By Arab News
By Baria Alamuddin*
I have spoken to seasoned diplomats who are extremely worried at the prospect of John Bolton’s appointment as US National Security Advisor. When neoconservative warmongers like Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Bolton previously ruled the roost at the White House, they envisaged the Iraq and Afghanistan invasions as only the first phase of “creative chaos” for remodeling the “broader Middle East.” Although their fevered plans were drastically curtailed and ultimately discredited, the current catastrophic state of the region can be largely traced back to this deranged worldview.
Are the war drums about to start beating again?
In 2005, Bolton was appointed as America’s UN ambassador as an avowed enemy of multilateral diplomacy; summed up by his scathing claim that “there is no such thing as the United Nations.” The fact that this assertion has become increasingly accurate is partly due to acts of sabotage by Bolton, who under previous administrations lobbied successfully for the US to refrain from joining the International Criminal Court. Having interviewed Bolton and attended his briefings, I found him single-mindedly dogmatic, yet strikingly uncharismatic. This notorious “bomb thrower” (as he was described by the former boss of Fox News) may encourage Trump’s predilections for cutting support for those multilateral institutions which are supposed to underpin international law and global security, if only superpowers refrained from torpedoing them.
Trump’s foreign policy instincts during 2017 were often held in check by the “adults in the room” — figures like Bolton’s predecessor H.R. McMaster — who were regarded as level-headed advocates of the status quo. However, such advice clashed with Trump’s desire for a radically different approach to previous presidents, and he bristled each time they begged him not to tear up Obama’s Iran deal. Now that the adults have left the building in a stunning succession of departures, the mind boggles as to what the future holds.
With Trump slated to sit down with Kim Jong-un for face-to-face talks, there has never been a more inauspicious time to appoint such a unilateralist hawk. There are no longer any wise advocates of diplomacy whispering in Trump’s ear. A hollowed-out and marginalized State Department has been gutted at all levels through resignations and Rex Tillerson’s purges, with high-level positions vacant for over a year. Even if Trump and Kim do hit it off, this administration lacks the capacity and mentality for the complex negotiations that would ensue. Bolton would not be the only figure itching to derail these talks, pushing Trump toward a military option. For those who doubt where Bolton’s instincts lie, he recently wrote: “It is perfectly legitimate for the United States to respond to the current ‘necessity’ posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons by striking first.”
Those who want to see Iran challenged and contained should not rush to applaud Bolton’s appointment. Bolton was a prominent architect of the 2003 Iraq War, and the consequences of a new regional conflict could be similarly horrific. Make no mistake, Iran’s regime with its third-rate conventional military capacity is hated by its citizens and is all-too-ready to collapse. Yet a botched invasion could further destabilize Central Asia and give rise to even nastier successor regimes, particularly as Bolton and Trump are ideologically opposed to nation-building — leaving us with the consequences of a widening chain of failed states dominated by terrorist warlords all the way from the Mediterranean through into South Asia.
During Barack Obama’s tenure, Bolton repeatedly provoked Israel toward strikes against Iran. However, a conflict directed against Tehran’s proxies in Lebanon and Syria would leave a sizable part of the Arab world as a pile of smoking ruins. The belligerent parties — Iran or Israel — wouldn’t necessarily emerge significantly weaker from such a war, which would be heavily dependent on terrorist proxies and airstrikes across Arab territories. Such a conflict would simply play into the hands of hardliners on both sides.
We instead require a muscular multilateral framework for aggressive containment against Iran. The 2015 nuclear deal failed to address Iran’s ballistic missile program and expansionist regional meddling, which became more unrestrained after Obama’s deal due to the absence of any assertive containment strategy. Iran must face tangible consequences for its sponsorship of terrorist entities and efforts to dominate regional states. Given Bolton and Trump’s shared hostility toward multilateral diplomacy, the prospects of a smart and effective globally-enforced policy of containment toward Iran appear more remote than ever. A case could be made for regime change because the region simply cannot coexist with the malicious expansionism of this theocratic regime; but only if lessons are learnt from the disasters of 2003 and 2011 and nationalist Iranians are supported in eradicating every last trace of this abomination, which has done so much harm across the region.
Trump’s most successful officials are the yes-men who praise every nugget of wisdom coming out of his mouth and pander to his worst instincts. This is not a role the blunt and uncompromising Bolton will be particularly adept at. Bolton has predictably always argued for harsh measures against Moscow, whereas Trump goes out of his way to lavish praise on Vladimir Putin. Bolton described Russia’s meddling in the 2016 US elections in favor of Trump as “an act of war.” Trump’s fondness for asserting that the Iraq invasion was “the single worst decision ever made” and Bolton’s continued dogged defense of this war also make them an odd couple.
However, commentators note that, after a long period in the political wilderness, Bolton will be willing to bite his tongue and avoid confrontation with his new boss; particularly after McMaster’s stiff criticism of Russian meddling earned him a public rebuke and accelerated his departure. As an office-holder with immense responsibilities, he may also want to draw a line under his most inflammatory previous statements and positions. Bolton will probably try and focus on issues where he and Trump see eye-to-eye. For example, both men are comparably hawkish toward China and Venezuela, while superficially sharing the desire to appear tough on North Korea and Iran.
Bolton is the very definition of “hawk” and is one of the most militant figures in US politics. As one academic commented: “He’s never met a country he hasn’t wanted to destroy.” He is also outspokenly anti-Muslim. Bolton’s tendency toward Islamophobic conspiracy theories extended to joking that Obama was a Muslim and in 2012 appearing on a rabidly anti-Muslim radio channel for a debate about how the US administration had been infiltrated by the Muslim Brotherhood. As a regular commentator in the right-wing media, he is a voraciously pro-Israel voice, who stigmatizes the Palestinians as “terrorists” and derides the peace process as a waste of time. Thus by no stretch of the imagination should Bolton be seen as sympathetic to the concerns and challenges facing the Arab world.
Bolton, with his immense mustache, was portrayed by cartoonists as a small aggressive dog who rushed to bite the legs of passers-by. Such mindless and belligerent aggression for the sake of aggression is the last thing our complex and volatile world currently needs. Although Congress lacks a veto over the national security advisor position, senators must prove their readiness to hold the administration to account and halt any tendencies to rush into senseless confrontations. Perhaps the best we can hope for is that Trump rapidly despairs of his new warmonger and Bolton is pushed through the revolving doors of this reality TV White House before he sets off too many firestorms around the world.
*Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.