North Korea wins, America loses, with our Olympic appeasement

This article appeared in The Hill on February 12, 2018. Click here to view the original article.

By John Bolton
February 12, 2018

Appeasing authoritarianism comes in many forms. All of them are ugly. Some are obvious and extremely dangerous, and some are subtle, indicating a mindset portending future danger because of a propensity to ignore reality. Opening the 23rd Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, prominent American media outlets displayed the latter appeasement mentality in full measure, becoming stenographers for North Korea’s propaganda machine. Reflecting boundless gullibility, representatives of our free press stepped up to carry Pyongyang’s message.

Virtually North Korea’s entire purpose for participating in these Winter Games was to generate just such reactions. Kim Jong Un’s dictatorship is seeking propaganda advantage of South Korean President Moon Jae In’s “sunshine policy” to make inroads into global public opinion, to split Seoul from Washington and Tokyo in dealing with Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic-missile programs, and to distract America and the international community from the imminence of North Korea’s ability to target any spot in the world with nuclear weapons.

By agreeing to a “unified” team marching in Pyeongchang’s opening ceremonies, flying a flag showing an undivided Korean Peninsula, by forming a joint women’s ice-hockey team and by sending a large delegation of North Korean officials and “citizens” to support their athletes, Kim Jong Un played on the naïve and the gullible, of whom unfortunately there are all too many in both America and South Korea. The capstone of Kim’s propaganda campaign was the invitation to President Moon to visit Pyongyang for an inter-Korean summit. Delivered by the North’s nominal top official, Kim Yong Nam, and Kim Yo Jong, sister of the current dictator, the invitation was accepted reflexively.

Most noticeable initially about U.S. press coverage of these carefully programmed developments was the near-uniform lack of historical memory. Because the media either did not know or did not care about this history, the reporting carried the breathless excitement of something “new” that might lead to a diplomatic resolution of North Korea’s nuclear threat.

But Korean athletes have three times before marched as Olympic unified teams (in 2000, 2004 and 2006), under prior South Korean presidents who originated and followed “sunshine policies.” Moreover, there have been two earlier intra-Korean summits, in 2000 and 2007. Neither the unified Olympic teams nor the summits in any way impeded North Korea’s relentless progress toward achieving its goal of deliverable nuclear weapons.

Moreover, diplomatic progress is not possible here because Pyongyang’s purpose is not to “open a dialogue” for the umpteenth time with Seoul, Washington or Tokyo, but to conceal and distract from its menacing activities. Having the media fall for the “rapprochement” line rather than seeing the concealment motivation was precisely Kim’s objective. The U.S. media fully met his expectations. And then some. Vladimir Lenin is often credited with coining the phrase “useful idiots,” but even he would not have predicted the rhapsodizing we have seen.

Take, for example, a report by Morgan Winsor of ABC News describing the cheerleading cadre accompanying North Korea’s athletes: “Clad in coordinated outfits of red with white and blue accents, North Korea’s throng of more than 200 cheerleaders are stealing the spotlight at the 23rd Winter Olympic Games” as they “chant, sway and dance in unison.” I am assuredly not an aesthetics expert, but I saw the cheerleaders as a depressing manifestation of George Orwell’s novel, “1984,” not something that steals spotlights by their “synchronized chants” on behalf of the Korean team. Their “coordinated outfits” didn’t do anything for me either.

National Review editor Rich Lowry had it right when he tweeted to ask why ABC News didn’t realize “that what they are charmed by here is probably as close as you can get to a hideous real-world version of the ‘Handmaid’s Tale?’” Make no mistake, the well-fed visages of the cheerleaders mark them as among North Korea’s most privileged. Of course they perform vigorously. You would too in a society where lack of fealty to the regime is often a death sentence.

Next, enthralled by the combined North-South female hockey team, CNN reporter Aimee Lewis reported as matters of fact that “this women’s team became a tool for rapprochement” and that “not even the wildest optimist could have predicted recent events.” What exactly has happened recently? The joint team lost 8-0 to Switzerland, and many South Koreans resent that several of their female ice-hockey players were displaced by Pyongyang’s athletes. Without any reference to the vanishingly insignificant impact of this precise pattern in three previous Olympics, the real news is the number of reporters with the attention span of fruit flies.

Finally, consider the lionization of Kim Yo Jong, currently under U.S. sanctions for her role heading the ruling party’s Propaganda and Agitation Department. CNN’s Lewis dug into her trove of clichés to call her “the first member of Pyongyang’s ruling dynasty to set foot in the South” since the Korean War. Ruling dynasty? Sort of like the British royal family? There was, in truth, coverage of the brutal, dictatorial ways of the “ruling dynasty.” But reporters and their editors know, as does the North’s propagandists and scammers generally, that what typically matters most is what grabs quick headlines.

