Looking at the escalating (US-created) crisis with Iran, one thing I realize is that a lot of people do not quite know who John Bolton is. They assume – rightly – that anyone in the Trump orbit must be either a moral weakling, a crazy person or someone with one foot out the door. All true. But John Bolton is a unique and uniquely dangerous character.
To give some perspective, back during George W. Bush’s second term, Bush nominated Bolton to serve as UN Ambassador. That was in 2006 and with a GOP majority in the Senate. Bolton was seen as so manifestly ill-suited to the position that he couldn’t get confirmed. He had to settle for a pity recess appointment.
All respect to the UN and the UN Ambassadorship. But it is of course a vastly less consequential position than Defense Secretary or CIA Chief or National Security Advisor. Bolton couldn’t even get confirmed in a Republican Senate for the simple reason that he was just too big a warmonger to be a safe pick even for UN Ambassador.
Bolton is a caricature of a militarist and warmonger. He is sometimes classed with the so-called “neo-conservatives” who played the central role getting the country into the Iraq War. This isn’t really correct, either in classification or historical terms. For all their shortcomings many of the leading neoconservative policy hands and intellectuals were big on democracy promotion – often in foolish ways, usually only when it was convenient and mainly in Europe. But this is at least part of the worldview. (If you think I have a sympathetic or rosy-eyed view of these folks, I do not. Read this article from the eve of the Iraq War to get a sense of that.) Bolton doesn’t come from that worldview, as limited and as disastrous as it has proven. In really every context he is for hard US dominance, unilateralism and war as the preferred course of action. Again, he’s really the caricature of a militarist, the kind of one-dimensional, clownishly hawkish type who gets described in small circulation left-wing magazines but can’t possibly exist in real life, only he does exist and his name is John Bolton.
The second point is equally important. He’s no fool. He’s a very bright guy. And – critically important – he’s a master of bureaucratic politics. The main failing of the top Trumpers is that they are mostly ill-prepared clowns. Ill-prepared clowns can do immense damage. But there have been numerous instances in the last couple years in which big Trump administration initiatives got derailed or delayed simply because of bad lawyering or bureaucratic ineptitude. There are lots of examples of that on the immigration front, for instance.
John Bolton is not the type to make those kinds of mistakes or allow his directives to get sidelined or forgotten in the federal bureaucracy. Being a smart bureaucratic player sounds like an insidery thing. But it’s immensely important in getting what you want out of the sprawling federal bureaucracy whether that’s on the immigration front or in national security and war-fighting. When that is combined to the almost total power of President Trump’s National Security Advisor (uniquely empowered, even in the context of recent presidencies) that makes for tremendous power and in Bolton’s case tremendous power to do awful things.
As I said earlier, there’s really no one left in the Trump national security world to say no to him or ignore intemperate orders. But there is Bolton who is precisely the kind of person who to goad the President into issuing such orders. He’s also precisely the kind of player who would architect together a series of fait accompli that would deprive Trump over much choice of the matter. What seems to have been happening over the last year is that Bolton has been trying to push Iran into a corner and force a military confrontation. That hasn’t worked. So now they appear to be cooking up ‘threats’ from Iran to force the confrontation they’ve been unable to force to date. (I suspect the ‘threats’ are just the garden variety background noise of intelligence, now churned up to provide a pretext for escalation.) Bolton is also highly political in the partisan sense. It would not surprise me in the least if he is pushing Trump on the idea that a war or limited military engagement with Iran would ensure his reelection next year.
Bolton is that bad – a comically caricatured militarist, an extremely effective and smart bureaucratic player and entirely capable of lying the country into war or playing on the enthusiasms and insecurities of an ignorant President.