John Bolton has been one of liberals’ top bogeymen on national security for more than a decade now. He seems to relish the role, going out of his way to argue that the Iraq War wasn’t really a failure, calling for U.S.-led regime change in Iran and preventive war against North Korea, and writing the foreword for a book that proclaimed President Obama to be a secret Muslim. He is a profoundly partisan creature, having started a super-PAC whose largest donor was leading Trump benefactor Rebekah Mercer and whose provider of analytics was Cambridge Analytica, the firm alleged to have improperly used Facebook data to make voter profiles, which it sold to the Trump and Brexit campaigns, among others.
Recently Bolton’s statements have grown more extreme, alarming centrist and conservative national-security professionals along with his longtime liberal foes. He seemed to say that the United States could attack North Korea without the agreement of our South Korean allies, who would face the highest risk of retaliation and casualties; just two months ago he called for a regime change effort in Iran that would allow the U.S. to open a new embassy there by 2019, the 40th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution and the taking of Americans hostage in Tehran. His hostility toward Islam points toward a set of extreme policies that could easily have the effect of abridging American Muslims’ rights at home and alienating America’s Muslim allies abroad.
As worrying as these policies are, it’s worth taking a step back and thinking not about Bolton, but about his new boss, Donald Trump. Trump reportedly considered Bolton for a Cabinet post early on, but then soured on him, finding his mustache unprofessional. His choice of Bolton to lead the National Security Council reinforces several trends: right now, this administration is all about making Trump’s opponents uncomfortable and angry. Internal coherence and policy effectiveness are not a primary or even secondary consideration. And anyone would be a fool to imagine that, because Bolton pleases Trump today, he will continue to do so tomorrow.
Yes, Bolton has taken strong stances against the policies of Russian president Vladimir Putin (though he has also been quoted praising Russian “democracy” as recently as 2013). That’s nothing new: Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, incoming Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and outgoing National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster have called for greater pushback on Russia as well. But there’s every reason to think that, rather than a well-oiled war machine, what we’ll get from Bolton’s National Security Council is scheming and discord — which could be even more dangerous.
President Trump was said to complain that Tillerson disagreed with him and McMaster talked too much. Bolton seems likely to combine both of those traits in one pugnacious, mustachioed package. Their disagreements are real — Bolton has famously pooh-poohed the kind of summit diplomacy with North Korea that Trump is now committed to. While Trump famously backed away from his support for the 2002 invasion of Iraq, courting the GOP isolationist base, Bolton continues to argue that the invasion worked, and seldom hears of a war he would not participate in. Trump attempted to block transgender people from serving in the military, but Bolton has declined to take part in the right’s LGBT-bashing, famously hiring gay staff and calling for the end of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.
That’s all substance. What really seems likely to take Bolton down is his style, which is legendary — and not in a good way. His colleagues from the George W. Bush administration responded to Trump’s announcement with comments like “the obvious question is whether John Bolton has the temperament and the judgment for the job” — not exactly a ringing endorsement. One former co-worker described Bolton as a “kiss up, kick down kind of guy,” and he was notorious in past administrations for conniving and sneaking around officials who disagreed with him, both traits that Trump seems likely to enjoy … until he doesn’t. This is a man who can’t refrain from telling Tucker Carlson that his analysis is “simpleminded” — while he’s a guest on Carlson’s show. Turns out it’s not true that he threw a stapler at a contractor — it was a tape dispenser. When Bolton was caught attempting to cook intelligence to suggest that Cuba had a biological-weapons program, he bullied the analyst who had dared push back, calling him a “mid-level … munchkin.” How long until Trump tires of the drama — or of being eclipsed?
Bolton may find that in this job, he’s the mid-level munchkin. Remember, the national security adviser is supposed to be the coordinator, conciliator, and honest broker among Cabinet officials, managing a process by which all get a fair say and the president makes well-informed decisions. Outgoing National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster reportedly lost favor with Defense Secretary Mattis and Chief of Staff John Kelly for failing to defer to them, and for being too emotional. Love Bolton or hate him, no one imagines he will be a self-effacing figure, and no one hires him to run a no-drama process. It’s also hard to imagine that many of the high-quality professionals McMaster brought into the National Security Council staff will choose to stay. McMaster repeatedly had to fight for his team within the Trump administration, but Bolton seems unlikely to follow that pattern, or to inspire the kind of loyalty that drew well-regarded policy wonks to work for McMaster, regardless their views of Trump.
So even if you like the policies Bolton espouses, it’s hard to imagine a smooth process implementing them. That seems likely to leave us with Muslim ban–level incompetence, extreme bellicosity, and several very loud, competing voices — with Twitter feeds — on the most sensitive issues of war and weapons of mass destruction.