Living through the Trump administration is kind of like coming off a shipwreck in the middle of the ocean. You’re still stranded with nowhere to go for thousands of miles, and anything from sharks to the cold to the lack of food and water will kill you, but whenever you can find a solid piece of driftwood to cling to, you’ll take it.
All of this is to say that when dealing with an administration whose sole goal seems to be to hasten a global ecological crisis while torturing the people trying to escape it, national security advisor John Bolton’s firing — excuse me, resignation — from the Trump White House is a rare bit of good news.
Bolton is a true fanatic, someone who, if we were talking about any other country, would likely be described as a dangerous ultranationalist. But in the world of the Washington establishment, he is more comfortably described as “hard-line” or a “hawk.”
Bolton’s overarching worldview is that the United States has the right, or more accurately, the exclusive power, to do anything it wanted to advance its geopolitical interests, multilateral or unilateral, legal or illegal. Closely related to this is his unwavering, unhinged belief in the United States’ boundless capacity for war, despite the previous two decades (at least) serving as catastrophic proof otherwise.
It is a miracle that no new war was started over Bolton’s year and a half in the White House. The fact that the voices of reason in this scenario have been Donald Trump, Tucker Carlson, and a guy nicknamed “Mad Dog” is a testament to how dangerous Bolton is.
Though several new fronts did fail to open in the United States government’s ongoing war with the rest of the planet, Bolton’s tenure as Trump’s national security advisor has gone roughly as expected. From the start, he resumed the war against international law and multilateral institutions he had started during his Bush administration days, with the US pulling out of the UN Human Rights Council and Bolton announcing both its de-funding and that of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
He then threatened to impose sanctions on the International Criminal Court (ICC), ban its judges and prosecutors from US entry, and even criminally prosecute them after the court began investigating alleged US war crimes in Afghanistan. He also closed the Palestine Liberation Organization’s office in Washington for good measure, because it called for an ICC inquiry into Israel.
On Latin American policy, Bolton looked to swing the pendulum way, way back to nineteenth century-era overt imperialism, declaring that he and the rest of the Trump administration were “not afraid to use the word Monroe Doctrine.” As the US continued fighting wars in at least seven different countries, Bolton identified Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua — countries whose total amount of foreign wars numbered zero — as a “Troika of Tyranny” and a “triangle of terror,” and vowed to take “direct action against all three regimes.”
To that end, he cozied up to just-elected Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, another ecocidal bigot who shares Bolton’s goal of collapsing any government that remotely smacks of leftism in the region, and later threatened that the Nicaraguan government’s “days are numbered.”
It was under Bolton that Trump began his attempt to depose Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro in earnest, with Bolton leading the way. Bolton spearheaded the ever-tightening rounds of murderous sanctions on the Venezuelan people whose interests he solemnly claimed to be working in, as he and the Trump administration placed increasing pressure on the shambolic Maduro government, hoping to install a neoliberal replacement that would undo the Chavez reforms. At one point, he strolled out of a White House briefing with the words “5,000 troops to Colombia” visible on his notepad, sparking fear of invasion.
Fortunately, the efforts were a failure. Trump got bored, ending the regime change efforts.
Bolton and Trump also butted heads on North Korea, with which Trump seems genuinely committed to trying to find peace, with the country’s vice foreign minister accusing Bolton of sabotaging negotiations through unreasonable demands. While one can’t exactly trust public statements by North Korean officials, this also isn’t out of character for Bolton.
Similarly, while Bolton failed early on to get Trump to launch a massive bombing raid in Syria, he would later get his back, seemingly overruling Trump’s earlier surprise announcement of a US withdrawal from Syria while speaking to reporters in Jerusalem.
It’s on Iran policy that Bolton has been most dangerous, however, pursuing his own personal white whale of needless and disastrous foreign conflicts.
His post in the Trump administration gave Bolton his best chance yet to finally start the war he’d been slavering over for decades, and he didn’t waste the opportunity. Having vowed to overthrow the Iranian government by the end of 2018, Bolton, once ensconced in his White House post, asked the Pentagon to draw up military options for striking Iran.
For at least the past year, Bolton did everything he could, behind the scenes and in public, to push the administration into fighting a war with Iran. These efforts intensified as Bolton outlasted the loosely defined “moderating” forces within the administration, with Bolton both accusing Iran of various war-justifying misdeeds, and attempting to goad it into doing something rash that could serve as a pretext for US retaliation, including ongoing crippling sanctions that seek to “collapse the economy” of the country.
He very nearly got it, too, with Trump calling off an airstrike at the last minute thanks, reportedly, to an intervention by Tucker Carlson of all people.
Along the way, Bolton at least pushed the administration into adopting the #Resistance’s favored foreign policy of aggression towards Russia. He pushed Trump to withdraw from the INF nuclear weapons treaty with Russia (another dastardly Russian plot, according to the usual suspects), and announced the launch of “offensive cyber operations” against US adversaries, just as he had urged shortly before joining the administration. In this, he was continuing the work he had started under Bush, where he had led the US withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia and generally declared the concept of arms control enemy number one.
And now we find out the reason for Bolton’s exit from the Trump administration was precipitated by his objections to Trump’s plans to host peace talks with the Taliban. Fitting, given that Bolton’s opposition to the idea was echoed by countless members of the liberal political establishment.
No credit should go to Trump for this move. Trump knew exactly who Bolton was when he hired him, and for more than a year he’s largely let Bolton lead the country and himself right up to the edge of war and chaos, only to get cold feet at the last second. What we have to thank for this isn’t Trump, but a US public that’s far more averse to war, which has spooked Trump from pursuing such an action this close to an election, reportedly one of the warnings Carlson gave Trump before he called off his strike against Iran.
Unfortunately, Bolton’s exit demonstrates yet again the utter cluelessness of the liberal establishment, with figures like Rep. Ted Lieu and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer decrying the “chaos” of the White House. Even Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy, typically referred to as leading liberal voice on foreign policy, responded to the news by confessing he was “shaken by the grave instability of American foreign policy today,” with the “revolving door of US leadership” undermining the “stable American hand” that’s needed.
Nicholas Kristof, one of the New York Times op-ed section’s few nominally liberal voices, professed that while he “often disagreed with Bolton,” he was also “well-informed and willing to push back,” and that his exit would “make it easier for Trump to make nice to Putin,” especially if his next national security advisor is “a yes man.”
If you’ve read this far, then you should know this is utter nonsense.
Bolton was the instability of American foreign policy. His very presence anywhere near power was what undermined a “stable American hand.” If a “yes man” in this imperfect context is someone who would go along with peace negotiations with Kim Jong Un, the Taliban, and with withdrawing troops from Syria, that is far preferable to having Bolt “pushing back” against anything not involving raining death from the sky onto poor people in faraway countries. (The Kristofs of the world can at least take solace in one thing though: in the real world, Trump has actually been vastly more aggressive towards Russia than his predecessor.)
The end of Bolton’s tenure certainly carries risk, given there’s always a possibility the next guy could be even worse. But then it’s hard to think of anyone, even within the circles of the Washington foreign policy establishment, who is quite as violent, deluded, and dangerous as John Bolton. Bolton once said he thought “too many Americans don’t live in a climate of fear.” Now that he’s gone, maybe they won’t have to.