War Stories

John Bolton’s Dream World

With conflicts on the verge of blowing up in Iran, Venezuela, and North Korea, we’re seeing the results of the national security adviser’s imperialist worldview.

National security adviser John Bolton talks to reporters outside the West Wing on May 1 in Washington.
National security adviser John Bolton talks to reporters outside the West Wing on May 1 in Washington.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

After just over a year in office, national security adviser John Bolton finds himself in the world of his dreams: the United States locked in confrontation, in some cases inching close to combat, with an array of geopolitical bad guys, mano a mano (a mano, a mano, a mano), without allies to restrain him.

Not so much a neoconservative (there’s nothing “neo” about him) but rather a hardcore American imperialist, Bolton believes the biggest mistake made by his last boss, President George W. Bush, was failing to push the nation’s post–Cold War advantage to the hilt. One problem with this belief is that America’s moment as “sole superpower,” overrated at the time, is now simply over. And Bolton’s ambitions—which play well to President Donald Trump’s mix of xenophobia and narcissism—are, finally, getting us in a lot of trouble.

Bolton probably thought he was walking into his dream world when Trump named him to the post—which does not require Senate confirmation—on March 22, 2018. He’d spent much of his career—and more to the point, the previous several months, as a pundit on Fox News—calling for a more aggressive foreign policy, including regime change in North Korea and Iran. Trump knew Bolton from those TV appearances and hired him because of these views. In his earlier stints in government, two or three layers of bureaucracy had separated Bolton from the man in charge, who didn’t quite share his opinions anyway. Now, he had good reason to believe, it was game time!

He struck his first triumph in less than two months. Trump had inveighed against President Barack Obama’s Iran nuclear deal ever since the campaign, but his national security team—especially then–Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis—persuaded him to stick with it, not least because the Iranians were (and still are) abiding by its terms. Bolton gave Trump the courage to withdraw from the deal—for no reason whatever, except that he didn’t like it. That allowed the U.S. to reimpose economic sanctions, which had been lifted as part of the deal. Over time, Bolton also convinced Trump to apply “secondary sanctions” on other countries that continued doing business with Iran—and this is what’s squeezing the Iranians now.

In between these steps, Trump formally designated the Iranian Republican Guard Corps, the elite unit of its military, as a “foreign terrorist organization,” the first time the tag—which also carries sanctions—had been applied to a branch of a government.

The Pentagon and the State Department had opposed this move, concerned that the Iranians would use it as an excuse to attack American forces in the region. As predicted, the Iranians responded by declaring U.S. Central Command, which operates throughout the Middle East and Central Asia, a terrorist organization. Now, hammered by the sanctions and secondary sanctions and fearing (with some legitimacy) an impending U.S. attack, Iranian officials have threatened to block traffic in the Strait of Hormuz—a critical chokepoint for international oil shipments—and breaking out of the nuclear deal by kicking out international inspectors and resuming high enrichment of uranium. (They haven’t done any of these things yet; they say only that they might and have the right to.)

As recently as Friday, Pentagon officials said there were no signs of increased hostile action on the part of the Iranian military. Suddenly on Monday, they said there were definitely signs—so much so that Central Command deployed an aircraft carrier and four extra bomber aircraft to the region. (The fact that the carrier had been scheduled for a deployment for months was only quietly acknowledged.)

No details were provided about the nature of these signs, so almost no one believed the claim. But even if details had been provided, and even if the Iranians really were preparing to attack, the claim wouldn’t be widely believed. Here is another sign of Trump’s broader failures: One reason to build good relations with allies is to maintain a working level of trust so that real warnings can be heeded, and real threats averted. At this point, few allies are inclined to take the Trump administration at its word.

In any case, it doesn’t take a cynic to suspect that Trump, Bolton, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (who will do and say whatever he thinks will please the president) are deliberately provoking Iran to take steps that, in normal times, would be seen as a threat to U.S. interests—thus prompting a U.S. military response.

Here is the one area where Trump is working in alignment with allies, though the allies are the leaders of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel, who have long wanted to wage war on Iran and who have never seen a more pliant American president than the present occupant of the White House. As many have observed, the Saudis in particular are keen to fight this war to the last ounce of American soldiers’ blood.

Our more traditional allies will not be with us on this one. They see the Iran nuclear deal as a good thing (as do many intelligence and security officers in the United States and Israel) and view a war with Iran as disruptive to the global economy (and likely to stiffen, not topple, the hard-liners in Tehran). They are also tiring of Trump’s bullying ways. They had no choice but to obey the secondary sanctions on Iran because their economies are interwoven with the dollar-dominated financial system. But Trump’s ploy, along with many other aspects of his policies, has moved many political and financial leaders in Europe and Asia to seek alternate arrangements and alliances outside of Washington’s control.

Closer to home, Bolton has also been keen to take a run at communists in the Western Hemisphere. Last year, in a speech in Miami, he promised to go after the “troika of tyranny,” his term for the leaders of Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua (echoes of Bush’s “axis of evil”). It didn’t catch on—Obama’s entente with Cuba has been fairly popular, even among many children of Cuban exiles in Florida—but the crisis in Venezuela, the rising revolt against President Nicolas Maduro, and the support for his reign from Cuba and Russia changed that.

