On flawed North Korea and Iran policies, John Bolton's new book blames 'the split between Trump and Trump'

President Donald Trump knew exactly what he was getting when he hired John Bolton in the spring of 2018 to be his national security advisor: An uber-hawk who made no secret of his belief that Iran and North Korea could be driven over the brink by extreme sanctions

The New York Times June 22, 2020 07:36:00 IST
On flawed North Korea and Iran policies, John Bolton's new book blames 'the split between Trump and Trump'

President Donald Trump knew exactly what he was getting when he hired John Bolton in the spring of 2018 to be his national security advisor: An uber-hawk who made no secret of his belief that Iran and North Korea could be driven over the brink by extreme sanctions, and who told the president that attacking nuclear facilities “might be the only lasting solution”.

So far, the sanctions experiment has failed: North Korea came to the negotiating table but, by some estimates, has doubled its arsenal during the Trump presidency, and the Iranians reacted to Trump’s pullout from a 2015 agreement by resuming nuclear fuel production and barring inspectors.

Yet Bolton’s memoir, which a judge ruled over the weekend can be released this week despite the government’s allegation that it contains classified information, provides the first inside glimpse of what went wrong on both fronts — and why force was never used.

The answer, he argues, lies in a president who wanted to be perceived as tough but changed his mind day-to-day, his top priority “making a deal he could characterise as a huge success, even if it was badly flawed.”

No one dared leave Trump in the room alone with President Kim Jong-un of North Korea when they met in Hanoi, Vietnam, in February 2019, Bolton contends, and they had to dissuade him from meeting the savvy, US-educated foreign minister of Iran, Mohammad Javad Zarif, because they feared he would run rings around the president.

On flawed North Korea and Iran policies John Boltons new book blames the split between Trump and Trump

File image of John Bolton watching on as President Donald Trump meets with Klaus Iohannis, the President of Romania, in the Oval Office. By Doug Mills © 2020 The New York Times

The troubles were exacerbated by foreign policy advisors at war with one another about how to achieve the goal of getting North Korea to give up its arsenal and stopping Iran from ever being able to build one. And so Bolton, though he does not admit it in the book, played out another version of the same battle he fought inside the George W Bush administration 15 years ago — and, in both cases, departed in disgust, and leaving a trail of angry colleagues.

Only this time, the sitting secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, whom Bolton portrays as usually a teammate in efforts to contain Trump, has denounced the revelations as the work of a “traitor”. (He has not, however, argued with any of the specifics that Bolton recounts.)

Bolton was a prodigious note taker, so his account of the key negotiating moments may be the best record that historians can turn to for the next quarter-century or more, until files are declassified. He is, of course, hardly a disinterested witness. Every interaction is viewed through Bolton’s own prism, in which any relaxation of sanctions or proposal for a “nuclear freeze” is a mortal danger, rather than a tactic toward getting to a bigger deal.

Still, the incidents that he recounts are striking. When Bolton had to leave Hanoi before a news conference, where the administration would have to explain how the diplomacy that Trump once promoted as the end of North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme fell apart, Pompeo looked at the national security advisor with envy and said, “Lucky you.”

And Trump, distracted by the fact that his former lawyer, Michael Cohen, was testifying back in Washington about the president’s private financial and personal dealings, is desperate to announce something, anything, that will seem big enough to drive Cohen off the front pages.

“Trump asked me how we could be ‘sanctioning the economy of a country that’s 7,000 miles away’,’’ Bolton recalls. “I answered, ‘Because they are building nuclear weapons and missiles that can kill Americans’.”

“That’s a good point,” the president agreed. As Bolton recalled, it was just “another day at the office.”

The biggest risk in US foreign policy, he concluded, was the president undercutting his own administration’s policies, what he terms “the split between Trump and Trump.”

All of this should have been predictable to Bolton, who had met Trump at the White House on several occasions as the president considered replacing Lieutenenat-General HR McMaster, with whom he had never seen eye-to-eye. Trump had been impressed by Bolton’s tough talk on Fox News, where he was a commentator. (This was long before Trump was declaring, as he did in an angry tweet the other day, that Bolton was “a washed-up guy” when he hired him.)

