The appointment of John Bolton to be the Trump administration’s third national security adviser in the past 14 months, signals a more confrontational approach to the world from an already belligerent regime. Bolton is one of the key figures of neoconservatism, a political tendency that believes that the US should pursue and defend primacy or unlimited power – especially by military means.
The neocons were originally a small group of conservatives who were frustrated with the US’s refusal to spend adequately on military defence. Many started working for the anti-communist Democratic senator, Henry Jackson, in the 1970s, but by the Reagan era, they had become Republicans. In contrast to conservatives who favoured détente with the USSR, the neocons advocated an aggressive confrontation and huge increases in military spending. Under Ronald Reagan, they began to get what they wanted.
When the Cold War ended, the US no longer faced a credible challenger to its military supremacy, and talks of pre-emptive military action were mostly shut down. But the neocons, concerned that US military spending was dropping again, never gave up their cause. Unlike conservatives who were reluctant to intervene militarily, they still advocated a much more hostile foreign policy, insisting that all options be kept on the table to tackle new “threats” facing the US.
They spent the 1990s crafting a blueprint for American power, which included military intervention and nation-building in the Middle East. With the terrorist attacks on September 11 2001, this vision became Bush administration policy. Neocons advocated the invasion of Iraq in order to pursue a democratic transformation of the Middle East; in the words of Donald Rumsfeld, to pursue terrorists in the region and “drain the swamp they live in”.
This is the ideological foundry in which Bolton’s views were cast – and he is one of its most hardline products. Though Bolton was close with other neocons, including former vice-president Dick Cheney, he is even more extreme than many in the Bush administration, including Bush himself. Bolton felt that Bush had become too soft abroad on hostile states such as North Korea and Iran, and he has yet to be placated on either front.
No holding back
He continues to advocate attacking North Korea pre-emptively and scrapping the hard-won Iranian nuclear deal altogether. While Trump has become a critic of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Bolton was one of the biggest proponents of this strategy, boasting at the time that Iraqis would “welcome US troops”.
The new national security adviser has also been outspoken on his attacks of treaties and international institutions, among them the Kyoto climate convention and the International Court of Criminal Justice, and the United Nations, the very organisation to which he was ambassador. He famously said that “there is no United Nations”. In contrast to the neocons who wanted to aggressively push for democracy in the Middle East, Bolton is more of a hardcore realist, mostly interested in increasing US power by any means available.
Back in November 2016, Bolton was apparently considered for the position of secretary of state, but was reportedly rejected on the grounds that Trump didn’t like his moustache. But overall, Bolton has also has a much better rapport with Trump than outgoing adviser H.R. McMaster ever did.
Whereas McMaster was a three-star general who was relatively cautious about taking military action, Bolton takes no options off the table. And whereas McMaster had a disciplined style and a better understanding of complex national security issues, Trump prefers to make his often rash decisions unimpeded. Bolton sees his job as to ensure that decisions of the president are not obstructed by bureaucracy or other branches of government. And like Trump, he has little respect for international law either.
With his foreign policy terminally mired in chaos, Trump has almost fully surrounded himself with a mixture of yes-men and warmongers. And unlike other cabinet appointees, the national security adviser doesn’t need to be confirmed by the Senate before taking office. That means reining Bolton in will be very difficult – and that after all these years of calling for extravagant foreign intervention, he’ll be able to push an ideology that is more “America First” than ever.