Recently-appointed National Security Advisor to the president, John Bolton, has faced plenty of scrutiny since taking office. The primary reason for Bolton-related skepticism has been his track record of bellicosity, and even more concerning, his apparent refusal to admit wrongdoing with respect to his role in sparking the beginning of the Iraq War under the Bush administration. At the very least, Bolton – who’s widely known as a neocon with a particular hankering for conflict in the Middle East – should be willing to acknowledge that the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan did not go according to plan, but he’s not even willing to go that far.
"I still think the decision to overthrow Saddam was correct," Bolton told the Washington Examiner in 2015. "I think decisions made after that decision were wrong, although I think the worst decision made after that was the 2011 decision to withdraw US and coalition forces." (Business Insider)
It’s this apparent sticking-to-his-guns regarding past, nearly-universally panned military advising efforts that led many to anticipate impending conflict upon Bolton’s appointment, which came as March ended. Yet, it must be pointed out that Bolton has not always been a man whose apparent first-reaction in a given conflict is to intervene militarily. As the Atlantic points out, Bolton – a prolific writer who deserves kudos for using the written word to explain and flesh out his stances – has in the past been a critic of prolonged interventionism in the name of nation-building, citing the dichotomy between the first Bush administration and the Clinton administration as two opposing examples.
‘What President Bush originally decided and what the Clinton administration later did represent fundamentally divergent approaches.
The Bush administration sent U.S. troops into Somalia strictly to clear the relief channels that could avert mass starvation. It resisted U.N. attempts to expand that mission. The Clinton administration, however, set about pioneering "assertive multilateralism" and efforts at nation–building that led to the violence and embarrassment that ultimately ensued.’- John Bolton (Foreign Affairs, 1994)
However, Bolton’s well-documented stance on regime change beginning with Iraq in 1998 has made him synonymous, perhaps ironically, with one of the most notorious failed nation-building efforts in modern history. Bolton, as an influential member of the think tank Project for the New American Century (PNAC), was one of the primary signatories on a letter penned to President Clinton and others in 1998 pushing for regime change in Iraq.
‘We urge you to seize that opportunity, and to enunciate a new strategy that would secure the interests of the U.S. and our friends and allies around the world. That strategy should aim, above all, at the removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime from power. We stand ready to offer our full support in this difficult but necessary endeavor,’ that letter reads.
Obviously, PNAC’s wishes never came to fruition under the Clinton regime. But just nine days after the September 11th attacks, they penned another letter to George W. Bush urging the same thing, though there was no apparent tie between Saddam Hussein and the Twin Towers falling.
Bolton and his running mates had their eyes set on a change of power in Iraq since 1998, if not before, and urged President Bush to use the September 11th attacks as impetus to finally put those plans into motion.
‘But even if evidence does not link Iraq directly to the attack, any strategy aiming at the eradication of terrorism and its sponsors must include a determined effort to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq,’ the PNAC letter to Bush reads.
This, in and of itself, is enough to cast doubt upon the official reasoning given for entering Iraq, reasoning which was in question from the start and never proven to be true.
Bolton was eventually appointed to Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security by Bush in 2001, suggesting that he was closer to America’s head man than most realized as he was urging action in Iraq on behalf of PNAC. He remained in that role until 2005, when he transitioned to the role of U.S. Ambassador to the UN, until 2006 when he resigned upon realizing he would almost certainly not be re-confirmed under a Democratic leadership majority.
Bolton’s role in promoting military conflict in Iraq, and the reality that his urging would help those wishes become an interminable reality, is the primary reason why Bolton’s appointment signaled one thing, though perhaps multiple iterations of that one thing: regime change. Where, we couldn’t be sure at first. But now, it seems evident that the first country on Bolton’s and, apparently, Secretary of Defense James Mattis’s to-do list is Syria.
Nevermind that today, English writer, journalist, and doctor Robert Fisk revealed that – having been to the site of the alleged attack – no chemicals were used against citizens in Douma, as has been widely reported. The narrative has been written, to state otherwise or cite the findings of a credible English doctor won’t make a difference to those whose minds are made up at this point. Paper-thin rationale for war didn’t stop Bolton’s mind from being made up prior to Iraq, and hasn’t changed it on that matter since, so why would we expect anything different now?
Iraq was one of the early dominos to fall in a trend of leader-ousting that has spread from Iraq, to Egypt, Libya, and now apparently Syria, with Bolton’s appointment coming just before the decision to strike in Syria for reasons that are far from clear, and certainly not fully explained to the American public. The extent of explanation is that, like Saddam Hussein, Bashar al-Assad is alleged to have chemical weapons stocks. Assad continues to profess to having given up those stocks when ordered to in 2014.
But, as we’ve seen, denials are of no use, even if they happen to be true. After all, we haven’t seen any credible evidence that they aren’t true denials.
Since at least 1998, Bolton’s M.O. has been to encourage military intervention in the Middle East, and we are now seeing that, even when much of the public sees that they are being fibbed to by their own leadership, public skepticism stands no chance against those in power who have made up their minds that a leader’s time is up.
And, what concerns most who have paid attention, is the possibility that the latest intervention in Syria will not be the last major conflict of the Trump presidency - especially if Bolton has the ear of the president. Consider his stance on Iran…
"A strike accompanied by effective public diplomacy could well turn Iran's diverse population against an oppressive regime," Bolton wrote in 2009, advocating a strike on Iran by Israel. "Most of the Arab world's leaders would welcome Israel solving the Iran nuclear problem, although they certainly won't say so publicly and will rhetorically embrace Iran if Israel strikes." (Business Insider)
Sounds like more nation-building, an issue which Bolton has apparently done a 180 degree turn on since his days of criticizing the Clinton administration’s approach in Somalia. But this is who John Bolton is now, and as much credit for past stances as one may be inclined to give, past stances are worth little to nothing at this point. It’s the wars that America does, or doesn’t, get into with Bolton as chief National Security Advisor that will help cement or evolve his legacy once and for all.