You are here

North Korea, The Iran Nuclear Deal, and John Bolton's Size 50 Clown Shoes

Submitted by Robin Messing on Sun, 05/06/2018 - 9:37am

John Bolton, President Trump's National Security Advisor, is a threat to our national security. Those aren't just my words.  Those words, only slightly edited, are the title of the  best article you can read about the threat Bolton poses to the world.  Colin Kahl and Jon Wolfsthal write:

Fifteen years ago, Bolton championed the Iraq War, and, to this day, he continues to believe the most disastrous foreign-policy decision in a generation was a good idea. Bolton’s position on Iraq was no anomaly. Shortly before the 2003 invasion, he reportedly told Israeli officials that once Saddam Hussein was deposed, it would be necessary to deal with Syria, Iran, and North Korea. He has essentially maintained this position ever since. Put plainly: For Bolton, there are few international problems where war is not the answer.


In a Sept. 3, 2017, Fox News interview, Bolton declared that the only option left to address the North Korean nuclear challenge is “to end the regime in North Korea” and strike first. “Anybody who thinks that more diplomacy with North Korea, more sanctions, whether against North Korea or an effort to apply sanctions against China, is just giving North Korea more time to increase its nuclear arsenal,” Bolton warned. “We have fooled around with North Korea for 25 years, and fooling around some more is just going to make matters worse.” . . .

To further lay the groundwork for taking military action, Bolton penned an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal just last month titled “The Legal Case for Striking North Korea First.” Recalling the Bush administration’s flawed analysis in the run-up to the Iraq War, Bolton argued that “the threat is imminent” and that the United States has every right to take launch a preventive war before it is too late.. . .


Fortunately, it appears less likely that we will go to war with North Korea now that North and South Korea have declared their intention to end hostilities between them.  After tremendous pressure from the Trump Administration, North and South Korea recently signed an agreement that "confirmed the common goal of realizing, through complete denuclearization, a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula." This followed Kim Jong Un's pledge not to proliferate nuclear weapons and to end North Korea's nuclear weapons and Intercontinental Ballistic Missile testing.  While the situation is far less dangerous than it was a month ago, it would be foolish to believe that we are out of the woods yet.  It is not clear exactly what the North Koreans mean when they say their goal is denuclearization. There are many details to be negotiated--especially dealing with verification and the pace of denuclearization. We don't even knew how sincere Kim is about his desire of completely ridding the Korean Peninsula of nuclear weapons.  Will he insist on holding on to a token number of weapons for deterrence because he doesn't trust?  Will he insist on a timetable of say 15 or 20 years to watch how we behave before he gets rid of his very last warhead? Would President Trump allow this or will he attack North Korea if he thinks its pace of denuclearization is too slow?  There are so many unanswered questions.

What we do know is that the survival of his regime is Kim's highest priority.  Kim has said that U.S. must promise not to invade North Korea and that he MUST be able to trust us to keep our word before he would get rid of his weapons. This could require a long process involving multiple meetings and multiple confidence building steps. 

Why might Kim not trust us? Presumably, he knows that, rightly or wrongly, President Trump has developed the reputation of lying.  But it isn't just President Trump that Kim must be concerned about.  Libya's President,  Muammar Gaddafi, got rid of his nuclear weapons program after our 2003 invasion of Iraq in order to avoid a fate similar to Saddam Hussein's. Gaddafi's reprieve from U.S. attack was only temporary. In 2011 President Obama aided a revolt against him by sending in bombers to attack his troops. Gaddafi's government fell and he was killed as soon as he was captured. The North Korean government concluded from this that Gaddafi had blundered when he gave up his nuclear program and that North Korea HAD to have nuclear weapons in order to avoid Libya's fate.  More than anything else, Kim (and his Father before him) did not want to be the next Gaddafi. 

Enter John Bolton stomping around in his size 50 clown shoes. He went on Face the Nation on April 29 and said that the North Korea should follow something close to the Libya model in giving up it's nuclear weapon. He also refused to give assurances to North Korea that we will not attack them. Here is the entire interview. Pay particularly close attention to what he says at 1:31-1:43 and 3:58-5:15.






Even if we can skate by without a war in North Korea despite Bolton's presence, we still have to worry about his influence on the Iran Nuclear deal (officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)) Kahl and Woflsthal continue:

Last August, Bolton wrote a memo to Trump, published in the National Review, dismissing the notion that the JCPOA can or should be fixed, instead outlining a strategy for ripping up the deal. And when asked by Fox Business on Oct. 4, 2017, what advice he would give Trump, Bolton said: “I would urge him to get out of the Iran deal completely.… We shouldn’t try a too-cute-by-half approach [of seeking to improve the deal]. America benefits from strong, clear, decisive leadership. This is a very bad deal for the United States. That’s what the president believes. He should just get out of it.”


