The appointment of John Bolton as National Security Advisor has not only roiled the Moon administration in South Korea but generated a predictably divided response in the U.S. between supporters and detractors.
But it has also generated a more nuanced debate about whether Bolton will matter one way or the other. The dominant fear is that he will squander the summit moment by pushing Trump in a more hawkish direction, for example by insisting on preconditions or other poison pills.
I share those concerns. Yet it is also possible that Bolton will have little effect on the President one way or another, and he might even be forced to provide political cover for negotiations if Trump decides that is where he wants to go.
The risks associated with Bolton’s appointment should not be underestimated, however, and bear repeating. They start with his contempt for the 1994 Agreed Framework. In his tendentiously-titled memoir— “Surrender is Not an Option” (reviewed here)— he not only claims that scuttling the Agreed Framework was one of his main policy objectives, he admits that this objective preceded—rather than followed—the intelligence that the North Koreans were cheating on the agreement through the A.Q. Khan network.
As he writes in a revealing passage: “this [intelligence] was the hammer I had been looking for to shatter the Agreed Framework.”
Of course, the North Koreans were cheating on the Agreed Framework. But the Bush administration proved surprisingly flatfooted when Kim Jong Il began his salami tactics of tossing out inspectors, restarting Yongbyon and ultimately breaking out altogether with the 2006 test. It was one thing to tear up the Agreed Framework; it was quite another to replace it with something else.
Regime change is not a policy; it is a pious wish
The Bush administration—and Bolton—had wildly overplayed their cards and were ultimately forced to stand down and appeal to Beijing to get the Six-Party Talks going.
Bolton had another cameo appearance on the issue in 2008. Condoleezza Rice and Christopher Hill were struggling to make some progress on disabling Yongbyon following the roadmap agreements of 2007. Out of office by that time, Bolton was freed to chastise the administration for those efforts and once again contributed to divisions that undermined the coherence of U.S. policy.
So what is Bolton’s approach?
To be sure, he did have some limited success in orchestrating the Proliferation Security Initiative and the early UN sanctions following the first nuclear test. He has pressed for the more robust sanctions regime that we now have, although he is hardly alone in that regard; I believe that pressure is most certainly the reason that Kim Jong Un appears to have turned.
But a central feature of Bolton’s résumé is a limited interest in diplomacy, the other side of the sanctions coin. When asked in a 2002 interview with the New York Times about the administration’s stance on North Korea, he grabbed a copy of Nick Eberstadt’s “The End of North Korea” and claimed: “that is our policy.”
Regime change is not a policy; it is a pious wish. In February, he penned an article for the Wall Street Journal laying out a legal case for bombing North Korea. And virtually on the eve of his appointment, he claimed in a Fox News interview that the only reason to hold the summit is to “foreshorten the amount of time that we’re going to waste in negotiations…”
So how will the Bolton appointment unfold? The ouster of Tillerson—the only figure in the Trump administration to actually articulate a strategy on North Korea—and the entry of Pompeo and Bolton could indeed shift policy in a more hawkish direction.
This could mean scuttling the summit. The result: an increased risk that the administration will fall back on military options.
A central feature of Bolton’s résumé is a limited interest in diplomacy
But recall that the summit is not a policy inherited from the Obama administration. The summit was Trump’s impetuous choice. It is not clear he will want it to fail in the way that Bolton outlined for the Fox audience. Trump now owns it.
Moreover, the idea that Trump is now unleashed from the fetters imposed by McMaster and Tillerson runs up against the President’s own priors with respect to foreign interventions. Trump has been scathing about the Iraq invasion, a debacle that Bolton has never effectively disowned.
Fire and fury notwithstanding, does Trump really have the stomach for a highly-risky military move on the Korean peninsula?
I can easily see a repeat of the internal wars of the first Bush administration as factions across the foreign policy bureaucracy divide sharply and engage in tactical warfare on how to deal with North Korea. Ironically, it could be Mattis at Defense who plays the moderating role.
But thinking that the appointment of Bolton says anything enduring about what the President’s policy preferences are is misguided. Trump has no coherent views on this or any other foreign policy issue. North Korea policy will ultimately be decided by Presidential whim.
In the end, Bolton is not the issue: it is a mercurial President who will decide which way U.S. policy toward North Korea flows.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Gage Skidmore
Join the influential community of members who rely on NK News original news and in-depth reporting.
Subscribe to read the remaining 905 words of this article.