Roberta N. Haar

The Uber-Hawk is back: what impact will John Bolton have on US Foreign Policy?

Door Roberta N. Haar - 23 november 2017

The question ‘who is John Bolton’ came up in a conversation recently with several journalists after the American Dreamers premiere of The Last Son in Amsterdam. The war in Syria was amongst the topics discussed, with one journalist commenting that the new National Security Adviser (NSA) John Bolton must be advising Trump to pull out of Syria as quickly as possible.

While I do not know how long Bolton will last as Trump’s third NSA, I do know that Bolton is not a man who argues for withdrawal from a conflict.

In fact, his main line of argument for the past 20 years has been the opposite.  Bolton is a man who advocates preventive war and regime change as his foreign policy instruments of choice. In the case of Syria, Bolton wanted a fuller-fledged strike on Bashar al-Assad than what Secretary of Defense James Mattis advocated.

In the wake of America’s withdrawal from the Iran Deal, many in The Netherlands want to know more about Trump’s new ‘war hawk’ National Security Adviser and what sort of impact he might have on Transatlantic Relations?

Bolton’s Formative Years

Bolton’s Republican roots are deep.  He started out as a student organizer for Republican conservative Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign in 1964. After he finished law school, Bolton worked for and became a protégé of North Caroline Senator Jesse Helms, who was a leader in the conservative movement and was largely responsible for sanctions on Cuba, despite their questionable effectiveness.


Roberta Haar in news program EenVandaag

During the Ronald Reagan administration, Bolton was an assistant attorney general, where he facilitated Antonin Scalia’s nomination to become a Supreme Court Justice. In the George H. W. Bush administration Bolton worked in the State Department. George W. Bush appointed him to be the Under-secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security (2001-2005), where he soon gained a reputation as a ferocious arms control negotiator. It was also Bolton who led the Bush administration’s opposition to the International Criminal Court (ICC). In 2005, Bush appointed Bolton to be his Ambassador at the UN, a cabinet level position that must be confirmed by the Senate. However, as Bolton was too controversial for fellow Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he was given a temporary appointment that did not need confirmation.

When not serving in Republican-led governments, Bolton did what most Washington policy-makers do: he bided his time at a Washington, D.C. think tank.  Bolton’s home between administrations is the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI).  Even though he became more well-known to the American public (and a sitting president) via his punditry on Fox News, Bolton always held a senior position at AEI.

Is Bolton a Neocon?

Despite working in a prominent neoconservative think tank, Bolton holds a unique world view that overlaps in some ways with Trump’s ‘America First’ perspective.  This means that there is not a lot of love for his brand of ‘American Nationalism’ among mainstream Republicans.  During the George W. Bush administration, Bolton allied with Vice President Dick Cheney and neoconservatives in making the case for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.  In 2010, I wrote an article that analyzed why the Bush administration invaded Iraq and it is clear that the neoconservative agenda was key—an agenda that was shaped in the 1990s.  Bolton’s signature was on the open letter to Bill Clinton that supported a preemptive U.S. military intervention against Iraq in 1998.  Although many neoconservatives have since questioned the validity of the 2003 invasion, Bolton continues to argue that it was the right decision.

Views on Iran

Bolton’s hawkish policy towards Iran is well known. In 2007, when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice attempted to adopt a more pragmatic and multilateral approach with Iran, Bolton publicly criticized her. While Bolton’s strong support of Israel surely plays a role on his views towards Iran, the fact that he thinks that the U.S. can win a conflict against it is more telling. Bolton hopes that the re-imposition of sanctions will topple the Islamic Republic or lead hard-liners to restart its nuclear enrichment program and provide a pretext for a preventive war.

It is clear that Bolton’s standpoint on Iran is not new. What is new is Bolton’s position in America’s foreign policy making machine. Now that he is the National Security Adviser, he is bound to impact policy.

The good, the bad and the very bad

There are three ways that Bolton might shape the future of American foreign policy.  On the one hand, his skills as a fierce arms control negotiator could work in the U.S.’ favor in meetings with North Korea. If Bolton combines these skills with a more tempered diplomacy, the Korean peninsula could reap the benefits.  Strong-armed diplomacy worked in the past when Richard Holbrooke used it with Serbian president Slobodan Milošević to get to the Dayton Peace Accords.

On the other hand, Bolton and Trump agree on a more hawkish style of foreign policy.  Both are averse to multilateral diplomacy, whether that means working with the UN or the EU. It is also clear that Bolton and Pompeo are in ascendancy on the Trump National Security team, while Defense Secretary Mattis is declining in influence.  Mattis, who actively blocked Bolton’s appointment as the NSA, opposed withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal.

Perhaps most worrying of all is that Trump and Bolton both have little regard for facts.  While working in the George W. Bush administration, Bolton invented arguments to support his more muscular national security. Pair this with a president who is fast and loose with facts for all sorts of reasons and the potential for bad foreign policy is great.

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