There’s been some good (and bad) writing in the last week about Donald Trump’s choice of Ambassador John Bolton to succeed General H.R. McMaster as National Security Adviser.
There has also been superb writing (see Omri Ceren, for example) about the specific problem of the Iran nuclear program and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the peculiar non-agreement perpetrated in July 2015 but never signed by Iran, never agreed to by Iran in the same language as understood by the other parties, and clearly never seen as binding by Iran, which has continued to violate the terms of the JCPOA and UN resolution 2231, by which it was, to some degree, “implemented.”
Bolton’s appointment is considered by many to be a sign that the Trump administration is indeed serious about Trump’s ultimatum to our European partners in the JCPOA; that is, “fix it,” with a deadline of 12 May for serious proposals, or we pull out.
Some observers see Bolton’s reputation as the kind of bolstering factor that will make Trump’s threat even more credible. This logic would apply to the potential for nuclear negotiations with North Korea as well.
It’s not just Bolton’s tough reputation that would make the difference. His background and expertise enable him to design a strategy for getting to Trump’s desired outcome in both cases. One of the most important obstacles Trump has faced in his first year in office is the lack of a focal point in the administration for crafting such a strategy.
I commented on this problem several times in 2017, as we watched people come and go on the National Security Council and the White House staff. As long as Trump didn’t exercise effective control of the NSC, he would not be able to get that body to concentrate its efforts on his priorities and objectives. (In fact, Trump seemed to see this himself, setting up a separate planning cell for the Iran problem outside the NSC in July 2017.)
With his recent personnel moves – excusing Rex Tillerson from State, moving Mike Pompeo over there, and now bringing in Bolton as National Security Adviser – Trump is lining up a team that will work for him, rather than trying to continue in the well-worn ruts of convention preferred by the bureaucratic foreign policy establishment.
There is a natural tendency to focus at this point on the 12 May deadline for the “Iran fix,” and the yet-to-be-scheduled prospect of talks with Kim Jong-Un. Certainly, these planning targets require concrete focus, with respect to details large and small. It is necessary to outline specific goals, measures of performance, alterations to existing triggers and prohibitions, and so forth. That element is indispensable, and Bolton will be an asset in that regard.
But he will be a uniquely “enabling” asset in an even more important one. Which is simply this: John Bolton won’t be afraid to favor changes in U.S. policy that would put pressure on the stability of the Iranian or North Korean regime.
That, at least, is what I predict. Notice that I didn’t say he would rush to try to provoke regime change in either country. I don’t think Trump would do that either.
The proposition is, rather, that fears about potentially undermining the stability of either regime will not be a tiebreaker for Bolton. He won’t circumscribe his policy concepts with the constraint to avoid doing anything that would undermine the stability of the radical regimes in Tehran and Pyongyang.
The fear of “undermining” such radical regimes has frequently been a consideration for conventional foreign policy thinkers in the U.S., to the extent that Washington, D.C. – and Foggy Bottom, in particular – becomes more solicitous of such regimes’ health and welfare than of any national interest of the United States.
That is a deeply flawed and unrealistic perspective (often advanced, ironically, as “realism”). It has led in the past to the U.S. effectively bolstering such regimes when they’re on the ropes – against the best interests of their people as well as ours, and our allies’.
I believe John Bolton will be unafraid to plan for the contingency of the radical regimes not surviving in Iran and North Korea. That makes him unusual in the foreign policy establishment. But it’s exactly what we need.
That’s because being tough with Iran, in terms of isolation, diplomatic pressure, and enforcing sanctions, is in fact very likely to decisively squeeze the radical regime currently in power there. The prospect will inevitably figure in U.S. decision-making. And it must not be allowed to exercise a veto on our best policy options.
The Iranian people continue to mount mass protests and show tremendous courage in defying the regime’s oppressions. They don’t need any outside prompting, or any help envisioning their own concept of regime change and political reform.
But they also don’t need the United States propping up the evil regime that abuses them, by letting it make lucrative economic deals with the nations of Europe and Asia while it runs rampant around the Middle East, selling arms and sponsoring proxy wars.
It does the Iranian people as much harm as it does the American, Israeli, or Saudi (or any other neighboring) people to prop up the mullahs in the name of “stability.”
It is equally misguided to prop up the Kim regime and call it “stability.” The benefit of bringing in John Bolton is that — if I read him correctly — he won’t be afraid to act on that as a principle. He won’t let an invalid definition of “stability” put our policy options inside a lock-box.
The truth is that stability is what we won’t have until the radical, terror-sponsoring mullahs are gone from Iran, and the Kims are no longer in control of North Korea. The last thing we should do is fear to upset their apple cart.
This means that as May 2018 heaves into view, we need to be thinking proactively beyond the prospect of nuclear agreements to what we do if and when things change for the better in the “Axis of Evil” nations. Regional containment, and protection for internal reform, are important concerns. We also need to recognize that, while the U.S. and Russia, or the U.S. and China, may have some interests in common with respect to one or both of these troublesome regimes, we are not bound to let Russia’s or China’s definition of “stability” or “interest” override ours.
It probably will not be time, in May, to implement any specific plans yet. But we must contemplate the potential for that better future – of change bringing real stability, and real benefit for many peoples – with intent, and without fear. We don’t need to be coy, either. We need to name and frame what we want to say about it, and stick to a messaging campaign on our terms and not anyone else’s.
That fearless approach is something conventional foreign policy thinkers are rarely able to get to. The last time we saw the outlines of what I have in mind — ceasing to shore up a “status quo” that was radical and vicious on one side, and thus inherently destabilizing, yet also not actively taking arms against it — was during the Reagan years. The Reagan Doctrine, in fact, was largely about empowering “freedom” movements against radical regimes, without trying to dictate through the use of U.S. power what the outcome would be.
The West’s foreign policy establishments never take well to that mindset. But I think, just maybe, Trump is putting the minds in place that will be able to accomplish such a feat.