The Deeply Underdeveloped Worldview of John Bolton
A careful review of his bibliography reveals a narrow, privileged understanding of global affairs.
Survey the history of American national-security advisors going back to the position’s creation in the mid-twentieth century, and two things about John Bolton stand out. The first is his militancy: his incessant, almost casual, advocacy of war. The second—which has gotten less attention but is deeply intertwined with the first—is the parochialism of his life experience.
Many national-security advisors, including Robert McFarlane, John Poindexter, Colin Powell, James Jones, Michael Flynn, and H.R. McMaster, have come from the professional military. Even many of those who made their careers in academia, law, or government, like McGeorge Bundy, Henry Kissinger, Frank Carlucci, Brent Scowcroft, and Stephen Hadley, served in the military for a time. Walt Rostow, Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Scowcroft, Anthony Lake, Condoleezza Rice, Susan Rice, and McMaster, earned doctorates. In different ways, these experiences offered Bolton’s predecessors some critical distance on the foreign-policy debate in Washington.
To differing degrees, those who served in the military saw the consequences of those foreign-policy debates on the ground. Some were more hawkish than others. But many could relate to the experience of Colin Powell who, as a major in Vietnam, saw “recently healthy young American boys, now stacked like cordwood” on the floor of helicopters. Those who served in academia had an opportunity to put U.S. foreign policy in broader historical perspective. Kissinger, who wrote his dissertation on Klemens Von Metternich, the foreign minister of the Austro-Hungarian empire who tried to manage Europe’s balance of power in the face of a challenge from revolutionary France, saw America as facing an analogous challenge from a revolutionary Soviet Union.
Of course, neither military nor academic experience could prevent some national-security advisors from making terrible mistakes. But if Kissinger is right that “[high] office teaches decision-making, not substance” and that it “consumes intellectual capital; it does not create it,” then the narrow professional experience through which Bolton has amassed his intellectual capital matters a great deal. He has never served in the military. He has never studied another region of the world, or another period of history, at the graduate level. He has spent his entire adult life in the interlocking world of hawkish think tanks, Washington law firms, Republican politics, and the right-wing media. And he manifests that narrowness in the smugly insular worldview he brings to his new job.
Over the past two decades, Bolton has written dozens of columns and essays, often for the flagship publications of the American right. To read them is to enter a cocoon. His writing is filled with assertions—about the purity of America’s intentions, the motivations of its adversaries, the uselessness of diplomacy, and the efficacy of war—for which he offers either feeble evidence or no evidence at all.
Consider Bolton’s op-eds about Iran. Before the 2015 nuclear deal, these pieces mostly followed a similar arc. They began with the insistence that, since Iran’s leaders were fanatically determined to develop nuclear weapons, diplomacy, sanctions, and inspections were a waste of time. “In truth, since the diplomacy/sanctions approach is Obama’s declared policy, we already know the end of the story: Iran with nuclear weapons,” Bolton wrote in October 2009. Bolton’s primary evidence for this sweeping claim? Vague, unsourced, pronouncements about Iran’s supposed invulnerability to petroleum and financial sanctions. In July 2012 he argued that Iran’s “mullahs will never agree to an intrusive verification mechanism that could actually detect systematic cheating.” How did Bolton know inspections could not work? It’s anyone’s guess. He cited no studies on the past efficacy of international inspections or on Iran’s record in complying with past agreements. He quoted no research at all. The technique is Trumpian: The less evidence you have, the more certain you sound.
After declaring diplomacy, sanctions, and inspections futile, Bolton—in his pre-Iran deal columns—again and again arrived at the same conclusion: There is no alternative to war. According to Bolton, that truth was too “unpleasant” and “inconvenient” for the Obama administration to face. But even as he congratulated himself for dispensing with comforting illusions, Bolton assured his readers that war wouldn’t be that bad. In the event of an Israeli attack, he wrote in October 2009, “Iran is highly unlikely to retaliate in a way that could prompt a direct confrontation with the U.S. military.” Why would Iran’s leaders, who Bolton described in the very same article as “religious fanatics who prize the hereafter more than life on earth,” carefully calibrate their response so as to avoid harming the United States? Who knows? Bolton cited no historical precedents, and quoted no Iranians or academic experts on Iran. Iran’s leaders are whatever he needs them to be: reckless when he’s arguing for the futility of diplomacy, but cautious when he’s arguing for the utility of military force.