CNN wasn’t finished, however. Joe Sterling, Sheena McKenzie and Brian Todd wrote ecstatically that “if ‘diplomatic dance’ were an event at the Winter Olympics, Kim Jong Un’s younger sister would be favored to win gold.” She is the Ivanka Trump of North Korea, they “report,” and “not only a powerful member of Kim Jong Un’s kitchen cabinet, but also a foil to the perception of North Korea as antiquated and militaristic.” Words fail here.

While the media fun was unfolding, Pyeongchang’s Olympics organizers reported that their computers may have been hacked, and they are now investigating. Maybe those cheerleaders have other skills as well. Have reporters done any investigative work to ascertain where North Korea, under so much “pressure” of economic sanctions, found resources for the Olympics? Were they subsidized by South Korea, China or others, as has so often tragically been true, thereby subsidizing the dictatorship?

When P. T. Barnum allegedly said “there’s a sucker born every minute,” he may have been understating the problem. Not that you’d know it from our establishment media.


Iran vs. Israel

Transcript Highlights:

“I think we need to be worried that it indicates how future developments in the region are going to play out. This is a direct result of the defeat of the ISIS caliphate.”

“Iran has taken a much more forward position here, close to Israel, close to the oil-producing Arabs state of the Persian Gulf. And it’s beefed up its conventional military capability. I think it’s very troubling for Israel and our Arab friends in the region too.”

“It’s definitely a new threat.”

“I think this is clear evidence of extensive Iranian involvement with sophisticated air defense systems, perhaps s-300’s sold to them by Russia. The firing on Israel planes could well have been by Iranian military forces. You have to ask the question whether Russian military advisors were standing next to them while they did it. Or perhaps even manning the equipment themselves.”

“The Russian-Iranian axis is a very serious matter, particularly in Syria but across the Middle East.”

“This is the behavior we get from Iran almost three years after the vaunted nuclear deal that was supposed to bring them into the civilized community of nations. Not working out so well.”

“Let’s face it, Russian and Iran are in an effective alliance in the Middle East.”

“We’re very close to the point where, North Korea, and I think therefore inevitably Iran, are going to get deliverable nuclear weapons. So time is running out. If I were Israel, I’d feel particularly threatened at the moment.”

“I think the potential for wider conventional war is there and as Iran gets closer to being able to deliver nuclear weapons that threat will increase.”

“There is no moderation in Iran on the central point of them wanting dominance within Islam, hegemony in the Middle East, posing a threat to a lot of our friends.”


Fallout from the memo wars

This article appeared in The Pittsburgh Tribune Review on February 11, 2018. Click here to view the original article.

By John Bolton
February 11, 2018

After over a year of accusations, leaks and speculation about “Russiagate” and Hillary Clinton’s e-mails, a recently-released memorandum authorized by Chairman Devin Nunes of the House Intelligence Committee has garnered extraordinary publicity. Democrats wrote a response, also scheduled for public release. Since neither document reveals the actual evidence underlying their assertions, the debate rages on.

The Nunes memo is certainly not the last salvo in the political debate, which extends well beyond its limited subject matter: Whether the process for applying for foreign-intelligence-related surveillance on U.S. citizens was abused in an effort to “get” Donald Trump or his 2016 campaign. There is widespread, far-from-fanciful apprehension that the FBI investigation of alleged wrongdoing by the Clinton Foundation was killed for political reasons; that the Clinton e-mail investigation was both badly directed and improperly discussed publicly by then-FBI Director James Comey; that the “Russia collusion” allegations against Trump and his campaign had no foundation other than political reprisal; that Russian efforts to affect American elections are simultaneously at risk of being ignored or overstated; and that the Obama administration abused aspects of legitimate U.S. intelligence gathering for partisan purposes.

Despite torrents of words, we still have no adequate basis for judging fairly the truth or seriousness of nearly all these allegations of political bias, double standards in law enforcement and abuse of power by government agencies. The debate’s net effect, however, has unfortunately been to corrode the legitimacy of American institutions critical to our national security and to the concept of equal justice for all. Many, for example, are using the possibility of abuse in the foreign-intelligence field to weaken the critical capabilities and programs that protect us from threats ranging from nuclear weapons to suicide-bomb terrorists.

Things have gotten out of hand. There’s no end in sight.

Much as it grates on my every instinct as a former Justice and State Department official, I believe we need massive disclosure of the underlying evidence in all the contentious areas described above. Just as a starter, we should provide full public access to all the testimony taken and documents produced for Congress. More will have to come from the Justice Department, perhaps jeopardizing future criminal prosecutions, but there are occasions where the public is better served by illustration than by prosecution. This is one of them.

