Candidate Trump appeared on "Meet the Press" in the summer of 2015 just weeks after announcing his run for president. When Chuck Todd asked him to name his top national security advisers, the first name that rolled off his tongue was John Bolton's. Trump praised Bolton as “a tough cookie, knows what he's talking about.”
Trump’s instinctive affinity for Bolton’s bellicose style will now be a feature of daily White House decision-making. With over a year to get his sea legs, Trump is feeling his oats and remaking the administration more in his image by surrounding himself with like-minded hawks. That makeover is just in time for this pro-war team to take on important diplomatic decisions on the Iran deal and North Korea.
White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, one of the so-called axis of adults, has always tried to keep the sharp-elbowed Bolton from White House meetings. Lately, Kelly had been resisting Bolton as a replacement for the outgoing H. R. McMaster, because, according to the New York Times, Kelly feared Bolton “will behave like a cabinet official rather than a staff member.”
This illustrates why Bolton is so dangerous. Bolton can work to leverage Trump’s affinity for Bolton’s “America First” worldview to reinforce the president's militarist instincts in daily meetings while seeking to sideline opposing viewpoints. The national security advisor traditionally has little formal power and is supposed to be an “honest broker” of interagency decision-making. But anyone who thinks John Bolton will be an “honest broker” probably couldn’t tell John Bolton from Yosemite Sam in a police lineup. If he plays his cards right and doesn’t end up butting heads with the president, Bolton’s constant presence could give him more influence than a cabinet official racking up frequent flyer miles.
The record Bolton will bring into the West Wing with him is already well known. Most mainstream coverage of the appointment led by tagging Bolton as a “hawk” or “hard-liner." But describing Bolton in that way is to praise him with faint damnation. Bolton is an ideologue of rare pedigree even for a George W. Bush vintage neoconservative.
Bolton is tight with anti-Muslim far-right activists like Frank Gaffney and Pamela Geller. In fact, Bolton has served as chair of the anti-Muslim Gatestone Institute. Gatestone is a virulently Islamophobic organization that peddles fake stories about Muslim immigrants in Europe fueling a “migrant rape crisis” in stories with headlines like "Refugees or an Occupation Army?". Bolton has himself participated in spreading a number of conspiracy theories, including that the Muslim Brotherhood might have infiltrated the Obama administration and that Muslim immigration in the U.S. could replicate the (imaginary, non-existent) no-go zones that both Bolton and Trump have claimed exist in Europe.
It is this racism and xenophobia, not to mention lack of basic empathy, that provides the toxic fuel for Bolton’s pro-war and pro-regime change positions. He forged his template for a bellicose, rather than isolationist, brand of “America First” foreign policy at George W. Bush’s State Department and as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. As everyone now knows, Bolton was one of the chief cheerleaders and architects for the Iraq war. But Bolton’s affection for regime change knows few bounds. After Bush gave his famous “Axis of Evil” speech, then Under Secretary of State Bolton one-upped his boss with a speech called “Beyond the Axis of Evil”, making sure the xenophobic vitriol was spread around. Bolton has cheered on, or been involved in, every one in the string failed U.S. interventions and asked for more: Iraq, Libya, Syria and now, heaven forbid, Iran and North Korea.
During the negotiation of the Iran deal, Bolton tried to rain on the diplomatic parade with a New York Times editorial called “To Stop Iran's Bomb, Bomb Iran”. More recently, in an address to the exiled Iranian opposition group, known as the Mujahedeen Khalq, or People’s Mujahedeen, Bolton argued that the Trump administration should not only leave the Iran deal but that “the declared policy of the United States should be the overthrow of the mullahs’ regime in Tehran” with a 2019 deadline for regime change.
Bolton’s policy prescription for North Korea has been consistent—firmly pointed towards regime change. He said on Fox News “the only diplomatic solution left is to end the regime.” When Fox News’s Trish Regan interjected “That’s not really diplomatic!” Bolton was undeterred. In another of his many Fox appearances speaking on North Korea, Bolton offered a pithy—and terrifying—formula: “the way you eliminate the North Korean nuclear program is to eliminate North Korea”. When the other panelists asked about the “millions” of South and North Koreans who would be killed in such a military intervention he pivoted and glibly argued that having North Korea have nuclear weapons was a worse outcome.
Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of being a drum major for peace. All of John Bolton's career, both inside and outside of government, Bolton has been a one man band for regime change. Those war drums will soon be heard marching right into the Oval Office. Those of us who oppose the endless wars our country finds itself enmeshed in had better make some noise of our own.