Days after John Bolton said the US would send an aircraft carrier and bombers to the Middle East to deliver a message to Iran, President Donald Trump dismissed speculation that his national security adviser was trying to start a war.
“I actually temper John, which is pretty amazing,” Mr Trump said, when asked whether he had confidence in Mr Bolton, an unyielding proponent of the projection of American power abroad who has described the nuclear deal struck with Tehran in 2015 by the Obama administration as “execrable”.
The president’s comments did not erase concern that Mr Bolton and Mike Pompeo, secretary of state, were hyping intelligence to justify military action. Critics worry that Mr Bolton, who was accused of slanting intelligence to justify the Iraq invasion in 2003, was trying to push Mr Trump down a similar path.
One person who dealt with Mr Bolton during the George W Bush administration (he also served under Ronald Reagan and George HW Bush) said he was “obsessed to the point of almost being irrational” with Iran. But supporters say the 70-year-old Yale-educated lawyer, who is known for his consummate bureaucratic infighting skills and trademark moustache, is simply taking a hard line on the kind of Iranian malign activities that the Obama administration ignored in the nuclear deal.
“Whether it’s defending human rights and democracy in Cuba, Venezuela or Nicaragua, countering the immediate threat posed by the Iranian regime or standing up to hostile actors in Russia and China, John Bolton is honourably serving and defending the interests of the US,” said Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican senator.
Mr Trump named Mr Bolton to succeed Lieutenant General HR McMaster in March 2018, in what was a reversal of fortune for the son of working-class parents from Baltimore. The previous year the president interviewed both men for the job. Although he was impressed with Mr Bolton from watching his appearances on Fox News, he chose Gen McMaster because he liked being surrounded by generals and disliked Mr Bolton’s moustache.
When Mr Trump named Mr Bolton a year later, some were surprised. During the presidential race, Mr Trump had criticised the Bush administration for invading Iraq and stressed his opposition to military interventions. Yet in the previous two months, Mr Bolton had called for regime change in Iran and a pre-emptive strike on North Korea.
But to the extent that Mr Bolton is critical of international institutions, such as the UN where he was ambassador in 2005-06, his world view dovetails with Mr Trump, who sees multilateral groupings as hampering a muscular “America first” approach. On his West Wing desk, he keeps a UN piggy bank — a gift from Gen McMaster — which offers a daily reminder of his view that the UN is a waste of money and that no one would notice if the top 10 floors of its headquarters were gone.
Richard Armitage, a deputy secretary of state during the Bush administration, said he was “terrific” when he was on your side negotiating arms control deals. “[But] it’s hard to know when he’s on your side. He doesn’t appear to do team sports.”
A supporter of Brexit, Mr Bolton is very dismissive of the EU. In his memoir Surrender Is Not an Option, he says Europeans prefer endless “diplomatic mastication” to real problem-solving. Such is his reputation that when he first met Jim Mattis, the then defence secretary joked that he was the “devil incarnate”.
Mr Bolton was instrumental in the US decision last year to declare that it would not comply with the International Criminal Court. He also played a key role in the US withdrawing from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.
In office, Mr Bolton has focused on Iran, North Korea and, more recently, Venezuela. He has been credited with persuading Mr Trump to walk away from the summit in Hanoi with Kim Jong Un after the North Korean dictator offered what he viewed as a weak deal. But he has had to swat away speculation that Mr Trump was unhappy with his handling of the crisis in Venezuela.
While critics think Mr Bolton is trying to manipulate a malleable president, Mark Dubowitz, a think-tank head with close ties to Iran hawks in the administration, said Mr Trump saw him as a useful “bad cop”.
“The president likes the fact that he has John Bolton and Mike Pompeo who are perceived by American adversaries and allies as being very tough minded on Iran,” said Mr Dubowitz. “It opens up diplomatic space to go from, ‘I would send a hell of a lot more than 120,00 troops’ to, ‘Hi, I am over here, call me’.”
Over the past year, and particularly since Mr Mattis resigned, Mr Bolton and Mr Pompeo have led a “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran. In February, on the 40th anniversary of the Iranian revolution, Mr Bolton released a video in which he told Iran’s leaders that, “I don’t think you’ll have many more anniversaries to enjoy”. Critics say this partly undermined his insistence that the US is not pushing for regime change.
Tucker Carlson, a conservative Fox News host, recently said war with Iran would be “Christmas, Thanksgiving [and] his birthday wrapped into one” for Mr Bolton, who, he added, “mercifully . . . does not control the military”. Mr Armitage put it more colourfully. “I suspect . . . John finds himself somewhere between the fifth and ninth rings of Dante’s inferno.”
The writer is the FT’s Washington bureau chief
Follow Demetri on Twitter: @dimi
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