In Praise Of John Bolton – OpEd


The delegation was having a face lift. Most people were keeping their titles, but most people were also paying a price – shuffled, relegated and transferred to quieter pastures. Eventually everything finds its limit, and the administration under George W. Bush had found theirs. Years of circular negotiations, and recent stuttering months – despite renewed vigour – meant an end to U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage. In his place was a grizzled and stoically unpleasant ‘diplomat’, a different breed, with different eyes-on-the-world, and someone whose frustration at that point was impossible to conceal.

John Sawers, Political Director for the U.K. Foreign Office, had been working closely (from the European side) with John Bolton to achieve a nuclear/denuclearisation agreement with Iran. Head of Arms Control at the U.S. State Department, Bolton had been forced to follow the company line, pushed by Armitage, and beyond him National Security Advisor, Colin Powell. Sitting in the background of meetings, Bolton watched as his administration debated the nature and size of “even more carrots” that might coax Iran into abandoning its nuclear enrichment program.

Sawers, now facing Bolton as an equal partner, and the new head of the American delegation, “leaned over” during their first European-American meeting and said “let me know if I can help, in terms of achieving a common outcome to this”. From across the table, came an embittered, contempt raising, “frosty glare”. The crown had changed hands, and the new king was none-too-happy with how things had gone before him. After a few minutes, Bolton called the room to attention, “right, has everyone spoken?” In numbed silence, the European delegations watched as Bolton read from a single sheet of paper, and with it changed the entire course of negotiations.

It felt like a unique moment of affirmation. Bolton had seen – or at least he had believed – his worst intuitions about international relations play out. Iran, and nations like it, would never be “rational partner[s]” in his estimation, any declarations from them to the contrary would be deceptive, and administrations like his own – the rational partners – were naïve about this, to the point of pathology. The world was full of unreformable monsters. Unreformable because ideology is in many cases the most significant barrier that can be drawn between people, and because the rational partners of the world had lost their will – or even desire – to do the one thing they could to halt these monsters: enforce regime change.

When John Bolton re-entered the US administration under President Trump, he was the same person. Filling-out his resume between appointments, Bolton had established himself as a foreign policy wonk for the Republican Party and Fox News. Buoyed by Trump’s original bellicose approach to North Korea – “fire and fury”, “Little Rocket Man” – Bolton was soon dismayed by the haste and open-armed willingness to offer concessions, starting with the propaganda fumble that was the Winter Olympics’ closing ceremony in South Korea.

Instincts purring again, Bolton saw this as North Korea “divert[ing] attention from its nuclear-weapons and ballistic-missile programs”, and being allowed to do so by weak minded, and appeasement-focussed officials. The same officials, repeating the same tactics, that he believed had allowed Iran to both maintain its nuclear program and avoid internal collapse. Speaking endlessly about the need for pre-emptive war, and ‘the imminent threat’ from Pyongyang, when ordered back to the White House Bolton could have only assumed that this was a vindication of his world view.

It wouldn’t have taken him long to recognise his mistake. Arriving for work with the hopes of adding flesh to “Maximum Pressure” through tough new sanctions and the closing threat of war, the new U.S. National Security Advisor found a changing sentiment in the air. There might have been hopes that – as Dick Cheney did under George Bush – he could fill an outsized role in government, taking the reins where an under-educated, impulsive, and above-all-else disinterested, President would happily give them up; insisting only that credit returns without question, while failure stays delegated.

Bolton walked onto the job and found his staff hurriedly at work trying to organise the Singapore Summit. The detail was missing, the background work never done, but this wasn’t the problem that it might have been for previous National Security Advisors. Long tired of diplomatic procedure, this was an opportunity to cut through the mess, the soft tones and childlike hopefulness (throughout his decades working in federal bureaucracies, Bolton seemed to only grow less confident in the abilities of those around him). Face-to-face the American President could explain clearly the cliff edge that Kim Jong-un was on, and just how convincingly the North Koreans would have to work to avoid being pushed off.

Instead the meeting went ahead without concessions from Pyongyang and, inside the talks, when things did get face-to-face, vague Iran-esque commitments to denuclearisation were tentatively offered. Donald Trump walked out of this meeting speaking not of vindication and a return to pain and pressure, fire and fury, but of a successful summit; of an end to the North Korean nuclear threat, and even that “we fell in love”. Different motivations aside, Bolton was now looking at a Presidency that represented the same gullibility and lack of conviction that he previously only recognised in lower officials.

