John Bolton’s widely-anticipated tell-all about his time as Donald Trump’s national security adviser has been cleared for publication. If the release is anything like the build-up, it will come with a hefty dose of rehabilitation for one of the worst actors in American politics.
Earlier this year, when many were convinced that Trump’s impeachment would be the news story of the decade, Bolton announced that his upcoming memoir would contain information corroborating accusations of Trump’s abuse of power. The revelation briefly threatened Republican hopes for a prompt acquittal and spurred calls for Bolton to take the stand.
At that time, Fox News host Lou Dobbs looked into a camera and, with a straight face, called John Bolton “a tool for the Left.” As military affairs writer Kelsey Atherton so colorfully put it, Dobbs’ segment “will probably be the thing that makes my heart give out, my body explode in a supernova of stammering and frustration.”
But it wasn’t just the far right seeing Bolton in a profoundly ill-informed new light. Before the Senate decided against hearing witnesses in the trial, reasonable demands from Democrats to hear Bolton’s evidence had already morphed into something far more insidious — and bizarre: praise for the man himself.
Now, with the release of the memoir imminent, the nightmare has started again. Commentators are already casting aside all consideration of who John Bolton is and what he has done with his life, instead allocating praise and condemnation based purely on whether he is with or against Donald Trump at a given moment.
While many remain bitter that he didn’t testify during Trump’s impeachment trial, that hasn’t stopped the press from fawning over every drop of information released about the book. A recent Washington Post piece had this to say: “Bolton made one fateful misjudgment. He overestimated the character, honor and patriotism of Senate Republicans.” Yes, John Bolton’s fatal flaw is that he is just too principled.
Before the memoir is published and Bolton becomes the new hero of a certain strand of anti-Trump liberalism, let’s take a look back at his legacy.
Bolton’s record of malicious foreign policy positions started early. He began his political life as a supporter of the racist and trigger-happy presidential campaign of Barry Goldwater in 1964, and would later become an acolyte of segregationist senator Jesse Helms. In 1966, the idealistic young college student would foreshadow his later life’s work by writing an op-ed for the Yale newspaper titled “No Peace in Vietnam.”
Working in the Justice Department during the Reagan years, Bolton fought against reparations for Japanese-Americans who had been forced into internment camps during World War II and repeatedly withheld documents to prevent the public from learning the details of what would become the Iran-Contra affair.
In the 90s, as Senior Vice President of the war-friendly think tank the American Enterprise Institute, Bolton became a leading advocate for recognizing Taiwan as an independent country, while secretly receiving tens of thousands of dollars from the government of Taiwan.
Under President George W. Bush, Bolton served as Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Affairs. Ironically, Bolton used this position to do everything possible to destroy existing arms control treaties and accelerate the nuclear arms race. In one instance, he even blocked a U.N. initiative to prohibit the private ownership of grenade launchers.
The only times Bolton seemed to care about arms control was when he was baselessly accusing other countries, like Cuba and Syria, of developing biological and chemical weapons. But these lies were just a warm-up — Bolton was one of the leading advocates of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and helped orchestrate the campaign of disinformation about Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction to make that invasion a reality.
In 2005, Bolton took a new post in the Bush administration, becoming Ambassador to the United Nations — though he was never actually confirmed for the position, and only served because of a temporary recess appointment — despite his professed disdain for the institution. He famously declared that if the U.N. Secretariat building lost ten stories it “wouldn’t make a bit of difference.”
While Bolton’s history of malignant foreign policy positions is long and varied, he is perhaps best known for his unending hostility toward and saber-rattling at North Korea and Iran.
Throughout his career, and during his short tenure in the Trump administration especially, Bolton obstructed all efforts at diplomatic engagement with North Korea. Instead, he repeatedly called for war, once penning a Wall Street Journal article arguing that the U.S. legally could, and should, launch unprovoked military strikes against the country.
Bolton’s lust for war with North Korea can only be matched by his longing to bomb Iran. In administration after administration, Bolton has been the head cheerleader for war with Iran. While his dreams of all-out war have so far been deferred — though the U.S. campaign of economic warfare rages on — his actions have brought us much closer to it. Bolton’s influence was instrumental in convincing Trump to pull out of the successful multilateral Iran nuclear deal, which was in turn one of the key factors in bringing the U.S. and Iran to the brink of war earlier this year.
In short, John Bolton is the worst of both foreign policy worlds: nihilistically nationalistic in his ends, interventionist in his means. His policy record demonstrates not one iota of care for the lives of foreigners — and little more for the lives of Americans. Instead, it shows that Bolton believes war is the answer to every question that hasn’t been asked.
The roots of U.S. empire reach far deeper than any one man. But as far as it’s possible, John Bolton is the physical embodiment of all that is wrong with U.S. foreign policy.
Fortunately, some commentators have managed to walk the line of reporting Bolton’s revelations about Trump without lionizing him. And I have yet to see a “Mustacharita” or “Bolton Bellini” at the newly-reopened DC happy hour haunts.
But the persistent head-in-the-sand belief that all of politics should be understood in either pro- or anti-Trump terms has inspired senseless fawning in the past. FBI Director Robert Mueller helped sell the public on war with Iraq before becoming the subject of embarrassing t-shirts, or being photoshopped onto the bodies of saints to sell prayer candles. And George W. Bush has inspired widespread liberal adoration simply by sharing a cough drop with Michelle Obama and being slightly less crass in his war crimes than Trump.
Bolton’s evidence should have been heard in trial, and his testimony as a witness to Trump’s corruption remains important — but in the days ahead, for one of the most abhorrent people in the history of abhorrent U.S. foreign policy, let’s skip the canonization. John Bolton deserves no one’s praise.