His name consistently pops up in conversations of the highest level, ranging from North Korea to Latin America, but most people would struggle to answer, “Who is John Bolton?” If someone can recall his association with the Trump association as National Security Advisor, they probably couldn’t pinpoint exactly what his position entails. This is all by design – Bolton prefers being the puppet master lurking in the shadows. From the shadows, he manufactured the Iraq War, one of the longest military engagements in U.S. history.
Bolton was born during the end of World War Two and grew up in Baltimore, Maryland. His parents were ordinary folks: a fireman and a housewife. Bolton was academically-gifted and managed to earn a scholarship to a private boarding school where he finished his high school years. Already his political ambitions had begun to fester as he led his school’s Students for Goldwater campaign for presidential candidate Barry Goldwater.
After attending Yale, he graduated with honors of summa cum laude, the highest honor awarded at Yale. The top of his class, he grew more political as he partook in the Yale Political Union. Eventually he graduated with a law degree alongside Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. It was then that he began brushing shoulders with presidents as he served as an intern for Vice President Spiro Agnew.
After working as a private attorney for some time, he eventually made his way back into presidential politics during President Ronald Reagan’s administration. He developed a proclivity for devoting his attention to what many would consider controversial issues such as illegal immigration and Japanese-American reparations.
In 2001, Bolton’s position as Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security tasked him with preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). George W. Bush had just been sworn in and Bolton certainly was well-qualified in the field, at least on paper. However, it was clear from the onset that he had his own agenda to push, namely one of American nationalism. Bolton abused his post to deter the United Nations from enforcing the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention which would have permitted inspections of U.S. weapons sites. Although the U.S. can force weapons inspections upon other nations as part of nuclear agreements, it’s above incurring them itself.
Bolton’s headstrong attitude often found him going toe-to-toe with both U.S. and foreign diplomats. He had his desires and would strongarm anyone he viewed as an adversary into complying, such as during his meeting with José Bustani, a Brazilian diplomat and former director general of the Organization for the Prohibtiion of Chemical Weapons. Bustani had arranged for both Libya and Iraq to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention, but Bolton had other ideas.
“He came to my office and said: ‘You have 24 hours to quit, and this is the instruction from Mr Dick Cheney,’” Bustani said. “And then Bolton said: you better think it over, because we know where your kids are.”
Eventually, Bustani was pushed out of his post. It was vital to Bolton’s self-interests that the Libya and Iraq not sign the accord in order to beat war drums. Without their compliance, he could paint the picture of a rogue regime running amuck with WMDs, which he did indeed do. He succeeded in pushing the U.S. into war against Iraq having found a willing president in George W. Bush.
Bolton’s management style both in Washington and on the global stage proved too much even for Bush to control. Bush had to sidestep the typical senatorial approval process for cabinet members to install him as a U.N. ambassador. When it became clear that he wouldn’t be confirmed by the Senate after his first term, he willingly resigned.
“This man is different from anyone I have met in my life. He doesn’t allow for a dialogue,” Bustani said. “You don’t discuss anything with him. It’s just brute force, that’s all.”
After nearly three decades serving presidents, Bolton was out of the game, but he harbored no intention of retiring to a sunny island while sipping margaritas all day. No, he worked to spread his messages of American nationalism through other means. From 2013 – 2018, he served as chairman of the Gatestone Institute, an organization well known for spreading anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant propaganda. The Gatestone Institute thrives on inciting fear amongst its audience by warning of a “jihadist takeover” and that the West is being “islamicized”.
Amidst the Syrian humanitarian crisis, the institute rang alarm bells as migrants began “invading Europe.” Often times the institute has simply created fake news such that European countries had created non-Muslim zones and even inaccurately reporting the number of churches and mosques in London.
Without a doubt, the Gatestone Institute was the perfect home for someone like Bolton, but he stepped down when he was offered a path back to the White House as Trump’s national security advisor.
Under Trump, Bolton has continued to look for war, starting with Iran. It was only a few years ago when he penned an editorial in the New York Times arguing that Washington should preemptively bomb Tehran. It was, from his perspective, the only logical way to prevent Iran from developing nuclear capabilities. This sentiment casually glides over the fact that President Barack Obama successfully negotiated a nuclear agreement that, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, was working.
So, this could not be allowed to stand because it was too diplomatic. Having a peaceful Iran complying with weapons inspections ran counter to Bolton’s pro-war agenda, therefore the deal was torn up. Although Trump insists it was his doing, there is little question that his foreign policy was until recently directly coordinated by Bolton.
After the bombing of several oil tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates, Bolton had his opening and requested that the Pentagon prepare plans to strike back. One plan even called for the employment of 120,000 troops. Calmer heads thankfully prevailed, but the U.S. did send 1,500 more to the region for intelligence and missile defense.
Bolton’s ambitions have caused him to gain too much notoriety recently. The White House has had to rebuke reports that Bolton is causing chaos in the West Wing and that he and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are at odds. Even Trump himself had to clarify that he is not seeking to overthrow Iranian leadership. By some accounts, this has Bolton frustrated that he cannot push Trump into another war.
Foreign policy is seldom the result of one man in a suit, even the president. It consumes the collective minds of advisors and diplomats spanning the globe and funneling that information into the White House. With a president who notoriously loathes reports and a revolving door of advisors in just two years, there is something to be said for anyone who can seize the power behind the throne.
Bolton did this so by controlling the flow of information and pushing the president down the path for war against Iran. While that situation might be cooling down, there will always be new opportunities and more targets for the aging war hawk.