John Bolton’s appointment as Donald Trump’s national security advisor will have a pronounced effect on America’s policies towards the Middle East. But those changes will have more to do with Bolton being an effective administrator who is far more attuned to American politics than his predecessor HR McMaster, rather than any ideas or preconceptions about the region he may hold. It would be a mistake to think that there had been an ideological coup at the White House. Bolton is no neoconservative as many observers of foreign policy issues have tagged him over decades. Bolton, being an American nationalist and unilateralist, was, in fact, “Trumpian” before Trump. Hence, what can be expected is a forceful implementation of that vision onto the Middle East, one that can be described as unsentimental, utilitarian and expecting regional allies to do a lot more heavy lifting in facing off challengers such as Iran.
Bolton is a master of the arts of bureaucratic alchemy. He understands administrative and legal processes exceptionally well, and knows where and when to apply leverage and pressure to push through his policy objectives. That, rather than ideology, is the game-changer that his new role portends. Trump has gained a like-minded lieutenant in a war with the “deep state”– a term that the president had referenced in tweets while alluding to a network of national security operatives that he believes are out to get him as part of “a witch hunt.” Bolton, having served in various government capacities since the Reagan era, knows how to fight such entrenched networks. In fact, his administrative abilities, rather than his ideas, are why he had been ecumenically well received by various cliques within the Republican Party that normally shun ideological heterodoxy. Bolton’s Republican allies range from the likes of the late Senator Jesse Helms to the genteel confidantes of the Bush family (Bolton was one of the lead lawyers for George W Bush in the 2000 Florida recount), to the most committed neoconservatives such as Richard Perle. Such dexterity is a mark of political acumen, but it also suggests that Bolton does not subscribe to any one school or clique with the Washington tradition.
Bolton is a bureaucratic swordsman from the outer, grey-zone fringes of foreign policy circles. It would have been difficult to situate his way of thinking in the previous constellations, simply because they were not in vogue or wide currency. That is probably why they had been serially mislabeled. But a close examination would reveal remarkable consistency: America should avoid the legal constraints of multilateralism; it should be forward leaning when challenged by geostrategic upstarts; no ground on the international stage should be ceded without a show of might and tenacity; America is not obliged to spread democracy around the world or bankroll “nation-building”; its national security bureaucracy cannot be allowed to exercise a foreign policy independent of the president’s vision and must be trimmed down; and America can live with autocrats so as long as they pose no threat to American security. Sound familiar? It should, since it hews to all that Trump has been saying about foreign affairs since the early 1980s. But such ideas did not have a temple or institution to house them in the corridors of power until, that is, the Oval Office was turned into one with Trump’s advent.
Such obscurity complicates the process of understanding where Bolton – and by extension Trump – stand on Middle Eastern issues. It may seem ad hoc, but it isn’t. Most likely, Bolton will counsel the president to invest targets of opportunity as they arise in the region, but in their absence may opt for a general disinterest in pursuing grandiose objectives. Iran will get hit hard when it exposes a vulnerability. Maximalist statements concerning “regime change” may be uttered. But I doubt that significant strategic capital will be expended in pursuing them. Such an approach may conform closely to the manner by which an Israeli “realist” would look upon managing the neighborhood: occasional boldness, but nothing redemptive or sanguine. Hence, a nascent Syrian nuclear reactor may be obliterated, an Imad Mughnieh may be assassinated, but no real buy-in, either utopic or proactive, in substituting the Assad regime with a functioning democracy. Such trade-offs were evident in how Bolton shepherded the Gadhafi regime in from the cold in the mid-2000s after the Libyan dictator was willing to forgo his arsenal of WMDs. The pursuit of dramatic, lasting changes to the Middle Eastern strategic landscape will be left to regional powers. America will be in their corner, encouraging them, but not doing much more. Under such conditions, the United States would welcome Israeli air strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities rather than shoring up or fixing the so-called “Iran deal.”
Understanding that balance between opportunity and teleology in reaching America’s objectives in the Middle East warrants a reevaluation of the Iraq War, whose 15th year anniversary is upon us. Bolton was a vocal supporter, but it would be interesting to study how he arrived at his position. On this, and on many Middle Eastern matters, Bolton would have been influenced by Dave Wurmser, his confidante from back in the late 1990s when both were working as scholars at the American Enterprise Institute. Wurmser has also been pigeonholed as a “neoconservative” but that is not actually correct, and he himself had chaffed at such mislabeling. Wurmser explained his approach in a National Review article that he wrote on the passing of Ahmad Chalabi in 2015. Although he would have liked to see democracy prosper in the region, he was hesitant as to its viability and inevitability, which would have placed him at loggerheads with actual neoconservatives. However, he signed on to the cause of removing Saddam Hussein because Chalabi represented a once-in-a-generation opportunity, by Wurmser’s reading, of being an agent of change in Iraq and in the wider region. And with Chalabi’s demise, Wurmser declared the moment over.
It is far too early to judge how such nuances will influence both Bolton and Trump. Yet it would be reasonable to assume that it will mark a wide departure from how Washington traditionally approached the region. And given Bolton’s capabilities in outmaneuvering bureaucracies, one can predict that the hesitancy and hindrance of those residual approaches, whether they continue to exist at the state department, department of defense or the central intelligence agency, or even in Congress, will have little impact in aligning a Trumpian foreign policy with more familiar modes.
Nibras Kazimi is the author of “Syria Through Jihadist Eyes: A Perfect Enemy.”
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