John Bolton has been saying for years he wants the Iranian government overthrown, and now he’s made his move. But this time he may have gone too far, writes Joe Lauria.
By Joe Lauria
Special to Consortium News
I knew John Bolton and interacted with him on a nearly daily basis with my colleagues in the press corps at United Nations headquarters in New York when Bolton was the United States ambassador there from August 2005 to December 2006.
Most diplomats, officials, and journalists were shocked that Bolton (evading confirmation with a recess appointment) had actually become the U.S. representative, given his long, public disdain for the U.N. But that turned out to be the point. It’s been the strategy of Republican administrations to appoint the fiercest critic to head an agency or institution in order to weaken it, perhaps even fatally.
Bolton’s most infamous quote about the U.N. followed him into the building. In 1994 he had said: “The Secretariat building in New York has 38 stories. If it lost ten stories, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.”
But a more telling comment in that same 1994 conference was when he said that no matter what the U.N. decides, the U.S. will do whatever it wants:
Bolton sees such frank admissions as signs of strength, not alarm.
He is a humorless man, who at the U.N. at least, seemed to always think he was the smartest person in the room. He once gave a lecture in 2006 at the U.S. mission to U.N. correspondents, replete with a chalk board, on how nuclear enrichment worked. His aim, of course, was to convince us that Iran was close to a bomb, even though a 2007 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate being prepared at the time said Tehran had abandoned its nuclear weapons program in 2003.
I thought I’d challenge him one day at the press stakeout outside the Security Council chamber, where Bolton often stopped to lecture journalists on what they should write. “If the United States and Britain had not overthrown a democratically elected government in Iran in 1953 would the United States be today faced with a revolutionary government enriching uranium?’ I asked him.
“That’s an interesting question,” he told me, “but for another time and another place.” It was a time and a place, of course, that never came.
More Than an Ideology
Bolton possesses an abiding self-righteousness rooted in what seems a sincere belief in the myth of American greatness, mixed with deep personal failings hidden from public view.
He seemed perpetually angry and it wasn’t clear whether it was over some personal or diplomatic feud. He seems to take personally nations standing up to America, binding his sense of personal power with that of the United States.
It is more than an ideology. It’s fanaticism. Bolton believes America is exceptional and indispensible and superior to all other nations and isn’t afraid to say so. He’d have been better off perhaps in the McKinley administration, before the days of PR-sugarcoating of imperial aggression. He’s not your typical passive-aggressive government official. He’s aggressive-aggressive.
And now Bolton is ordering 120,000 troops to get ready and an aircraft carrier to steam towards Iran.
Bolton’s all too willing to make his bullying personal on behalf of the state. He implicitly threatened the children of José Bustani, who Vice President Dick Cheney wanted out of his job as head of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons because Bustani had gotten Iraq to agree to join the chemical weapons protocol, thereby making it harder for the U.S. to invade Iraq.
After Bolton’s failed 2005 confirmation hearings, Tony Blinken, the then staff director of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told The New Yorker‘s Dexter Filkins:
“We saw a pattern of Mr. Bolton trying to manipulate intelligence to justify his views. If it had happened once, maybe. But it came up multiple times, and always it was the same underlying issue: he would stake out a position, and then, if the intelligence didn’t support it, he would try to exaggerate the intelligence and marginalize the officials who had produced it.”
Bolton is no fan of democracy if things don’t go his way. He is a vociferous instigator of the so-far failed U.S. coup in Venezuela and of course Bolton organized the “Brooks Brothers riot” that disrupted the recounting of votes in Florida in the disputed 2000 presidential election.
What is alarming about the above video is not so much that he justifies lying, but the example he gives: lying to cover up military plans like the invasion of Normandy. This is a common ruling class tactic in the U.S. to portray disobedient leaders ripe for overthrow as Hitler. Saddam was Hitler, Milosevic was Hitler, Noriega was Hitler and Hillary Clinton called Putin Hitler. It is a false revival of U.S. glory from World War II to paint foreign adventures as moral crusades, rather than naked aggression in pursuit of profits and power.