This month, Gen. Joseph Votel, the top U.S. military officer in the Middle East, said that “the JCPOA addresses one of the principle threats that we deal with from Iran, so if the JCPOA goes away, then we will have to have another way” to address Iran’s nuclear program. There is no doubt what Bolton envisions as the alternative: As he argued in an infamous 2015 New York Times op-ed, and has repeatedly advocated over the years, “to stop Iran’s bomb, bomb Iran” and push for regime change. Bolton has been completely transparent about his game plan here.

I have written  other columns explaining the necessity of the Iran nuclear deal in much more detail than I want to get into here. Those who want to delve into the details should read my open letter to Senator Chuck Schumer.  Or you could read my column about the one useful thing that John Bolton said about the deal.  But why bother reading my dry, semi-academic blog posts when you can enjoy this hilarious, scintillating, and informative commentary by John Oliver. Where else can you find out what the Iran Nuclear Deal has to do with parachuting cats?





Now, in case you didn't have time to watch Oliver's video and assuming you aren't masochistic enough to have read my previous column, I want to state four rather obvious points.

  1. The deal isn't just between Iran and the United States. Russia, China, France, Germany, Great Britain, and the European Union also signed the deal. If the U.S. breaks the deal we will only be further isolating oursleves. While the Europeans have indicated a willingness to try to negotiate supplements to bolster the deal, their room for negotiations is very limited. Iran has shown no interest in renegotiating the deal. And if we withdraw from the deal the odds of renegotiating a deal from scratch are near zero. Pulling out of the deal is unlikely to convince the Iranians that we are worthy negotiating partners whose word can be relied on.
  2. Iran's Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, said that if we abandon the deal Iran may restart its nuclear program "at much greater speed".  Though Zarif said Iran will not build nuclear weapons even if we violate the deal, our politicians will not trust him. Once they realize they can not renegotiate the deal they will say that Iran is developing a bomb and that we must either accept this and allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons or go to war with Iran to stop it.
  3. A war with Iran would be even harder to win than a war with Iraq. Iran has an area of 636,400 square miles. Iraq has a population of 39 million people with a land area under 168,000 square miles. Iran has a population of nearly 82 million with a land area of over 628,000 square miles. In Iraq, only part of the population resisted our occupation. In Iran, nearly the entire population will be united against us. Occupying Iraq is to occupying Iran as wrestling a bunny is to wrestling a lion.  What's more, we may have to stay in Iran indefinitely in order to prevent it from redeveloping its nuclear weapons program underground.
  4. There is absolutely no indication that Iran has significantly violated the deal. The International Atomic Energy has said Iran has allowed it access to every site it wants to inspect and that Iran has not violated the deal. ( See this excellent debunking of Iran Deal criticism at Diplomacy Works Digest  or visit IAEA's site for more details)


And if I could speak with President Trump for just ten minutes I would make these five points.

  1. Mr. President, you have said repeatedly that you were against the war in Iraq. Unlike Hillary, you said you KNEW it was a mistake. Well, John Bolton disagreed with you and agreed with Hillary. He said that we HAD to go to war with Iraq. He STILL thinks going to war with Iraq was a great idea. He has never apologized for his role in pushing a war with Iraq. If you want tips on grooming a mustache then John Bolton is the guy to talk to. If you want wise foreign policy advise, then not so much.
  2. There is no country more attuned to the threat posed by Iran than Israel. Israel's national security experts have mixed opinions on the wisdom of keeping the Iran Deal, but the preponderance of experts seem to favor keeping the deal intact. Four former Israeli Defense Ministers--Shaul Mofaz, Benny Gantz, Dan Halutz and Moshe Ya'alon  are against the U.S. withdrawing from the deal.  Israel's current Chief of Staff, Lt. General Gadi Eisenkot agrees. Eisenkot said,   "Right now the agreement, with all its faults, is working and is putting off realization of the Iranian nuclear vision by 10 to 15 years." (Read this article in the Atlantic to see more on Eisenkot's reasoning.)  Major General (Res) Amos Gilad also wants us to keep the deal becuase the deal helps Israel prioritize the threats against it. On the other hand, former IDF head, Gabi Ashkenazi said that we should kill the deal immediately and the head of the Mossad, Yossi Cohen, said that he is "100 percent certain" that Iran still seeks nuclear weapons. He believes Iran has become more aggressive since the signing of the deal and the deal must be scrapped or modified to ensure that they don't get nuclear weapons. But most experts believe that is precisely WHY we need to keep the nuclear deal. It contains the most thorough verification regime ever negotiated and only SOME of the Deal's restrictions will start coming off in 2025. There is no reason to believe Iran will become less aggressive if we scrap the program. And if we MUST scrap it, there is no reason to do so immediately. If we wait until 2025 when SOME of the restrictions are lifted then there is a chance that intervening events may lessen our concerns over Iranian nuclear aggression. I'll let another former head of the Mossad, Efraim Hailevy, have the last word: "The Iran deal is a deal that contains both problems and shortcomings, but its advantages outweigh the weaknesses by far."  