Here Bolton may have seen a twofer in the works: pounding leftist dictators in the region and maybe pushing Trump off his bromance with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Trump was willing to go along, at least partway, if just for domestic political reasons. He started likening the failed socialism in Venezuela to the socialists coming to prominence in the Democratic Party after the 2018 midterms. Sen. Marco Rubio persuaded him that a hard line toward Maduro could help him retain a hold on Florida’s 27 electoral votes in 2020.

More than that, on objective grounds he had a case: Maduro was a dreadful dictator; Venezuela, once a South American success story, was impoverished; disease and hunger were rampant. And there was a legitimate opposition figure: Juan Guaido, president of the National Assembly, was leading an uprising. At first, the State Department engaged in classic alliance diplomacy, putting together a coalition of democratic governments in the hemisphere—including Canada, Brazil, Colombia, and Peru—to recognize Guaido as the legitimate head of state.

But then Bolton went too far. First, he said in an interview on Fox News that Venezuela’s oil reserves were a major reason for the U.S. to get involved—thus undermining the campaign’s democratic appeal. Then, when Guaido managed to rally some national guardsmen to his side of the looming civil war, Bolton became overexcited and hailed the uprising’s imminent success. But the revolt turned out to be a blip; Maduro’s grip on the military—mainly bought through material bribes and handouts—hadn’t loosened after all.

The other members of the anti-Maduro coalition had made clear to Washington, from the very start, that they had neither the desire nor the resources to send troops to Venezuela; if Bolton had fantasies of U.S. gunboats steaming off the coast of Caracas while regional armies helped local rebels take down the strongman, this wasn’t going to happen. But neither Bolton nor Pompeo, nor certainly Trump, came up with a plan to turn their positions into leverage.

In their 90-minute phone conversation on May 3, Trump and Putin reportedly talked about many subjects, including Venezuela, all in “productive” and “positive” terms, according to the (very limited) readouts from Washington and Moscow. It is not known what they said about Venezuela, but Putin—whose press organs touted the call as a sign of Russia’s global importance and of impending improved relations between the two superpowers—did not seem disturbed.

The fact that, afterward, Trump said Putin told him Russia didn’t want to get involved in Venezuela—when, in fact, it already is very much involved—reveals either Trump’s shallow understanding of the situation, or his tendency to give Putin the benefit of every doubt, or both.

The last piece that Bolton would like to fill in his own axis of evil, and the one that has no doubt vexed him the most, is North Korea. He has clearly been nonplussed by Trump’s infatuation with Kim Jong-un. Last summer he tried to get their first summit called off and nearly succeeded; he played a major role in prodding Trump to walk out of the second summit in February. Still, though, Trump speaks of his great friendship with Chairman Kim and the high hopes he holds for North Korea’s economy.

After failing to stop the first summit, Bolton seemed to sit back, focus his attention on other matters, knowing that at some point the affair would fizzle and the reality—the fact that Kim has been stringing Trump along from the start and has no intention of giving up his nuclear weapons—would become all too obvious, even to Trump. This may be about to happen.

Last week, after an 18-month moratorium, North Korea launched two missiles into the Sea of Japan. Both were short-range—which Pompeo excused, saying that Trump was concerned only about long-range missiles (thereby throwing our allies, Japan and South Korea, under the bus).
However, one of the missiles was a ballistic missile, and testing even short-range models of those is barred by a U.N. Security Council resolution. Trump and Pompeo seem unbothered by that. But how much more will they take?

More is almost certainly coming. Kim is desperate for sanctions to be lifted. Going into the second summit, he thought Trump would lift them in exchange for the shutdown of one reactor—but not the shutdown of any other reactors or the dismantlement (or even itemization) of any nuclear weapons. Not even Trump went for that. Kim, who is less inclined than even Trump to take the blame for failure, dismissed—and may have executed—four members of his negotiating team. His next step may be to ratchet up the threats and tensions. If that involves testing a long-range missile or another nuclear device, who knows what Trump might do? Kim may hope Trump schedules a third summit before that happens. Bolton, who distrusts all arms control treaties in general and believes that a treaty with North Korea is a pipe dream, will certainly do everything he can to forestall that.

As with the other conflicts, Bolton wants tensions to rise to a boil. He wants to close off all avenues short of confrontation—because he believes (he really does believe) that all the other avenues are distractions from the facts of the matter: that these other regimes are our enemies; that our power outweighs theirs immensely; and that, therefore, we must impose our will while we still can.

He no doubt sees himself as a realist, but in fact, he is an exemplar of what the sociologist C. Wright Mills called “crackpot realism,” which he described as “a high-flying moral rhetoric … joined with an opportunist crawling among a great scatter of unfocused fears and demands.” Mills, the author of such best-selling books as The Power Elite and White Collar, often overstated his points, and he had a tendency toward sentimentalizing Castro. But his thoughts on crackpot realists, from his 1960 book The Causes of World War III, are worth reprinting here:

They know of no solutions to the paradoxes of the Middle East and Europe, the Far East and Africa except the landing of Marines. Being baffled, and also being very tired of being baffled, they have come to believe that there is no way out—except war—which would remove all the bewildering paradoxes of their tedious and now misguided attempts to construct peace. In place of these paradoxes they prefer the bright, clear problems of war—as they used to be. For they still believe that “winning” means something, although they never tell us what.

That’s John Bolton—and in certain moods, Donald Trump—in a nutshell.