Bolton is the distillation of the pathology of American power. He is unique only in the purity of this pathology.
Regime Change for Iran
The U.S. national security adviser has been saying for years he wants the Iranian government overthrown, and now he’s made his move. But this time John Bolton may have flown too high.
He was chosen for his post by a president with limited understanding of international affairs—if real estate is not involved—and one who loves to be sucked up to. Trump is Bolton’s perfect cover.
But hubris may have finally bested Bolton. He had never before maneuvered himself into such a position of power, though he’d left a trail of chaos at lower levels of government. Sitting opposite the Resolute desk on a daily basis has presented a chance to implement his plans.
Thus Bolton was the driving force to get a carrier strike force sent to the Persian Gulf and, according to The New York Times, on May 14, it was he who “ordered” a Pentagon plan to prepare 120,000 U.S. troops for the Gulf. These were to be deployed “if Iran attacked American forces or accelerated its work on nuclear weapons.”
Two months after Bolton was appointed national security adviser, in June 2018, Trump pulled the U.S. out of the six-nation deal that has seen Tehran curtail its nuclear enrichment program in exchange for relaxation of U.S. and international sanctions.
At the time of Bolton’s appointment in April 2018, Tom Countryman, who had been undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, as had Bolton, predicted to The Intercept that if Iran resumed enrichment after the U.S. left the deal, it “would be the kind of excuse that a person like Bolton would look to to create a military provocation or direct attack on Iran.”
In response to ever tightening sanctions, Iran said on May 5 (May 6 in Tehran) that it would indeed restart partial nuclear enrichment. On the same day, Bolton announced the carrier strike group was headed to the Gulf.
Bolton Faces Resistance
If this were a normally functioning White House, in which imperial moves are normally made, a president would order military action, and not a national security adviser. “I don’t think Trump is smart enough to realize what Bolton and [Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo are doing to him,” former U.S. Senator Mike Gravel told RT’s Afshin Rattansi this week. “They have manipulated him. When you get the national security adviser who claims that he ordered an aircraft carrier flotilla to go into the Persian Gulf, we’ve never seen that. In the days of Henry Kissinger, who really brought sway, he never ordered this, and if it was ordered it was done behind closed doors.”
Bolton claimed he acted on intelligence that Iran was poised to attack U.S. interests close to Iran.
Both Israel and Saudi Arabia, lacking the military firepower of the United States, have long tried to get the U.S. to fight its wars, and one no more important than against its common enemy. An editorial on May 16 in the Saudi English-language news outlet, Arab News, called for a U.S. “surgical strike” on Iran. But The New York Times reported on the same day that though Israel was behind Bolton’s “intelligence” about an Iranian threat, Israel does not want the U.S. to attack Iran causing a full-scale war.
The intelligence alleged Iran was fitting missiles on fishing boats in the Gulf. Imagine a government targeted by the most powerful military force in history wanting to defend itself in its own waters.
Bolton also said Iran was threatening Western interests in Iraq, which led eventually to non-essential U.S. diplomatic staff leaving Baghdad and Erbil.
It is the typical provocation of a bully: threaten someone with a cruise missile and the moment they pick up a knife in self-defense you attack, conveniently leaving the initial threat out of the story. It then becomes: “Iran picked up a knife. We have to blow them away with cruise missiles.”
But this time the bully is being challenged. Federica Mogherini, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, resisted the U.S. on Iran when she met Pompeo in Brussels on May 13.
“It’s always better to talk, rather than not to, and especially when tensions arise… Mike Pompeo heard that very clearly today from us,” said Mogherini. “We are living in a crucial, delicate moment where the most relevant attitude to take – the most responsible attitude to take – is and we believe should be, that of maximum restraint and avoiding any escalation on the military side.”