Trump, according to Bolton’s account in The Room Where It Happened, told his newly-hired national security advisor early on that he had assured Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, that “if he uses force” against Iran, “I will back him.” He asked Bolton to reinforce the message during one of his first official trips to Israel.

But it was unclear what Trump meant by “back him” — and whether that support would be largely rhetorical or whether it meant the United States would provide military reinforcements if a conflict with Iran escalated. The Obama administration had sent Netanyahu a much more qualified message: that it would support Israel if it was attacked by Iran but should not be counted on to enter a conflict if Netanyahu began it with a unilateral military strike, taken without prior agreement with the United States.

Once he settled into the national security advisor’s corner office down the hall from the president, Bolton learned that the reality was quite different. Trump had withdrawn from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal confident that the Iranians would come back begging to renegotiate, even if that meant it would have to enter a deal with much tougher terms, forever forgoing the ability to make nuclear material. (The Barack Obama-era deal lifted limits on uranium enrichment in 2030.)

But the initiative from Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, never came.

“Trump often complained that people all over the world wanted to talk to him, but somehow they never got through,” he wrote. “So not surprisingly, he eventually began musing about opening discussions with Iran.”

In Trump’s mind, he said, “Iranian president Hassan Rouhani wanted to talk, Vladimir Putin wanted to talk, everyone wanted to talk to Trump, but someone was cutting him out. Of course, neither Putin nor Rouhani had made any effort to contact us.”

And Zarif, the natural interlocutor because he speaks flawless English and lived much of his life in the United States, was “playing to Trump’s vanities.”

The issue came to a head last summer, Bolton recounts, when Zarif was in New York, playing coy with reporters about whether he would head to Washington to follow up on some feelers from the Trump administration, sent through Senator Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, and other members of Congress. Bolton opposed any such meeting and wrote that “just in case, I prepared at home a typed copy of my two-sentence resignation letter.” Trump, he reported, veered from rejecting the meeting, calling Paul “a peacenik,” to angling for a meeting with Zarif after the French invited him to a summit in August in Biarritz, France.

President Emmanuel Macron of France had quietly invited Trump to meet Zarif, and Bolton got a note that said “POTUS definitely want to do this.” Bolton describes manoeuvres from Pompeo and Netanyahu to block the meeting, working against Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, whom Bolton dismissed as “two Democrats.” The meeting never happened, but Bolton was soon gone. Today Tehran is producing far more enriched uranium than it was when the 2015 deal was in effect. Trump continues to say Iran is broken and will soon give in to pressure, although so far the evidence of that is scarce.

On flawed North Korea and Iran policies John Boltons new book blames the split between Trump and Trump

A copy of John Bolton's book 'The Room Where it Happened' outside the White House in Washington. By Doug Mills © 2020 The New York Times

Such splits also dominated the effort to deal with North Korea, where Bolton cast himself at war with Department of State negotiators who were talking about partial steps toward disarmament. At the Hanoi summit early last year, Kim tried to sell Trump on the idea of lifting all of the most potent sanctions against the North in return for dismantling the ageing, leaking nuclear facilities at Yongbyon, the country’s largest nuclear site.

Many of the North’s most worrisome and newer nuclear production sites are outside Yongbyon, and so are all of its missile facilities. Bolton opposed any step-by-step actions, fearing the North Koreans would just rebuild, as they did after reaching accords with the George W Bush administration.

Trump, in Kim’s presence, began musing about how, if he accepted Kim’s proposal for a partial deal, “he could lose the election.”

The meeting fell apart, and in the one-and-a-half years since, negotiations have never resumed. The North has continued to amass nuclear material, enough for 20 or more nuclear weapons since the Trump diplomacy began. Bolton does not blame himself for that failure.

“The North Koreans and others were expert at taking full advantage of those who wanted a deal, any deal, as a sign of success,” Bolton continued. “We were a perfect mark.”

A bad deal was avoided, he said, but he suspected it might not be for long.

David E Sanger c.2020 The New York Times Company

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