Bolton pick underscores Trump’s foreign policy confusion
For the Donald Trump who preaches an “America First” foreign policy with little patience for international treaties and organizations, John Bolton is a logical choice for national security adviser. The former United Nations ambassador has said the United Nations could lose 10 stories without anyone noticing and calls for ripping up the seven-nation Iran nuclear deal.
For the Donald Trump who as a 2016 candidate savaged supporters of the Iraq War and other Middle East military actions, Bolton is a major head-scratcher. He was a champion of George W. Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq — a decision he partially defends to this day — and in recent years has also endorsed military action and regime change in Iran, Syria and Libya.
The result is growing confusion about what Trump’s foreign policy views really are — and whether the president himself even knows what he thinks about the use of American military power.
“[L]ife is complicated in the Middle East. When you say the overthrow of Saddam Hussein was a mistake, it’s simplistic” — John Bolton
“Trump says he wants a team that aligns with his views. How does the neocon of neocons — of the most aggressive and ruthless persuasion — align with a man who condemned our international overextension during his campaign?” asked Loren DeJonge Schulman, who served as a senior aide to former President Barack Obama’s national security adviser, Susan Rice.
“It is a very odd choice for someone who says he was against going to war in Iraq,” said Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, a center of Republican foreign policy scholarship who served as a senior adviser to the U.S. government in Iraq during the George W. Bush administration. “It is a damn strange pick.”
As recently as March 4, Trump called the invasion of Iraq “the single worst decision ever made.”
Appearing on Fox News three days later, Bolton fended off host Tucker Carlson’s critique of the Iraq War, saying: “[L]ife is complicated in the Middle East. When you say the overthrow of Saddam Hussein was a mistake, it’s simplistic.”
As a candidate in 2016, Trump vowed that the U.S. would “stop racing to topple foreign regimes.” In January, Bolton wrote that “America’s declared policy should be ending Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution before its 40th anniversary.”
Even as CNN reported Thursday night that Trump had told Bolton to promise him that “you won’t start any wars,” Democrats and foreign policy experts said they feared that Bolton might teach Trump to grow more comfortable with military action.
“I am concerned he and President Trump will make for a combustible combination,” the ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), said in a statement.
To be sure, Trump’s foreign policy views have always been somewhat fungible. Before he campaigned against past U.S. military action in Iraq and Libya, he made public statements expressing support for both actions. And only months after his inauguration, Trump unexpectedly ordered cruise missile strikes against Syria.
Bolton’s defenders say fears that he is a dangerous warmonger are overblown. His decades of government experience and what they call a rigorous intellect honed at Yale Law School make him well-suited to counsel an inexperienced president, they say.
Eric Edelman, who served as undersecretary of defense in the Bush administration and worked closely with Bolton, said he doesn’t believe that Bolton is as extreme as he often sounds.
“He says things on Fox News that are more far out than where I think John Bolton really is,” Edelman told POLITICO.
Despite major differences on Iraq and the wisdom of U.S. regime change policies, Trump and Bolton do relish defying Washington foreign policy orthodoxy on several key issues.
In one recent article, Bolton argued for why the United States has the legal authority to launch a preemptive strike on North Korea.
“Given the gaps in U.S. intelligence about North Korea, we should not wait until the very last minute,” he wrote for the conservative American Enterprise Institute, where he has been a researcher for years. “That would risk striking after the North has deliverable nuclear weapons, a much more dangerous situation.
Trump has warned North Korea he is prepared to “totally destroy” the country, and his advisers have studied the possibility of striking first to prevent it from developing an ICBM capable of hitting the U.S. with a nuclear warhead.
In a January Wall Street Journal opinion article, Bolton called for for terminating the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Trump has called that agreement “the worst deal ever” and chafed at efforts by McMaster and his departing secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, to persuade him to preserve it.
When it comes to perhaps the most sensitive issue of all for Trump — Russia — Bolton has echoed Trump’s charges that Obama officials politicized intelligence to smear Trump as a tool of the Kremlin. In one late 2016 Fox News interview, Bolton even suggested that the hacking of Democratic emails may have been a “false flag” operation staged by the Obama administration. (He later clarified that he did not mean to imply that the Obama administration had planted the evidence.)
“I don’t think the president has a very coherent view of the world” — Eric Edelman, undersecretary of defense in the Bush administration
But while Trump has shown an eagerness to befriend Russian President Vladimir Putin, Bolton has depicted the Russian leader as a menace who cannot be trusted. In one July 2017 op-ed, Bolton declared that Putin had lied to Trump in a face-to-face meeting when the Russian leader denied that his government had meddled in the U.S. election. Bolton called an action “a true act of war, and one Washington will never tolerate.”
“For Trump, it should be a highly salutary lesson about the character of Russia’s leadership to watch Putin lie to him,” Bolton added, calling it a “warning about the value Moscow places on honesty, whether regarding election interference, nuclear proliferation, arms control or the Middle East: negotiate with Russia at your peril.”
On Tuesday, Trump told reporters that he had called Putin to congratulate his Kremlin counterpart on an election victory that was widely dismissed as anti-democratic. He added that he hopes to meet with Putin soon to discuss a range of issues — including arms control and the Middle East.
Asked to explain the wide differences between many of Bolton’s views and those of the president, Edelman had a simple answer.
“I don’t think the president has a very coherent view of the world,” he said.
Wesley Morgan and Connor O’Brien contributed reporting.