Bolton’s language is instructive. He has called the attacks he proposes “preemptive.” That’s incorrect: Under international law, preemption is an attack on an adversary that is about to strike you, the geopolitical equivalent of shooting someone who has already drawn his gun. The strikes Bolton urged against Iran—and before that against Iraq, and, recently, against North Korea—are “preventive.” They’re based on the fear that those regimes might one day attack the United States or its allies. But the dishonesty is useful: It makes the wars Bolton proposes sound like self-defense.
If Bolton has misused the word “preemptive” to make military conflict seem more necessary, he has avoided the word “war” so as to make military conflict seem less frightening. In August 2015, he actually reprimanded Obama for suggesting that the alternative to a nuclear deal is “some kind of war.” The “phrase,” Bolton declared, “obscures more than it reveals.” But a few sentences later, Bolton asserted that “only a preemptive military strike can block Iran from becoming a nuclear-weapons state.” What’s the difference between a “military strike” and a “war”? The former sounds limited and controlled, while the second sounds unpredictable and harrowing—which war generally is. George Orwell famously argued that people employ euphemism to obscure the human cost of the political agendas they support. Bolton’s columns would have driven him mad.
As the Obama administration’s final nuclear deal began taking shape, Bolton made two predictions. First, that Iran would not adhere to it. Tehran “will cheat inside Iran, where the [International Atomic Energy Agency] is not present, and it will cheat by cooperating with North Korea and other proliferation enablers,” he wrote in January 2014. His second prediction was that the deal would lead other Middle Eastern countries to acquire nukes. “The arms race has begun: Neighboring countries are moving forward, driven by fears that Mr. Obama’s diplomacy is fostering a nuclear Iran,” he wrote in March 2015. “These talks have triggered a potential wave of nuclear programs.”
Three years later, history has not been kind to either of Bolton’s predictions. Not only does Iran not have a nuclear weapon; none of its Arab neighbors do either. Moreover, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has declared nine times that Iran is complying with the terms of the deal. In March, the director general of the IAEA noted that the agency “now has the world’s most robust verification regime in place in Iran.” It has installed 2,000 tamper-proof seals on Iran’s nuclear equipment, visited more than 190 nuclear facilities, analyzed hundreds of thousands of images from surveillance cameras and collected more than one million pieces of open source information. The IAEA’s conclusion—that Iran is complying—has been confirmed by America’s European allies, the U.S. intelligence community, and by Defense Secretary James Mattis. Even much of the Israeli security establishment now supports the deal.
Bolton remains unconvinced. Last September, he claimed the deal’s “adherents ignore Iran’s actual violations (exceeding limits on uranium enrichment, heavy-water production and advanced-centrifuge capacity, among others).” The sentence contains one link: to a New York Times article that lists no Iranian violations. But even as Bolton has insisted that Iran is violating the nuclear deal, he’s also insisted that it doesn’t really matter. “Even if somebody were to say to you that the regime is in full compliance with the nuclear deal,” Bolton wrote last July, “it doesn't make any difference.” In October, he added: “If the U.S. left the [deal], it would not need to justify the decision by showing that the Iranians have exceeded the deal’s limits on uranium enrichment (though they have).” Why doesn’t it make a difference if Iran is complying? Because Iran will eventually stop complying. “The day after North Korea has that capability [to put a nuclear weapon on an intercontinental ballistic missile],” Bolton declared last summer, “the regime in Tehran will have it as well, simply by signing a check.” How does Bolton know that? He just does.
If Bolton’s Iran columns sound familiar, it’s because they resemble his writing in the run-up to war in Iraq. Then, too, Bolton insisted that international inspections could never work. In a December 1998 essay, he attacked the “discredited idea that UN weapons inspectors can eliminate Iraq’s ability to produce weapons of mass destruction.” A year later, he declared that, “By now it should be beyond debate that only Saddam’s removal can realistically forestall Iraq’s ability to produce weapons of mass destruction.” In January 2003, Bolton—then serving in the Bush administration—said: “There’s no doubt if they [inspectors] had enough people in Iraq, if they had enough facilities, that they would find the hidden weapons of mass destruction production facilities and dual-use items that Iraqis still possess. If they're not able to do that by the 27th, then we’ll have to take that into account.”
