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John Bolton’s War: A Question Of When, Not If?

A self-confessed fan of regime change, the latest US national security advisor looks to be itching for a new conflict in the Middle East.

Iraqis look at US Humvees and armoured vehicles roaring in one of the streets of Baghdad's Sadr City neighbourhood in September 2003 (Photo: AFP)

Iraqis look at US Humvees and armoured vehicles roaring in one of the streets of Baghdad's Sadr City neighbourhood in September 2003. (Photo: AFP)

When George W Bush was weighing up his options on whether to go to war with Saddam Hussein in order to effect regime change, John Bolton was right there with him. 

As undersecretary of state for arms control and international security from 2001 to 2005, he pushed an agenda of harsh military response to perceived threats to American security, no more so than in helping shape the narrative that launched the Iraq war.

The war and its catastrophic outcomes continue to bedevil the region and indeed the world but Bolton, like Britain's Tony Blair, remains utterly unrepentant.

He was an enthusiastic proponent of the claim that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction, an argument that he skilfully propagated while knowing full well that the evidence was, if not actual fake news, at the very least some distance from the truth.

The war and its catastrophic outcomes continue to bedevil the region and indeed the world but Bolton, like Britain's Tony Blair, remains utterly unrepentant. Writing in The Telegraph in July 2016, he called the overthrow of Saddam's dictatorship "a military success of stunning scope and effectiveness, achieved in just three weeks," adding "by eliminating Saddam's threat to Middle Eastern peace and security, the 2003 invasion fully justified itself".

That the removal of Saddam and the chaos that followed triggered a jihadist uprising that spawned first Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and then Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and in the process turned much of the region into a bloody battlefield troubles Donald Trump's new national security advisor not one whit.

Regime change enthusiast

Rather it is the opposite. John Bolton remains a keen enthusiast for regime change in the Middle East. 

In January, while still a pundit for Fox News (one wonders if, in Trump’s reality TV show of a White House, he will be allowed to keep that role), he argued that not only should the president tear up the Iran nuclear deal and resume all previous sanctions but that "we should supply material and financial support to the opposition". 

He didn't specify who that opposition might be, but presumably he was thinking of the protesters who took to the streets of Iran's cities in late December last year and early January.

Nor was he any less blunt when it came to articulating what the outcome of such intervention would be: "Our goal should be regime change in Iran." 

And when it comes to the detail of the narratives he weaves, Bolton is a man who likes to set the story and then accumulate any facts and pseudo facts that support it while ignoring all those facts that play against it.

How that will be accomplished and by whom remains a subject of speculation. After all, Americans have grown very weary of foreign wars. That's a small detail, perhaps, for a man who seems to enjoy war but whose only military service during the Vietnam conflict was stateside in the National Guard and the Army Reserve.

And when it comes to the detail of the narratives he weaves, Bolton is a man who likes to set the story and then accumulate any facts and pseudo facts that support it while ignoring all those facts that play against it.

Bolton's style of behaviour is, of course, one that fits the president like a glove, chiefly because it is the style that Trump has perfected in a career that is littered with lies and betrayals both as a businessman and now as president.Greg Thielmann, a 25-year veteran of the US foreign service, worked closely with him at the State Department in the run-up to the 2003 war. He referred to what he called the Bolton style as "kiss up and kick down". 

As Thielmann notes: "This included not just disregarding important information, but actively trying to suppress independent analysis." 

This is the man who is now Donald Trump's national security advisor, a post that is among the most powerful in the administration.

Bolton's style of behaviour is, of course, one that fits the president like a glove, chiefly because it is the style that Trump has perfected in a career that is littered with lies and betrayals both as a businessman and now as president. 

And while to most observers his presidency is a train wreck, he himself is said to be feeling bullish and confident, as a steady stream of senior advisers make their way, or are forced, out of his White House. He no longer feels the need for the likes of Rex Tillerson, brutally sacked as secretary of state via Twitter, nor for H R McMaster, who, unlike the unfortunate Tillerson, was at least allowed the dignity of resigning from his post in order to make way for Bolton.

Through all the turmoil and the early morning Twitter rants, Trump seems blissfully unaware that his presidency has signally reduced American prestige and power abroad, while unsettling and disturbing old allies and emboldening America's enemies. Now enters a man to advise him who detests Iran and embraces regime change.

The crown princes

That Bolton has the Iranians so clearly in his gun sights will be good news for a young Gulf warrior who like Bolton and Trump enjoys provoking bloody battles without ever having experienced war himself. 

Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia's crown prince, launched the Yemen war three years ago with Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi. It has been nothing short of disastrous for the Yemeni people - more than 10,000 civilians killed, 40,000 wounded, millions at risk of starvation, essential infrastructure destroyed.

Now that the conflict is stalemated, the Saudis in particular are fixating on Iran as the prime culprit in a war that is costing them billions a month and has all the hallmarks of being unwinnable.

Americans may be tired of foreign wars but others are not. Could we be seeing a new axis emerging? Could Saudi Arabia and Israel together launch a war against Iran as Donald Trump’s America eggs them on?

If, as appears likely, Trump carries through on his threat to walk away from the nuclear deal and Bolton pushes his agenda of regime change, what seemed unthinkable just a short while ago now grows more and more likely. 

Mohammed bin Salman has boasted of the prowess of his military and dismissed the battle-hardened Iranians as "not being among the top five armies in the Muslim world". 

And Trump, he of the military hardware billboards, wants to sell more, many more, weapons to the Saudis to create jobs in America. As the British defence industry well knows, wars are very good business. The Yemen war alone has thus far generated more than $6bn in sales of British armaments to Saudi Arabia.

But who will fight this war?

Like the Saudis, the Israelis see Iran as their greatest existential threat. Americans may be tired of foreign wars but others are not. Could we be seeing a new axis emerging? Could Saudi Arabia and Israel together launch a war against Iran as Donald Trump's America eggs them on?

With John Bolton advising the president, that idea seems dangerously close to becoming an ugly reality.

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Bill Law

Bill Law is a Middle East analyst and a specialist in Gulf affairs. He tweets @billlaw49.

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