Former U.S. Ambassador John Bolton is reportedly on the Trump administration’s short list for secretary of state. Even though no official announcement has been made, Bolton’s consideration is already drawing rebukes from libertarian-minded Republicans like U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, who on Tuesday called Bolton’s foreign policy views “unhinged.”
Paul’s spot on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee gives him significant sway over the nomination of Bolton—or anyone else—as secretary of state, but you don’t have to share Paul’s skepticism about America’s interventionalist foreign policy to be terrified by the prospect of having Bolton in charge of the State Department.
Here’s a brief reminder of some of the terrible things Bolton has done (or wanted to do) in the realm of foreign policy. We only included five of the worst examples, but share your own not-so-fond memories of Bolton’s disastrous ideas in the comments below.
1. Bolton was a primary cheerleader of the War in Iraq and stands for everything Americans rejected about the Bush administration’s foreign policy.
Let’s just get the obvious thing out of the way up front.
“We are confident that Saddam Hussein has hidden weapons of mass destruction and production facilities in Iraq,” Bolton said in 2002 while serving as President George W. Bush’s undersecretary of state for Arms Control and International Security. That wasn’t true, as we’d later discover after it was too late.
(As an ironic aside: at the same time that Bolton was cheerleading for an American invasion of Iraq over nonexistent WMDs, he was working to derail a UN proposal to allow foreign inspectors to check on the United States’ arsenal of biological weapons.)
Hindsight is 20/20, but not for Bolton. In 2015, he told the Washington Examiner that he still thinks the Iraq War was worth it and claimed “the worst decision made after that was the 2011 decision to withdraw U.S. and coalition forces.” In Bolton’s mind, U.S. troops should have occupied Iraq in perpetuity.
I’ve given up expecting much consistency from Donald Trump, but it’s still a little surprising that The Donald would be considering Bolton for a high ranking place in his administration. After all, Trump’s initial rise in the Republican primaries was largely due to his brilliant take-down of Jeb Bush, which hinged on reminding everyone why putting another Bush in the White House would be a bad idea.
“We should have never been in Iraq. We destabilized the Middle East,” Trump said during a February debate in South Carolina. “They lied. They said there were weapons of mass destruction. There were none.”
“Obviously the war in Iraq was a big, fat mistake,” Trump concluded, before hammering Jeb for taking more than a week (earlier in the campaign) to answer a reporter’s question about whether his older brother made a mistake by launching the invasion.
Now Trump wants to hire someone who has taken 13 years (and counting) to do the same?
2. Bolton wanted the U.S. to go to war with Cuba over WMDs that also didn’t exist
A year before the United States would go to war with Iraq due (at least in part) to falsely believing that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, Bolton was advocating that the United States should go to war with Cuba because of later debunked reports that Fidel Castro was developing weapons of mass destruction.
In May 2002, during a speech at the Heritage Foundation, Bolton said he believed Cuba was developing biological weapons and was capable of distributing them to Libya and Syria.
The New York Times reported on the speech: “‘The United States believes that Cuba has at least a limited offensive biological warfare research and development effort,’ Mr. Bolton said, taking aim at the Communist government of Fidel Castro. Cuba, he added, has also ‘provided dual-use biotechnology to other rogue states.’”
The Times noted that it was the first time an American official openly accused Cuba of developing biological weapons. When the Times asked Bolton’s office to substantiate this historic and potentially bellicose claim, they offered no evidence.
Those intelligence reports about Cuba developing WMDs? They were later debunked.
3. Bolton really, really wants to bomb Iran
Having apparently learned nothing from the decade-plus quagmire that resulted from the invade-now-come-up-with-an-exit-strategy-later Bush administration approach to the Iraq War, Bolton in March 2015 advocated for a similar bomb-now-and-figure-out-the-details-later approach to dealing with Iran.