The last phrase is telling. For Bolton, “take that into account” did not mean that the inability of international inspectors to find Iraqi WMD would shake his assumption that they existed. He meant that the inability of international inspectors to find Iraqi WMD would confirm his assumption that inspections are useless. Then, as now, Bolton’s beliefs are essentially unfalsifiable.
On Iraq, as with Iran, Bolton accompanied his insistence that non-violence was hopeless with promises that war would be easy. “The Iraqi people would be unique in history if they didn’t welcome the overthrow of this dictatorial regime,” he argued in November 2002.” Perhaps no sentence better illustrated Bolton’s parochialism. Had he ever lived in the developing world or studied African, Asian, Middle Eastern or Latin American history, he’d likely understand why a people with a history of colonial occupation might prefer not to be invaded and occupied by a Western power, especially one that had recently bombed them and starved them with sanctions.
Bolton’s apparent inability to imagine such opposition is likely related to his unwillingness to admit that America’s interventions have done harm in the past. “Chileans have made their choice, and have lived with it,” Bolton wrote about Augusto Pinochet’s decades-long repression, which the United States enabled by encouraging him to overthrow Salvador Allende, Chile’s democratically elected leader. Because Bolton absolves America of the negative consequences of its past interventions, he cannot imagine why Iraqis might worry about the consequences for their country.
Bolton is hardly the only American commentator or foreign policy official to get Iraq wrong. Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, and John Kerry, supported the war. So did I. But as with Iran, what distinguishes him is not just his hawkishness. It’s his refusal to reconsider that hawkishness in the face of even the most crushing evidence.
After repeatedly insisting before the war that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, Bolton declared five months after America’s invasion that the failure to find WMD was of no consequence. “Some analysts have said that not finding WMD in Iraq—to date—proves that Saddam was not an imminent threat, and that, therefore, our Coalition military action was not justified,” he argued in October 2003. “These criticisms miss the mark that our concern was not the imminence of Saddam's threat, but the very existence of his regime, given its heinous and undeniable record, capabilities and intentions.” The quote is peak Bolton: Claiming that Saddam’s WMD capabilities are undeniable in the face of mounting evidence that they don’t exist.
More than a decade later, Bolton again defended his support for the war. “I am convinced,” he declared in 2015, that Saddam “would have gone back to the search for nuclear weapons.” The following year, Bolton added that, “Had he [Saddam] stayed in power, he would today have even larger chemical stockpiles. His ‘nuclear mujahideen,’ the 3,000 scientists and technicians he had retained, would have recreated his nuclear-weapons [program].” Maybe Bolton is right—the counterfactual is impossible to disprove. But there’s something absurd about a man whose false declarations about Saddam’s WMD helped enable a catastrophic war justifying that war with new predictions that, had the war not been fought, Saddam would have developed WMD.
Absurd and also callous. The Iraq war left over 4,400 Americans and close to 500,000 Iraqis dead, cost the United States trillions of dollars and helped create the Islamic State. Bolton doesn’t deny that the war plunged Iraq into anarchy. But in the same 2015 interview where he justified the invasion by claiming that Saddam would have gotten WMD eventually, Bolton justified the anarchy that followed by claiming that Iraq might have collapsed anyway. “There might have been some Iraqi Shia who decided to assassinate Saddam for all that he had done to repress the Shia and Iraq would have descended into chaos," Bolton mused. In other words: There was nothing wrong with blowing up the building because it might have collapsed on its own.
Imagine giving that answer to a mother or father—American or Iraqi—whose child died in the war. It’s so flip as to be obscene. But Bolton is a man who justified his decision to evade military service in Vietnam by explaining that, “by the time I was about to graduate in 1970, it was clear to me that opponents of the Vietnam War had made it certain we could not prevail, and that I had no great interest in going there to have Teddy Kennedy give it back to the people I might die to take it away from.” In other words, it was the liberals’ fault.
From a life of insularity and privilege, John Bolton has built a worldview based on national and personal impunity. The United States is not morally responsible for what it did in Chile or Iraq. Bolton himself is not responsible for the many false predictions he has made, and for the catastrophic war he helped engineer. It’s no surprise that such a man would get along with Donald Trump. Both have floated upward despite the wreckage they have created in other peoples’ lives. Now, together, they are free to create more than ever before.