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John Bolton and the Policy of Confusion

John Bolton and the Policy of Confusion

Tuesday, 27 March, 2018 - 11:45
Lina Khatib
Head of the Middle East and North Africa Programme, Chatham House, London

The appointment of John Bolton as US National Security Advisor by President Donald Trump came as a shock to many observers, resulting in the proliferation of commentary by his opponents arguing that bringing back Bolton to power risks pushing the United States in the direction of war. There appears to be consensus over whether it would be war with North Korea or war in the Middle East, but there are certainly echoes of the Iraq war that was spearheaded by the George W. Bush administration in 2003 in much of what those critical of Bolton are saying. Even the timing of Trump’s announcement about Bolton came within a couple of days of the 15-year anniversary of the US-led invasion of Iraq.

Reviewing Bolton’s statements over the years is a reminder of his ultra-conservative stance towards a number of issues. However, looking at the behavior of the Trump administration so far, it is unlikely that Bolton’s words will always translate into action. But Bolton's presence in the administration plays the role of a latent threat in certain cases, such as those of North Korea and Iran. Understanding this role requires a comprehensive view of Trump's performance in power.

Trump’s presidency is characterized by unpredictability, whether regarding who is actually in his inner circle (as demonstrated by the sacking of most people he had originally appointed to key positions), or of what he might do vis-à-vis rival countries. Much of the latter uncertainty emanates from what appears to be a disconnect between his words and his actions. On North Korea, Trump made strong public statements about its leader Kim Jung-un, but he surprised the world by announcing that he would hold a face-to-face meeting with the North Korean leader.

Trump critics see this behavior as a negative indicator for the US administration, on the basis that ambiguity in international relations is sometimes very destructive, as it can push policymakers to make decisions based on incomplete facts. Ambiguity can also facilitate the manipulation of facts. In the Iraq war of 2003, ambiguity was used to push for an illegal invasion whose price Iraq is still paying till today.

But in the case of North Korea, ambiguity and unpredictability have played in Trump’s favor. The various sackings in his administration send a clear message that almost no one is immune, while his taunts of Kim Jung-un were so over the top that they probably caused the latter to become unsure whether Trump was being serious about containing North Korea or just exaggerating for impact.

The appointment of Bolton, with his well-document calls for attacking North Korea, comes at a delicate time for American-North Korean relations because of the announced historic meeting between the two countries’ leaders. Bolton’s presence can only add to Kim Jung-un’s confusion about Trump’s intentions towards North Korea: Does he want war or peace? This gives Trump the upper hand in this relationship.

Things are less ambiguous for Trump regarding Iran. Trump has been consistent in speaking out against the 2015 nuclear deal, and Bolton is yet another voice in the administration’s new line up supporting Trump’s stance. The appointment of Mike Pompeo, another vocal critic of Iran, as Secretary of State is another indicator that there is growing harmony regarding Iran within the current US administration.

Of course, the United States’ concerns about Iran are not limited to the nuclear deal. Iran’s actions in the wider Middle East are alarming Israel as well as the United States’ Arab allies, and calls for containing Iran are becoming louder both within and outside the United States. Trump’s administration appears to be heading in the direction of seeking to annul the nuclear deal but also limit Iran’s influence in strategic locations in the Middle East, such as northeast and southern Syria.

The question, however, is how exactly the United States going to implement this containment. If Bolton’s words from three years ago are to be taken at face value, the US would replace the nuclear deal with a bombing campaign targeting Iran’s nuclear infrastructure.

In this regard, might John Bolton’s appointment achieve for US-Iranian relations what Trump so far appears to be on track to achieving with North Korea? In other words, could a hawkish indicator in the United States like having Bolton in power heighten anxiety and confusion within Iran and push it to agree to some sort of settlement on Yemen for example or Syria?

Bolton does not take up his position till April, so it is too early to tell where the United States might go next. But by appointing him and appointing Pompeo, there is an opportunity for Trump to change the course of American foreign policy towards the Middle East away from the line set by former President Barack Obama, especially since the latter unfortunately did not benefit from the opportunity of confusion that was brought within the Syrian regime by his announcement about a “red line” for the use of chemical weapons in 2013. The separation between words and deeds lost Obama’s credibility to his adversaries and allies. In spite of what may seem at first glance as a similarity between that separation and what we see in the present US administration, the fundamental difference between the two administrations lies in the possibility of using tactical confusion.

Strong words do not necessarily lead to strong military action. Often, just putting a serious threat of harsh actions on the table, in parallel with working to create a degree of confusion within an opponent, may achieve the desired results.

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