One of the forces pushing along those original negotiations with Iran was the belief that, with then-Iranian President, Mohammad Khatami, the Western allies had a unique and fleeting opportunity: Khatami was not just seen as a moderate political mind, but also a reformer. Being missed here through the smiles, handshakes and gestures of kinship, was the ideology. Iran is not run from the Presidency, but from the Supreme Leader; and it is not a democracy, but an Islamic Republic. Social change doesn’t cascade downward from electoral change, nor upward from popular sentiment. Iranians are a people trapped by ideas (central to their national identity) that are not open for error-correction.

Cosmetic change and the promise of new figure heads, are as little cause for optimism as shifts in the reverse direction. After Khatami, the Iranian public elected Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a student leader of the 1979 hostage crisis, a man who would openly talk about the need to destroy Israel, and someone who occasionally abandoned his own country’s diplomatic rhetoric by linking the Iranian nuclear and missile programs together. Given this, is it any wonder that Barrack Obama’s agreement with Iran was so widely criticised when it allowed for the free continuation of the latter half of this self-professed joint-program.

The mistake, that many people have read into the mind of John Bolton, is believing that he sees things through a text-book realist lens. Under this view, the world is a dangerous place because all states will inevitably act in their own self-interest. Part of this self-interest involves achieving ever-greater power in relation to other states, and even when allies or agreements might be found, the true intentions of those other states can never be known. And so the only rational way to treat the outside world is as hostile, even when it doesn’t appear to be so.

The Bolton school of international relations doesn’t do this! It looks more fundamentally at what states and their leaders actually think. This doesn’t get us to a more pleasant world, or even one less inclined to conflict, but it is an important layer of nuance; however slight it might seem.

As an Islamic Republic, Iran is a country in need of enemies. They are simply promising something that is beyond all human knowledge – the construction of a perfect society, free from unease, difficulty, and future problems. When the regime in Tehran inevitably fails to do this – as it, of course, already has – it is left with a simple choice: collapse under its failure to achieve this central promise, or find someone to blame, preferably beyond its borders (internal enemies have more chance of convincing people of their innocence). America fits the bill due to its strength, Israel due to scripture.

All irrational memes – ideas that resist change and can only survive through stasis – have this feature in common. They need protecting from their own deterioration, so higher-and-higher walls are built around them; walls that soon become a self-imposed prison for the people inside. 

When the Korean peninsula was first divided, it inadvertently separated the core centres of agriculture (South) and manufacturing (North). More socially cohesive as well as piggy-backing off China and the Soviet Union, North Korea under Kim Il-sung closed this gap more successfully. And he needed to: the national ideology that brought him to, and kept him in, power, centred on outcompeting the South; his was the better of the two Koreas, and so from him reunification would soon flow downward.

As things twisted in the other direction, Kim Il-sung introduced Juche thought. Sure, their South Korean brothers and sisters were increasingly better off than them, but that was only if you judged ‘better off’ in material terms. North Korea had what the South didn’t – or so the propaganda read – ‘self-reliance’, a ‘unique Korean identity’ and a ‘motherly leadership that would always provide for them’. Then the Soviet Union collapsed, and North Korean agriculture – suddenly unable to import at discounted rates – collapsed with it. In 1994, the ‘Great Famine’ started just as the ‘Great Leader’ – Kim Il-sung – died.

His son, Kim Jong-il, soon to be the ‘Dear Leader’, needed to quickly explain away the nationwide suffering and his inability to remedy it; his inability to live up to his father’s ideological claim to rule. So ‘Songun’ — or ‘military first’ — was born. The new leader was under attack from the outside world – predominantly America – and the risk was so great that he would not be able to properly take care of his people as a result. A fake existential threat to excuse a real one.

It worked, but it came at a cost. The act needed actors, costumes, sets, and above all else, to continue. The only way to pull it off was to actually militarise the society, down to the last citizen. Kim Jong-il became the ‘Head of the Army’, enlisted soldiers were politically retrained, all citizens were required to do ten years of military service, cities became fortified, propaganda talked endlessly about leering enemies, and military equipment was hastily modernised. The most significant and easily understandable symbol of this was the reanimation of a nuclear weapons program.

