Iran, Venezuela puts spotlight on Trump adviser John Bolton
Crises around the globe are shining a bright spotlight on John Bolton a little more than a year into his tenure as President Trump’s national security adviser.
Critics and supporters alike see Bolton’s fingerprints on Trump’s foreign policy, particularly as tensions with Iran and Venezuela appear close to boiling over.
Detractors fear he is pushing Trump toward military action against Caracas and Tehran, while the president’s allies say Bolton is simply doing his job in providing options, and that Trump’s natural inclination is nonintervention regardless of who his adviser is.
“Amb. Bolton is a savvy, successful, seasoned bureaucratic infighter who knows when he can push and when he cannot,” Andy Keiser, a principal at the lobbying firm Navigators Global who worked on the Trump transition team’s national security section, said in an email. “The president seems eager to hear his opinion, but everyone in the White House complex fully understands who sets the policy.”
Keiser highlighted North Korea as an example where Trump’s approach was not Bolton’s “personal first choice,” but where he is now following the president’s lead.
Bolton started as Trump’s national security adviser in April 2018 after Trump fired H.R. McMaster.
McMaster, who spoke at a Foundation for Defense of Democracies conference Wednesday, would not directly comment on his successor’s performance in response to a question from The Hill, but generally praised the administration’s “effective implementation” of its Iran strategy.
“The JCPOA was fundamentally flawed,” McMaster said, referring to the Iran nuclear deal by the acronym of its official name. “It was really flawed in another assumption, another one of these flawed assumptions that Iran, if they’re welcomed back in to the international economy, that they will liberalize. Maybe the mullahs — it’ll be like the Grinch, their hearts will become two sizes bigger, they’ll give back all the gifts to Whoville. But it’s not going to happen.”
Democrats in Congress who have been critical of Bolton in the past told The Hill this week they’re leery of Bolton, but not to the point where they suspect he is pushing for war with Iran or Venezuela.
“I haven’t come to the conclusion that that’s what he’s doing yet,” said Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Still, Menendez said he didn’t “understand why we’re sending carriers into the region, unless we were going to go there anyhow and we just said that. So, I’m cautiously looking at what’s happening, because you use your muscle only when you intend to use it, not when you just want to flex.”
Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said he is worried about Bolton’s influence, but added, “It’s hard to read John Bolton.”
“I haven’t seen the evidence yet that Bolton wants to go to war at the drop of a hat,” Smith said. “I think he wants to use strong rhetoric. Does he want to go fight? But, yes, certainly his approach is cause for concern.”
Others indicated hope that Trump, who has been pushing for U.S. military withdrawals in Syria and Afghanistan, will follow his noninterventionist instincts over Bolton’s advice.
“I think the president is still reluctant to commit major military forces abroad, so Bolton’s influence may be limited by the president’s appetite to go back on his campaign promise and authorize major military action,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who bucks his party on military issues, did not comment on Bolton’s influence but said, “I think that the president’s instincts are good on this, and hopefully he’ll listen to his inner voice.”
Bolton’s tenure began with an early stumble when he spoke about a “Libya model” for North Korea nuclear negotiations, which prompted threats from Pyongyang to cut off talks with the U.S.
After the North Korea dust-up, Bolton appeared to recede into the background of the administration. But more recently, he has been the face of the U.S. response to crises in Venezuela and Iran.
“Amb. Bolton is executing the president’s explicit desire for a peaceful transition to democracy in Venezuela and a maximum pressure campaign against Iran, which continues to pose a threat to American interests and allies,” National Security Council spokesman Garrett Marquis said in a statement to The Hill on Wednesday.
When Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó rallied his supporters to take to the streets last week in a risky gambit to rally the military against President Nicolás Maduro, Bolton was front and center on television vowing that “all options are on the table” when asked about the possibility of U.S. military involvement.
While Guaidó’s efforts faltered, turmoil with Iran quickly sparked.
Tensions with Iran skyrocketed in the lead-up to the first anniversary of Trump’s withdrawal from the Obama-era nuclear deal.
On the exact date of the anniversary Wednesday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announced his country would stop complying with parts of the international accord, with further steps threatened in 60 days if Europe does not ensure Iran gets the benefits it was promised in the deal despite U.S. sanctions.
Iran has zeroed in on Bolton’s role in the administration, with Foreign Minister Javad Zarif dubbing him part of a “B Team” pushing Trump into a “trap.” The other members of that team, according to Zarif, are Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed.
Rouhani’s address was preceded by an announcement from Bolton this week that the United States was deploying a carrier strike group and bomber task force to the region in response to unspecified threats from Iran.
The deployment raised eyebrows in part because the announcement came from Bolton, not the Pentagon. A senior administration official said the Pentagon requested the statement come from the White House.
The carrier was already scheduled to go to the Middle East, but its trip there has now been sped up. Critics have since accused Bolton of using a routine deployment to unnecessarily escalate tensions with Iran.
But others argued that a carrier deployment is a sensible step to show American resolve.
“I think we need to show we are strong and capable,” Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) said.
Asked if Bolton was having an outsized influence on the administration’s policies, Inhofe said, “I hope so. That’s his job.”
“I’ve known John Bolton for a long time, and I’ve never known him to make a bad decision,” Inhofe said.
Bolton’s critics would disagree — particularly on his strong support for military intervention in the lead-up to the Iraq War. They also point to a March 2015 opinion piece Bolton wrote for The New York Times with the headline “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran,” saying it downplayed the difficulty of military action against Iran.
Bolton and other administration officials have denied that their goal is regime change in Iran, arguing they want the government to change its “behavior.”
James Carafano, a defense policy expert at the Heritage Foundation who is close with the administration, said Bolton knows his place in the administration and won’t push Trump too far.
“Trump is the decider-in-chief,” Carafano said in an email. “Bolton knows that and is respectful and is too smart to press the president to do something the president doesn’t think is right. Trump by his nature isn’t looking for new wars. That said, Trump seems happy to have folks play good cop, bad cop.”
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