John Bolton’s Wars
By William McGurn
The Wall Street Journal Aug. 6, 2019
What do the Iranian regime, the New York Times and Sen. Rand Paul have in common?
(By the haters National Security Advisor John Bolton has attracted – Iran, Russia, China, Venezuela, the New York Times and Senator Rand Paul– John Bolton must be one super military advisor for our side!)
“I believe Mr. Trump does not seek war. But Mr. Bolton and Netanyahu have always sought war.” Thus spoke Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, at a Monday press conference in Tehran.
It’s not the first time Mr. Zarif has tried to drive a wedge between President Trump and his national security adviser, John Bolton—or between the president and his most steadfast international ally, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But for Mr. Bolton, Mr. Zarif implies, we could have peace in the Middle East tomorrow.
Iran’s foreign minister has plenty of support for his argument. Scarcely a week goes by without some article warning the president that Mr. Bolton is leading him to war. The same folks who pound the president for being soft on the world’s worst thugs then oddly side with the thugs against the White House official who takes them on.
There can be no doubting Mr. Bolton’s unpopularity in Dictatorsville. The North Koreans blame Mr. Bolton (along with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo) for the “atmosphere of hostility and mistrust” that fouled the Hanoi summit in February.
In Moscow last year, Vladimir Putin asked Mr. Bolton whether he’d removed the olive branches on the American seal.
Venezuela’s besieged dictator, Nicolás Maduro, charges Mr. Bolton with trying to have him assassinated. Cuba’s foreign minister calls Mr. Bolton a “pathological liar” for accusing the Communist island of fomenting revolution in South America.
China denounces him for slander for saying Beijing’s behavior toward its Southeast Asian neighbors threatens peace. Along with the New York Times and the Rand Paul/Pat Buchanan axis of the Republican Party, the dictators would all love to see Mr. Bolton run out of the West Wing.
But if war isn’t what’s guiding Mr. Bolton, what is? At bottom it’s the conviction that diplomacy and multilateral organizations are fine—as long as they serve American interests. In the Bolton version, America First means the U.S. Constitution takes precedence over the U.N. Charter.
For all the talk about Mr. Bolton’s wish to go to war with Iran, the actual policy has been more limited: pulling out of a bad nuclear deal, applying economic sanctions, isolating Tehran diplomatically, designating the Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization and, more recently, building a coalition to protect oil tankers in the Persian Gulf from Iranian aggression.
One way of interpreting Mr. Zarif’s increasing complaints is as an admission that Iran’s regime is feeling the pinch—and that it longs for the days when it was dealing with the malleable (read – “stupid” ) John Kerry.
Ditto for North Korea. Before joining the administration, Mr. Bolton wrote a piece on these pages called “The Legal Case for Striking North Korea First,” so naturally his critics assume that’s the game plan. But again the actual policy has been maximum pressure short of war, along with summits.
Notwithstanding Mr. Trump’s skepticism about using massive military force, moreover, surely he would side with Mr. Bolton over Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who announced a no-first-use nuclear policy during the last Democratic debate. In practice this would entail a willingness to sacrifice Los Angeles or Chicago to a nuclear strike before responding in kind.
It’s true that the Trump-Bolton relationship has its bumps. A recent Axios profile relayed an anecdote from the Irish prime minister’s St. Patrick’s Day visit to the Oval Office. “John,” Mr. Trump asked his national security adviser, “is Ireland one of those countries you want to invade?”
But the article didn’t report Mr. Bolton’s rejoinder, which suggests a healthy give and take: “It’s still early in the day, Mr. President.”
Plainly Mr. Bolton is aware that he’s more hawkish than his president. But plainly, too, Mr. Trump finds his national security chief useful. One reason might be that—unlike so many others, even within the Trump administration—Mr. Bolton knows who makes the decisions and doesn’t regard the president as stupid.
In making his case to his boss, Mr. Bolton emphasizes both U.S. interests and Mr. Trump’s instincts. Sometimes it works, sometimes not.
But the idea that a warmonger is leading an unsuspecting president around by the nose is ridiculous. Mr. Trump was elected on a platform that rejected both what he called the “endless wars” of the George W. Bush era and the pusillanimity of the Obama years. Could it be the president appreciates having around him a national security adviser who puts the fear of God into America’s enemies?
Meanwhile the critics carp, from the right as well as left. “I fear that he’s a malignancy, a malignant influence on the administration,” said Sen. Rand Paul, speaking for the right-wing claque of those who regard Mr. Bolton as a warmonger. While over on the left the New York Times publishes pieces such as “Yes, John Bolton Really Is That Dangerous.”
Which is pretty much the same complaint from the autocrats in Caracas, Moscow and Tehran (and all of the above).
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