So, President Trump’s has tapped John Bolton to be his next national security adviser.
Most readers will be familiar with the broad outlines of the Bolton story – he is famously awful as a boss and his hawkish tendencies border on the absurd. A Republican senate refused to confirm his nomination, by George W. Bush, as Ambassador to the United Nations. The thought of Bolton in New York literally moved Senator George Voinovich, a Republican, to tears.
Bolton has, of course, been on his very best behavior. He recently made news by appearing to support the idea of negotiations with North Korea, comparing it to the deal that the Bush Administration struck with Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi in 2003.
Don’t fall for it. The agreement with Libya, and how its relates to North Korea, is actually one of the least well-understood episodes in recent diplomacy. But it is important, because it demonstrates how Bolton plies his trade, and the danger he poses.
After the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Bush Administration faced a delicate situation: There were no weapons of mass destruction! Saddam had, in fact, abandoned his programs and the United States had invaded Iraq anyway. This looked, well, bad. How could Bush convince other world leaders, including North Korea’s Kim Jong Il, to give up their nuclear weapons aspirations if it looked like the U.S. would just turn around and topple them, just as it had Saddam?
Bush’s National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice, hit on an ingenuous solution. The United States had also struck a disarmament deal with Libya. Why not have Gaddafi vouch for Bush?
“North Korea will be surprised to see how much will be possible (if it abandons its nuclear programs),” she reportedly told the South Korean Foreign Minister in 2004. “I wish Kim Jong-Il would talk to Gaddafi.”
Rice likely presumed the message would leak, but just to be sure Bolton—at the time, an undersecretary of state—gave a speech emphasizing that “Kim Jong Il could follow the advice of Dr. Condoleezza Rice. She was serious when she expressed several days ago her hope that Kim Jong Il would talk to Colonel Gaddafi.” A few days later, Bolton was asked whether the U.S. would “arrange a meeting between Kim Jong-Il and Colonel Gaddafi” and Bolton agreed that “it would make for an interesting conversation.”
Of course, we know how that worked out. In 2011, Libyan opposition forces backed by U.S. airpower overthrew Gaddafi. It was, in fact, NATO aircraft that struck the Gaddafi convoy as it was attempting to flee Sirte, forcing Gaddafi out of his vehicle and into the hands of the rebels who brutally murdered him.
As Libya collapsed into civil war, the very same John Bolton, by then a television pundit, openly advocating killing Gaddafi. Asked how this squared with his support for the 2003 disarmament deal, Bolton was nonplussed.
“Nobody at the time thought it was a get-out-of-jail-free card in perpetuity,” he explained.
None of this was lost on the North Koreans.
“It was fully exposed before the world that ‘Libya’s nuclear dismantlement,’ much touted by the U.S. in the past,” North Korea’s state media noted, “turned out to be a mode of aggression whereby the latter coaxed the former with such sweet words as ‘guarantee of security’ and ‘improvement of relations’ to disarm itself and then swallowed it up by force.”
States pursue nuclear weapons for a lot of reasons, but chief among them is that the bomb is, in fact, a get-out-of-jail-free card in perpetuity—or at last as close to one as there is. A lot has been made of the fact that Kim Jong Un reportedly told a visiting South Korean delegation that would consider denuclearization. It’s worth looking at precisely what Kim allegedly said:
“There is no reason for [North Korea] to possess nuclear weapons as long as military threats to the North are eliminated and the regime's security is guaranteed.”
Kim is doing isn’t offering to give up his nuclear weapons, he’s explaining why he needs them. The notion that Kim would turn around and give up this capability for the deal that preceded Gaddafi’s grisly death is absurd. Kim Jong Un won’t denuclearize for some promises and some face time with Donald Trump. Hell, even Stormy Daniels got 130 large.
So why is Bolton talking about Libya at all? His audience isn’t North Korea at all.
Bolton wants to give the impression that he gave diplomacy the old college try, before moving on to the urgent task of getting us all killed in a nuclear war. Bolton is willing to entertain some period of negotiations for the sole purpose that, when they fail, he can discredit diplomacy and push for more aggressive solutions.
Bolton has long admitted that this is precisely what he did in 2002, when he ultimately supported the Bush administration’s decision to send a diplomatic delegation from the Bureau of East Asia Pacific Affairs (EAP) to Pyongyang.
“My first reaction [to the diplomatic overture] was dismay, but the more I thought about it, the more positive I became ….” he wrote in his memoir. “Above all, I had real faith in the North Koreans. They were what they were, and not amount of EAP spin could overcome that. … As [the diplomats] boarded their flight to Asia, EAP began to realize that perhaps this trip wasn’t such a good idea after all.”
When Republican national security experts tell you how “effective” Bolton is when it comes to managing the bureaucracy, this is the kind of skull-duggery that draws their admiration. What Bolton was good at doing was appearing to support negotiations while sabotaging them, then turning their failure to his own purposes. It’s hardly bureaucratic brilliance, just a kind of low cunning unencumbered by ethical considerations.
Kim Jong Un isn’t going to fall for it. Neither should we.