Well, maybe that's not quite the last word. Israel's Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu just put on a dog-and-pony show to try to convince us that we must scrap the deal because Iran lied about its past nuclear program. Examining his sensationalistic claims would take up too much space here, so I will do it in my next column.

  1. The Iranian elite is divided on the wisdom of the Iran Deal. Hardliners bitterly oppose it because they believe Iran has given away its technological jewels and they fear that appeasing the U.S. will only open up Iran to more American aggression. They argue that despite the agreement, the U.S. will only try to cripple Iran through further sanctions. Those in the U.S. who want to kill the deal will point towards Iran's hardliners and say, "See--we can't trust the Iranians! They are itching to get out of the deal." These American hardliners miss the point. The fact that Iran's hardliners HATE the deal is a GOOD sign--not a bad one. It means that Iran had to sacrifice something significant to enter this deal. If the deal was so favorable to Iran then even the hardliners would support it. 
  2. Iran has a demographically young population. Nearly 39% of its population is under 25 and its median age is just over 29 years old. Ayatollah Khamenei and many of Iran's senior leaders will not be in power in 2025 when SOME of the nuclear deal's restrictions start to fall off. It is impossible to say what Iran's government will look like then. Remember that there were widespread protests across 80 Iranian cities earlier this year.  Some of the protestors were even calling for an overthrow of the regime.  There is a possibility that the government of Iran could be very different and follow very different policies after Khamenei's death. Many of the problems that Iran poses might go away on its own before any of the Iran Deal's restrictions disappear. Therefore, it makes sense to wait and see what happens. If we kill the deal we are likely to strengthen the hands of the hardliners, thus decreasing the chances that their government will evolve in a manner favorable to our interests. 
  3. MOST IMPORTANTLY, Kim Jong Un is watching what we do with the Iranian nuclear deal very closely.  If we kill the deal he will conclude that the United States cannot be trusted to keep its word and  he will be less likely to agree to a deal with us. This will endanger any chance you have of winning the Nobel Peace Prize. Do you really want that, Mr. President? Is convincing the person that you are negotiating with that you cannot be trusted really part of The Art of the Deal? 




Bonus Tweet about John Bolton. 

Crazy interview from John Bolton. He supports a Trump-Kim summit because he thinks it will fail quickly and discredit all diplomacy, allowing US to deal directly with threat, presumably through war.

— Tom Wright (@thomaswright08) March 11, 2018


Recommended further reading about John Bolton:


Peter Beinart argues that Bolton's parochial background has contributed to his lack of nuance in his world view. Actually, that is putting it too subtly. Bolton is a bloody hawk because he never served in the military and has no appreciation for the horrors of war. And he has spent no time in academia studying other areas of the world so he is unable to percieve how our actions in the past have contributed to the hostility and mistrust that our adversaries have toward us. He does not seem to grasp how his proposed bomb-bomb-bomb policies will be  viewed by the rest of the world, nor does he have a clue as to what sort of cataclysm his aggressive policies will unleash.  In short, his narrow professional  prevents him from having the imagination to solve international conflicts short of war.  Beinart's discussion of Bolton's opposition to the Iran Nuclear Deal shows just how ill-suited he is to be the National Security Advisor



Consider Bolton’s op-eds about Iran. Before the 2015 nuclear deal, these pieces mostly followed a similar arc. They began with the insistence that, since Iran’s leaders were fanatically determined to develop nuclear weapons, diplomacy, sanctions, and inspections were a waste of time. “In truth, since the diplomacy/sanctions approach is Obama’s declared policy, we already know the end of the story: Iran with nuclear weapons,” Bolton wrote in October 2009. Bolton’s primary evidence for this sweeping claim? Vague, unsourced, pronouncements about Iran’s supposed invulnerability to petroleum and financial sanctions. In July 2012 he argued that Iran’s “mullahs will never agree to an intrusive verification mechanism that could actually detect systematic cheating.” How did Bolton know inspections could not work? It’s anyone’s guess. He cited no studies on the past efficacy of international inspections or on Iran’s record in complying with past agreements. He quoted no research at all. The technique is Trumpian: The less evidence you have, the more certain you sound.