Plainly, significant aspects of these materials (such as applications to the foreign-intelligence court) will raise legitimate fears of harming intelligence and law-enforcement capabilities. Few arguments against public disclosure are more compelling than well-grounded concerns to protect the sources and methods used to gather intelligence and conduct criminal investigations. It is also true, as I have myself experienced, that these legitimate government interests can be used for blatantly political purposes. Deciding what to declassify will be an arduous task, but that is a reason to begin the review process now — not delay it.

Animosities are so high that not even full disclosure may be enough to resolve the current disputes and restore faith to critical government institutions. And no matter how carefully analyzed, the disclosures will inevitably impair some legitimate government endeavors. But the most important government interest here is restoring the citizenry’s faith in its government. That interest above all must prevail.


North Korea slams Trump’s State of the Union address

Transcript Highlights:

“I just love North Korean propaganda. It never fails to get a laugh from people.”

“I think it shows actually that they are nervous and what they really want to do is back us off.”

“We see through the North Korean propaganda.”

“I don’t think we can blink the reality here. North Korea is getting ever-closer to deliverable nuclear weapons. Barring some dramatic action by China, which is an increasingly fading hope I think at this point, we’re coming down to the decision either to accept nuclear weapons in the hands of this very bizarre regime or consider the use military force. These are not happy choices but we’re running out of options.”

“Consider the millions of Americans who could be killed by this bizarre regime who had assassins kill his own brother with VX gas in a Malaysian airport.”


Trump’s SOTU hit the right foreign policy notes — now comes the hard part

President Trump’s first State of the Union address was not heavy on national security issues. It did, however, make one critical point: In reviewing the international achievements of his first year in office, Trump was abundantly clear that the Obama era is over. Primarily retrospective assessments like Trump’s are perfectly legitimate for a president finishing his initial year, especially given what his policies are replacing.

Gone was President Obama’s self-congratulatory moral posturing, replaced by a concrete list of accomplishments that will inevitably increase the power of America’s presence in the world. Trump’s policy is not only not isolationist — as many of his opponents (and a few misguided supporters) contend — his pursuit of Ronald Reagan’s “peace through strength” approach actually demonstrates that Obama’s detached, ethereal retreat from American assertiveness internationally amounted to the real isolationism.

Most importantly, Trump again committed to palpably more robust military budgets and an end to the budget-sequester mechanism, the worst political mistake made by Republicans in Congress in living memory. Sequestration procedures were liberal dreams come true, forcing wasteful increases in domestic programs in order to obtain critical military funding. The sooner this whole embarrassing exercise is behind us, the better.

As Secretary of Defense James Mattis frequently points out, harking back to Jeane Kirkpatrick’s famous comment, there cannot be an adequate American foreign policy without an adequate defense policy.

Trump chose to single out the need “to modernize and rebuild our nuclear arsenal,” the bedrock of America’s deterrence capabilities. Indeed, Trump went on, quite rightly, to cast doubt on the “Global Zero” notion of actively working to eliminate all nuclear weapons. For many of those who pursue “Global Zero,” the real target is not rogue states like Iran or North Korea, or strategic threats like Russia or China, but the United States itself. Trump basically said in response, “When the lions lie down with the lambs, call me.” Just so.

I wish the president had also stressed the profound need to rapidly scale up our national missile defense capabilities, a program that was all but eviscerated during the Obama administration. Indeed, we must devote far more attention to capabilities beyond the original Bush program, which focused on addressing the relatively limited threats of the rogue states, which might have the capability to launch handfuls rather than hundreds of ballistic missiles at American targets. It is past time to return to Reagan’s original vision of “strategic defense,” so that the United States can have adequate defenses against Russia’s large, newly upgraded and modernized missile arsenals, and also against China’s rapidly increasing capabilities.

Increasing our defense capabilities is not just important: It is urgent. The global bills accrued because of failures by prior administrations are coming due on Trump’s watch, underlining the gravity of the international threats facing the United States. With immediate, continuing threats from international terrorism and nuclear proliferators like North Korea and Iran, plus strategic threats from Russia and China, America’s agenda is full to overflowing.

On radical Islamic terrorism, Trump could point to the military success against the ISIS caliphate and new rules of engagement for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, while recognizing that we remain at risk as long as this dangerous political ideology persists. There was no better manifestation of the president’s commitment to winning the “long war” than his unequivocal statement that our terrorist prison at Guantánamo Bay would remain open. Trump thereby emphatically rejected the Clinton and Obama administrations’ “law enforcement” paradigm for handling terrorism, and embraced the “war paradigm,” which brings into play a different mind set, different national powers and different legal authorities and constraints.

Trump was very clear that he regards the regimes controlling Iran and North Korea to be the basic problems, and that nuclear weapons in their hands were unacceptable, a formulation very close to George W. Bush’s admonition that we could not allow “the world’s most dangerous weapons” to fall into the hands of “the world’s most dangerous leaders.” Trump did not explicitly call for regime change in Tehran and Pyongyang, but he came close enough that fire bells should be ringing in the night in both Iran and North Korea. U.S. actions, and those of other like-minded countries, should now follow, to make it clear that the way to minimize the chances for the use of force against the rogue states’ nuclear programs is to get new regimes that renounce the existing programs, and quickly dismantle them.

