(Editor’s note: The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists originally published this article on March 30, 2018 under the title “Three strikes means Bolton should be out.” Given recent events, we thought it worth re-publishing the original 2018 article in its entirety.)
While it might surprise some, there are actually standards of civility in Washington. There is an understanding that to account for unforeseen changes in hierarchies (a subordinate ends up becoming your counterpart or your boss) and for the fact that this town is actually quite small (even a few burnt bridges makes movement impossible), you must treat those around you with respect. There are some DC operators that have never troubled themselves with these standards, however. They assume that their skill and expertise will outweigh any concerns over their impropriety.
Unfortunately, they are usually right. People endure their behavior, because the policy gains make it worthwhile.
In this respect, the case of John Bolton is quite curious. He has a noted reputation as a bully and a penchant for vehemently rejecting ideas that conflict with his own. Perhaps these things could be overlooked in favor of his experience with and knowledge of the government. Except John Bolton’s record of analysis and advice is actually terrible. This becomes even more apparent when it comes to nuclear policy issues. Bolton has been—and continues to be—wrong about Iran, North Korea, and Iraq, and while his past mistakes are readily seen and felt, the details bear repeating.
On Iran. In 2004, Bolton warned that it was only a matter of time before Iran acquired a nuclear weapon, perhaps just three years. Eleven years later, he advocated stopping the Iranian nuclear program, which had yet to produce a nuclear weapon, by bombing its nuclear facilities. This advice came during the closing months of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) negotiations. In January 2018, Bolton, who never served in combat, argued that the United States should push for regime change (likely through a war) in Tehran before 2019.
This is the man who will advise President Trump as he inexplicably marches toward a withdrawal from the Iran Deal, despite repeated certifications from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that Iran is in compliance with the multilateral agreement. The next deadline for waving targeted sanctions against Iran—part of the US commitment under the JCPOA—is May 12, and President Trump has indicated that he will reimpose sanctions unless wildly unrealistic changes are made to the agreement. This decision will likely bring about the end of the agreement and the cessation of the unprecedented restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program.
But with Bolton in the West Wing, this will be only the beginning. Throughout his career, Bolton has consistently argued that the best approach to dealing with Iran’s destabilizing behavior is war. It is hard to find many national security experts on either end of the political spectrum who think another war in the Middle East would serve America’s interest.
On North Korea. President Trump has wavered between full-on military threats against North Korea and, most recently, agreeing to a potential summit with North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un. While analysts have largely welcomed the potential for a diplomatic breakthrough, there has also been simultaneous concern that the possible summit could backfire and subsequently increase the chances of war.
With the appointment of Bolton, the chances of a diplomatic blow-up are higher than before. As the under secretary for arms control and international security, Bolton played an instrumental role in the destruction of the 1994 Agreed Framework between the United States and North Korea. That agreement, while not perfect, successfully limited North Korea’s production of plutonium for about eight years.
Nonetheless, intelligence assessments began to conclude that North Korea was developing a separate enriched uranium program. But instead of using the leverage of the Agreed Framework to attempt to diplomatically resolve the issue, the Bush Administration, with heavy input from John Bolton, chose to leave the agreement altogether. Bolton himself wrote, “This was the hammer I had been looking for to shatter the Agreed Framework.”
That revealing quote highlights Bolton’s aversion to talks with Pyongyang and perhaps to diplomacy in general. Just last year, he wrote that negotiations with North Korea “legitimize the dictatorship, affording it more time to enhance its nuclear and ballistic-missile capabilities.” And while he has called for the Trump-Kim summit to happen as soon as possible, there are concerns that he is simply interested in expediting what he hopes will be a failed negotiation that leads to his preferred – and he contends unavoidable – approach: a war with North Korea. Again, it is hard to find many national security experts on either end of the political spectrum that think a war with a nuclear-armed state (one that doesn’t even need its nuclear weapons to inflict untold horror on our allies) would serve America’s interest.
On Iraq. Bolton’s most egregious lapse in judgment relates to the disastrous war in Iraq. Bolton was a leading architect of the Iraq War. His politicization of intelligence leading up to the start of the conflict in 2003 is notorious. Despite having access to assessments that challenged the notion that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, Bolton still pushed for war. The United States has now been in Iraq for 15 years at a cost of over a trillion dollars. In that time, 4,424 Americans have lost their lives in Operation Iraqi Freedom and 31,957 more have been injured. Estimates put the total Iraqi death toll at 288,000. Zero evidence of an active WMD program was ever found.
Beginning in his presidential campaign, President Trump promised an “America First” foreign policy that would not waste money on unnecessary and intractable foreign wars. He asserted that he had always opposed the invasion of Iraq, despite evidence to the contrary. As recently as March of this year, he described the war as “the single worst decision ever made.”
A few weeks later, President Trump appointed Bolton, an Iraq War cheerleader, as the assistant to the president for national security affairs, the position commonly referred to as thenational security adviser. It is unclear how Bolton’s unwaveringly hawkish views will blend with the President’s isolationist tendencies. Shortly after the announcement, there were even conflicting reports about whether Bolton promised President Trump that “he wouldn’t start any wars.”
The real confusing issue is why the President wanted an adviser who has been wrong so many times. For anyone counting, it’s clear that Bolton has had at least three strikes when it comes to giving nuclear policy advice. When it comes to the very serious game of foreign policy, he should be “out.”
President Trump decided otherwise. Now we are faced with a situation in which the fate of US national security may rely on the president of the United States ignoring the advice of his national security adviser.