The Real John Bolton

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

It isn’t enough for the corporate media to praise John Bolton for his timely manuscript that confirms Donald Trump’s explicit linkage between military aid to Ukraine and investigations into his political foe Joe Biden.  As a result, the media have made John Bolton a “man of principle,” according to the Washington Post, and a fearless infighter for the “sovereignty of the United States.”  Writing in the Post, Kathleen Parker notes that Bolton isn’t motivated by the money he will earn from his book (in the neighborhood of $2 million), but that he is far more interested in “saving his legacy.”  Perhaps this is a good time to examine that legacy.

Bolton, who used student deferments and service in the Maryland National Guard to avoid serving in Vietnam, is a classic Chicken Hawk.  He supported the Vietnam War and continues to support the war in Iraq.  Bolton endorsed preemptive military strikes in North Korea and Iran in recent years, and lobbied for regime change in Cuba, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Syria, Venezuela, and Yemen.  When George W. Bush declared an “axis of evil” in 2002 consisting of Iran, Iraq, and North Korea, Bolton added an equally bizarre axis of Cuba, Libya, and Syria.

When Bolton occupied official positions at the Department of State and the United Nations, he regularly ignored assessments of the intelligence community in order to make false arguments regarding weapons of mass destruction in the hands of Cuba and Syria in order to promote the use of force.  When serving as President Bush’s Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and Disarmament, Bolton ran his own intelligence program, issuing white papers on WMD that lacked support within the intelligence community.  He used his own reports to testify to congressional committees in 2002 in effort to justify the use of military force against Iraq.

Bolton presented misinformation to the Congress on a Cuban biological weapons program.  When the Central Intelligence Agency challenged the accuracy of Bolton’s information in 2003, he was forced to cancel a similar briefing on Syria.  In a briefing to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2005, the former chief of intelligence at the Department of State, Carl Ford, referred to Bolton as a “serial abuser” in his efforts to pressure intelligence analysts.  Ford testified that he had “never seen anybody quite like Secretary Bolton…in terms of the way he abuses his power and authority with little people.”

The hearings in 2005 included a statement from a whistleblower, a former contractor at the Agency for International Development, who accused Bolton of using inflammatory language and even throwing objects at her.  The whistleblower told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff that Bolton made derogatory remarks about her sexual orientation and weight among other improprieties.  The critical testimony against Bolton meant that the Republican-led Foreign Relations Committee couldn’t confirm his appointment as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.  President Bush made Bolton a recess appointment, which he later regretted.

The United Nations, after all, was an ironic assignment for Bolton, who has been a strong critic of the UN and most international organizations throughout his career because they infringed on the “sovereignty of the United States.”  In 1994, he stated there was no such thing as the United Nations, but there is an international community that “can be led by the only real power left in the world,” the United States.  Bolton stated that the “Secretariat Building in New York has 38 stories,” and that if it “lost ten stories, it wouldn’t make any difference.”

Bolton said the “happiest moment” in his political career was when the United States pulled out of the International Criminal Court.  Years later, he told the Federalist Society that Bush’s withdrawal from the UN’s Rome Statute, which created the ICC, was “one of my proudest achievements.”

Bolton targeted every arms control and disarmament agreement over the past several decades, and played a major role in abrogating two of the most significant ones.  As an arms control official in the Bush administration, he lobbied successfully for the abrogation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972.  As soon as he joined the Trump administration, he went after the Intermediate-Nuclear Forces Treaty, which was abrogated in 2018.  He criticized the Nunn-Lugar agreement in the 1990s, which played a key role in the denuclearization of former Soviet republics, and maligned the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons as well as the Iran nuclear accord.  He helped to derail the Biological Weapons Conference in Geneva in 2001.

U.S. efforts at diplomatic reconciliation have drawn Bolton’s ire.  The two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian situation as well as Richard Nixon’s one-China policy have been particular targets.  He is also a frequent critic of the European Union, and a passionate supporter of Brexit.  From 2013 to 2018, he was the chairman of the Gatestone Institute, a well-known anti-Muslim organization.  He was the director of the Project for the New American Century, which led the campaign for the use of force against Iraq.  The fact that he was a protege of former senator Jesse Helms should come as no surprise.

It is useful to have Bolton’s testimony at the climactic moment in the current impeachment trial, but it should’t blind us to his deceit and disinformation over his thirty years of opposition to U.S. international diplomacy.  As an assistant attorney general in the Reagan administration, he fought against reparations to Japanese-Americans who had been held in internment camps during World War II.  Two secretaries of state, Colin Powell and Condi Rice, have accused Bolton with holding back important information on important international issues, and Bolton did his best to sabotage Powell’s efforts to pursue negotiations with North Korea.  Bolton had a hand in the disinformation campaign against Iraq in the run-up to the U.S. invasion of 2003. The legacy of John Bolton is well established; his manuscript will not alter this legacy.

Melvin A. Goodman is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and a professor of government at Johns Hopkins University.  A former CIA analyst, Goodman is the author of Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA and National Insecurity: The Cost of American Militarism. and A Whistleblower at the CIA. His most recent books are “American Carnage: The Wars of Donald Trump” (Opus Publishing, 2019) and “Containing the National Security State” (Opus Publishing, 2021). Goodman is the national security columnist for