John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, arrives at Trump Tower for a meeting with President-elect Donald Trump, Dec. 2, 2016, in New York.

John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, arrives at Trump Tower for a meeting with President-elect Donald Trump, Dec. 2, 2016, in New York. Evan Vucci/AP

John Bolton Is Misunderstood

The actual track record of Trump’s next national-security adviser offers cause for cautious optimism.

Over the past few days, many have tried to distill John Bolton’s worldview, to get a sense of how he might shape the foreign policy of the Trump administration as he takes up the post of national-security adviser. His detractors have paid particularly close attention to his bellicose statements about North Korea, arguably the country’s most pressing security challenge, and his forceful critiques of the Iran deal, which has been on the verge of unraveling for months. They’ve drawn the conclusion that Bolton has an unslakeable appetite for armed intervention that will lead the country to ruin. Yet although Bolton is often described as a rigid ideologue, he sees himself as a ruthless pragmatist who is more than willing to use diplomatic means to advance U.S. interests. And if Bolton the pragmatist wins out, he will be well-placed to steer the Trump White House in a more coherent and constructive direction.

Bolton has long been a prolific writer, which makes his appointment a journalist’s dream. (See, for example, my colleague Krishnadev Calamur’s discussion of his 2007 memoir.) Having served in government in various capacities since the 1970s, Bolton has weighed in on any number of controversies. And at times, he has styled himself a critic of open-ended intervention. Writing in Foreign Affairs in 1994, for instance, Bolton gave the Clinton administration a sharp rebuke for its egregious mishandling of the Somalia crisis, which he saw as emblematic of a broader fecklessness.

Whereas the George H.W. Bush administration had insisted on setting clear, well-defined objectives for its presence in the war-ravaged country, the Clinton White House, in its zeal to strengthen the role of the UN, and to pioneer a new “assertive multilateralism,” had blundered its way into disaster: “The real lesson of the American experience in attempting to relieve the famine in Somalia,” according to Bolton, “is that any administration must play out the long-range consequences even of humanitarian decisions because of the complex political and military consequences inevitably entailed.” The irony won’t be lost on those who point to Bolton’s later role in making the case for the invasion of Iraq. Yet, there, too he has emphasized the importance of policy coherence, and its utter absence during the period stretching from the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s government to the 2007-8 “surge strategy.”

In 2010, still licking his wounds after having served in the George W. Bush administration, Bolton reviewed Hard Line, Colin Dueck’s analysis of the evolution of Republican foreign-policy doctrine, for National Review. And his review is revealing. Bolton accepts Dueck’s premise that GOP presidents since Eisenhower have been committed to “a consistent, hard-line American nationalism,” and that their goal has been “to preserve their country’s freedom of action in world affairs, and have tried to avoid what they view as excessive accommodation toward hostile or threatening nations.”

Yet Bolton takes strong exception to Dueck’s claim that the chief dividing line among Republicans has been the one separating anti-interventionists from hawks, on the grounds that anti-interventionism and hawkishness are less guiding ideologies—for that, look to nationalism—than tactical alternatives, the wisdom or foolishness of which will depend on contingent circumstances. It’s at this point that he offers his interpretation of the Iraq debacle: Essentially, he argues that the problem wasn’t the decision to intervene, which was rightly aimed at eliminating a serious threat to U.S. interests, but rather “a failure of presidential leadership in operational matters.”

One could object that this is a cop-out: The fact that the aftermath of the Iraq invasion saw failures of presidential leadership is beyond dispute. The more challenging question, for Bolton and for all of us who support a more assertive U.S. foreign policy, is whether such failures were intrinsic to such a vast undertaking, in a country senior officials didn’t understand terribly well. It is this confidence that ambitious interventions can be carried out successfully, provided the right leadership is in place, that accounts for misgivings that Bolton may greatly overestimate the utility of military power.

There is another side to Bolton, though, which offers cause for cautious optimism. Consider his success in crafting the Proliferation Security Initiative, a multinational coalition of the willing to halt the unlawful transport of fissile materials and other potential weapons of mass destruction that has achieved considerable success, and that seems to belie his reputation as a scourge of international cooperation. Did this represent a departure from Bolton’s nationalism? Not at all. In his review of Hard Line, Bolton makes it clear that PSI was rather a manifestation of a prudent, pragmatic nationalism.

So how can we make sense of Bolton’s recent pronouncements on the Trump foreign-policy agenda? Is he the reflexive militarist his critics imagine him to be, or a pragmatic nationalist, as he would have it? It’s not entirely clear, partly because Bolton the pragmatic nationalist might find it useful to convey that he is always willing to unleash America’s military might.

Consider his condemnations of the Iran deal. Ever since the idea of a nuclear agreement was first floated, Bolton insisted that it would empower rather than restrain Tehran in its efforts to sow chaos. Many thoughtful observers who were once favorably disposed towards the deal, including some on the left, now acknowledge that Iranian military adventurism has gotten worse since the deal was signed. It’s hard to deny that Bolton’s skepticism has been borne out, at least in part. Yet it’s not clear he’s right that pulling the plug is our best option, or that there is a realistic prospect that the Iranian regime will collapse before the 40th birthday of the Islamic Revolution. Kenneth Pollack of the American Enterprise Institute, where Bolton until recently served as a senior fellow, has offered a judicious case for the U.S. to remain party to the agreement, notwithstanding the fact that he shares many of his former colleague’s concerns about the larger threat posed by Iran. Rather than withdraw immediately, as Bolton would like, Pollack calls for a systematic effort to degrade Iran’s regional position, to force its government back to the negotiating table. One would hope that Bolton will move in Pollack’s more pragmatic direction, making sure the U.S. and its allies find themselves in the most advantageous possible position before taking any rash action, in service to Bolton’s nationalist objectives.

As for North Korea, it is certainly possible that Bolton is hellbent on a first strikeagainst the rogue state, regardless of the objections of South Korea and Japan. Alternatively, it could be that his supposed enthusiasm for a first strike is best understood as a means of concentrating the mind of China’s paramount leader, Xi Jinping, whom Bolton rightly sees as the only actor with the leverage to compel Pyongyang to agree to comprehensive denuclearization.

To succeed, Bolton will have to play a double game: He needs to convince his adversaries abroad that he is exactly as dangerous as his Fox News appearances and Wall Street Journal op-eds would imply, yet he also needs to be more patient and cunning behind closed doors than his domestic critics have come to expect. How Bolton handles the Iran brief will offer an early indication of whether he is striking the right balance.