foreign policy

Bolton Drops Verbal Bombs on Iran

US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton lived down to his reputation in a fiery speech in New York. Photo: Andrew Harrer

While his boss was in town to address the U.N. General Assembly, his national security advisor, John Bolton, reinforced Trump’s we’ll-do-as-we-see-fit message to the world in an speech to a handpicked New York audience of people hostile to the Iran nuclear deal. As the Times of Israel reports, Bolton was about as subtle as a daisy-cutter bomb hitting a nuclear facility:

US national security adviser John Bolton warned Iran of “hell to pay” and “serious consequences” if it defies the US, using some of the most aggressive language employed by administration officials in recent decades …

“The Iran deal was the worst diplomatic debacle in American history,” he continued in the speech, which coincided with the annual UN General Assembly. “It did nothing to address the regime’s destabilizing activities or its ballistic missile development and proliferation. Worst of all, the deal failed in its fundamental objective: permanently denying Iran all paths to a nuclear bomb.

In case Tehran had gotten behind in its paperwork and did not know it, Bolton wanted to give notice there was a new sheriff in town:

The United States is not naive. We will not be duped, cheated, or intimidated. The days of impunity for Tehran and its enablers are over. The murderous regime and its supporters will face significant consequences if they do not change their behavior. Let my message today be clear: We are watching, and we will come after you.

Even in an administration led by Donald Trump, and even on the day when the president redundantly expressed his contempt for any multilateral institutions or endeavors, Bolton still stands out in his bristling bellicosity. As Daniel Larison observed, it was a classic performance by a classic wild man:

Bolton loathes diplomacy. That is the key thing to understand about him, and it helps explain almost everything he has done in his career. He regards any successful diplomatic agreement as something of a debacle because it involves striking a compromise with another government, usually an adversary or rival, and because it means that the other side wasn’t forced to give in to our every demand …

If Bolton considers something to be the “worst diplomatic debacle” of our entire history, that tells us that the agreement required very little of the U.S., that it reinforced habits of multilateral cooperation, and that it successfully resolved an outstanding dispute that Bolton wished to resolve through regime change and war. 

Bolton’s position in the Trump administration is especially dangerous because he represents a particularly loud voice in the internal debate between the president’s determination to win by military intimidation, and his reluctance to undertake actual interventions. It remains something of a mystery how a president who just last week called the Iraq War “the worst single mistake in the history of our country” can employ as his national security advisor such a relentless cheerleader for that undertaking, who said as recently as 2016:

Iraq today suffers not from the 2003 invasion, but from the 2011 withdrawal of all US combat forces. What strengthened Iran’s hand in Iraq was not the absence of Saddam [Hussein], but the absence of coalition troops with a writ to crush efforts by the ayatollahs to support and arm Shi’ite militias. When US forces left, the last possibility of Iraq succeeding as a multi-ethnic, multi-confessional state left with them. Don’t blame Tony Blair and George W Bush for that failure. Blame their successors.

Perhaps Trump keeps Bolton around to frighten his adversaries, like a Rottweiler unleashed in the yard to scare off potential intruders. But in terms of America’s relationships with friends as well as enemies, Bolton’s bite is as real as his bark.

Bolton Rattles Saber at Iran