. The national security architecture after Bolton looks like the Bahamas after Hurricane Dorian. 

Seventeen months ago, before Bolton became Donald Trump’s third national security advisor, the United States still had a deal that had stopped Iran’s nuclear program in its tracks. More, it had rolled it back to a fraction of its original size and boxed it into the most intrusive inspection regime ever negotiated. It was a deal for the ages. All of Trump’s military, intelligence and security advisors and our closest allies urged Trump to stay in the accord. Bolton destroyed it in two months, pushing Trump to violate it and impose draconian sanctions on Iran.

“Withdrawing from the Iran Nuclear Deal should be a top Donald Trump administration priority,” Bolton tweeted in July 2017, months before his appointment. “The declared policy of the United States should be the overthrow of the mullahs’ regime in Tehran,” he shouted at an MEK rally in July 2017, promising them that they would all celebrate in Tehran “before 2019.”

Today, Iran is slowly peeling away from the deal, too, taking baby steps towards restarting capabilities that someday could allow it to make the material for a bomb, should it decide to do so. No new deal. No better deal. No regime change. No celebration in Tehran. “Trump has spent years making a mess of Iran policy for no reason other than right wing politics and incompetence,” tweeted former Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes as news of Bolton’s sacking spread. 

Before Bolton, the United States had kept Russia from building a particularly dangerous class of missiles for over 30 years. Bolton blew apart the landmark Intermediate Nuclear Forces Agreement that President Ronald Reagan had painstakingly negotiated with then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. The treaty had broken the back of the nuclear arms race. For the first time, the two nuclear superpowers agreed to destroy, not just limit, nuclear weapons. It paved the way for other sweeping nuclear reductions treaties and big unilateral cuts—most done under Republican presidents.

Bolton hated these agreements. In 1999, he ridiculed the liberal “fascination with arms-control agreements” and blustered about “the Church of Arms Control,” insisting that America could rule the world through force of arms, not pieces of paper. In a classic Bolton move, he used the real fact of Russian violations of the INF treaty, not to insist on their compliance with the pact, but to destroy it entirely. “Violations give America the opportunity to discard obsolete, Cold War-era limits on its own arsenal and to upgrade its military capabilities to match its global responsibilities,” Bolton wrote in 2014.

The U.S. abrogation of the treaty was a gift to Vladimir Putin. It did not reverse the Russian violations; it permitted them. Today, there are no limits whatsoever on what missiles of this range Putin can deploy.

Bolton was also on course to destroy the last remaining nuclear reduction treaty, the New START agreement that limits US and Russian long-range nuclear weapons. Again using the phony right-wing tactic of blasting agreement because they do not cover all possible threats, Bolton trashed the accord as “flawed from the beginning” because it only limited long-range weapons (hence the name, “strategic arms reduction treaty”) and not short-range weapons as well.

Before Bolton, there were also fragile negotiations with the Afghanistan Taliban. Bolton “waged a last-minute campaign to stop the president from signing a peace agreement at Camp David,” reports The New York Times.

Before Bolton, there was the real possibility of a deal with North Korea that would have traded sanctions relief for serious nuclear dismantlement. Bolton killed it at the Hanoi summit by convincing Trump that Democrats would criticize him if he did not bring home Kim Jung-un’s complete surrender of all his nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. “John Bolton appears to have locked the U.S. administration into a policy death spiral,” I wrote at the time. The spiral has now dragged Bolton to his political death.

Finally, and very seriously, before Bolton there was a functioning national security interagency process where leaders and experts from all agencies and departments could vet policies and build consensus. The National Security Council had been the principal forum for consideration of key policies for 72 years. Bolton destroyed it in 17 months.

“There was no process under John Bolton,” Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power told Rachel Maddow the night of Bolton’s firing. Bolton halted meetings, restricted access to Trump and packed the staff with loyal Boltonites. “The national security adviser’s principal responsibility has traditionally been to oversee a disciplined policymaking process that includes the State Department, the Pentagon and intelligence agencies, and to tee up big decisions for the president,” editorialized The Washington Post the same night, “Mr. Bolton didn’t do that.”

Bolton could not have wreaked this destruction if he had not been chosen, empowered and tolerated by Donald Trump, who must bear ultimate responsibility for Bolton’s legacy — what the Post summarized as “chaos, dysfunction and no meaningful accomplishments.” It was Trump who allowed Bolton to come within ten minutes of getting the war with Iran Bolton had sought for two decades, before halting the strikes. Trump created the storm, but Bolton aimed it expertly. An aerial view of the White House post-Bolton would reveal a devastated landscape.

“Any jackass can knock down a barn,” former House Speaker Sam Rayburn said, “It takes a carpenter to build one.” Bolton was the biggest jackass in the administration. There are no carpenters in sight.

Joseph Cirincione is the president of Ploughshares Fund and the host of the national security podcast, Press The Button.

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  1. I always heard that quote about the barn attributed to Truman. Cirincione does well to write a narrow analysis; his looking to Samantha Powers is damning; she’s the liberal version of Bolton. Say what you will about Trump, he’s not bombing 7 countries as Obama was at the end of his term. I don’t write this to defend Trump; but to criticize the bi-partisan hawkish agenda Bolton AND Powers represent

  2. It is understandable that Joseph Cirincione wanted to vent his spleen about what has taken place. But, looking ahead, a question for the inside-the-DC-beltway influentials, like Cirincione, to work through is whether it was Trump policy or Bolton policy that Bolton spewed out just a couple days ago: “Iran’s not getting any sanctions relief until it stops lying and spreading terror!” The expected strong pressure on the president to maintain that position from you know where will need to be countered immediately, if a Trump-Rohani encounter is to become a possibility.

  3. I fully agree there is no difference between warmongering of neocons and Bolton with that of neoliberal R2Pers like Samantha Power she is responsible for killings in Syria, Libya and Yemen regardless of weeding and funeral bombings by Obama and compony. She and Susan Rice are as war criminals as is Bolton and neocons.
    As FM Zarif twitted today is good that Bolton is gone but America got to let go of all the warmongers and warmongering to become a normal nation again.

  4. Mr cernsioni

    Shooting down the US drone in presence of US military in Persian gulf, capturing a UK ship in view of UK and US warships, showed the world that contrary to her continued BS rhetoric, US doesn’t have “all” including war option on the table. If she did she would have attacked Iran long ago. As Ayatollah Khamenie told Japan’ PM Iran doesn’t want to make a nuclear weapon, if she wanted she would have made it a long ago and US couldn’t do anything about it. If US really wants to have a dialogue with Iran IMO, US analyst and opinion writers like yourself should continually remind their readers this two points of no war option and Iran doesn’t want to make nukes. Shoving aside the BS rhetoric will make US more sincere to have a dialogue with.
    As it became news during the JCPOA negotiations MR. Zarif said never threaten the Iranians. Surely threatening Iranians and their beloved country will not lead to negotiations.

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