The Bolton Impact – Analysis


By Manoj Joshi

Though he has often been made out to be a cartoonish figure, John Bolton who has been appointed National Security Adviser by US President Donald J Trump, is a dangerous and clever man. He will have an immediate impact on two key areas of US foreign policy—Iran and North Korea.

Bolton was the US ambassador to the United Nations under George W Bush and has been known to have hawkish positions on most areas of foreign policy—Iran, North Korea, the UN, European Union and international agreements. The title of his 2007 memoir “Surrender is not an Option” speaks for itself. He has an abrasive personality and is known to be a bureaucratic infighter and for that reason the US Senate did not confirm him in 2002, Bush kept him in the post through a loophole process called the recess appointment. This time around, he does not need Senate clearance, though he will supervise a national security team of several hundred.

Given his reputation, it is not surprising that there is worry in South Korea that he could be the bull in the china shop and destroy all possibilities of a negotiation settlement with Kim Jong Un over the North Korea nuclear programme. The situation is delicately poised right now with both sides agreeing that dialogue is a good idea. South Korea has enormous stakes in the process for obvious reasons. But Bolton’s record on North Korea suggests that the only way out is to use military force.

The second area where the Bolton effect could strike is in relation to the Iran nuclear deal. The deal comes up for Presidential certification on May 12 and by then, Bolton would have had a month in office. Expectations are that Trump will follow his instincts to terminate the deal and Bolton will work out his rationale. The result will be a return of heavy sanctions on Teheran and will put the US against China and Russia, as well as Europe.

So far, Trump has been willing to fix the deal, which, in his view, should not be confined only to nuclear issues. The deal should include Iranian action on the non-nuclear areas such as its missile programme and its activities in Syria and Lebanon. However, with Bolton there, the American policy could be one of outright scuttling of the deal.

Last week, a former chief of the Israeli Defence Forces, Shaul Mofaz told a conference that Bolton tried to convince him of the need for Israel to attack Iran. Mofaz, along with three other IDF chiefs, Benny Gantz, Dan Halutz and Modhe Ya’alon are against the cancelling of the deal. Mofaz served as chief till 2002 and was thereafter appointed Defence Minister by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. However, the current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has for long advocated military action against Iran.

All this comes at a time when Trump has begun to move in his long-awaited trade sanctions against China. He has announced tariffs on $ 60 billion worth of Chinese goods, but this could be just the first part of his moves. A detailed list of goods will now be released, followed by a 30-day period for comments in which lobbyists for specific industries will have a field day. In the main, the tariffs are targeting those sectors that the Chinese are promoting for their Made in China 2025 policy, strategic areas which it wants to fill out in its bid to emerge as the leading nation of the world.

The US could also announce restrictions on Chinese investment in the US and visa restrictions for Chinese citizens, especially those who want to study in the fields of science and technology.

There is still time for the US and China to work out a deal on tariffs. Earlier this month, China’s top economic policy maker, Liu He, recently appointed Vice-President of the country, was in Washington and no doubt sought to engage the US in discussions to forestall a trade war. China has hinted at reciprocal tariffs that could hit US agri-exports which could hurt Trump’s political base.

With the US declaring that the policy of engagement with China will now be replaced by one of competition, and the Chinese saying they have entered a New Era under Xi Jinping, we can expect greater friction between the world’s two premier powers.

A dangerous side-show here could be a changed US policy towards Taiwan. Beijing has made it clear that it will view any separatism on the part of the island republic as tantamount to treason and Xi has virtually promised reunification, by force or otherwise in his term. On the other hand, Bolton and the incoming Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are said to be very supportive of Taiwan.

We stand, therefore at the cusp of three wars, one between the US and China on trade with the Taiwan issue that could well make it a shooting war, the possibilities of war with Iran and North Korea. Since World War II the US has not really won any war, barring the one against Grenada in 1983. But it remains the foremost military power in the world, capable of bringing down great, if not total destruction on its adversaries.

It is always easy to start a war, but very difficult to know how it will end. Take the US which began a war with Iraq in 1991, invaded it again in 2003. It cost the US a staggering $ 3 trillion plus and nearly 5,000 soldiers, it cost Iraq much, much more. It has seen devastation of their nation, the rise of the Islamic State and the collateral destruction of Syria as well. It has deepened the faultlines between the Shias and Sunnis into which the US now risks falling into.

This article originally appeared in Greater Kashmir

Observer Research Foundation

ORF was established on 5 September 1990 as a private, not for profit, ’think tank’ to influence public policy formulation. The Foundation brought together, for the first time, leading Indian economists and policymakers to present An Agenda for Economic Reforms in India. The idea was to help develop a consensus in favour of economic reforms.

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