H.R. McMaster out, John Bolton inOn March 26, 2018 by Zander
IN PROFESSIONAL wrestling, a fake form of combat mistaken for the real thing by some fans, a “carpenter” is a skilled wrestler of middling fame, whose job is to make rising stars look strong and intimidating.
Remember that jargon—and President Donald Trump’s long-standing love of professional wrestling—when trying to understand the seemingly bizarre appointment of John Bolton as the third national security adviser of the Trump administration, replacing Lieutenant-General H.R. McMaster, a hard-charging army officer and intellectual who rubbed his president up the wrong way.
Judged as an act of high statecraft, the appointment is one to furrow brows in capitals worldwide. Mr Bolton, a former ambassador to the United Nations under George W. Bush, is a ferocious war hawk who is one of the few men in public life still willing to defend the Iraq invasion of 2003. He is an implacable critic of President Vladimir Putin and gleeful fan of the NATO military alliance. In an op-ed for The Hill in February Mr Bolton called for a “decidedly disproportionate” cyber campaign on Russia, right here and right now, in retaliation for what is already known about Russian subversion and attacks on the 2016 presidential elections. He further urged the White House to get Mr Putin’s attention by letting Russia’s president “hear the rumble of artillery and NATO tank tracks conducting more joint field exercises with Ukraine’s military.” He urged similarly robust American muscle-flexing in the Middle East to push back against “Russia’s probes” in that region, including what he scorned as Mr Putin’s propping up of Bashar Assad’s dictatorship in Syria.
Mr Bolton believes to his bones that Mr Putin is a liar and that Russia cannot be trusted, any more than China can, or Iran or North Korea or a long list of foes who he believes need to take seriously the possibility that America might reduce their cities to dust. Contemplating the recent rapprochement between North and South Korea during the Winter Olympics, Mr Bolton cleared his throat, cracked his knuckles and cranked out a treatise in the Wall Street Journal entitled “The Legal Case for Striking North Korea First”, making an argument for a preventive strike on the Stalinist north, before it perfects missiles that can hit American cities.
In contrast, Mr Trump is a blustering showman who would always rather cut a deal than fight a war, and who calls the invasion of Iraq “the single worst decision ever made”, akin to “throwing a big fat brick into a hornet’s nest”. Mr Trump has repeatedly grumbled about the costs of NATO and suggested that America’s defensive alliances with its members are conditional on their paying more for their own defence.
Mr Trump is the man who, though he talks of raining down fire and fury on North Korea, also impulsively accepted an apparent suggestion to meet the North’s leader Kim Jong Un, as soon as April. This week Mr Trump not only congratulated Mr Putin on his re-election as president, reportedly against the pleading of his own advisers, but during that call failed to rebuke the Russian leader for election-meddling. America’s president also declined to raise Russia’s alleged use of a deadly nerve agent in a British country town to try to murder a former KGB spy—an act of Trumpian reticence that horrified the British government.
In a pair of defensive tweets on March 21st, Mr Trump declared: “I called President Putin of Russia to congratulate him on his election victory (in past, Obama called him also). The Fake News Media is crazed because they wanted me to excoriate him. They are wrong! Getting along with Russia (and others) is a good thing, not a bad thing. They can help solve problems with North Korea, Syria, Ukraine, ISIS, Iran and even the coming Arms Race. Bush tried to get along, but didn’t have the “smarts.” Obama and Clinton tried, but didn’t have the energy or chemistry (remember RESET). PEACE THROUGH STRENGTH!”
How could the man who tweeted out those words hire Mr Bolton? Part of the answer lies in Mr Trump’s love for spangly-costumed wrestlers, with their staged fights and feuds. Mr Bolton is being hired as a carpenter. His unfeigned hawkishness is to be deployed to make Mr Trump, the rising star, look strong and intimidating.
Part of the answer is that Mr Bolton is also an ambitious conservative partisan, who badly wanted this job. In that February article in The Hill, he twisted himself into knots to hail the special counsel, Robert Mueller, for “powerfully” making the case in an indictment against 13 Russians and three Russian internet outfits that online saboteurs were used to sow discord among voters in the election of 2016. Yet he then somehow managed to find that “the safest conclusion based on currently available public information is that Russia did not intend to advantage or disadvantage any particular candidate.” This despite the evidence laid out in Mr Mueller’s indictment, quoting Russian bosses ordering Russian saboteurs to work harder to help Mr Trump and harm his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton. This despite Mr Mueller’s uncovering of emails from Russians hiring unwitting American conservatives to dress up as Mrs Clinton in a prison jumpsuit and ride to a political rally in a mock prison-cell.
To those two cynical explanations for Mr Bolton’s hiring, a more heartfelt one can be added. And it is this last explanation that frightens America’s allies the most. For all their obvious differences, Mr Trump and Mr Bolton do agree on one big thing about the world: that it is nasty, dangerous and full of foreign foes ready to jump on any sign of American weakness. Mr Bolton may be more respectful of post-war alliances than Mr Trump, who thinks that magnanimity is for losers. But the two men are as one in thinking that Barack Obama was a chump and a knave when he extended a wary hand of friendship to America’s foes—notably when he agreed to lift sanctions on Iran in exchange for a freeze on Iranian nuclear activities. Given the choice, both Mr Trump and his new national security adviser would rather be feared than loved.
That could have consequences very soon. Under American law Mr Trump must endorse the Iran nuclear freeze brokered by Mr Obama and other world powers every few months, or walk away from it. The next deadline falls in May. Mr Trump calls it a “terrible” agreement that expires in several years’ time and that fails to rein in Iranian missile programmes and broader mischief-making in the Middle East. Other signatories to the deal, led by Britain, France and Germany, have all warned America that Iran is in technical compliance with the nuclear freeze that lies at the heart of the agreement. Those allies could imagine side agreements opposing missile work and even declaring that the signatories do not intend to allow Iran to resume nuclear work. But they see no legal grounds for reneging on the pact or for unilaterally declaring it indefinite.
Alas for Western unity, Mr Trump just sacked his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, who was a prominent advocate for preserving the Iran deal. The next secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, is an Iran hawk. Mr Bolton is an Iran hawk. That leaves just James Mattis, the defence secretary and last sober voice of reason in the president’s inner circle, to make the case that fixing the Iran deal is a better idea than blowing it up.
To that urgent crisis add one last worry: Mr Bolton’s record as a much-feared, much-disliked manager when he was ambassador to the United Nations. For the job of heading the National Security Council is one of the most important in the American government. The national security adviser acts as an honest broker in disputes between such power centres as the Pentagon, State Department and CIA, as a trusted intermediary with foreign governments and as a filter, ensuring that only the most important decisions reach the president’s desk, and that they arrive there accompanied by the highest-quality intelligence and analysis.
Mr Trump, of course, has shown that he does not care. He boasts of liking drama and conflict in his inner circle, though he is less keen on being reined in and actively hates it when aides correct him in any way that makes him feel slighted. He is the star. Chafing at mixed reviews for his foreign policy, he has hired a war hawk who will make him look tough. Hope that this is more showmanship, and that Mr Bolton’s belligerent instincts will not have full rein. But anything is possible now.