There are hawks and then there is John Bolton. The combative 69-year-old will be the third National Security Adviser in 14 months after US President Donald Trump decided it was time for Lt Gen HR McMaster to ride off into the sunset.
In turn, McMaster had replaced Lt Gen Michael Flynn, who was sacked after less than a month in the job for “misleading the White House” about a conversation with then Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
Flynn has since pleaded guilty to making a false statement to the Federal Bureau of Investigation and is cooperating with Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election.
But while they were both controversial choices, Bolton’s appointment has created a frenzy in Washington and, probably, consternation in Tehran, Pyongyang, Beijing and Moscow.
A battle-hardened veteran of foreign policy, he has served in the administrations of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. He is also a committed neo-conservative and played a key role in the decision by the US and its allies to invade Iraq in 2003.
“John has never been a tough-talker when he knows he can’t follow through,” a former senior official in the first Bush administration told Asia Times. “He is not a poker player, but very much a straight-shooter sort of guy.
“He would also not say something is ‘unacceptable’ or draw a red line unless he had a plan to stop it,” the former official added.
Easy to pick out with his trademark walrus mustache, Bolton used to have a defused hand grenade on his desk at the State Department during the George W Bush administration. He would also throw more than few verbal bombs with his rhetoric.
In his 2007 memoir, Surrender Is Not An Option, he heavily criticized Iran, North Korea, the United Nations, European governments and international treaties.
Four years earlier, on the eve of six-nation talks about Pyongyang’s nuclear program, he branded then North Korean leader Kim Jong-il a “tyrannical dictator” in a speech in Seoul. Pyongyang responded by calling him “human scum.”
Abrasive with an “in-your-face” approach to politics and diplomacy, Bolton has made it clear on numerous opinion pieces that he stands by the invasion of Iraq, even though it was based on flawed intelligence of weapons of mass destruction, as well as advocating using military force against North Korea and Iran.
With him as National Security Adviser and Mike Pompeo taking over as the new US Secretary of State, President Trump’s administration has two major opponents of the Iran deal. This is where progress could be made, according to political analysts.
But while he will hang tough with China about Pyongyang’s nuclear threat, he will also move to rein in Beijing’s growing military presence in the Asia region, particularly in the South China Sea, a former colleague pointed out. Taiwan will also be high on his agenda.
“He has long supported regime change in North Korea and closer ties with Taiwan. Fasten your seatbelts,” Bonnie Glaser, Asia expert at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, told the media.
Bolton has certainly made his views on Taiwan perfectly clear. They also mirror President Trump’s policy that the ‘One-China Policy’ advocated by Beijing needs to be revised by forging a closer military relationship with the disputed island.
Beyond that, he is likely to focus on a COCOM-inspired effort to curb “dangerous intrusions” by the world’s second-largest economy into key sectors and areas, as well a beefing up support for allies in the region such as Japan and South Korea.
Tensions are already rising over relations with China after President Trump ramped up trade sanctions on Friday, fueling anger in the country’s state-owned media.
“We should expect an even more confrontational approach to China – a trade war may just be the beginning of a broader geopolitical competition,” Abraham Denmark, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence for East Asia under former President Barack Obama, told the press.
The news of Bolton’s appointment came after a meeting he had with President Trump in the Oval Office. Even the arch provocateur was caught by surprise. “I didn’t really expect an announcement this afternoon, but it’s obviously a great honor,” he told Fox News. “I’m still getting used to it.”
Naturally, the decision has produced a mixed response from the US Congress.
“This is not a wise choice. Mr. Bolton does not have the temperament or judgment to be an effective National Security Adviser,” Jack Reed, a Democratic senator, said in a statement.
Others were delighted by the move. “[This is] good news for America’s allies and bad news for America’s enemies,” Lindsay Graham, a Republican senator, said.
Still, controversy was Bolton’s close companion when he stalked the corridors of power in the White House during the 1980s, the 90s and early years of the 21st century.
Series of tweets
Even after leaving the inner-circle of government, his comments raised eyebrows in Washington and abroad.
In a series of tweets on Iran, Bolton said on Jan. 29: “The #Irannucleardeal was a strategic mistake in 2015. This deal needs to be abrogated and America must craft a new reality that reflects the actions of the Iranian regime.”
Russia has also been a target. “There needs to be a strategic response to Russia’s new nuclear missiles to show our allies in Europe that we will not let #Russia push the US or its allies around,” he said on March 2. On Jan. 24, he tweeted: “Washington and its allies do not need more #Russian adventurism in #MiddleEast, especially given the Moscow-Tehran-Damascus-Hezbollah axis.”
Significantly, Bolton was scathing of former President Barack Obama’s attempt to deal with Tehran’s nuclear program.
Writing in the ‘New York Times’ in 2015, he stressed that only bombing by the US and Israel would take out Tehran’s uranium-enrichment installations and prevent disaster.
Ten years earlier, he had caused more than a few ripples after being appointed the US ambassador to the United Nations. On one occasion, he concluded with a deadpan look that if the 38-floor UN building in New York “lost 10 stories, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.”
But, perhaps, his most alarming remark came when he dryly insisted “there is no” United Nations. “There is an international community that occasionally can be led by the only real power left in the world, and that’s the United States when it suits our interests.”
By reinventing the word, ‘blunt’, the hawk has found a new perch to parrot his global philosophy … just a stone’s throw from the White House lawn.