John Bolton a near-perfect fit for Trump

Trump and Bolton share important policy positions, most critically on Iran.
Sunday 01/04/2018
A 2016 file picture shows former US Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton arriving for a meeting with US President Donald Trump in New York. (Reuters)
What’s in store? A 2016 file picture shows former US Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton arriving for a meeting with US President Donald Trump in New York. (Reuters)

John Bolton, who on April 9 will become US President Donald Trump’s third national security adviser in just more than a year, does not fit the mould of most people in Trump’s inner circle: He is not a general. He is not a billionaire. He is not Trump’s son nor is he married to one of Trump’s daughters.

For a president who promised to “drain the swamp” of Washington, Bolton is a long-time Washington insider. He served as US ambassador to the United Nations under former President George W. Bush and held positions under presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush in the US State Department, where he was under-secretary for arms control and international security, the Justice Department and the US Agency for International Development.

He began his career as an assistant to Republican Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina. In between government jobs, Bolton was affiliated with conservative think-tanks, practised law and he was a commentator on Fox News, the virtual mouthpiece of the Trump administration.

In short, Bolton is no outsider to the swamp of Washington.

Bolton and Trump do not even see eye-to-eye on many issues. Before he ran for president in 2016, Trump called the 2003 US invasion of Iraq a “disaster.” Bolton was one the strongest advocates of the war to topple Saddam Hussein and continues to argue that it was the correct policy. However, he did not advocate democracy-building in Iraq. To Bolton, the war in Iraq was about removing a threat to the United States, not engineering a new Iraqi society.

While Trump appears to admire Russian President Vladimir Putin, Bolton in 2013 said: “I think in order to focus Putin’s thinking, we need to do things that cause him pain.” Russian Senator Aleksey Pushkov, chairman of the State Duma Committee on International Affairs, told Al-Monitor that Bolton is “a convinced opponent of Russia.”

However, Trump and Bolton share important policy positions, most critically on Iran. Bolton opposed the nuclear agreement with Iran before it was even negotiated and is one of the few remaining voices in Washington to openly advocate for regime change in Tehran.

In January, Bolton wrote an opinion article in the Wall Street Journal in which he stated: “America’s declared policy should be ending Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution before its 40th anniversary… recognising a new Iranian regime in 2019 would reverse the shame of once seeing our diplomats held hostage for 444 days.”

Trump pledged in the 2016 campaign to revoke the Iran nuclear deal on day one of his presidency; 14 months later, the deal is still in effect due to the lobbying of former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, former national security adviser H.R. McMaster and Secretary of Defence James Mattis. Only Mattis remains to counter what will certainly be a strong push by Bolton to shred the agreement and Bolton will be sitting right down the hall from his boss.

Bolton has been an outspoken supporter of Israel’s right-wing governments and has opposed a two-state solution to Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians. While Trump has officially expressed acceptance of the two-state option, Bolton’s hostility to the idea is consistent with that of David Friedman, US ambassador to Israel.

Another significant area in which Bolton and Trump are aligned is their opposition to multilateralism and international organisations. Bolton frequently refers to himself as an “Americanist” and harshly criticised former President Barack Obama for his internationalist tendencies. Bolton will be right at home in Trump’s “America First” world.

There is another factor that unites Trump and Bolton: Both men see themselves as fighting against the system, upsetting the accepted order of things and doing so loudly and unashamedly. Neither admits that he may, possibly, be wrong about something. Bolton reportedly has a fierce temper, as does his boss, and is quick to fire people who disagree with him, as is his boss.

Bolton, a graduate of Yale Law School, is without a doubt the deeper thinker of the two and should be able to argue confidently and convincingly to a boss who is, well, considerably less deep a thinker.

So what will US foreign policy look like now that Trump has his “dream team” in office — the team that the New York Times called “the most radically aggressive foreign policy team around the American president in modern memory?”

Some predictions:

1) Prepare for the funeral of the Iran nuclear agreement, because it is going to die. How Iran and US allies in Europe respond to this eventuality is unclear.

2) The Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which already is dead, will become even deader.

3) The wildcard — and the area in which Bolton may clash with Trump — concerns how the United States responds to Russian activities in the Middle East. In February, Bolton told the right-wing Breitbart News: “Russia is projecting power in the Middle East. [It is] aligned with Iran. This is a very dangerous moment there for Israel, for some of the oil-producing monarchies — and obviously, it’s dangerous for us, too.”

Buckle your seatbelts.