Speculation that John Bolton is being considered as Deputy Secretary of State is causing some consternation among Republican Senators. Senator Rand Paul has already publicly stated his opposition. And now, according to the New York Times Senate Foreign Relations Chair Bob Corker is also expressing misgivings. Behind the scenes, Condoleezza Rice, Stephen Hadley and Robert Gates (three Bush administration veterans) are reportedly lobbying Senators against his confirmation. Meanwhile, those same three bigwigs are publicly endorsing Trump’s pick for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
So what’s their issue with John Bolton?
He is, of course, a well known hawk. He’s consistently advocated going to war with Iran. He was also an ardent promoter of the Iraq war (which, incidentally, Trump claims he opposed.) From his perch as an undersecretary of state Bolton helped skew the intelligence to fit his prior convictions that war must be waged.
To be sure, Bolton’s hawkishness is extreme. But many Republicans, including Condoleezza Rice and Stephen Hadley, also supported the Iraq war and favor assertive policies toward Iran. Rather, what truly distinguishes Bolton from figures like Rice, Hadley, or even Tillerson is his singularly uncompromising approach to international relations. Every transaction — no matter how ancillary to American interests — is zero-sum. There is no middle ground; nothing to cede in order to advanced shared interests. Indeed, he titled his memoir “Surrender is Not an Option” and his actions in public life demonstrate that he believes this motto to be true whether confronting an existential threat or a minor nuisance.
This leads to his penchant for alienating America’s most important allies. In his memoir, Bolton portrays as his greatest adversary in Turtle Bay not the representative from Iran or Cuba or Venezuela, but the British ambassador Emyr Jones Parry. He mercilessly derides as an “EUroid” because unlike Bolton, the United Kingdom did not view every transaction as zero-sum, but was willing to compromise to reach shared goals.
Perhaps the most telling manifestation is something I reported contemporaneously. To set the context: in 2005, the United Nations was negotiating a series of major reforms to coincide with its 60th anniversary. Among other things, it was the year that the old Human Rights Commission was abolished and a new Human Rights Council created and was when the principle of “Responsibility to Protect” was enshrined in UN doctrine. Each of these reforms, and others, were included in a single “summit outcome document” that diplomats had painstakingly negotiated for months. Then Bolton came along and blew up the negotiations. That itself was not unique–American diplomats in the Bush era had a habit of upending multilateral negotiations. Rather, what was truly extra-ordinary were the red lines he drew, including that anodyne references to the anti-poverty Millennium Development Goals be removed from the document. This standoff over the MDGs threatened to scuttle the entire negotiations, so Kofi Annan facilitated a call between UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Only then did Bolton relent.
The fact that Bolton was willing to go toe-to-toe with the UK (and the rest of the world) over something as trite as a mere reference to the MDGs is a useful example of how Bolton’s zero sum approach to negotiations so profoundly alienates allies. Insiders like Condoleezza Rice saw this behavior first hand. She often had to clean up the damage Bolton had done to the very alliances the United States relied on to advance far more important national security goals like the ongoing war in Iraq and confronting Iran and North Korea’s nuclear program.
Bolton as Deputy Secretary of State may also undermine the stated goals of his potential boss, the Secretary of State. In remarks upon being nominated as Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson said his priorities would be around “strengthening our alliances, pursuing shared national interests and enhancing the strength, security and sovereignty of the United States.”
It would be very hard, if not impossible, to accomplish these goals with John Bolton serving as his deputy. And it appears that several key Republican foreign policy hands would agree.