Trump cited both Russia and China as “rivals … that challenge our interests, our economy and our values,” thereby giving the lie (yet again) to those who say he is somehow blind to the Russian threat. While the president’s comments on China focused primarily on economic and trade issues, there is no doubt he understands the strategic nature of the Chinese challenge as well.

In the days following this well-received State of the Union, Trump must now develop a comprehensive series of policies for dealing with the due bills now cascading across his desk. Most immediately, the administration must decide on what it is prepared to do to ensure that, as Trump said to the United Nations General Assembly in September, denuclearization is the only way forward for North Korea and Iran. Preventing nuclear-capable rogue states (not accepting them, as Obama’s national security adviser, Susan Rice, said she was prepared to do) is clearly the right outcome.

What Trump must reject, immediately, is what we have been doing for years, and which has manifestly failed. In the military context, Gian Gentile has described what he calls “a strategy of tactics,” which purports to be a strategy but is not one in fact. Under a nonproliferation “strategy of tactics,” we have aimlessly tried a little of this, then a little of that, hoping that something would work out. It hasn’t. And there is not time for persisting in this failed approach.

Understandably, Trump may not have wanted to address these complex and dangerous issues in what was already a longer-than-average State of the Union. Fair enough, but the hard analysis and planning, and the even harder decisions, are coming very soon.


Beyond the Iran Nuclear Deal

U.S. policy should be to end the Islamic Republic before its 40th anniversary

This article appeared in The Wall Street Journal on January 16, 2018. Click here to view the original article.

By John Bolton
January 16, 2018

President Trump seemingly served notice Friday that the days are dwindling for Barack Obama’s Iran agreement. Although deal proponents also gained time to pursue “fixes,” this is a forlorn option. No fix will remedy the diplomatic Waterloo Mr. Obama negotiated. Democrats will reject anything that endangers his prized international contrivance, and the Europeans are more interested in trade with Tehran than a stronger agreement.

There is an even more fundamental obstacle: Iran. Negotiating with Congress and Europe will not modify the actual deal’s terms, which Iran (buttressed by Russia and China) has no interest in changing. Increased inspections, for example, is a nonstarter for Tehran. Mr. Obama gave the ayatollahs what they wanted; they will not give it back.

Most important, there is no evidence Iran’s intention to obtain deliverable nuclear weapons has wavered. None of the proposed “fixes” change this basic, unanswerable reality.

Spending the next 120 days negotiating with ourselves will leave the West mired in stasis. Mr. Trump correctly sees Mr. Obama’s deal as a massive strategic blunder, but his advisers have inexplicably persuaded him not to withdraw. Last fall, deciding whether to reimpose sanctions and decertify the deal under the Corker-Cardin legislation, the administration also opted to keep the door open to “fixes”—a punt on third down. Let’s hope Friday’s decision is not another punt.

The Iran agreement rests on inadequate knowledge and fundamentally flawed premises. Mr. Obama threw away any prospect of learning basic facts about Iran’s capabilities. Provisions for international inspection of suspected military-related nuclear facilities are utterly inadequate, and the U.S. is likely not even aware of all the locations. Little is known, at least publicly, about longstanding Iranian-North Korean cooperation on nuclear and ballistic-missile technology. It is foolish to play down Tehran’s threat because of Pyongyang’s provocations. They are two sides of the same coin.

Some proponents of “strengthening” the deal propose to eliminate its sunset provisions. That would achieve nothing. Tehran’s nuclear menace, especially given the Pyongyang connection, is here now, not 10 years away. One bizarre idea is amending the Corker-Cardin law to avoid the certification headache every 90 days. Tehran would endorse this proposal, but it is like taking aspirin to relieve the pain of a sucking chest wound.


Politicizing Proliferation Policy

This article appeared in Pittsburgh Tribune Review on January 14, 2018. Click here to view the original article.

By John Bolton
January 14, 2018

North Korea’s apparently rapid progress last year in both its nuclear-weapons and ballistic-missile programs raises entirely legitimate concerns about U.S. intelligence capabilities. The New York Times recently reported that, as the Obama administration ended, intelligence-community analysts estimated that Pyongyang was over four years away from mastering the complex science and technology necessary to deliver thermonuclear weapons on targets within the continental United States.

Then, seemingly overnight, North Korea was igniting thermonuclear weapons and testing missiles that could hit the lower 48. The Times calls this an intelligence failure, certainly a serious matter. But the real reason was actually much worse.

Evidence in The Times report indicates that President Obama’s team dangerously politicized intelligence gathering and analysis, as senior officials strove to support their preconceived notions of the North’s true progress.

