It’s easy to understand why John Bolton’s appointment as the new US National Security Adviser caused consternation in foreign capitals. The former UN ambassador has defended the idea of preemptive military action against North Korea and proposed scrapping America’s longstanding “One China” policy. But Washington observers who know Bolton well and supported his appointment emphasize that this is the Trump administration, not the John Bolton administration. Trump didn’t hire the blunt-spoken Bolton because he agrees with his positions but because Bolton will pursue Trump’s own agenda, as Bolton emphasized March 22 in an interview with Fox News’ Martha MacCallum.
There is a distinct Trump doctrine, as I reported March 14. It seeks to neutralize prospective threats to the American homeland from nuclear upstarts like North Korea and Iran. The Trump Administration is open to cooperation with Russia and China to contain such threats, but on American terms that it proposes to enforce by tough negotiations with America’s strategic rivals. Trump has taken an aggressive stand on trade with China but simultaneously agreed to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. This combination of carrot and stick reflects the president’s own priorities as well as his swashbuckling operating style.
The biggest change in US policy with Bolton at the White House probably will involve Iran rather than China or North Korea. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s dilatory negotiations with America’s allies on changes to the Iran nuclear deal yielded no results, and his attempts to appease Turkey’s labile leader Recep Erdogan led to American humiliation in Syria. Over strong US as well as European protests, Erdogan sent Turkish troops into territory held by America’s Kurdish allies in a brazen act of neo-Ottoman imperialism.
Bolton, by contrast, supported the Kurds’ abortive independence referendum last September, and in a Jan. 15 op-ed proposed to end Iran’s Islamic Republic before its 40th anniversary. Unlike Tillerson, Bolton isn’t afraid to break glass in the Middle East in order to neutralize what the Trump Administration perceives as a threat from a nuclear-armed Iran in the future.
In that respect Bolton is entirely correct: the Kurds provided the United States with its only leverage in Syria, where the Assad regime and its Iranian allies have driven more than 10 million people from their homes, and plan to colonize depopulated Sunni districts with Shi’ites brought in from a number of countries. Confronting Iran on the ground in Syria raises the risk of war, but it also might pre-empt a prospective war between Israel and Iran.
Russia might be persuaded to distance itself from its Iranian ally-of-convenience, as I wrote March 14, but only if the United States prevents Iran from changing the facts on the ground. This cannot be accomplished by placating the conflicting constituencies in the American foreign policy and defense establishments, which include a strong lobby for appeasement of Turkey, the host of an important American air force base.
Overseas observers fail to grasp how different Trump’s approach to governance is from previous administrations. Public policy in Washington used to be a manufacturing industry with a visible supply chain and long lead times. Policy ideas would be floated by White House staff and then vetted by the vast institutional apparatus of think-tanks, media, Congressional staff and academic departments. Policy papers, journal articles and academic studies would then be condensed into newspaper op-eds, and then uploaded to the appropriate staffers in the government. The Establishment might not come to a consensus in the highly partisan vetting process, but the provenance and mutation of policy proposals was largely transparent.
Trump ran against the Establishment and continues to distrust it. A March 23 report in Politico.com provides a vignette from a July 2017 White House conferences that illustrates the point:
“The postwar, rules-based international order is the greatest gift of the greatest generation,” [Defense Secretary James] Mattis told the president, according to two meeting attendees. The secretary of defense walked the president through the complex fabric of trade deals, military agreements and international alliances that make up the global system the victors established after World War II, touching off what one attendee described as a “food fight” and a “free for all” with the president and the rest of the group. Trump punctuated the session by loudly telling his secretaries of state and defense, at several points during the meeting, “I don’t agree!” The meeting culminated with Tillerson, his now ousted secretary of state, fatefully complaining after the president left the room, that Trump was “a fucking moron.”
Defense Secretary James Mattis appears to be the odd man out in a reconfigured Cabinet that includes CIA Director Mike Pompeo as Tillerson’s replacement and John Bolton as McMaster’s replacement. Gen. Mattis, though, offers the president a reality check. Ambassador Bolton might want to challenge China over Taiwan, but Mattis is there to give the president a frank assessment of the military issues involved.
According to a former senior staffer in the previous Republican administration, Bolton will not press the Taiwan issue to the point of crisis. “Sad as it is, Taiwan is an issue where if China acts, there is little we will be really able to do to stop in in an acute way,” the official said. “Unless Mattis would assure him we can defend Taiwan effectively, he would not commit us to an escalation on this issue.”
Practically speaking, there isn’t much the United States can do about Taiwan, or for that matter about the South China Sea. But there is a great deal that the United States can do in Iran. Last July the former UN ambassador published a plan for exiting the Iran deal that he had prepared for White House strategist Steve Bannon prior to his early August departure. Bolton’s plan is meticulous and nuanced; it seeks to put pressure on the regime but does not propose any form of military action. It includes support for the Iranian opposition and aid to ethnic minorities in conflict with the Islamic regime.
It is too soon to predict how US policy towards Iran will shift, but it seems likely that Bolton’s appointment heralds an activist approach to containing Iran’s regional ambitions in place of Tillerson’s futile round of consultations.