Trump’s Over-the-Top National Security Team

On March 22, President Trump tweet-sacked National Security Adviser (NSA) Lieutenant-General H.R. McMaster, naming as his replacement John Bolton, one of the most hawkish, controversial and unpopular officials in the trigger-happy administration of George W. Bush. Bolton learned the news while appearing on the Fox ‘News’ Channel, his soapbox in recent years for espousing US-led ‘regime change’ military action in – for starters – Iran and North Korea. Though startled by Trump’s timing, he had paid numerous recent visits to the White House and – despite his own shirking of combat duty in the Vietnam War – will doubtless take over from McMaster, on April 9, ready to insist America must be ready to fight.

Trump’s move came a week after his tweet-sacking of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, to be replaced with Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director Mike Pompeo. Like Bolton, Pompeo is keen to ‘Give War a Chance’ as soon as possible in Korea and (once that mission is accomplished) Iran. Unlike Bolton, and Presidents Trump and Bush II, Pompeo has served in the military – including, somewhat surreally “as a cavalry officer patrolling the Iron Curtain before the fall of the Berlin Wall” – and has seen active service, in the 1990-91 Gulf War. Also unlike Bolton, Pompeo’s appointment will require, and is highly likely to receive, Senate confirmation, the hurdle Bolton ignominiously failed to clear when Bush nominated him as UN Ambassador in 2005.

As a March 23 TIME article details, the reasons for this failure were many, including his documented bullying of staff and penchant for cherry-picking (on occasion cherry-conjuring) intelligence, but bipartisan ire was principally directed against his overt hostility to the United Nations itself, a denial of its need, even right, to exist. As he told NPR’s Juan Williams in June 2000:

If I were redoing the Security Council today, I’d have one permanent member, because that’s the real reflection of the distribution of power in the world – the United States.

All international laws are invalid, meaningless attempts to constrict American power.

Even more pithily, in a February 1994 speech Bolton broke the news that “there is no United Nations,” only “an international community that occasionally can be led by the only real power left in the world…when it suits our interests and when we can get others to go along” – to “go along,” in particular, with US forces into battle.

Warmly embracing such extremism, Bush sidestepped the Senate, sending Bolton to New York by executive order as a ‘recess appointment.’ And prior to serving as his anti-UN UN Ambassador, Bolton was Bush’s anti-arms control Undersecretary of State for Arms Control, instrumental in the fateful US 2002 withdrawal from the 30-year-old Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty rightly regarded by Moscow as the key to strategic stability and preventing another nuclear arms race. (See my Spectator piece from last October.)


On March 9, the day after the dramatic announcement of a May summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, Bolton quipped (on Fox): “How do you know the North Koreans are lying? They’re moving their lips!” Yet his principle ‘achievement’ in the State Department was helping prod, sell and lie his country into Iraq, a war beginning (19 March 2003) almost exactly 15 years before his elevation to new heights by a president who, as a candidate, denounced that “adventure” as “a big fat mistake.” Eerily, Bolton’s first day as NSA coincides with the April 9 anniversary of the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad, within hours of which Bolton stated “we are hopeful that a number of regimes will draw the appropriate conclusion,” a clear reference to the two other members of the ‘Axis of Evil,’ Iran and North Korea.

Announcement of the nomination of John Bolton as the US Ambassador to the United Nations. (Photo by Paul Morse, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Announcement of the nomination of John Bolton as the US Ambassador to the United Nations. (Photo by Paul Morse, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Though Bolton still lumps these two ‘rogue regimes’ together, Iran and North Korea in fact drew opposing conclusions from both the invasion of Iraq, a country without weapons of mass destruction (as UN inspectors were in the process of verifying), and the 2011 NATO-led bombing and destruction of Libya, a country that had renounced WMD and reached out to the West. While Iran, after intense debates between hard-liners and moderates, finally agreed to radical constraints on its nuclear energy sector in return for diplomatic rapprochement and sanctions relief, North Korea quickly abandoned hopes of dependable détente with Washington and embarked on an intense program of nuclear missile and weapons development, culminating in a 200-kiloton hydrogen bomb test last September and successful Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) test two months later.

