The departure of John Bolton from the post of national security advisor to Trump removes from a crucial position a person whose belief in the US waging war on what he identified as its enemies was boundless. His recommendation for every perceived foreign policy problem has been to take military action. He was the fourth person to hold the position of National Security Advisor under Trump, during the past 33 months. His predecessors resigned or were “let go”. Bolton’s departure is easily the most dramatic of them.
The general assessment of both insiders and observers is that Trump’s administration is a continual chaos. A White House insider, commenting on Bolton’s exit said: “why not, it’s a snake pit”. Trump says he will announce Bolton’s successor next week. Given what is known of the nature of the disputes which took place between Bolton and Trump, it can at least be hoped that the advice Trump is given in the period ahead, might be less bellicose, more in touch with contemporary international affairs. But, the assumption that Trump will take any advice, is a large one.
Trump fired Bolton by tweet on 10th September, citing their strenuous disagreements. A few hours later Bolton disputed this account, saying that he had, in fact, resigned; giving no reason for his decision.The consensus in DC is that, as usual, Trump is lying; that Bolton jumped first.
Bolton’s public service career spans some 40 years. There has never been any doubt about the extremity of his beliefs but they achieved particular notoriety through the appointments given him under the GW Bush administration: Under Secretary of State and later, Ambassador to the United Nations. In those roles he had responsibility for US arms control policy and policy towards all key multilateral institutions.
Those were elementally poisonous appointments because Bolton had stated publicly that he did not believe in: arms control; the applicability of international law to the US; or the United Nations.
His appointment as Ambassador to the UN was an out-of-session one; made when the Senate was not in session, and could not exercise its constitutional duty to provide advice and consent to his appointment. Bolton lasted only 18 months as Ambassador. The administration did not submit his name to the Senate, when it returned to session, because it was clear that the Senate would not approve it.
On the particular issue of nuclear arms control, and his view of international law, I had a relevant experience of those, some 20 years ago. The Council on Foreign Relations in New York had arranged a public debate between Bolton and me on issues under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which was then undergoing review. The debate was strong and at a key moment, I responded to his trashing of the Treaty by saying that the US had international legal obligations under it, which it was not fulfilling. In response he punched the lectern and said: “There is no such thing as international law; there is only national sovereignty”. I replied saying the the accession by the US to the Charter of the United Nations was an exercise of its sovereignty and that action had committed it, under the Charter, to conduct itself in accordance with international law. He waved this aside.
In Bolton’s time as Under Secretary of State/UN Ambassador, he refused to allow agreement to be reached by a key NPT review conference confirming the continuing viability of the Treaty and endorsing a programme of action to improve it; and the US withdrew from the Anti Ballistic Missile Treaty.
In his time as key advisor to Trump the US has: left the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty; the Iran nuclear agreement (JCPOA), to which the IAEA has reported Iran was adhering; and has refused to begin discussions with Russia on a five-year extension of the bedrock nuclear arms control treaty (New START), which for the last ten years has imposed limits on the nuclear weapons systems held by the US and Russia. Together, they hold 90% of the nuclear weapons in existence. New START is due to expire in 2021. Bolton has insisted that it should be abandoned.
His hostility to international law is comprehensive. It is fulsomely expressed, for example, in his attacks on the Statute of Rome, which established the International Criminal Court. For over 20 years he has spoken repeatedly and vehemently against the very idea that any American could be tried in an international court.
The bellicosity of his advice both to Trump and in earlier roles, has been seamless. He urged the invasion of Iraq in 2003. He participated in the fabrication of intelligence to justify that invasion and continues to reject utterly, any suggestion that it was a grave error which has authored so much of the turmoil in the Middle East. His advice to Trump on DPRK and Iran and their nuclear programmes has been to stop fooling around with diplomacy. Bomb them. In March 2015 he wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times entitled: “The Iranian Bomb, Bomb Iran”. Most recently he has opposed the suggestion made my President Macron, that Trump should meet Iranian President, Rouhani. And, he has urged US military intervention in Venezuela.
What I have just written is a truncated account of Bolton’s record. It reflects the nature of the role and influence he has sought to play in US foreign policy for some 20-30 years. Bolton’s character has been manifest for a long time. It raises the question of why Trump hired him; an action Trump had signalled, initially, he was reluctant to take.
