John Bolton, President Trump’s national security advisor, is leading the United States in a dangerous direction.
In February, it was Bolton who reportedly pressed Trump to take an uncompromising line on denuclearization with North Korea’s Kim Jung Un, leading to a fruitless summit and an escalation of tensions. More recently, Bolton has taunted the Iranian regime, including issuing a dire warning last week of impending U.S. military action. And, closer to home, he has become the point person for the administration’s efforts to oust Nicolás Maduro’s government in Venezuela.
While these may seem like disconnected responses to pressing global events, they are not. Rather, they reflect Bolton’s longstanding grudges against North Korea, Iran and Cuba (Maduro’s patron), and his deeply held beliefs regarding the futility of diplomacy, the benefits of regime change, and the wisdom of military action.
Bolton — an unrepentant champion of the disastrous Iraq war — has never met a rogue state he didn’t want to isolate, topple and attack — and North Korea has long been at the top of his hit list.
In the 1990s, Bolton argued strongly against negotiations to head off North Korea’s fledgling nuclear weapons program. As undersecretary of State for arms control and international security in the George W. Bush administration, Bolton worked to ensure that the 1994 Agreed Framework that froze North Korea’s nuclear efforts was killed at the first opportunity, opening the way for steady advancement of the country’s nuclear program.
On North Korea, Iran and Venezuela, it appears Bolton’s preferences, not Trump’s, are winning out.
Since then, Bolton has regularly opined about the futility of negotiations with Pyongyang and advocated military action and regime change. Indeed, Bolton’s last major op-ed before entering the Trump administration last year made the case for a preventive war against North Korea. Now, advising a president who desperately wants to cut a deal with Kim Jung Un, Bolton has done everything he can to make that deal harder to achieve.
Bolton’s hard line toward Pyongyang is perhaps only surpassed by his fixation on Iran. During a trip to Israel a month before the 2003 Iraq invasion, Bolton told Israeli officials that once Saddam Hussein was dealt with, the United States should turn its sights to Iran. And over the past decade, countless Bolton op-eds, Fox News appearances, and speeches have called for attacking Iran and supporting regime change there. In January 2018, even as international inspectors repeatedly confirmed that Iran was complying with its nuclear obligations, Bolton dismissed the value of the nuclear deal and argued that America’s policy should instead be to end the regime before its 40th anniversary in 2019.
During Trump’s first year in office, national security advisor H.R. McMaster and then-Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis urged the president to remain within the nuclear deal. But once Bolton took up residence in the White House in April 2018, he egged on Trump to jettison the agreement and re-impose crippling sanctions. A month later, Trump obliged.
This February, apparently disappointed that the Iranian regime had made it to its 40th birthday, Bolton posted an ominous video in which he warned Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei: “I don’t think you’ll have many more anniversaries to enjoy.” And last week, in response to alleged intelligence suggesting Iranian proxies might be preparing attacks on U.S. troops, Bolton issued a statement declaring a surge of American military assets to the Middle East and threatening Iran with “unrelenting force.”
In our own hemisphere, Bolton has also championed the Trump administration’s efforts to unseat the Maduro regime in Venezuela. Two weeks ago, as opposition leader Juan Guaidó made a bold bid to rally the Venezuelan military to remove Maduro, Bolton took to Twitter, warning senior Venezuelan officials that “Your time is up. This is your last chance.”
In this instance, Bolton’s bellicosity is mostly a proxy for his longstanding animus toward Cuba. (As far back as 2002, Bolton manipulated intelligence to accuse Cuba of developing biological weapons, while also claiming it was in league with Iran and Libya to threaten U.S. interests.) Today, Bolton sees the Maduro government as Cuba’s cat’s-paw and a conduit for Havana’s influence in Latin America. Maduro’s demise is therefore viewed as a useful means of weakening another nemesis. During a speech in Miami in November, Bolton declared that the Trump administration’s ultimate goal was to confront the “troika of tyranny” in the hemisphere, which includes Cuba alongside Venezuela and Nicaragua.
Given Trump’s stated desire for deal-making and his campaign promises to eschew regime change and new foreign wars, Bolton’s agenda would seem to be very much at odds with that of his boss. Asked about the divide during an impromptu press briefing Thursday, Trump said Bolton “has strong views on things, but that’s OK. I actually temper John, which is pretty amazing, isn’t it?”
Yet, on North Korea, Iran and Venezuela, it appears Bolton’s preferences, not Trump’s, are winning out.
In March 2018, when Trump decided to hire Bolton, he reportedly joked with McMaster that Bolton was “going to get us into a war.” In recent days, he has repeated that warning. But Trump is wrong. If Bolton achieves his longstanding ambitions, he won’t get us into a war — it will be “wars,” plural.
Colin H. Kahl co-directs the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University. Jon B. Wolfsthal is a senior advisor to Global Zero. They both held national security positions in the Obama administration.