Throughout his presidency, Obama pursued a North Korea policy called “strategic patience,” which was in fact a synonym for doing nothing. As long as intelligence agencies assessed that Pyongyang’s threat was remote, conveniently fitting Obama’s predilection to do nothing, he could contend there was no basis for more robust measures against the North’s nuclear program.

Obama-era intelligence also conveniently painted a very similar picture about Iran as Obama desperately sought a nuclear agreement later characterized as an achievement comparable to ObamaCare in his first term. As with North Korea, if Iran’s program were not increasingly threatening, there was no danger, supposedly, from lengthy negotiations and an imperfect final agreement.

In both cases, however, the truth was much more malign, as North Korea is now demonstrating graphically. During the presidential transition, Obama blithely advised President-elect Trump that Pyongyang would be his most serious foreign challenge. How convenient that reality “changed” for the worst just after Obama departed the White House. Indeed, this “coincidence” is simply further evidence of how deeply his administration had politicized intelligence collection and analysis.

Government insiders recognize that politicization does not emerge via written directives from high-ranking authorities demanding particular outcomes. It arises instead when the intelligence community’s bureaucratic culture intuits what policymakers want to hear — and gives it to them. Highly ideological intelligence-community decision-makers, like Obama’s CIA director, themselves sharing the same benign view of North Korea, create a self-reinforcing feedback loop, rewarding “good” intelligence while shunting aside and disregarding contrary information and analysis.

Before and after the second Iraq war, critics of President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney leveled charges of politicization simply because Cheney and others asked hard questions of front-line intelligence analysts. But such questioning is something that first-rate analysts, proud of their work product, relish, providing analysts with key insights into policymakers’ thinking.

What happened under Obama was far different, an insidious ideological fixing of intelligence results.

Post-Obama, Trump’s White House has a full workload to repair and improve American national security, from significantly increasing military budgets to building a more assertive diplomatic corps. Importantly, however, eliminating the corrosive effects of politicized intelligence also needs to rank at the top of his agenda.


Pay attention to Latin America and Africa before controversies erupt

This article appeared in The Hill on January 2, 2018. Click here to view the original article.

By John Bolton
January 2, 2018

Latin America and Africa have rarely rated as top U.S. foreign policy priorities in recent years, but 2018 may change that. Political instability and the collapse of national governments, international terrorism and its associated financing, and great power competition for natural resources and political influence could all threaten significant American national security interests next year. If several simmering controversies erupt simultaneously, Washington could find itself facing these crises with little or no strategic thinking to guide our responses.

In the Western Hemisphere, Cuba as of now is scheduled on April 19 to see the end of official leadership by the Castro brothers. Since seizing power from Fulgencio Batista in 1959, Fidel and Raul have embodied global revolutionary Marxism, defying U.S. opposition and repressing domestic dissent without compunction. But while loath to admit it, the Castros were always sustained by external assistance, by the Soviet Union until its 1991 collapse in turn prompted a near-terminal regime crisis in Cuba, and more recently by Venezuela’s dictatorship.

Moreover, despite Barack Obama’s revealingly ideological effort to extend a lifeline by granting the Castro regime diplomatic recognition, economic conditions did not improve and domestic political repression only intensified. Even beyond Cuba’s open contempt for Obama’s concessions, however, 2017’s still unexplained sonic attacks on American diplomatic personnel crossed the line. Denied by Havana but hard to imagine without its connivance, these attacks concentrated the new Trump administration’s attention. In November, the White House rolled back many of Obama’s changes, serving notice that harming Americans was unacceptable.

Now, with Venezuela on the ropes, the revolutionary legitimacy of the Castros set to disappear, and U.S. pressure increasing, how long the regime survives is an open question. Whoever follows Raul Castro may well be Cuba’s version of Egon Krenz, East Germany’s last Communist ruler after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.

One major unknown is whether Vladimir Putin will see a strategic opportunity to reassert Russian influence in the failed Marxist paradise, or in other hemispheric weak points. Both Nicaragua (where, incredibly, the Sandinistas remain in power) and Honduras (which President Trump is trying to rescue from misguided Obama policies) are possibilities. While tensions will not likely return to Cold War levels, when U.S.-Soviet crisis over Cuba came close to igniting nuclear war, Russian meddling in Latin America could inspire Trump to reassert the Monroe Doctrine (another casualty of the Obama years) and stand up for Cuba’s beleaguered people (as he is now for Iran’s).

Venezuela’s tragic decline, first under Hugo Chavez’s comic-opera regime and now under Nicolas Maduro, his dimwitted successor, accelerated in 2017. A country that once had near-European living standards has seen its petroleum industry collapse through corruption, criminal negligence and lack of investment, with devastating consequences.

Moreover, foreign penetration of Venezuela remains unprecedented. Maduro relies on Cuban military advisers, and Iran and others maneuver to retain access to the country’s extensive uranium reserves, using its banking system for extensive money laundering and other illicit transactions. Hezbollah, exploiting the long history of expatriate Middle Eastern trading networks in Latin America, remains a murky but continuing threat, and narcotics empires are taking advantage of the rising chaos to operate in both Columbia and Venezuela.

Fortunately, at least some countries, like Argentina and Chile, show signs of restabilizing and overcoming misguided economic policies. On the other hand, as Brazilians themselves say, “Brazil is the country of the future, and always will be.” While Washington continues debating Mexican border policy, broader hemispheric threats, essentially ignored during the Obama administration, continue to grow, as 2018 may prove to our dismay.

Africa, in 2017 and before, has been ravaged by spreading anarchy and Islamic terrorism. Somalia effectively disintegrated decades ago, southern Sudan’s bloody civil war continues (and Sudan’s Darfur massacres remain etched in our memory), Boko Haram has torn open the seam between Muslims in the Saharan and Christians and animists in sub-Saharan Africa, and destabilizing terrorists or warlord groups, often armed by collaborating with similar groups in the collapsed state of Libya, have rampaged across the continent. Of these, Boko Haram’s threat to Nigeria’s stability and unity is the most significant, especially given Nigeria’s substantial oil reserves.

While the ISIS caliphate in Syria and Iraq was essentially destroyed in 2017, its leaders had exfiltrated over time, escaping to Africa, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Throughout northern Africa, therefore, ISIS and other terrorists could well become more visible next year as weak governments come under increased threat. France, for example, saved Mali from likely terrorist takeover in 2013, and more such threats could now emerge. Africom, the newest U.S. combatant command, faces its most extensive challenges and considerable attention to its counterterrorism efforts.

More broadly, Kenya saw internal political discord and external interference in 2017 that all but shattered confidence in national institutions. Similarly, South Africa’s African National Congress, which brought the country to independence and ruled it thereafter, nearly disintegrated in a just-concluded leadership contest to succeed President Jacob Zuma as the party’s head. On the other hand, successful elections in Liberia to succeed President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf mean that, for the first time in that nation’s history, there could be a peaceful transformation from one democratically elected leader to another. Moreover, Robert Mugabe’s fall in Zimbabwe was good news, although there is no guarantee the country will escape from his autocratic regime.

In both Latin America and Africa, China’s presence has grown significantly in recent decades, often through substantial foreign aid infrastructure projects or investments in natural resources, designed to feed China’s industrial production demands. Beijing’s competition with Washington has been largely one-sided, since we have long had wholly inadequate strategic understanding of the implications of China’s incursions, and no coherent response. Russia has been less involved in the race for natural resources, but its increased visibility, especially in our hemisphere, are part and parcel of Putin’s efforts to reassert Russia’s presence as in Cold War days.

In both of these critical regions, we need greater U.S. involvement, hopefully guided by more comprehensive thinking rather than ad hoc responses to erupting crises. This same advice could have been given for decades. Whether it will change in 2018 remains to be seen.


Expect America’s tensions with China and Russia to rise in 2018

This article appeared in The Hill on December 29, 2017. Click here to view the original article.

By John Bolton
December 29, 2017

Yesterday’s 2017 review and forecast for 2018 focused on the most urgent challenges the Trump administration faces: the volatile Middle East, international terrorism and the proliferation of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. Today, we examine the strategic threats posed by China and Russia and one of President Trump’s continuing priorities: preserving and enhancing American sovereignty.

China has likely been Trump’s biggest personal disappointment in 2017, one where he thought that major improvements might be possible, especially in international trade. Despite significant investments of time and attention to President Xi Jinping, now empowered in ways unprecedented since Mao Tse Tung, very little has changed in Beijing’s foreign policy, bilaterally or globally. There is no evidence of improved trade relations, or any effort by China to curb its abuses, such as pirating intellectual property, government discrimination against foreign traders and investors, or biased judicial fora.

Even worse, Beijing’s belligerent steps to annex the South China Sea and threaten Japan and Taiwan in the East China Sea continued unabated, or even accelerated in 2017. In all probability, therefore, 2018 will see tensions ratchet up in these critical regions, as America (and hopefully others) defend against thinly veiled Chinese military aggression. Japan in particular has reached its limits as China has increased its capabilities across the full military spectrum, including at sea, in space and cyberwarfare.

Taiwan is not far behind. Even South Korea’s Moon Jae In may be growing disenchanted with Beijing as it seeks to constrain Seoul’s strategic defense options. And make no mistake, what China is doing in its littoral periphery is closely watched in India, where the rise of Chinese economic and military power is increasingly worrying. The Trump administration should closely monitor all these flash points along China’s frontiers, any one of which could provoke a major military confrontation, if not next year, soon thereafter.

North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is where China has most disappointed the White House. Xi Jinping has played the United States just like his predecessors, promising increased pressure on Pyongyang but not delivering nearly enough. The most encouraging news came as 2017 ended, in the revelation that Chinese and American military officers have discussed possible scenarios involving regime collapse or military conflict in North Korea. While unclear how far these talks have progressed, the mere fact that China is engaging in them shows a new level of awareness of how explosive the situation is. So, 2018 will be critical not only regarding North Korea’s nuclear weapons threat but also whether Sino-American relations improve or take a distinct turn for the worse.

On Russia, the president has not given up on Vladimir Putin, at least not yet, but that may well come in 2018. Putin is an old-school, hard-edged, national interest-centered Russian leader, defending the “rodina” (the motherland), not a discredited ideology. Confronted with U.S. strength, Putin knows when to pull back, and he is, when it suits him, even capable of making and keeping deals. But there is no point in romanticizing the Moscow-Washington dynamic. It must be based not on personal relationships but on realpolitik.

No better proof exists than Russia’s reaction to Trump’s recent decision to supply lethal weapons to Ukraine, which is now a war zone entirely because of Russian aggression. To hear Moscow react to Trump’s weapons decision, however, one would think he was responsible for increased hostilities. President Obama should have acted at the first evidence of Russia’s military incursion into Ukraine, and even Trump’s aid is a small step compared to President Bush’s 2008 proposal to move Kiev quickly toward NATO membership. Nonetheless, every independent state that emerged from the Soviet Union, NATO member or not, is obsessed with how America handles Ukraine. They should be, because the Kremlin’s calculus about their futures will almost certainly turn on whether Trump draws a line on Moscow’s adventurism in Ukraine.

Just as troubling as Russia’s menace in Eastern and Central Europe is its reemergence as a great power player in the Middle East. Just weeks ago, the Russian Duma ratified an agreement greatly expanding Russia’s naval station at Tartus, Syria. In 2015, Obama stood dumbfounded as Russia built a significant air base in nearby Latakia, thus cementing the intrusion of Russia’s military presence in the Middle East to an extent not seen since Anwar Sadat expelled Soviet military advisers and brought Egypt into the Western orbit in the 1970s.

This expansion constitutes a significant power projection for the Kremlin. Indeed, it seems clear that Russia’s support (even more than Iran’s) for Syria’s Assad regime has kept the dictatorship in power. Russia’s assertiveness in 2017 also empowered Tehran, even as the ISIS caliphate was destroyed, to create an arc of Shia military power from Iran, through Iraq and Syria, linking up with Hezbollah in Lebanon. This Russian-Iranian axis should rank alongside Iran’s nuclear-weapons program on America’s list of threats emanating from the Middle East.

Finally, the pure folly of both the U.N. Security Council and the General Assembly crossing the United States on the Jerusalem embassy decision was a mistake of potentially devastating consequences for the United Nations. Combined with the International Criminal Court’s November decision to move toward investigating alleged U.S. war crimes in Afghanistan, there is now ample space for the White House to expand on the president’s focus on protecting American sovereignty.

Trump’s first insight into the rage for “global governance” among the high minded came on trade issues, and his concern for the World Trade Organization’s adjudication mechanism. These are substantial and legitimate, but the broader issues of “who governs” and the challenges to constitutional, representative government from international bodies and treaties that expressly seek to advance global governing institutions are real and growing. America has long been an obstacle to these efforts, due to our quaint attachment to our Constitution and the exceptionalist notion that we don’t need international treaties to “improve” it.

No recent president has made the sovereignty point as strongly as Trump, and the United Nations and International Criminal Court actions in 2017 now afford him a chance to make decisive political and financial responses in 2018. If 2017 was a tumultuous year internationally, 2018 could make it seem calm by comparison.


Threats of 2017 – Mideast, terror, weapons – will linger in the new year

This article appeared in The Hill on December 28, 2017. Click here to view the original article.

By John Bolton
December 28, 2017

Domestically and internationally, President Trump finished 2017 in dramatic fashion. Obtaining the most sweeping tax cuts in 30-plus years (and repealing ObamaCare’s most philosophically oppressive aspect, the individual mandate) was a landmark achievement. And, by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, then suggesting major changes in U.S. funding of the United Nations, he disrupted foreign-policy conventional wisdom on both the Middle East and “global governance.”

The administration’s national security strategy, published this month, centered its foreign policy in the conservative mainstream, but there is little time for complacency. On Inauguration Day, the president inherited acute dangers and longer-range strategic challenges, ignored or mishandled for years. While Trump has emphasized his intention to reverse course, the national security agencies have a mixed record in actually following his lead. Events in 2018 could well determine whether America resumes control of its international fate, or whether it continues to be buffeted by threats it could overcome but chooses not to.

In this article today, we review the administration’s 2017 record and 2018 prospects in three critical near-term areas: Middle East turmoil, international terrorism, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Tomorrow, we consider the longer-term risks posed by China and Russia, and the overarching issue of U.S. sovereignty.

Trump’s Jerusalem decision had the virtue of recognizing reality and simultaneously erasing libraries of arid scholasticism on the “Middle East peace process.” The long-predicted violent reaction by the “Arab Street” largely failed to materialize, despite palpable efforts by Turkey’s President Erdogan and Tehran’s ayatollahs to foment trouble. And the inevitable efforts in the U.N. Security Council and General Assembly were essentially charades, ritualistic theater that now makes even the participants weary. The lasting consequences of bashing America in New York will more likely be felt within the United Nations, as we will see tomorrow, rather than in the Middle East.

Moreover, Saudi Arabia and other Arab states are undergoing sweeping changes, the full dimensions of which cannot yet be confidently predicted. These changes have, in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s view, opened prospects for resolving the Palestinian and broader regional issues heretofore beyond reach. The behind-the-scenes White House peace initiative, also unconventional, has given the foreign policy establishment a case of the vapors.

Now unleashed, Riyadh’s “modernization” efforts, in economic and social policy as well as religion, may appear unstoppable, but it would be a mistake for the administration simply to assume so. The Shah of Iran had far less distance to travel to “modernize” his country, and seemingly lighter opposition than the Saudi monarchy faces today. Nonetheless, the 1979 Islamic Revolution deposed the shah, leaving Iran repressed by the brutal theocratic regime founded by the Ayatollah Khomeini.

Both Saudi reformers and Washington need to remember this catastrophe, primarily to avoid the possibility of radical backlash, but also to put in place contingency plans should there be either a countercoup or a religious eruption similar to 1979 Iran. The last thing we want is history recording we weren’t ready, that we didn’t try to prevent such a crisis, that the inevitable spiking oil prices and violent global market fluctuations surprised us.

Despite America’s 16 years combating radical Islamist terrorism since 9/11, serious threats against friendly Middle East regimes are entirely predictable. These threats underline the unfinished business of eliminating ISIS (following its caliphate’s destruction in 2017), Al Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah and other, still nascent terrorist groups. Against entrenched resistance from Obama-era judges, Trump has tried protecting the homeland through stricter immigration controls. The Supreme Court will likely resolve several key legal issues in 2018.

The real fight, however, will continue to be in the anarchic regions where the terrorists take root, whether Afghanistan, the hollow shells of Syria and Iraq, Yemen, Libya or the chaotic seam between Saharan and sub-Saharan Africa where Boko Haram and its ilk continue their depredations. America requires what the British once called “forward defense” against the terrorists, at least until the current wave of radical Islamism finally burns itself out in distant decades and until its financial supporters like Iran turn off the flow of money and weapons. Indeed, it is the nuclear, chemical and biological weapons threat from rogue states and their terrorist proxies that was and will continue to be the gravest danger facing America and its friends worldwide.

In 2017, the president acted on his critique of the fatally flawed Iran nuclear agreement by refusing to certify it under the Corker-Cardin legislation. Because, however, Washington did not actually withdraw from the deal, it still provides cover and legitimacy to the terrorist regime of the ayatollahs and allows Europe, Russia and China to trade and invest, thereby subsidizing nuclear proliferation and terrorism. Just a few weeks into 2018, the White House will face yet another certification decision, which will afford the Iran agreement’s vociferous supporters within the permanent bureaucracy yet another opportunity to keep it on life support. Trump should abrogate the deal as early as possible and think seriously about how to thoroughly denuclearize Iran.

Trump also jettisoned President Obama’s failed “strategic patience” with North Korea, and not a moment too soon. Pyongyang’s threat will almost certainly come to a head in 2018. The past year showed dramatic improvements in both the North’s nuclear and ballistic-missile programs. China could act decisively, as it has the unique capability to do, to overthrow Kim Jong Un’s regime, allowing the Korean peninsula to be reunified or installing a new regime and, with America, jointly denuclearizing the North.

If not, Washington will face an unattractive but unavoidable binary choice: Either we will have to consider using preemptive military force to destroy North Korea’s nuclear and missile facilities, or we and our allies will have to endure Kim Jong Un with deliverable nuclear weapons. And it won’t just be a threat from the North but from ISIS or Al Qaeda, Iran, and other rogue states with nuclear aspirations and hard currency to which Pyongyang can sell. This year was fraught on all these issues, but 2018 will be even more so. Tomorrow, we consider the long-term strategic threats the Trump administration faced this year — and could confront head-on next year.


Ambassador John Bolton, a diplomat and a lawyer, has spent many years in public service. He served as the U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations in 2005-2006. He was Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security from 2001 to 2005. In the Reagan Administration, he was an Assistant Attorney General.