This is what Kim Jong-un inherited, a country that accepts him as leader because they accept the idea that he is protecting them from outside enemies; and when his ‘final victory’ comes, it will also bring about the reunification of their nation. Just like the Iranians, North Koreans are trapped by their own ideology. Sure they can stop stoking conflict, stop launching missiles, stop testing nuclear weapons, stop threatening war, but with this normalisation also comes an end to the leadership’s legitimacy.

Kim Jong-un cannot step down from the nuclear ledge he is on, but not because he feels at risk from external attack. There is nothing in what John Bolton has ever said that would make someone believe that he understands this background, or has ever looked into the different tracks of North Korean propaganda. And yet his instinct on North Korea was right. They are not serious about denuclearisation, and never could be without precipitating their own collapse. With Bolton gone, the American administration likely misunderstands – dangerously so – North Korea more than it did with him there.

It appears that John Bolton rarely let a day go by without telling people that North Korea could not be dealt with through negotiation, trust-building or trade-off. At the second Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi, Bolton’s sceptical eyes shone through his President’s. Despite explicitly warning Kim Jong-un beforehand that another closure of the Yongbyon enrichment facility would not come close to satisfying his previous commitments, that was all he ended up offering. The sight of Donald Trump walking away from the chance to claim another superficial ‘victory’, was Bolton’s doing. And once again a vindication of everything Bolton already believed. North Korea was one of the monsters he saw in the world, and when you meet such a creature there are only two choices: “live with a North Korea with nuclear weapons, or look at military force”.

It’s when things get prescriptive that the Bolton mindset most palpably fails, doesn’t check its speed, refuses to break, and careens out-of-control around a much-too-sharp bend in the road. Not one to scoff at the value of sanctions, during his brief recess appointment as Ambassador to the United Nations, Bolton convinced the Security Council (for the first time) to begin economic restrictions on North Korea specifically for its nuclear weapons programs. But ideally, things should be a lot more hands-on. Bolton saw an international landscape that could, and should, be sculpted to measurement; even to the point of ignoring the expressed wills of the parties involved and instead personally devising a “three-state solution” for the Palestinian territories (under which, inexplicably, there was still no room for a Palestinian state).

This is where most of the recent unease around John Bolton seems to have come from. If he was capable of turning Trump’s back – if only briefly – on North Korea, then what else could he do? How much war, conflict and regime change would he commit America to if only he was given rein to do so by a delinquent president? (The only war that Bolton seems to have not approved of was the one he avoided serving in, despite being drafted: “I had no desire to die in a Southeast Asian rice paddy… I considered the war in Vietnam already lost”).

Yet, without the breakdown of normal order, the John Bolton’s of this world have their place. It is uncertain what new-National Security Advisor, Robert O’Brien, will do, nor the influence that he will have. However, we do know what he is unlikely not to be – headstrong, principled and defiant (the things that seemed to have brought about Bolton’s forced resignation). This is a loss to the administration and to the country. Bolton’s was a voice that deserved to be in the discussion – because, if for nothing else, he occasionally got things right in moments when everyone else was wrong.

When Bolton faced-down his European counterparts during the Iranian nuclear negotiations – “right, has everyone spoken?” – the sheet of paper that he read from outlined a simple new strategy: Iran would need to suspend all of its uranium enrichment, come into line with all of its International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) obligations, and until this happened nothing would even be considered in return.

At the time, new, advanced, and previously undisclosed centrifuges were being discovered in secret sites across Iran almost by the month – as were the numerous ways that Iran had been cheating on their safeguard obligations. Contrary to John Bolton, the Europeans however still saw Iran as a rational actor that was genuinely interested in re-entering the international community.

Soon, however, coalition troops across the border in Iraq were being killed by new, sophisticated, Iranian manufactured, improvised explosive devices (IED’s). Political Director for the U.K. Foreign Office, and the man that Bolton had butted heads most significantly with over Iran, John Sawers, then received a phone call from Tehran with a revised negotiating position. In Sawers’ words: “the Iranians wanted to be able to strike a deal whereby they stop killing our forces in Iraq, in return for them being allowed to carry on with their nuclear program”.

*Jed Lea-Henry is a writer, teacher and academic. Born in Australia, educated at La Trobe University and Deakin University, Jed Lea-Henry is the author of: ‘A Poggean Approach to Mass Atrocities: Addressing Indeterminacy and Failures of Political Will for Humanitarian Intervention and the Responsibility to Protect’.

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