The accession of Mike Pompeo and John Bolton marks a dangerous turning point in American foreign policy – not merely because they may enable Donald Trump’s worst instincts, but because their own instincts are incendiary.
However ineffectual, former secretary of state Rex Tillerson spoke for moderation; former national security advisor H.R. McMaster understood the costs of war. Pompeo and Bolton are Dick Cheney redux — prone to exaggerating threats, scorning serious diplomacy, and imagining that American power can mold the world to their liking.
Their timing could not be worse. America faces two combustible nuclear threats. North Korea is imminent; Iran must be managed. Both require sound judgment, skilled diplomacy, careful planning, and a sophisticated sense of consequence — the antithesis of the blinkered belligerence that characterizes Trump’s selections.
This aggressiveness — both toward the world, and as bureaucratic infighters — will likely overwhelm the ability of the remaining voice of moderation, James Mattis, to reason with a president for whom reason is psychologically inimical.
Pompeo is a political animal who used his post as CIA director to insinuate himself with Trump by echoing his worldview. He upholds the use of torture by our intelligence services. He dismisses the Paris climate change agreement as a “costly burden.” He shares the paranoid fantasies of anti-Muslim extremists that an Islamic fifth column is planning to overthrow our government.
With Cheney-esque sangfroid, he advocates regime change in North Korea and Iran. After all, he opines, destroying Iran’s nuclear program is “not an insurmountable task.”
Bolton is worse.
By custom, the national security adviser is an honest broker charged with ensuring that the president receives a range of advice. But according to Carl W. Ford Jr., a former assistant secretary of state, Bolton is a “kiss-up, kick-down sort of guy”— an abusive screamer who stifles or purges those who do not share his views. Particularly reminiscent of Cheney is a tendency to twist intelligence to suit his preconceptions — in Bolton’s case, by threatening and bullying subordinates. Little wonder that he has started firing staffers hired by McMaster.
These corrosive character defects serve the stunted prism of a think-tank uber-hawk who equates his airless D.C. echo chamber with the real world. As Peter Beinart points out in The Atlantic, Bolton has never served in the military, or immersed himself in studying world history or any region on the globe. His stints on Fox News were a study in the ferocity of ignorance.
And its persistence. Many credible people supported the Iraq war. But Bolton is unique in his insistence, despite the disastrous evidence of 15 years, that invading Iraq was a splendid idea. Now, like Pompeo, he wants to repeat this triumphal chapter by bombing Iran and North Korea in pursuit of regime change. What could possibly go wrong?
In Bolton’s world, nothing. Like Trump, he believes all that matters is what America wants — or, more precisely, what goes on within his own head. So what happens if the ambitious Pompeo and the manipulative Bolton urge Trump to follow his impulse to scrap the Iran deal — scorning the pusillanimity of Barack Obama and our European allies?
Nothing good. Despite contrary evidence of international inspections, Bolton imagines that Iran is cheating on the deal. This facilitates Pompeo’s and Bolton’s dearest wish — that America bomb Iran. Who, then, will persuade Trump that such an action would metastasize roiling hatreds and create the next generation of jihadists?
But this is nothing compared to the risks of miscalculation in North Korea.
Pompeo and Bolton imagine deposing Kim Jong Un without any realistic notion of how. This bodes ill for negotiations. Bolton sees them as an occasion for “shock and awe”— threatening North Korea with dire consequences unless it agrees to “total denuclearization.” But this is a crack smoker’s pipe dream — the ruthless Kim believes that a nuclear arsenal is essential to his own survival.
Instead, Kim is probably commencing talks in hopes of negotiating the removal of US troops from the Korean Peninsula and an end to our alliance with South Korea. In this scenario, “denuclearization” is a vague and distant carrot. This clash of perceptions can be managed, if at all, only through skilled and patient diplomacy well beyond Trump’s ken.
Bolton’s alternative is simple — a preemptive strike on nuclear North Korea. But one North Korean nuclear weapon could decimate South Korea — or Tokyo — and Kim’s conventional weapons could kill hundreds of thousands of people in Seoul.
We are left to hope that Pompeo recoils from the prospect. And, God help us, Donald Trump.
Richard North Patterson’s column appears regularly in the Globe. His latest book is “Fever Swamp.” Follow him on Twitter @RicPatterson.