Michael KreponJohn Bolton

Quotes of the week:

“We have only two very unpleasant choices: either Iran gets nuclear weapons in the very near future, or pre-emptive military force, fully justified by well-established principles of self-defense, must break Iran’s control over the nuclear fuel cycle and prevent (or, at least, substantially delay) weaponization.” – John Bolton

“It is perfectly legitimate for the United States to respond to the current “necessity” posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons by striking first.” — John Bolton


What does John Bolton bring to the table as Donald Trump’s third National Security Adviser? Bad judgment calls that can have tragic consequences, for starters.

Bolton personifies the demise of the Republican Party’s national security establishment. Just 25 years ago, George Herbert Walker Bush sat in the White House and Brent Scowcroft sat in the West Wing corner office that now awaits Bolton. They were masters in the art of diplomacy, dealing expertly with the demise of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact, negotiating two strategic arms reduction treaties with Moscow, and engineering the mutual withdrawal of the least safe and secure nuclear weapons from Russian and U.S. deployments.

These diplomatic accomplishments belong to another era. The Republican Party no longer has a national security establishment. Instead it has naysayers and media personalities who oppose less than impossibly idealized diplomatic outcomes. The essence of Conservatism is to keep that which serves useful purposes until one can replace something useful with something better. Bolton and his ilk have turned traditional Conservatism upside down: they want to get rid of what they don’t like without having alternatives. They don’t like the Iran nuclear deal or the INF Treaty, but they have nothing better to take their place.

This isn’t Conservatism; it’s deconstructionism. Bolton & Co. oppose what real-world diplomacy can accomplish, so they turn to putting U.S. forces into harm’s way. The U.S. military is already paying a heavy price for Bolton’s preferences, and may well be called upon to do more.

Bolton and those of like mind were cheerleaders for a war to separate Saddam Hussein from nuclear weapon capabilities he did not possess. (Twisting the intelligence to suit policy preferences is another hallmark of Boltonism.) The Republican national security dis-establishment, which includes Trump’s new designee to be Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, has militarized nonproliferation diplomacy, replacing it with heavier sanctions and confrontational postures based on threats to use force and the ultimate sanction — the use of force. The timidity of allies is not welcomed, and international law be damned when it conflicts with U.S. freedom of action.

Team Trump is now on the path toward confrontations with both Iran and North Korea. The likelihood of diplomatic success continues to recede, while the likelihood of war is increasing.


  1. Gregg Herken (History)

    Preemption is arguably justified by international law as self-defense–IF an enemy attack is “imminent.” What Bolton is talking about is preventive war. Media accounts should get this straight. But probably won’t.

  2. John Hallam (History)

    If pre-emption (or preventive war) is legit, then this gives the DPRK the perfect argument to strike the US first. We are far more threatening to them than they are to us. Whats good for the goose is good for the gander.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      Dumb advice for DPRK. If DPRK attacked first, this would give Trump and company the morally smug excuse they need to finish off Kim Jong Un and his regime. Dumb advice for U.S. too. Whether legit or not, it is not practical for either side to start a war.

  3. tianhes (@tianheshen) (History)

    I wonder how big an influence Bolton will have on U.S. policies? After all, the Iran deal has not been scrapped, yet. And Trump is meeting with Kim. Having said that though, Bolton is famous for wanting a war with Iran. Was McMaster fired because he was too lenient?

  4. Michael Krepon (History)

    McMaster, by all accounts, didn’t mesh well with Trump.
    I doubt that the Trump-Bolton match-up will fare much better. Trump is likely to have great difficulties with Bolton’s intensity, and Bolton is likely to have great difficulties with Trump’s lack of seriousness.

  5. oliver (History)

    Dear Mr. Krepon
    Bolton is secnd only to “the dumbest man on the face of the earth” = Gen. Tommy Franks.
    Think about that for a minute.
    Cheers, oliver

  6. Keve (History)

    Mr. Bolton will be exactly someone who North Korean hardliners need to maintain and progress with their nuclear programs further. Mr. Bolton is about 10 years late, if he is assuming North Korea cannot strike back at US cities. There will be a huge economical and military price that US cannot afford for attacking North Korea. Mr. Bolton will only highlight to the international community that nuclear deterrent works for North Korea and promote the cause for nuclear armament. China and Russia do not openly discuss attacking South Korea and Japan with military option; if they did South Korea and Japan would be nuclear powers today where US “nuclear umbrella” is just political agreement, like that of Ukraine Treaty. I would recommend Mr. Bolton stop threatening North Korea with military option and stop helping to accelerate North Korean nuclear program.