If President Donald Trump is determined to turn the country to the extreme right ideologically, his decision to tap John Bolton as his next National Security Advisor is unquestionable. Born and raised in the Baltimore, Maryland area, this Yale graduate has been a stalwart in Washington neoconservative Republican circles since the era of Ronald Reagan. He has held at least mid-level positions in every Republican administration since Reagan and, until landing this job, reached peak influence when he was hastily appointed by George W. Bush to represent the United States at the United Nations.
Even outside of government, Bolton has maintained a staunchly conservative profile in DC policy circles. He has, at different times, served as vice president and senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, had positions with groups like the National Rifle Association and the Jewish Institute for National Security of America, and, probably most importantly, he is a contributor and mainstay of Fox News programs.
Combative Straight Talker or Ideologue?
Bolton is considered a “realist” and a “pragmatist” to his supporters, but his detractors more frequently characterize him as mercurial, brash, and a stubborn ideologue. As the State Department’s chief official overseeing arms control, Bolton had a record of berating subordinates who contradicted or disagreed with his decisions. As ambassador to the United Nations he was loud and confrontational, but he showed little leadership in mobilizing the international community; rather, he seemed to mostly pick fights. In a quick survey of articles exploring Bolton’s past experiences in government, one will find that the most consistent characterization of Bolton is not about his prowess on issues of national security or foreign affairs, but rather that he is simply a “bully.”
Bolton shares a similar ideology toward Muslims and the Middle East that President Trump—and unsurprisingly, Secretary of State nominee Mike Pompeo—as indicated by his inflammatory remarks about Muslims and his involvement with fringe, right-wing individuals. Indeed, Bolton frequently talks about the world as a dichotomy between “us” and “them,” manifesting a belief in an existential struggle between the West, as a culture, and the religion of Islam.
Middle East Policy Positions
Though his is not a unique perspective on the region, John Bolton has a hyper-militarized foreign policy toward the Middle East and views nearly all of developments there in terms of security concerns. It is difficult to assess Bolton’s policy positions vis-à-vis the Middle East without remembering that he confidently and consistently pushed for the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the deposing of Saddam Hussein. Bolton was a key cog of the pro-war machine prior to the invasion and, even after 15 years, with hundreds of thousands dead and the emergence of the so-called Islamic State, Bolton still assesses that the decision to invade Iraq was the correct one. This incoming national security advisor continues to believe that the United States’ greatest geostrategic blunder in decades was simply a failure of execution, not strategy.
- Israel-Palestine Conflict: John Bolton is fiercely pro-Israel and has vociferously rejected the notion of a two-state solution to the region’s oldest conflict, even going as far as to urge Jordan and Egypt to annex the West Bank and Gaza Strip, respectively. He testified before Congress in favor of President Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the US embassy there. In total, Bolton will likely only worsen relations—whatever may remain of them—between the Trump Administration and the leadership of the Palestinian Authority, at the same time as the administration looks to unveil its long-awaited peace plan.
“I don’t believe there is a future for the two-state solution. We have been pursuing it for 70 years without success. I don’t think year 71 of pursuing it will make any change.” Bar-Ilan University keynote address (June 2017)
“Just as a matter of empirical reality, the two-state solution is dead.” Breitbart News (December 29, 2016)
“As long as Washington’s diplomatic objective is the “two-state solution” — Israel and ‘Palestine’ — the fundamental contradiction between this aspiration and the reality on the ground will ensure it never comes into being. There simply cannot be ‘two states living side by side in peace and security’ when one of the ‘states,’ for the foreseeable future, cannot meet the basic, practical requirements for entering into and upholding international commitments, including, unfortunately, the glaring lack of its own legitimacy.” The Washington Times (April 16, 2014)
“[T]here is no perfect alternative[to the two-state solution], but the most attractive prospect is to attach the disparate Palestinian communities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to their neighboring contiguous Arab states, Jordan and Egypt, respectively. We might call this a ‘three-state solution.’” The Washington Times (April 16, 2014)
- Iran: Iran is probably the Middle East topic for which Bolton is most infamous. He has frequently advocated for military strikes on Iranian nuclear energy facilities and has taken other bellicose stands against the Islamic Republic. Bolton will enter the National Security Council at a time when its officials are undoubtedly crafting a strategy for the likely scenario that the president wants to decline to waive sanctions on Iran and scuttle the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. The sanctions must be renewed May 12. Bolton replaces one of the few remaining voices in favor of maintaining the agreement; last August he wrote a five-page op-ed detailing how to renege on the very deal.
