Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. He is the author of “United States of Jihad: Investigating America’s Homegrown Terrorists.”
As John Bolton settles into his new job as US National Security Adviser this week in the midst of raging international issues, officials in Washington and foreign capitals will be putting significant effort into trying to predict the behavior of the mustachioed 69-year-old aide to President Donald Trump.
They should start by reading “Surrender is Not an Option,” Bolton’s comprehensive 2007 memoir about working for the administrations of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. It provides much insight into Bolton’s views about American national security.
Despite its tendentious title – has any US politician or policymaker really advocated American surrender? – Bolton’s 504-page memoir is an invaluable road map to what he believes and how he does business. For that reason alone it should be required reading for those at the White House, Pentagon and State Department who will be dealing with him, as well as for his foreign counterparts and their staffs.
Monday is Bolton’s first day at the White House as National Security Adviser and already his inbox is overflowing. There are multiple reports of a suspected chemical attack outside the Syrian capital of Damascus, which anti-regime activists claim was conducted by the Syrian regime. Television images are emerging of some of the dozens that are believed to have died in the attack.
On May 12 there is a deadline for President Trump’s administration to decide whether to pull out or to remain in the nuclear disarmament agreement with Iran. And by the end of May, Trump is due to meet with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un to discuss the possibility of his regime’s denuclearization, the first time an American president has met with a North Korean leader.
Here are nine takeaways from Bolton’s memoir:
1. Bolton has been a “movement conservative” for more than half a century. As a teenager in 1964, Bolton volunteered to work on the Barry Goldwater Republican presidential campaign and while he was a law student he interned for President Richard Nixon’s vice president, Spiro Agnew.
2. Bolton owes his position to hard work and smarts. The son of a Baltimore firefighter, Bolton went to Yale and then to Yale Law School where he was a contemporary of Bill and Hillary Clinton, though they moved in quite different circles.
3. Bolton is a longtime swamp dweller and is far from a Washington outsider, as many of Trump’s senior administration officials have been. He has held a variety of key jobs in Republican administrations going back to the time when Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical” was the No. 1 song and “Dallas” was the top-rated TV show. During President Reagan’s first term, Bolton was appointed to senior jobs at the US Agency for International Development and he went on to work in a number of other key positions, culminating in serving as George W. Bush’s ambassador to the United Nations. Bolton understands on a deep level how to operate in the DC bureaucracy.
4. Bolton is inclined to bring a gun to a bureaucratic knife fight. Bolton approvingly quotes himself on the matter of diplomatic “carrots and sticks,” writing, “I am not much of a carrot man.” This made him plenty of enemies in Washington. In 2005, Carl Ford, a former assistant secretary of state who had worked with Bolton in the George W. Bush administration, testified before a Senate committee that Bolton was a “kiss-up, kick-down sort of guy,” as the New York Times recently recalled.
5. Bolton is steeped in the arcana of arms-control negotiations. He served as the top official at the State Department working on arms-control issues in the George W. Bush administration. As a result, Bolton’s memoir is a forest of acronyms such as SALT, START, PSI, CBW, and IAEA that only arms-control wonks will likely instantly understand.
6. Bolton’s skepticism towards both North Korea and Iran is longstanding. He believes that North Korea will “never give up its nuclear weapons voluntarily” and that any promises to do so are simply to get what it wants, such as the lifting of sanctions. North Korea, Bolton writes, “has followed this game plan many times, and it has every reason to believe it will succeed in the future.”
Bolton has a similar longstanding view about Iran and wrote that “Iran will never give up its nuclear program, and a policy based on the contrary assumption is not just delusional but dangerous.” However, Bolton’s view of Iran is undermined by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which since the Iran nuclear deal was inked in 2015 has nine successive times certified that Iran is sticking to the restrictions it agreed to under the terms of the deal.
Given Bolton’s attitude toward those regimes, it’s hard to see how he could advocate for any negotiated settlements with them.
7. Bolton believes US State Department careerists are “overwhelmingly Democratic and liberal,” suggesting he is unlikely to defend the agency against the deep cuts that the Trump administration has proposed for it and will mostly ignore the advice of career State Department officials.
8. Bolton has a deep skepticism about any kind of constraints on American power and was an “America First” guy long before this became a common slogan. Bolton writes in his memoir that his happiest moment working at the State Department was “unsigning” the agreement that made the United States a party to the International Criminal Court, which he saw as a grave risk for US political and military leaders who might be hauled in front of it. When Bolton pulled the US out of the agreement in 2002, “I felt like a kid on Christmas Day,” he recalled.
9. Finally, Bolton takes very good notes about what his counterparts say in meetings and what he says to them, so we should expect another Bolton memoir at some point – this one about his time in the Trump administration.
On some levels it is hard to think of a more qualified American official to deal with the issues concerning weapons of mass destruction and Iran, Syria and North Korea than Bolton, who has great expertise in those matters and also of dealing directly with American adversaries such as the Iranians.
At the same time Bolton is also a longtime and well-known advocate of preemptive wars against regimes such as Iran and North Korea. As recently as February he argued in the Wall Street Journal for a unilateral American military strike against North Korea.
Will his pugnacity help or hurt Bolton as he coordinates the Trump administration’s responses to the Syria gas attack and its diplomatic outreach to North Korea? We will soon have an answer to those questions.