President Trump’s recently named national security adviser and I have several things in common. He is about my age, wears glasses, and has a mustache and white hair. We are also white males.
Other than that, we have nothing in common. (A dear friend says that at least I can smile once in a while.)
For over 50 years, since his student days at Yale, Bolton has been an outspoken advocate for an aggressive military United States foreign policy. Whether about Vietnam, Iraq, Iran or North Korea, he has favored using America’s muscle. In positions such as United States Ambassador to the United Nations or the State Department’s top arms control official, he has always preached the use of force. “The United States has the hammer, and the world is a board of nails,” might be his motto.
As the New York Times wrote in an editorial: “Yes, John Bolton Is Really That Dangerous.”
Bolton is an unrepentant foreign policy hawk. There are very few multilateral arrangements he would not tear up, such as the Paris climate change accord or the Iran nuclear deal. Even some Republicans shy away from his bellicose positions. Because he could not be confirmed by the Senate under President George W. Bush, he was appointed to be U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. as a recess appointment. Last week, he was appointed national security adviser, a position that also needs no Senate approval. Before this appointment, whenever his name came up for a position in the Trump administration, such as for secretary of state, he was passed over for fear that the Senate would vote negatively.
A former Republican senator from Ohio, George Voinovich, in explaining why he would not vote for Bolton in a previous confirmation hearing, said that he is “an ideologue and fosters an atmosphere of intimidation. He does not tolerate disagreement. He does not tolerate dissent. This is not the behavior that should be endorsed as the face of the United States to the world.”
As President Trump continues to clean house, bringing those closer to his extreme nationalistic vision into his inner circle, Bolton has found his place. The firing of General H.R. McMaster as national security adviser was the perfect opening to allow Bolton to leave Fox News. Bolton has been waiting on the sidelines; now his time has come. He can now speak directly to the president rather than through the intermediary of cable television.
Will the appointment of Bolton make a difference in U.S. foreign policy? Trump has said that he alone makes the major decisions. And there are ample examples, such as agreeing to meet with the president of North Korea with no consultation with his staff before accepting. The national security adviser is an important position in the executive organigram. He or she is supposed to present different opinions from the Pentagon and State Department to the president. The function has been more coordinator than advocate. But Bolton’s history of confrontation and militaristic declarations leave little hope for future American multilateral diplomacy.
The appointment of Bolton will assuage the most virulent right-wing Trump supporters. McMaster and former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson were supposed to be the adults in the room along with Defense Secretary James Mattis; adults in the room in what has been labelled “an adult day-care center” for the childish president. Two of the three adults have now left the inner circle. Mattis is still hanging on although he has said he doubts he can work with Bolton.
Those who know Bolton, as the Times editorial properly suggested, know how dangerous his ideas can be. His support for military action, his disdain for multilateralism and negotiation are well known in the international community. He makes the pugnacious Nikki Haley seem like a wall flower. Bolton has said that if ten stories of the United Nations’ headquarters were to disappear, “it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.”
In my moments of doubt and gloom, a friend reminds me that when the pendulum gets to the bottom it can only go up. The appointment of Bolton is further proof that we are still far from the bottom.