In a New York Times op-ed titled “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran,” Bolton argued that “only military action” could “accomplish what is required.” The thing being required was preventing Iran from developing a nuclear bomb. A limited strike against known nuclear production facilities could set the country’s nuclear ambitions back by three to five years, Bolton argued, and should be combined with “vigorous American support for….regime change in Tehran,” because we all know about the successful track record of regime change in the Middle East.
As Reason’s Matt Welch noted at the time: “One of Bolton’s main stated concerns is that Iran’s pursuit of nukes will (and is already beginning to) set off a regional nuclear arms race, which would indeed be alarming. But isn’t there another possible game-theory scenario here, in which a pre-emptive attack on Iran (like the pre-emptive, WMD-justified attack on Iraq) could incentivize regional powers and various nefarious regimes to go nuclear faster? After all, the U.S. doesn’t spend a lot of time engaging in forcible regime change with countries (no matter how lousy) that already have the bomb. And Ukraine, for one, can tell you what happens to your defensive posture after emptying your nuclear arsenal.”
4. President Obama followed Bolton’s terrible advice about Libya and then Bolton blamed Obama for the resulting mess
In March 2011, while mulling a potential run for president, Bolton suggested to an Iowa crowd that the United States should try to assassinate Muammar Gadhafi, the then-dictator of Libya.
“I think he’s a legitimate target,” Bolton said, according to The Daily Beast. “He has murdered innocent American civilians. He has never faced responsibility for it. So I don’t have any hesitation in saying that.”
Later during the speech, Bolton admitted that he was willing to let Gadhafi live—”I personally would be happy to send him into exile somewhere,” is how he put it, according to the Daily Beast—but said it would probably be easier to just kill him and let someone else take control.
That someone else, of course, turned out to be ISIS. After the Obama Administration intervened in the Libya to drive Gadhafi from power (the dictator was eventually captured and killed by his own people), a power vacuum developed and Islamic extremists have since set up shop in Libya—just like they did in Iraq and Syria…it’s almost like there’s a pattern here.
Proving that he can learn from the mistakes of non-Republican administrations, Bolton later blasted Obama for intervening in Libya.
5. Bolton suggested Israel should unleash nuclear weapons against Iran
Perhaps the most terrifying manifestation of Bolton’s desire to bomb Iran no matter the costs or consequences for America (to say nothing of the consequences for the people of Iran fixed in his crosshairs) occurred in 2009 while Bolton was speaking at the University of Chicago.
“Unless Israel is prepared to use nuclear weapons against Iran’s program, Iran will have nuclear weapons in the very near future,” Bolton said. It’s been seven years and Iran hasn’t developed a nuclear weapon (and Israel thankfully didn’t follow Bolton’s advice), so either Bolton was exaggerating the threat or he doesn’t have a good understanding of the words “very near future.”
The logic here is almost too twisted to untangle.
Bolton argued that Israel’s preemptive use of nuclear weapon against an enemy (an act that would smash all international norms regarding the use of nuclear weapons) should not only be considered, but should be encouraged. Such an act would not destabilize the region (to say nothing of those smashed international norms), but Iranian efforts to develop a nuclear bomb—perhaps as a defense against exactly this sort of threat from Israel or the United States—is destabilizing?
Trita Parsi, the then-president of the National Iranian American Council, told Mother Jones that Bolton ought to ponder the aftermath of an Israeli nuclear assault on Iran.
“There is a day after you use a nuclear weapon,” he said. “If you want to maximize collateral damage and really make sure that the Iranian-Israeli conflict will be another unending Middle-Eastern conflict, then nuclear weapons is your path and John Bolton is your guy.”
Pondering the consequences of an unhinged, aggressive foreign policy isn’t Bolton’s strong suit. It’s stunning that someone who has been so wrong, so many times could end up running one of the most important parts of the U.S. government.
Before the election, many people were questioning the wisdom (or lack thereof) of giving a temperamental, vindictive, and irresponsible man like Donald Trump control over America’s nuclear arsenal. Those fears hopefully will never be realized, but letting John Bolton set the country’s foreign policy does nothing to calm the nerves.
Bonus John Bolton awfulness: