John Bolton – owner of the finest moustache in American politics since Teddy Roosevelt – has been appointed Donald Trump’s new national security adviser. He replaces the outgoing HR McMaster, a veritable survivor who managed to last 395 days at the White House. That’s two terms plus a recess appointment in MAGA years.
Hysteria is now the default mode of American politics so it was inevitable that Bolton’s appointment would be reported like a newly discovered post-script to the Book of Revelation. Even so, we should try to gain some perspective on the man who will be guiding President Trump’s national security policy (to the extent Trump has a national security policy or can be guided).
The first thing to understand about neoconservative ideologue John Bolton is that he’s not a neoconservative ideologue. ‘Neocon’ is bandied around as a term of abuse to mean everything from ‘Bush-era hawk’ to ‘power-hungry Jew’. Since Bolton is Lutheran, we can rule out anti-Semitism and guess that the label is being applied to him because he spent 17 months as UN Ambassador during George W Bush’s second term. Even so, he’s still not a neocon. If that term is to have any definition beyond epithet it describes an advocate of US global leadership and the use of American military strength to promote democracy around the world. While Bolton is very much in favour of American firepower, he comes with none of the Wilsonian idealism. He has referred to himself as a ‘realist’ and, alas, is an admirer of Bush 41’s uber-realist Secretary of State James Baker.
Bolton is an American unilateralist. He believes the US should be the sole global superpower and should unapologetically pursue its interests and those of its allies. American military might should be maintained – and enhanced – and the White House should not be shy about putting a bit of brawn about when need be. As his readable memoirs, ‘Surrender is Not an Option’, make clear, his biggest complaint about the Bush administration is that it was too gun-shy and not robust enough on Iran and North Korea. Bolton is not so much a hawk as a bald eagle with MAC-10s for wings.
He is, however, a serious man. Yes, he sometimes lets his tetchy rhetoric get the better of him (he once said if the UN’s New York headquarters ‘lost ten storeys it wouldn’t make a bit of difference’) but he has an extensive background in security policy, having served in the State Department of both Bush administrations with emphasis on arms control under Bush 43. His tenure at Turtle Bay coincided with increased aggression from North Korea, Iran and Tehran’s proxy, Hezbollah, meaning Trump has brought on-board a walking encyclopaedia of major threats to American security, the effectiveness of diplomacy vs military options, and the rough terrain of international opinion. Bolton was also an early critic of Barack Obama’s Iran deal, obsequiously praised by many currently damning Bolton as a dangerous know-nothing.
Bolton is, in some ways, an odd choice for Trump but mostly his appointment is startlingly obvious. He is sober and lawyerly, nothing like his blithe and trashy Commander in Chief. He is, however, an authentic nationalist with a near-fanatical devotion to American sovereignty. (He was instrumental in scuppering US membership of the International Criminal Court.) If Trump listens – a big if with any president and especially this one – we can expect a national security programme even more attuned to the America First worldview.
That is not the same as isolationism, at least not in Bolton’s case. He’s written extensively about the threat of Russian and Chinese WMD proliferation, Iranian dominance in the Middle East and North Korea’s strategic threat. He will be a voice for tough-headed engagement with Beijing and Moscow and can be expected to push repeal of the Iran agreement. The North Koreans – who once denounced him as ‘human scum’ – will now sit across the table from someone at least as crazy as they are. Bolton is also a firm friend of Israel and a sceptic of Palestinian statehood. Jerusalem, as you might expect, is pretty happy right now.
Trump’s new national security advisor is a hard, determined man who scares America’s allies, let alone her enemies. What did you expect? Jill Stein and a bucket of sunshine? The world is getting more perilous by the day and in the absence of US leadership (for which vacuum Trump is, of course, to blame) we will have to settle for giving hostiles a few sleepless nights. In hiring John Bolton, Donald Trump has planted a ‘Don’t mess with the US’ sign on the White House lawn. It may end up being one of the more sensible decisions he’s made.