The New York Times that day reported: “Privately, several European officials described Mr. Bolton and Mr. Pompeo as pushing an unsuspecting Mr. Trump through a series of steps that could put the United States on a course to war before the president realizes it.”
British Maj. Gen. Chris Ghika then said on May 14: “There has been no increased threat from Iranian-backed forces in Iraq or Syria.” Ghika was rebuked by U.S. Central Command, whose spokesman said, “Recent comments from OIR’s Deputy Commander run counter to the identified credible threats available to intelligence from U.S. and allies regarding Iranian-backed forces in the region.”
A day later it was Trump himself, however, who was said to be resisting Bolton. On May 15 The Washington Post reported:
“President Trump is frustrated with some of his top advisers, who he thinks could rush the United States into a military confrontation with Iran and shatter his long-standing pledge to withdraw from costly foreign wars, according to several U.S. officials. Trump prefers a diplomatic approach to resolving tensions and wants to speak directly with Iran’s leaders.”
The Times reported the next day:
“President Trump has told his acting defense secretary, Patrick Shanahan, that he does not want to go to war with Iran, according to several administration officials, in a message to his hawkish aides that an intensifying American pressure campaign against the clerical-led government in Tehran must not escalate into open conflict.”
Then it was the Democrats who stood up to Bolton. On Tuesday Pompeo and Shanahan briefed senators and representatives behind closed doors on Capitol Hill regarding the administration’s case for confronting Iran.
“Are they (Iran) reacting to us, or are we doing these things in reaction to them? That is a major question I have, that I still have,” Sen. Angus King told reporters after the briefing. “What we view as defensive, they view as provocative. Or vice versa.”
Democratic Representative Ruben Gallego told reporters after the briefing: “I believe there is a certain level of escalation of both sides that could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The feedback loop tells us they’re escalating for war, but they could just be escalating because we’re escalating.”
Pompeo told a radio interviewer after the briefing that the U.S. had still not determined who attacked two Saudi, a Norwegian and an Emirati oil tanker in the Gulf last week, which bore the hallmarks of a provocation. Pompeo said “it seems like it’s quite possible that Iran was behind” the attacks.
Bolton was conspicuously absent from the closed-door briefing.
It’s Up to Trump
Trump has pinballed all over the place on Iran. He called the Times and Post stories about him resisting Bolton “fake news.”
“The Fake News Media is hurting our Country with its fraudulent and highly inaccurate coverage of Iran. It is scattershot, poorly sourced (made up), and DANGEROUS. At least Iran doesn’t know what to think, which at this point may very well be a good thing!” Trump tweeted on May 17.
The Fake News Media is hurting our Country with its fraudulent and highly inaccurate coverage of Iran. It is scattershot, poorly sourced (made up), and DANGEROUS. At least Iran doesn’t know what to think, which at this point may very well be a good thing!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 17, 2019
Then he threatened what could be construed as genocide against Iran. “If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran. Never threaten the United States again!” he tweeted on Sunday.
If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran. Never threaten the United States again!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 19, 2019
But also last Sunday he told Fox News that the “military-industrial complex” is real and “they do like war” and they “went nuts” when he said he wanted to withdraw troops from Syria. Trump said he didn’t want war with Iran, here possibly reflecting Israel’s views.
On Monday he implied that the crisis has been drummed up to get Iran to negotiate.
“The Fake News put out a typically false statement, without any knowledge that the United States was trying to set up a negotiation with Iran. This is a false report….”
The Fake News put out a typically false statement, without any knowledge that the United States was trying to set up a negotiation with Iran. This is a false report….
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 20, 2019
John Bolton must be stopped before he gets his war. It is beyond troubling that the man we have to count on to do it is Donald Trump.
Joe Lauria is editor-in-chief of Consortium News and a former correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, Sunday Times of London and numerous other newspapers. He can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @unjoe .