I do not normally watch Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show, but when the fate of the Earth is at stake, I make an exception. On Friday night, after an extraordinary week of brinkmanship in the Persian Gulf, Carlson delivered a seven-minute philippic against John Bolton, President Trump’s national security adviser. Bolton is the most bellicose in the West Wing of the White House, and according to reports, he has advocated military action against Iran in retaliation for the attacks on oil tankers and the downing of a $130 million U.S. drone in the Strait of Hormuz. Trump says he called off a military strike with an hour to go—reportedly on the private advice of Carlson.
On his show, Carlson described Bolton as “a bureaucratic tapeworm. Try as you might, you can’t expel him.” (Bolton served in three Republican administrations before Trump but was out of government from 2006 until his appointment to head the National Security Council last year.) He and other neoconservatives had beguiled previous presidents of both parties into invading and destabilizing stable countries such as Syria, Libya, and Iraq. They are parasites, Carlson said, and Bolton would “live forever in the bowels of the federal agencies, periodically reemerging to cause pain and suffering but never suffering himself.”
Carlson is wrong about tapeworms, which usually get expelled after a single dose of praziquantel, and do damage only before emerging, not after. Is he also wrong about Bolton? I profiled Bolton for the magazine in April and found the accusation that he is a neoconservative wrong. Bolton isn’t that sentimental. He served with neoconservatives in the second Bush administration, but unlike them he harbored few illusions about America’s ability to bring democracy to the Muslim world by means of cruise missiles and U.S. Marines. Instead he agrees with Trump: America must be made great again, and the rest of the planet can go to hell if it tries to stand in our way. Trump bombed ISIS indiscriminately, but he happily befriends tyrants if they join Team America. Bolton is no different. His closest friends among the Iranian opposition belong to the Mujahedin-e Khalq, a cultlike religious group that was still a State Department–designated foreign terrorist organization when he spoke at one of its rallies in Paris. The group hates the Iranian government, though.
So what justifies Carlson’s wrath? It’s true that Bolton’s answer to most questions is war or the threat of war—and against Iran in particular, he has advocated bombing campaigns, even (or especially) when other Americans are exploring normal relations. When Bolton served the Bush administration as the State Department’s subcomandante for arms control, he nitpicked every international agreement relating to Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs, and in so doing he forced colleagues to acknowledge that both countries had violated their agreements. Whether improved agreements or aerial bombing would have improved their compliance is another issue. Bolton’s view has been consistent: Don’t make a deal until you’ve shown your enemy that his alternative is annihilation. And if you make a deal, accept no violations, and keep the bombers fueled in case you find any. Carlson is a dove, and he says threats of annihilation are “demented ... Normal people don’t talk like that.”
These are baffling times: With only minor modification one could imagine an identical rant against Bolton from, say, Chris Hayes at MSNBC. (Hayes would, I suspect, have refrained from calling neoconservatives or any other humans tapeworms.) Trump’s account of his decision to call off the sorties focuses on the deaths of Iranians. “How many people will be killed?” Trump asked his generals. When the answer (“150, Sir”) came back, he reacted with very un-Boltonian sentimentality, noting that the plane Iran shot down was just a machine, and the Iranians are humans—“every one of them someone with a family,” Carlson said the next day. I find this one of the more endearing things Trump or Carlson has ever said.
But as a matter of international relations, rapid fluctuation between policies is disastrous. It gives adversaries a wedge.
In my profile of Bolton, I quoted a North Korean official who in 2003 called Bolton “human scum,” a “bloodsucker,” and “a beastly man bereft of reason.” Irritating America’s enemies was no liability in the Bush administration. But the North Koreans responded to Bolton’s methods by trying to go over his head, since they had reason to believe his president was, like most humans, more of a softie. The North Koreans’ invective ended by noting that George W. Bush seemed, by contrast, a nice guy, and that in the future they intended to deal with him, rather than with the subhuman parasite he had designated as his envoy.
If the national security adviser has no heart, and the president has no brain, their adversaries will play their respective deficits off each other, appealing to the heart when the brain says no. Bush and Bolton were at least in general agreement, and the North Koreans’ hope of splitting them was just that—a hope. Presidents have disagreed with their national security advisers before. Now, however, the split is real and visible. National security advisers have, in the past, had confidence that their presidents would at least approach international security issues consistently, so that threats bore the proper menace, and enemies could not respond by waiting around for the boss to change his mind. Bolton never changes his mind, but Trump changes his mind constantly, so who cares?
The Iranian strategy is, as Mike Doran notes, to convince the president that his government is captured and controlled by maniacs, who are whispering bloodthirsty advice to him from within the White House. (Given the Iranians’ fondness for anti-Semitic rhetoric, it should be noted that “neoconservatives” is often code for “Jewish.” Bolton isn’t Jewish, but Carlson named Bolton’s “old friend” Bill Kristol, a Jew, as if the former Weekly Standard editor headed the cabal that was influencing him.) Whatever Bolton’s faults—and they are considerable—he is one of the only senior national-security officials to have worked on this sort of crisis before, and to wedge him away from the president is to increase the chaos in an already wild administration. Carlson even repeated, on the air and apropos of nothing, a statement of Persian cultural supremacy: “Iran is a sophisticated country,” he said, and its cities “not at all like Riyadh or Dubai,” the seats of Gulf power friendly to Trump and unfriendly to Tehran. I like the poetry of Hafez and Rumi as much as the next person, but it is nonetheless startling to hear Iranian propaganda repeated on Fox News.
When Bolton was appointed, his political allies and enemies all agreed that he was a rarity in the Trump administration: a bureaucrat who knew the bureaucracy and could make it follow his commands. He has spent much of the past year denying that he has the powers attributed to him. “I am the national security adviser,” he told me, “not the national security decider.” In the end, Bolton wields only the power the president allows him. And once it becomes known that the president favors the advice not of his government but of his favorite television host, Americans (and foreign powers) might conclude that we have no government at all. Bolton’s immediate prior employment, before joining the administration, was as a pundit on Fox News. Now that Fox’s star host has savaged him, and his president apparently agrees that he is a parasite, I suspect Bolton is thinking about drafting a letter of resignation and a fresh CV, all at once.