After declaring diplomacy, sanctions, and inspections futile, Bolton—in his pre-Iran deal columns—again and again arrived at the same conclusion: There is no alternative to war. According to Bolton, that truth was too “unpleasant” and “inconvenient” for the Obama administration to face. But even as he congratulated himself for dispensing with comforting illusions, Bolton assured his readers that war wouldn’t be that bad. In the event of an Israeli attack, he wrote in October 2009, “Iran is highly unlikely to retaliate in a way that could prompt a direct confrontation with the U.S. military.” Why would Iran’s leaders, who Bolton described  in the very same article as “religious fanatics who prize the hereafter more than life on earth,” carefully calibrate their response so as to avoid harming the United States? Who knows? Bolton cited no historical precedents, and quoted no Iranians or academic experts on Iran. Iran’s leaders are whatever he needs them to be: reckless when he’s arguing for the futility of diplomacy, but cautious when he’s arguing for the utility of military force. . . .

As the Obama administration’s final nuclear deal began taking shape, Bolton made two predictions. First, that Iran would not adhere to it. Tehran “will cheat inside Iran, where the [International Atomic Energy Agency] is not present, and it will cheat by cooperating with North Korea and other proliferation enablers,” he wrote in January 2014. His second prediction was that the deal would lead other Middle Eastern countries to acquire nukes. “The arms race has begun: Neighboring countries are moving forward, driven by fears that Mr. Obama’s diplomacy is fostering a nuclear Iran,” he wrote in March 2015. “These talks have triggered a potential wave of nuclear programs.”

Three years later, history has not been kind to either of Bolton’s predictions. Not only does Iran not have a nuclear weapon; none of its Arab neighbors do either. Moreover, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has declared nine times that Iran is complying with the terms of the deal. In March, the director general of the IAEA noted that the agency “now has the world’s most robust verification regime in place in Iran.” It has installed 2,000 tamper-proof seals on Iran’s nuclear equipment, visited more than 190 nuclear facilities, analyzed hundreds of thousands of images from surveillance cameras and collected more than one million pieces of open source information. The IAEA’s conclusion—that Iran is complying—has been confirmed by America’s European allies, the U.S. intelligence community, and by Defense Secretary James Mattis. Even much of the Israeli security establishment now supports the deal.


Update 5/6/18 10:00 PM. I just added a sentence about Israeli Major General (res) who wants us to keep the Iran nuclear deal


Update 5/6/18: It is now clear that Kim Jong Un's definition of "denuclearization" is very dfferent from Donald Trump's. Kim has used a military exercise between the U.S. and South Korea as an excuse to withdraw from talks to prepare for the summit.  The summit between Trump and Kim had been scheduled for early June, but now it is uncertain whether the summit will take place at all.  Abigail Tracy traces how and why negotiations broke down in her Vanity Fair article "Trump Is Just A Moron": How the President Played Himself On North Korea. The quick takeaway is that Trump did not do his homework on Kim Jong Un and let his expectations get ahead of reality.  Tracy's observation about Bolton confirms the description I provided of him in this article.


Several diplomats who know Bolton have told me they believe Bolton was purposefully trying to sabotage the prospect for peace when he remarked last month that the denuclearization of North Korea should follow the “Libya model”—a 2003 disarmament agreement that left Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi vulnerable to a 2011 NATO bombing campaign that ended with his death. (“There is only one reason you would ever bring up Libya to the North Koreans,” a current administration official told me. “And that is to tell them, ‘Warning: don’t go any further because we are going to screw you.’”)


I hope I am wrong about this, but it looks like we are once again on a path to war with North Korea.


Update 5/6/18:The summit is back on, President Trump has wisely seemed to modify his approach and has lowered expectations for rapid total denuclearization. He has rejected Bolton's advice and, according to The Los Angeles Times

Trump told associates in private that he was furious with Bolton for his choice of words and blamed him for spooking the North Koreans.


Trump could still blow it and we could once again find ourselves on a path to war.  But there is now reason to be cautiously optimistic that this won't end in disaster.