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John Bolton: ‘The Devil Incarnate’ Of US Foreign Policy? – Analysis


Upon meeting US National Security Advisor John Bolton for the first time, then Secretary of Defense James Mattis told him that that he had heard that he is “the devil incarnate”.

While this may have been a joke at the time, Bolton, if not the devil – is a clear and present danger to Trump’s aversion to involvement in more foreign military adventures. 

Bolton is a nationalist ideologue. He is very cunning and persistent in pursuing his objectives.  His influence is growing and that is showing.  He is smart enough not to take on Trump directly on issues. Indeed, his public mantra is that “he is the National Security Advisor not the Decider“.  Despite this false modesty, he apparently helped undermine Trump’s attempts at diplomacy with North Korea and appears to be driving– by default – the current provocative US policy and actions vis a vis Venezuela and Iran. 

Hi predictions were well known. But not many thought Bolton could become so influential so fast. They thought he would be balanced by more moderate officials like Mattis and then Chief of Staff John Kelly with whom Bolton soon publicly clashed.  Mattis seemed to be able to keep both Bolton and Trump in check.  But the relatively measured and reasonable Mattis and his ‘steady as she goes’ influence on U.S. defense policy are long gone.  His interim replacement, –  now nominated to be permanent – is Patrick Shanahan – – a former Boeing executive who had no prior political, military, or foreign policy experience before being thrust into the Deputy position.  Not surprisingly, Bolton and Pompeo currently seem to have more influence than Shanahan on decisions regarding the wielding of the US military as a political tool.

When Bolton was named National Security Advisor, there was fear that he would run roughshod over the prevailing international system, setting parts of the world alight and in the process leave a legal and political mess for future generations.  Bolton’s disdain for the United Nations is well known.  He put this into action with the Proliferation Security Initiative.  An effort to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction, it has been criticized for lacking transparency, stretching if not violating principles of international law, weakening the UN system, being politically divisive, and diluting other non-proliferation efforts.  He supported the invasion of Iraq—which many think was a violation of international law and an unmitigated disaster.  He supports strengthened US-Taiwan relations and the independence leaning faction in Taiwan.  He advocated a pre-emptive strike against North Korea –with all the humanitarian and geopolitical ramifications that might entail. He whole heartedly supports Israel and has an obvious antagonism toward Iran—a predilection that if implemented could upset the teetering political applecart in the Middle East.

But the most dangerous and lasting damage Bolton may do—for the U.S. and the world is to upset the existing “international order”. This is not hyperbole but a clearheaded assessment based firmly on his past statements and positions.  They indicate that Bolton believes that US sovereignty and freedom of action are wrongly constrained by international law, multilateral organizations—especially the UN—and global treaties. To Bolton these are political impediments to be ignored or re-interpreted as expedience dictates. He strongly prefers unilateralism, or if appropriate, “coalitions of the willing” acting independently of the UN. 

Trump’s “approach to foreign intervention has been driven less by ideology than by his hunger for foreign policy victories_.” This lack of ideological coherence has created an opportunity for determined interventionists like Bolton and his apparent ally Mike Pompeo, the Secretary of State.

Bolton must be frustrated by Trump’s unwitting undermining of his efforts to advance his agenda of regime change and America uber alles.   Regarding North Korea, Bolton –with Pompeo’s assistance—influenced the US side to ‘move the goal posts’ at the last minute prompting North Korea to respond with a request for the partial lifting sanctions which was unacceptable to Trump and thus led to the breakdown in negotiations in Hanoi. But even as North Korea seems to be testing Trump’s nerve, by twice test firing tactical missiles, Trump still seems relatively unperturbed – – although he did allow that “Nobody’s happy about it.” 

Regarding Russia, it seems nothing can shake Trump’s faith in his personal relationship with Vladimir Putin, and thus US security-relations with Russia.  And with China, Trump is focused on the trade negotiations. 

But Trump’s ideological and policy approach has been inconsistent and confusing to friends, allies, the public – – and presumably to his underlings.  With his plate full – – and distracted by his personal problems – – Bolton and company have exploited these ambiguities and seized the initiative with Venezuela, Iran and in the South China Sea.  

 Bolton’s hand can be seen in the belligerent signal-sending of stepped up US warship transits of the Taiwan Strait, Freedom of Navigation Operations in the South China Sea, and over flights of the area by nuclear – capable bombers.

Regarding Venezuela, Bolton seemed to be in charge by asserting that “all options remain on the table” in regard to possible US military intervention there.  His hope was that three key senior government officials would ‘defect’, thus inspiring a revolt by the military that would force President Nicolas Maduro out of office. But the three officials remained loyal to Maduro and that plan failed. Trump was reportedly not happy with the outcome.

Undaunted, Bolton has now turned his attention to his bête noir – Iran.  For unknown reasons that seem almost personal, Bolton – and Pompeo– seem intent on regime change there.  Pompeo says “I think what can change is the people can change the government.” They are trying to goad Iran into a conflict.  Pompeo has outlined 12 demands – like halting ballistic missile tests and withdrawing support for militant groups in Yemen and Lebanon – that he likely knows the current regime in Tehran will never honor.  This is reminiscent of Bolton and Pompeo’s alleged machinations involving the negotiations with North Korea.

After withdrawing from the Iran nuclear pact, the U.S. has steadily ratcheted up tensions with a “maximum pressure” campaign.  In addition to sweeping economic sanctions ,it designated Iran’s influential Revolutionary Guard Corps a foreign terrorist organization. This could make them subject to targeting by US military forces.  Now it has sent an additional carrier strike group to the Persian Gulf, increasing the likelihood of a miscalculation on both sides.  It appears that “They are boxing Iran in”  and trying to provoke it into making a mistake.

Trump claims he “tempers” Bolton. But it is not clear who is influencing whom when it comes to interventionist foreign policy decisions. Of course Trump may once again disrupt Bolton’s clever schemes.   Or Iran may not take the bait.  But if a conflict does not break out, it won’t be for lack of Bolton’s trying to start one.

He has become the ‘devil incarnate’ in US foreign policy.

This piece first appeared in the South China Morning Post.

Mark J. Valencia

Mark J. Valencia, is an internationally known maritime policy analyst, political commentator and consultant focused on Asia. He is the author or editor of some 15 books and more than 100 peer-reviewed journal articles. He is currently an Adjunct Senior Scholar, National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China.

One thought on “John Bolton: ‘The Devil Incarnate’ Of US Foreign Policy? – Analysis

  • May 16, 2019 at 11:09 am

    Trump has gained the Swamp.Tillerson was probably right about Trump.


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