Report

Trump Taps Uber-Hawk Bolton as National Security Advisor

From “Bomb, Bomb Iran” to a preemptive strike on North Korea, the former Bush official promises a much more belligerent foreign policy.

John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, waves as he leaves Trump Tower in New York on Dec. 2, 2016. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, waves as he leaves Trump Tower in New York on Dec. 2, 2016. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump’s choice of John Bolton as his national security advisor places a hard-line unilateralist and keen advocate of military power at the center of the White House.

Bolton has explicitly called for a preemptive strike on North Korea, advocates bombing to force regime change in Iran, and wants an open-ended military presence in Afghanistan. He has also called for a much more confrontational stance against China, including stationing U.S. troops in Taiwan.

But in contrast to Republican neoconservatives, whom he joined in urging President George W. Bush to topple Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in 2003, Bolton has little interest in exporting American values such as democracy and human rights. He served in the State Department and as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during the Bush administration.

Bolton shares with the president a disregard for international agreements, a disdain for multilateral organizations such as the U.N. and the European Union, and a flair for hurling cutting insults at his many political enemies. In his memoir, Surrender Is Not an Option: Defending America at the United NationsBolton repeatedly referred to EU bureaucrats as “EUroids.”

His appointment, rumored for weeks, deeply rattled foreign-policy experts from Washington to Berlin who worry that McMaster’s ouster and Bolton’s arrival could set the United States on a path toward multiple conflicts.

“Bolton doesn’t believe in coercive diplomacy,” tweeted Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia during President Barack Obama’s administration. “Instead, he believes in regime change as the goal and the use of military force as the means in places like North Korea and Iran. His theories about American foreign policy are deeply flawed.”

Bolton will replace outgoing National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster in early April; instead of heading for a four-star post as consolation for leaving the White House, as it was rumored, McMaster will retire instead. A White House official said the change was made now to “have the new team in place, instead of constant speculation.” Bolton will be Trump’s third national security advisor in a little over a year.

Bolton’s appointment, which will not require Senate confirmation, will likely only sharpen the hawkish instincts of an administration that campaigned on a promise to limit American adventurism overseas but that has in office embraced a more militaristic view of U.S. foreign policy. (Like Trump, Bolton went to school to evade service in Vietnam, a war he supported.)

Here are a few global hot spots where Bolton’s policy prescriptions threaten to dramatically reshape U.S. foreign policy.

Bomb Iran

Bolton’s selection as national security advisor places a long-standing proponent of military action against Iran at Trump’s right hand, just as Trump’s replacement of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with CIA Director Mike Pompeo put Iran hawks in the driver’s seat.

Bolton made his straightforward case for war with Iran in the headline of a 2015 New York Times op-ed: “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran.” Bolton, who has often approvingly cited Israel’s preemptive strikes on its neighbors’ nuclear facilities, advocated military strikes at nuclear installations, backed by Iranian opposition forces committed to overthrowing the regime.

In his vocal advocacy for regime change in Iran, Bolton has supported the fringe Iranian opposition group Mujahideen-e-Khalq, even when it was designated a terrorist organization by the United States. Speaking at an event in Brussels in 2011, Bolton said he “unequivocally” supports the movement’s goal of overthrowing the Iranian regime. (Several well-known Republicans, including former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and some Democrats, including former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, have also lent support to the group.)

In 2009, Bolton even appeared to support Israel’s use of nuclear weapons against Iran. “Unless Israel is prepared to use nuclear weapons against Iran’s program, Iran will have nuclear weapons in the very near future,” Bolton said during a speech at the University of Chicago.

North Korea

Following North Korea’s rapid advances on nuclear weapons and missile technology, Bolton has backed a preemptive military strike on the North in a bid to eliminate its nuclear arsenal.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal just last month, Bolton made the case that the time to strike is now. “The threat is imminent,” Bolton wrote, citing examples of 19th-century gunboat diplomacy. “Given the gaps in U.S. intelligence about North Korea, we should not wait until the very last minute. That would risk striking after the North has deliverable nuclear weapons, a much more dangerous situation.”

Such a strike would likely invite North Korean retaliatory strikes on South Korea and American bases in the region. U.S. military officials warn that it would likely result in tens of thousands of American deaths and a kind of warfare not seen in at least a generation.

It’s also unclear how Bolton’s itch for a preemptive strike will square with Trump’s plans to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un for a summit to discuss denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula. Last year, Bolton dismissed direct negotiations with North Korea as a “continuation of Obama policies.”

China

Beijing is likely to view Bolton suspiciously. An outspoken supporter of Taiwanese self-determination, Bolton urged the Trump administration to review its decades-old “One China” policy with China. He has called for increased U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, and even the stationing of U.S. troops there, invoking Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s notion of an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” just off the Chinese coast.

Beijing, in contrast, views the “One China” policy as a non-negotiable cornerstone of its relations with the United States dating back to President Richard Nixon’s administration.

Just this week, Chinese President Xi Jinping made an impassioned vow to defend “every inch” of Chinese territory, including what Beijing views as the renegade province of Taiwan.

Israel

Bolton can be expected to offer uncritical support for Israel; McMaster took fire from some conservatives for allegedly not being supportive enough. Dan Gillerman, Israel’s former ambassador to the United Nations, once described Bolton as “Israel’s secret weapon.”

International institutions

Bolton is one of the nation’s sharpest critics of multilateralism, repeatedly questioning the America’s commitment to arms control treaties and other international agreements that may limit its ability to use force. He once famously said of the United Nations — an institution that employed him as a negotiator in Western Sahara — that its “Secretariat Building in New York has 38 stories. If you lost 10 stories today, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.”

In his memoir, Bolton wrote: “My happiest moment at State was personally ‘unsigning’ the Rome Statute that created the International Criminal Court.… I told [Colin] Powell that I felt like a kid on Christmas Day.”

Bolton’s attitude toward international treaties aligns neatly with that of Trump. “Treaties are ‘law’ only for U.S. domestic purposes,” Bolton once argued. “In their international operation, treaties are simply ‘political,’ and not legally binding.”

Bolton reserves his greatest disdain for defenders of the international order, none more than EU bureaucrats and State Department officials, who he claims lack spine.

“‘Moral equivalency,’ a disease of the sophisticated, is especially prevalent among EUroid diplomats, and is highly contagious, frequently spreading to State’s permanent bureaucracy,” he wrote in his memoir.

Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. @columlynch

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace. @EliasGroll

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