On Regime Change:
“Our goal should be regime change in Iran” Fox News (January 1, 2018)
“America’s declared policy should be ending Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution before its 40th anniversary” The Wall Street Journal (January 15, 2018)
“If the Iranian opposition is prepared to take outside support, the US should provide it to them.” Twitter (January 4, 2018)
On The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA):
“Not only does the entire agreement reflect appeasement, but President Obama’s diplomacy produced weak, ambiguous and confusing language in many specific provisions. These drafting failures created huge loopholes, and Iran is now driving its missile and nuclear programs straight through them.” The Wall Street Journal (February 6, 2017)
“Trump can and should free America from the execrable deal at the earliest opportunity.” National Review (August 28, 2017)
On Preemptive Military Strikes:
“Military action against Iran’s nuclear program and the ultimate goal of regime change can be worked together consistently.” Washington Post (July 2, 2009)
“I don’t make any disguise of the idea that ultimately it may take an Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear program to stop it.” Washington Free Beacon (August 31, 2017)
“Time is terribly short, but a strike can still succeed.” The New York Times (March 26, 2015)
“With Israel and selected others, we will discuss military options [to address Iran’s behavior].” National Review (August 28, 2017)
- Gulf Cooperation Council Crisis: When it comes to the ongoing GCC crisis, Bolton seemingly ignored the implications for bilateral and multilateral cooperation and turned directly toward the implications for counterterrorism. In an analysis for the American Enterprise Institute, Bolton wrote that the rift offered an opportunity to designate the Muslim Brotherhood a foreign terrorist organization and put all the GCC states on notice for their support of terrorists. If this is still the idea he operates under, Bolton will not be helpful in finding a solution to the current intra-GCC fighting.
Quotes on the GCC:
“The proper response [to terrorist financing] is not to let Qatar off the hook but to put every other country [in the GCC] whose governments or citizens are financing terrorism on the hook.” American Enterprise Institute (July 8, 2017)
Quotes on the Region:
“I still think the decision to overthrow [Iraqi president] Saddam [Hussein] was correct.” Washington Examiner (May 14, 2015)
“The only mistake of the Iraq War was that we didn’t get rid of Saddam Hussein sooner.” The Telegraph (July 6, 2016)
“[T]he U.S. ought to abandon or substantially reduce its military support for Iraq’s current government. Despite retaining a tripartite veneer of Kurds, Sunni Arabs and Shiite Arabs, the capital is dominated by Shiites loyal to Iran.” The Wall Street Journal (June 28, 2017)
“Rather than striving to recreate the post-World War I map, Washington should recognize the new geopolitics. The best alternative to the Islamic State in northeastern Syria and western Iraq is a new, independent Sunni state.” New York Times (November 25, 2015)
“We have no obligation to bring [Syrian refugees] into this country.” Fox News’ Justice (November 15, 2015)
Diplomacy, Human Rights, and Democracy
In Bolton, President Trump will have a national security advisor who is similarly disinterested in using diplomacy or fostering healthy environments for democracy and human rights in the Middle East. In the very same piece that he advocated for the absorption of Palestinian territories into their neighboring countries, Bolton noted that the oppressive and authoritarian military junta in Egypt was preferable as a US partner than the Palestinian Hamas. While in Bolton’s mind this comparison has legitimacy, it clearly illustrates that, when it comes to protecting US interests, Bolton gives little consideration to the nature of the “ally” or its treatment of the people it governs.
Quotes regarding autocrats:
“Cairo’s current military government may not be made up of Jeffersonian democrats, but it is a sterling alternative to Hamas, and will presumably not tolerate terrorism emanating from behind new Egyptian borders.” The Washington Times (April 16, 2014)
“Make no mistake, the new [hypothetical] Sunni state’s government is unlikely to be a Jeffersonian democracy for many years. But this is a region where alternatives to secular military or semi-authoritarian governments are scarce. Security and stability are sufficient ambitions.” The New York Times (November 25, 2015)
Bolton as an Advisor
Bolton enters the White House at a particularly tumultuous time featuring high staff turnover and consistent leaking. Generally, the role of the national security advisor is to manage the national security mechanism built to consolidate information pouring in from all the arms of the executive branch and to present the president with objective, sober analyses and suggestions. Essentially, this individual serves as the gatekeeper of information, deciding what reaches the president and what does not. While Bolton has a great deal of experience in government bureaucracy and undoubtedly understands how to navigate large organizations, there is reason to be concerned that his personality is not conducive to strong leadership.
Bolton’s history in organizations shows that he often settles on a conclusion, then seeks the details that support it. This does not bode well for a White House already saturated with strong personalities and a record of sometimes malicious infighting. Bolton’s predecessor, H.R. McMaster, served as a cudgel against President Trump’s impulsiveness and brought order and stability to what could easily become a chaotic National Security Council. It is difficult to see Bolton maintaining that cool demeanor; rather, his proclivity for outbursts and reluctance to hear information that conflicts with his ideas could exacerbate the already volatile situation in the White House and amplify the president’s worst impulses.
Most importantly, however, will be his relationship with President Trump. As an advisor, Bolton should reasonably be expected to deliver objective analyses despite what the president expects or wants to hear. This is one reason McMaster and Trump likely did not get along. Bolton, however, seems to have a good relationship with Trump—and therein lies the problem. President Trump typically only values people who share his thoughts and characteristics: in short, Donald Trump likes people who are like Donald Trump. Bolton shares Trump’s fiercest nationalistic tendencies and his eagerness to lash out, and he appears to agree with Trump’s notion that the United States can act with impunity on the international stage and even dictate terms of other states’ policies. Will Bolton be able to tell the president what he may not want to hear? Will he, like Trump, only accept information that aligns with his preconceived notions? If the latter is the case, the United States risks turning the top national security organ into an echo chamber of hyper-nationalism and isolationism.