Leaving aside wider issues involved in Trump’s consistently appalling judgement in his hires of staff, in the case of Bolton, Trump had stated in many ways, that his focus is on US domestic affairs and his wish to end constant US involvement in international conflicts. Bolton represented the direct opposite of that outlook.
It seems fair to assume that Trump would not be particularly aware of the persistent strand of isolationism in US foreign policy, but he can be described as having isolationist instincts, at least as far as international political relations are concerned. His only lively interest in matters beyond US shores is in economic relationships: trade, finance and in decreasing US payments for other international activities: payments to cooperative enterprises such as NATO and the UN, and for development assistance.
In contrast with this, Bolton has been a persistent representative of another strand in US relations with the rest of the world; interventionism, particularly by military means. This has been the dominant strand since World War II. Trump’s slogan, “America first” represents one of the ways his election has, possibly, held out the prospect of some change in the way the US will conduct its affairs, including exiting conflicts in which it has been long involved, such as in Afghanistan.
Trump conducts his presidency, elementally, as a reality show for television. His meetings with Kim Jong Un have been the exemplar of this. His planned meeting, this week, with the Afghan Taliban at Camp David, was to be the next episode and presumably, a meeting with President Rouhani at the UN General Assembly in 10 days time in New York, was to be the next. Bolton was vehemently opposed to these and this brought his long running friction with Trump to an end.
On the notion of Trump taking advice, the cancellation of the proposed meeting with the Taliban provided a typical illustration. It was advanced by Trump; Bolton opposed it; So did Pompeo and Pence; Trump then cancelled it; Pence then claimed he agreed, at all stages, with the President; Pompeo remained silent; and, when asked in public about how the decision evolved, Trump claimed that in this, as in most matters, ” I took my own advice”.
An important test of US foreign policy and its reputation with so many other countries, was dropped on it yesterday by the Prime Minister of Israel. Netanyahu faces elections in a week and the polls do not suggest that he will necessarily win. So, he announced that if he wins, he will move immediately to annex a significant portion of Palestinian territory on the West Bank, incorporating it permanently into Israel. He said Trump has told him the US will support this and, and then went on to say that Israeli voters should return him to office now, or risk losing this extraordinary opportunity arising from Trump being President. Incredible, and so far, not denied by Washington. And, how would this differ from Russia’s annexation of Crimea?
So much of what’s truly awful in the Middle East, such as the scandalous humanitarian crisis in Yemen, rests on the US/Saudi/Israel nexus and it’s shared animosity towards Iran. Will John Bolton’s departure change any of this?
Many in the US and in other interested countries have commented that Bolton’s departure removes a significant source of potential danger arising from Trump’s role as Chief Executive of the Government of the US and its Commander in Chief. There are enough of such dangers arising from Trump’s almost incredible distance from and ignorance of the nature and structure of contemporary international relations. Having, sitting on his shoulder, a devoted disciple of the uses of US military power was an additional burden. But two questions now arise.
First, who will be appointed in Bolton’s place and what impact will this have and, secondly, what prospect will there be for the chaos within the White House to be mitigated?
It must be remarked that, it is in the circumstances described here, our government decided, without any public consultation to send Australian military assets to join the US in the Straits of Homuz. Anyone within our system who sought to justify this by reference to its role in insuring continuing US protection of Australia is deceiving themselves and the Australian public. That the Morrison government would be certain to accept such argumentation would have been a given and, more importantly, would have told us nothing about its interest in revisiting the dishonest narrative on the Alliance advanced by John Howard, following his incidental presence in the US on September 11, 2001.
It is relevant to record here that, in parallel with Howard’s efforts, at that time, US Vice President Cheney commenced an extensive effort to convince the US people that Saddam Hussein had directed the 9/11 attacks. That was an outright lie, which the administration knew it to be, but which some 60% of Americans came to believe at the time of the US led invasion of Iraq, in which, of course, Howard authorised our participation.
Richard Butler AC Former Ambassador to the United Nations; Executive Chairman of the UN Special Commission to disarm Iraq ; Diplomat in Residence, Council on Foreign Relations, New York.