In a speech last year to an Iranian militant group once labeled terrorists by the U.S. for their attempts to overthrow the Iranian government, John Bolton vowed “that the Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1979 revolution will not last until its 40th birthday.”
Today, Bolton is President Trump’s newly minted National Security Advisor. He joins recently-nominated Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, as a certifiable Iran war hawk.
Bolton is “extreme by Attila the Hun standards,” said Robert Deitz, who was Senior Councillor to former CIA Director Michael Hayden from 2006 to 2009 and general counsel at the National Security Agency from 1998 to 2006.
To several U.S. foreign policy career professionals who spoke with VICE News, Bolton’s nomination appears to herald the dawn of a newly aggressive America First foreign policy, one that is even more likely than past administrations to turn to military solutions over diplomatic niceties. One prime example: Bolton's position on Iran, where has spoken out unequivocally in favor of regime change.
Even many of his fellow Republicans find the ex-U.S. ambassador to the United Nations overzealous. But what really makes Bolton “dangerous” isn’t just his beliefs, one former Republican official told VICE News — it’s his expert-level understanding of bureaucratic infighting and tactics, which will likely make him a powerful voice driving foreign policy within Trump’s notoriously chaotic administration.
“Bolton is masterful at extending his own influence,” said Matthew Waxman, former executive assistant to George W. Bush’s national security advisor, Condoleezza Rice. Waxman went on to work in Bush’s defense and state departments, where he watched Bolton operate up-close.
“Trump's own mismanagement has held him back,” Waxman told VICE News. “Bolton has the skills and Washington smarts to help Trump carry through on the most dangerous parts of his agenda.”
“Now you have a flamethrower backing up a flamethrower. ”
Trump and Bolton may even egg each other on, Deitz told VICE News.
“Bolton is a flamethrower,” Deitz said. “Now you have a flamethrower backing up a flamethrower. Who’s going to provide the temperance that’s needed in that White House?”
Under Trump’s former secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, and outgoing National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, U.S. foreign policy often appeared to be at odds with itself over whether to engage with Iran and North Korea or confront them. Trump, for example, publicly disagreed with Tillerson over whether to certify Iran’s compliance with the deal struck under Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, to limit Iran’s nuclear activities.
Bolton’s appointment is likely to jeopardize that agreement and may further damage America’s trans-Atlantic relationship with Europe as a result, analysts said.
“Tillerson may go down as one of the worst-ever secretaries of state, but he was probably fired for his glimmers of sanity.”
“Bolton’s appointment will reduce the likelihood of agreement with Europe on a way forward with Iran, and will likely see a unilateral U.S. withdrawal from JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) on May 12,” said Paul Salem, senior vice president for policy research and programs at the Middle East Institute.
Salem warned that Bolton’s appointment risked escalating “tensions with Iran and raise risk of attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq, and maybe Syria.”
Now, with Bolton and just-named Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Trump appears to be assembling a foreign policy team more in sync with his own instincts, observers said.
“Tillerson may go down as one of the worst-ever secretaries of state, but he was probably fired for his glimmers of sanity,” said Hady Amr, a senior diplomat in the Obama administration. “You’re not going to have that resistance anymore.”
“Trump is putting together a war cabinet.”
The result is likely to be a Trump foreign policy increasingly unburdened by cautionary advice from senior aides, said Brett Bruen, a former U.S. diplomat who was director of global engagement in Obama’s White House.
“I think it looks like a foreign policy focused on the ego of one man, rather than the interest of a nation or the stability of the world,” Bruen told VICE News.
Others offered caution, and pointed to Mattis and Pompeo as possible counterpoints to Bolton’s extreme positions. “Much depends on how Pompeo will counterbalance him at State and Mattis at DOD,” Salem said.
Still, others doubt there are enough alternative foreign policy voices left in Trump’s administration to counter Bolton’s apparent position toward Iran. Trita Parsi, author of "Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran, and the Triumph of Diplomacy," pointed to Pompeo’s recent appointment and Trump’s “very close” ties to the Saudis as indication that Trump is gearing up to confront Iran.
“What this looks like and what I believe this is, is Trump is putting together a war Cabinet,” Parsi said.
Bolton’s “eccentric” views and inclination to think outside the box are traits that can be highly useful in a staff position, said Deitz — but it can spell trouble when that person’s put in charge.
“I think he’s very dangerous as the head of an organization,” Deitz said.
Cover image: Former United States U.N. Ambassador and author John Bolton gestures while discussing Iran's nuclear arms program, at a lecture at the University of Texas at Tyler, in Tyler, Texas, on Thursday, Nov. 15, 2007. (AP Photo/Dr. Scott M. Lieberman)