You underestimate John Bolton at your peril.
Remember when he was passed over for the job of secretary of state because, we were told, Donald Trump didn’t like his “brush-like mustache“? How we laughed. Yet less than 18 months later, after regular appearances on the Fox News casting couch, he was appointed national security adviser, with an office around the corner from the president’s.
Remember when Defense Secretary James Mattis met with the new national security adviser on the steps of the Pentagon and joked that he was the “devil incarnate”? Mattis is gone. Bolton is still standing.
Remember when White House chief of staff John Kelly got into a “heated, profanity-laced shouting match” with Bolton, over immigration, right outside the Oval Office? Kelly is gone. Bolton is still standing.
Remember when Trump announced that the 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria were “all coming back, and they’re coming back now,” only a few weeks after Bolton had said they would be staying until all Iranian troops and proxies left the country? We were told that Bolton had been ignored, overruled, sidelined even. Not quite. Earlier this month, on a visit to Israel, the national security adviser confirmed that there was no timetable for pulling out the troops and it all would depend on the Turkish government guaranteeing the safety of U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters. “John Bolton puts brakes on Trump withdrawal from Syria,” read a headline in the Financial Times.
Trump’s national security adviser is a hard man to keep down.
In 2003, Bolton got the war he wanted with Iraq. As an influential, high-profile, hawkish member of the Bush administration, Bolton put pressure on intelligence analysts, threatened international officials, and told barefaced lies about weapons of mass destruction. He has never regretted his support for the illegal and catastrophic invasion of Iraq, which killed hundreds of thousands of people.
Now, he wants a war with Iran. So say State Department and Pentagon officials, according to the Wall Street Journal, who were “rattled” by his request to the Pentagon “to provide the White House with military options to strike Iran last year.” The New York Times also reported that “senior Pentagon officials are voicing deepening fears” that Bolton “could precipitate a conflict with Iran.”
Should we be surprised? In March 2015, Bolton, then a private citizen, wrote an op-ed for the New York Times headlined, “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran.” In July 2017, just eight months prior to joining the Trump administration, Bolton told a gathering of the cultish Iranian exile group Mujahedin-e-Khalq that “the declared policy of the United States of America should be the overthrow of the mullahs’ regime in Tehran” and that “before 2019, we here will celebrate in Tehran.”
Despite leaks to the press over the past few days from “rattled” but unnamed officials at the State Department and the Pentagon, Bolton is far from the only person close to Trump who is pushing a belligerent line on Iran. He has plenty of allies in the administration. As Vox reported on Monday, “Bolton has staffed up the NSC with people who share his views. Last week, he hired Richard Goldberg, a noted Iran hawk, to run the administration’s pressure campaign against the country.”
Outside of the Bolton-dominated National Security Council, there’s also the hawkish Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who once suggested launching “2,000 sorties to destroy the Iranian nuclear capacity.” As I noted last week, in his recent speech on Middle East policy in Cairo, Pompeo made more than 20 references to “malevolent,” “oppressive” Iran and denounced “Iranian expansion” and “regional destruction,” while giving Saudi Arabia a big wet kiss. “Countries increasingly understand that we must confront the ayatollahs, not coddle them,” he declared. Pompeo then told Fox News, before leaving Cairo, that the United States would be hosting an international summit on Iran in Poland next month.
So how do these hawks plan to get their war with Tehran? Bolton, in particular, seems keen on two lines of attack. The first relates to the nuclear issue. “We have little doubt that Iran’s leadership is still strategically committed to achieving deliverable nuclear weapons,” the national security adviser told fellow Iran-hater Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem earlier this month. There is, however, not a shred of evidence for Bolton’s claim; in fact, the U.S. intelligence community has flatly and repeatedly rejected it. “We do not know whether Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons,” said Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, in his 2017 “Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community.”
The second line of attack relates to the activities of Tehran-backed groups in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. According to the New York Times, Bolton’s request for military options against Iran “came after Iranian-backed militants fired three mortars or rockets into an empty lot on the grounds of the United States Embassy in Baghdad in September.” To be clear: No one was killed or injured in this attack.
Also, how far does this retaliatory logic extend? The United States has been accused of supporting extremist, anti-government groups in Iran, as well as Israeli strikes on Iranian positions in Syria; does this mean that the Iranians have a right to launch retaliatory air strikes on U.S. soil? Do the Cubans have the right to bomb Miami, where a number of U.S.-supported anti-Castro groups reside and operate?
Logic, however, has never been Bolton’s strong suit. He is an ideologue. “It is a big mistake,” he once declaimed, “for us to grant any validity to international law even when it may seem in our short-term interest to do so — because, over the long term, the goal of those who think that international law really means anything are those who want to constrict the United States.”
To hell with international law. And the International Criminal Court. And civilian lives. The bellicose Bolton is going to spend much of 2019 making the case, both in public and in private, for war with Iran — a war that would make the invasion of Iraq look like a walk in the park. This is what makes the mustachioed national security adviser, with an office down the hallway from Trump, the most dangerous member of this reckless administration.
Devil incarnate? Perhaps that was an understatement.