It is important to stress that North Korea, for all the atrociousness of the Kim dynasty, has been periodically prepared to make major concessions to finally convert the 1953 Korean War Armistice into a full Peace Treaty. In the 1990s, the Clinton administration and the leadership of Kim Jong-un’s father, Kim Jong-il, came close to such a breakthrough. And as a scathing New York Times editorial – ‘Yes, John Bolton Really is That Dangerous’ – noted:

[N]o one worked harder to blow up the 1994 agreement under which North Korea’s plutonium program was frozen for nearly eight years in exchange for heavy fuel oil and other assistance. The collapse of that agreement helped bring us to the crisis today, where North Korea is believed to have 20 or more nuclear weapons.


The general ‘take-away’ from the double swap of Tillerson and McMaster for Pompeo and Bolton is that two voices of reason have been lost, two ‘guard rails’ removed from the president as he weighs war and peace in Korea. The impact, however, is far more likely to be felt with regard to Iran. Trump has to decide in mid-May whether the US will remain in the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran, China, France, Germany, Russia and the UK — an exemplary example of multilateral non-proliferation diplomacy regarded as strongly in US interests by Tillerson and McMaster (and Defense Secretary James Mattis) and loathed with every fiber of their unilateralist, nationalist beings by Bolton and Pompeo. Abandoning the Iran deal, of course, would also send the worst possible signal to North Korea; another reason, perhaps, the new NSA and Secretary of State will vehemently counsel withdrawal.

McMaster, though, was hawkish on North Korea, coining and polishing the phrase ‘compelling denuclearization,’ by war if necessary; and Tillerson was tepid at best about diplomacy, limiting its scope to discussions among allies about exerting ‘maximum pressure’ on Pyongyang and never hinting at the kind of genuine concessions – a non-aggression pact, security guarantees, mutual demilitarization – the Kim leadership might realistically be expected to accept. The kind of ultimatum Bolton and Pompeo will likely press Trump to ‘offer’ Kim at their summit – surrender or face slaughter, de-nuke or we nuke – is alas not so different from the ‘stark choice’ and ‘existential decision’ McMaster and Tillerson were intent on forcing Kim into.

Tweeting in the raw aftermath of McMaster’s dismissal, seasoned commentator Richard Haass from the mainstream Council on Foreign Relations was right to call this “the most dangerous moment in modern American history,” but wrong to locate Bolton as the source of the infection, rather than a symptom of the disease. And mainstream international relations scholar Fred Kaplan, not given to alarmism, was only half-right to tweet: “It’s time to panic now. John Bolton’s rise puts us on a path to war.” We were already there.

On March 19, the New York Times featured an inadvertently inspired juxtaposition of opinion: “The Dirty Secret of American Nuclear Arms in Korea,” by veteran journalist Walter Pincus and “Fifteen Years Ago, America Destroyed My Country,” by young Iraqi émigré Sinan Antoon. Wrote Pincus:

As President Trump prepares for a possible meeting with Kim Jong-un, many Americans are raising warnings that North Korea has walked away from previous arms agreements. But those skeptics should remember that it was the United States, in 1958, that broke the 1953 Korean Armistice Agreement, when the Eisenhower administration sent the first atomic weapons into South Korea…

…Since then, Americans have forgotten this history and American politicians have only blamed North Korea for undermining arms agreements. Pyongyang has indeed been unreliable; but its leaders recall what happened in the 1950s, having spent 33 years facing American nuclear weapons just across the border in South Korea

The United States does not come to any future talks with totally clean hands. Both sides have reason to adopt Ronald Reagan’s advice: ‘Trust, but verify.’

Antoon was 12 when the American ‘liberators’ arrived. While full of “inveterate hatred” for Saddam Hussein, he was even then aghast at the “cheerleading” for war orchestrated by Bolton et al. His anguished reflection concludes:

No one knows for certain how many Iraqis have died. Some credible estimates put the number at more than one million. You can read that sentence again. The invasion of Iraq is often spoken of in the United States as a “blunder,” or even a “colossal mistake.” It was a crime. Those who perpetrated it are still at large. Some of them have even been rehabilitated thanks to the horrors of Trumpism and a mostly amnesiac citizenry. (A year ago, I watched Mr. Bush on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, dancing and talking about his paintings.) The pundits and “experts” who sold us the war still go on doing what they do. I never thought that Iraq could ever be worse than it was during Saddam’s reign, but that is what America’s war achieved and bequeathed to Iraqis.

Incredibly enough, we may be set not just for a recurrence of that nightmare, a repeat of the wretched song-and-war-dance, starring an all-too-familiar cast. We may be heading for something even worse.

Featured image: John Bolton by Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.


Sean Howard



Sean Howard is adjunct professor of political science at Cape Breton University and member of Peace Quest Cape Breton. He may be reached here.