John Bolton Can’t Be Contained

For the first time in his career, Washington’s most belligerent foreign policy wonk is officially outside the bureaucratic box.

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis greets incoming National Security Advisor John Bolton at the Pentagon on March 29. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis greets incoming National Security Advisor John Bolton at the Pentagon on March 29. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

John Bolton, who starts Monday as U.S. President Donald Trump’s third national security advisor, has a long and uniformly belligerent track record in government. He has supported every recent war the United States has fought — proclaiming in May 2015, “I still think the decision to overthrow Saddam [Hussein] was correct” — and strongly endorsed initiating regime change wars against Iran and nuclear-armed North Korea. He believes in the transformative impact of military force — including unilateral — with no recognition of the risks, costs, downsides, and second- and third-order effects.

I was surprised to discover, however, that several diplomatic and military officials I have spoken with in the past few weeks are unworried about Bolton, claiming that he is not formally part of the military chain of command.

This bureaucratic perspective is far too sanguine. It does not adequately consider the informal forms of power and influence that national security advisors have historically exercised on military policy and foreign policy more generally. National security advisors have been relatively weaker or stronger compared with their predecessors. But they are intimately involved in nearly every sensitive and consequential national security issue that involves the president and on every operational level.

Consider just five examples of how national security advisors have exercised power in creative and unofficial ways and think carefully about how somebody with Bolton’s bureaucratic expertise could do so similarly.

National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger would routinely call military commanders to directly relay President Richard Nixon’s alleged orders to forever increase the tonnage and pace of airstrikes in Cambodia. (“Bombing holes in the jungle,” as it was correctly derided by Defense Department analysts.) When bombing was delayed due to weather, Kissinger would chide Adm. Thomas Moorer, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that “next time we would give them an operation in the desert on stationary targets in July” and ask for personal updates nearly each day. None of these conversations were vetted or made with the approval or awareness of Defense Secretary Melvin Laird.

Robert “Bud’’ McFarlane occasionally served as President Ronald Reagan’s transmitter to Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger of presidential authorization to use force. In November 1983, this led to a tremendous mix-up when Reagan approved U.S. participation in joint U.S.-French attacks against Hezbollah-connected barracks in Lebanon. Although Reagan’s decision was never written down, McFarlane conveyed it to Weinberger, who then refused to give the execute order to the U.S. commander of the 6th Fleet permitting his aircraft to leave their flight decks. Reagan responded: “That’s terrible. We should have blown the daylights out of them. I just don’t understand.” (In retaliation for having abandoned them at the last minute, three years later, the French refused to allow U.S. warplanes to fly over their airspace to bomb Libya.) Because Weinberger had a close personal relationship with Reagan, he was never punished. But this case demonstrates how critical the national security advisor’s role can be within the military chain of command — even when a presidential directive is ignored.

McFarlane and his successor, Vice Adm. John Poindexter, were both directly operationally involved in one of the most audacious and illegal covert programs ever: the Iran-Contra affair. This involved illegally raising money in violation of the Boland amendments — which prohibited funding for Contra rebels fighting the Sandinista government in Nicaragua — through direct foreign gifts ($32 million from Saudi Arabia and $2 million from Taiwan) and more than $3.6 million from the Iranian government for weapons transfers. Those weapons were supposed to lead to the release of American hostages, but after eight shipments of missiles and spare parts to Iran, Iranian-backed groups held the same number of hostages as they had before the shipments began.

President Bill Clinton’s national security advisor, Sandy Berger, expanded the number of cruise missiles and strike sorties against Iraq that the White House would allow (without conferring with Clinton, I am told) beyond the attack option first presented by the Joint Chiefs chairman, Gen. Hugh Shelton, in December 1998. Berger also tried to end-run the defense secretary and Joint Chiefs chairman to convince Gen. Wesley Clark to delay by two weeks the start of preparations for a potential ground invasion into Serbia in 1999. Finally, Berger (or his deputy, Lt. Gen. Donald Kerrick) was the last person Clinton spoke with to receive intelligence or operational updates — not the CIA director or defense secretary — before authorizing the U.S. strikes in Afghanistan and Sudan in August 1998 and the four-day bombing campaign of Iraq in December 1998.

Even Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, Bolton’s predecessor, “alienated prospective allies in the military by directly calling combatant commanders around the world without first telling” Defense Secretary James Mattis, according to anonymous U.S. officials who spoke to the Wall Street Journal. These calls included going directly to the commanders of U.S. Central Command and U.S. Pacific Command — again, not through the chairman of the Joint Chiefs or the defense secretary. (A former Trump White House official told me that in his 24-day tenure as national security advisor, Michael Flynn was far more freewheeling in attempting to shape and direct military policy outside the chain of command.)

The most useful national security advisors serve as both honest brokers of divergent cabinet-level view points and effective implementers of presidential decisions to all components of the national security bureaucracy. Bolton has shown that he is incapable of being an honest broker of dissenting voices; his public record shows he is close-minded and intolerant of challenging viewpoints. As Carl Ford, a former State Department chief of intelligence, memorably described Bolton’s operating style, “He is a kiss-up and kick-down leader, who will not tolerate those who disagree with him and who goes out of his way to retaliate for their disagreement.”

Now it remains to be seen how faithfully Bolton fulfills Trump’s directives. This is an especially meaningful responsibility, as Trump has pushed what had previously been White House-level decisions down the chain of command and seems to have no formal foreign-policy-making process whatsoever. History shows us that there are many points of influence where the national security advisor can personally have a huge impact on such a setting. That person is now John Bolton — and all of us should be worried.

Micah Zenko is the co-author of Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans.