on geopolitics

Trump Loads the Bolton Bullet

Reva Goujon
VP of Global Analysis, Stratfor
10 MINS READMar 27, 2018 | 17:40 GMT
Former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton leaves a meeting in Trump Tower in December 2016.
(Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton leaves a meeting in Trump Tower in December 2016. Bolton's appointment to replace H.R. McMaster as national security adviser -- on the heels of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's replacement with Mike Pompeo -- raises the threat of U.S. military action against North Korea and Iran alike.

  • Although the U.S. administration is taking steps to avoid an all-out trade war, President Donald Trump's selection of like-minded hard-liners to craft foreign policy raises the threat of military action in multiple regions around the world.
  • The White House is using the threat of a military strike to try to negotiate the deal of the century with North Korea while also opting, alongside Israel, for a confrontation with Iran.
  • Newly designated national security adviser John Bolton will lend credence to the argument in the White House that nuclear rogues must be prevented at any cost, but the constraints to military action, much less regime change, in North Korea and Iran are immense.

The door to the White House had not yet shut in Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's wake when a mustachioed war hawk came in to take over another seat in President Donald Trump's Cabinet late last week. In replacing national security adviser H.R. McMaster, former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton will join the newly designated secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, to craft U.S. foreign policy as the world waits on edge for the White House's next moves.

Analyzing personality to predict policy is a limited endeavor. But the concentration of hawks and the winnowing of pragmatists in the White House have the effect of bending constraints and raising tolerance to risk on high-stakes issues. As a result, we must lay any baseline, constraint-laden forecast we make against the personalities charged with making fateful political decisions.

The Big Picture

Members of a cadre of pragmatists in the White House have paid with their jobs for resisting U.S. President Donald Trump's willingness to entertain a forceful denuclearization policy toward North Korea and Iran. While the heavy costs of military action remain, the appointment of hard-liners like newly designated national security adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo could bend the constraints and raise the tolerance to risk in crafting U.S. foreign policy.

On a Precarious Course

On trade, the president's bark has so far been worse than his bite. The White House conceded on exempting allies from metals tariffs and is starting to bend in negotiations over the North American Free Trade Agreement and over its trade deal with South Korea. It even narrowed the scope of its hefty tariffs on China to focus on strategic sectors after weighing the effects on the American consumer, and a quiet dialogue is building between Washington and Beijing. Though tensions are high, we're not yet at the point of a global trade war — nor will we get there unless the United States repudiates trade norms and hits back in response to retaliatory measures. Larry Kudlow, free trade globalist Gary Cohn's replacement as Trump's chief economic adviser, has made it known that he will support the president's tariff policies so long as they drive toward a fruitful negotiation in the end. Even as apocalyptic fears of a trade war unnerve global markets, Trump still has a chance to claim victory for his ballsy trade assault while White House tacticians try to maneuver a soft landing in talks.

But beyond trade, U.S. foreign policy may be on a more precarious course. Appointing like-minded hard-liners such as Pompeo and Bolton after a year of raucous debate and reshufflings in the Oval Office is a move on the president's part to quash dissent and spur action on his agenda. The incoming hawks bring a ruthless craft to the job; they not only have the technical prowess to hack through Washington bureaucracy, but they also identify with the president's belief in blunt force as the best way to wield American power.

Bolton can lend style and substance to the president's most severe policy preferences. He is almost poetic in his bellicosity, with a penchant for weaving anecdotes from American history and quotations from former presidents into his arguments to give them the kind of intellectual gravitas that Trump craves. Like the president, Bolton regards multilateral institutions with contempt and sees diplomacy as a way to waste time, not solve problems. Bolton's most consequential trait, however, is his unwavering enthusiasm for regime change to treat the United States' most vexing foreign policy dilemmas.

His worldview dictates that nuclear-aspiring or nuclear-capable rogues must be stopped at any and all cost. Even after the 15 years of civil war, jihadist proliferation and Iranian competition that followed, Bolton is still an unapologetic champion of the U.S. decision to invade Iraq based on claims that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. He has tried on multiple occasions to justify military action against North Korea by suggesting that Beijing would be a partner for regime change. ("The answer to China's fear of uncontrolled collapse is a jointly managed effort to dismantle North Korea's government, effectively allowing the swift takeover of the North by the South," Bolton wrote in August 2017, for example.) And downplaying the fact that the Iraq war paved the way for the Islamic republic's regional revival, Bolton maintains that the United States must support a popular revolt in Iran once Washington has ripped up the Iran nuclear deal. ("America's declared policy should be ending Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution before its 40th anniversary" in 2019, he wrote in January in The Wall Street Journal.)

Pyongyang Runs Out the Clock

The inherent danger of accepting and trying to contain nuclear rogues is incontestable; the efficacy of a deceptively simple solution to prevent them is not. In the case of North Korea, time is most certainly not on Washington's side.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has tried systematically to handicap Beijing's options for regime change, even if it meant assassinating members of his own family. Pyongyang has its reasons for keeping Beijing at arm's length: Obscurity is the North Korean government's main line of defense, and it's not about to let China or any other party shine a light on its carefully cultivated darkness. Whether contemplating a limited "bloody nose" strike to try to shake the Kim administration into cooperating or a comprehensive military campaign to forcibly reunify the Korean Peninsula under the U.S. umbrella, Washington inevitably runs the risk of triggering an all-out regional war and a global economic recession. As the White House weighs these risks, Pyongyang will try to stretch the timeline for dialogue in its favor, knowing that with each passing week, its developing nuclear program will further narrow the United States' military options.

The inherent danger of accepting and trying to contain nuclear rogues is incontestable; the efficacy of a deceptively simple solution to prevent them is not. In the case of North Korea, time is most certainly not on Washington's side.

From One Crisis to Another

Bolton sees the North Korean and Iranian nuclear issues as intrinsically linked. In his view, military action against North Korea and Iran is justifiable if it severs nuclear cooperation between the two and stops a chain reaction of nuclear proliferation in other dangerous quarters of the world. Bolton doesn't just want to throw out the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), better known as the Iran nuclear deal. He has advocated an imminent unilateral withdrawal from it despite the fact that the other parties to the deal and the International Atomic Energy Agency alike maintain that Iran is complying with the agreement. In his words, "it is neither dishonorable nor unusual for countries to withdraw from international agreements that contravene their vital interests. As Charles de Gaulle put it, treaties 'are like girls and roses; they last while they last.'" These words will hold a lot of sway with Trump, who is just weeks away from deciding whether to walk away from the JCPOA.

At this point, Iran has to assume the worst. By questioning the viability of the deal in the first place, the Trump administration already has stripped out its implicit security guarantees. Tehran now will interpret any domestic protest that pops up as evidence of a fifth column, as the anti-Iran ideologues in Washington hail it as a sign of revolution. The reality, of course, will be far more complex. There's a reason the United States opted for an unpalatable diplomatic solution over a costly military intervention in the Persian Gulf to stall Iran's nuclear ambitions. And while the Islamic republic is grappling with how to keep the fires of a 40-year-old revolution burning among its youth, Iranians are no more likely to welcome their American liberators with open arms than Iraqis were. This is utterly recent history, after all.

Nonetheless, a more aggressive U.S. policy toward Iran is clearly taking shape. Compare the situation today with that of 2012, when the United States was last contemplating the contours of confrontation with Iran. Back then, it was Israel weighing the risks of goading the United States into military action; this time around, the U.S. and Israeli governments are more in sync as they calculate the cost of wrecking the JCPOA. Things on the Arabian Peninsula have also changed dramatically over the past five years. Questions the JCPOA spawned over U.S. security commitments in the Gulf drove Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to overcome their paper army status and assume real and costly military responsibility in the region to roll back Iranian influence there. And now that Israel is pursuing more open relations with Saudi Arabia, a U.S.-Israeli military contingency plan against Iran can at least explore the possibility of access to Gulf air space and bases.

While the Islamic republic is grappling with how to keep the fires of a 40-year-old revolution burning among its youth, Iranians are no more likely to welcome their American liberators with open arms than Iraqis were.

At the same time, Israel understands that any holistic pressure campaign on Iran must start with Hezbollah. Having an administration in the White House that is attentive to its concerns will provide Israel with a chance to try to weaken the Shiite militant group while it's still exposed and overextended in the Syrian civil war. Though Israel would have to contend with significant complications in a military campaign on its northern frontier — not least of all Russia's heavy support for Iran in Syria — a U.S.-backed Israeli military offensive against Hezbollah is a distinct and growing possibility.

A Full Plate

A military-backed denuclearization and regime change strategy to deal with proliferation threats like Iran and North Korea will have serious repercussions for the United States and the rest of the world. In the case of North Korea, Trump's threat of "fire and fury" is gaining more credibility as he assembles his war Cabinet. And though the prospect of military intervention has a dim chance of yielding the diplomatic deal of the century — a U.S. withdrawal from the Korean Peninsula in exchange for Pyongyang's denuclearization and Korea's reunification against China — the alternative is more likely. The high demands and heavy distrust on both sides could reduce negotiations to a perilous game of chicken as North Korea tries to draw out the dialogue long enough to cross the nuclear finish line and deprive the United States the option of a preventive strike.

Either way, Washington is consciously raising the odds of military action in multiple theaters at a time of trillion-dollar budget deficits, a fragile economic recovery and rising near-peer competition with China and Russia. Bolton himself said that "with immediate, continuing threats from international terrorism and nuclear proliferators like North Korea and Iran, plus strategic threats from Russia and China, America's agenda is full to overflowing." The truth in that statement cannot be overstated. The question is whether it will translate into a policy mindful of very hard and real constraints.

Article Search

Copyright © Stratfor Enterprises, LLC. All rights reserved.

Stratfor Worldview


To empower members to confidently understand and navigate a continuously changing and complex global environment.