President Trump has ousted John Bolton, becoming the third national security adviser to be ousted by Trump so far. Bolton has long been a fierce critic of diplomacy. He had strongly pushed for Trump to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal. He also opposed negotiations with North Korea, as well as the Taliban in Afghanistan. And he was a key supporter of the attempted U.S.-backed coup in Venezuela and an advocate of regime change in Cuba and Nicaragua. Trump is expected to announce a replacement next week. We speak with Phyllis Bennis, fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and a member of the national board of Jewish Voice for Peace.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: We begin today’s show looking at President Trump’s ousting of John Bolton, his hawkish national security adviser. Bloomberg is reporting Bolton’s firing came after he opposed a proposal to ease sanctions on Iran and for Trump to possibly meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani later this month on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly. Bolton has long been a fierce critic of diplomacy. He had strongly pushed for Trump to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal. He also opposed negotiations with North Korea, as well as with the Taliban in Afghanistan. And he was a key supporter of the attempted U.S.-backed coup in Venezuela and an advocate of regime change in Cuba and Nicaragua.
AMY GOODMAN: On Wednesday, President Trump made his first televised remarks about Bolton’s ouster. He repeatedly criticized Bolton’s support for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: And, you know, John wasn’t in line with what we were doing. And actually, in some cases, he thought it was too tough, what we were doing. Mr. Tough Guy. You know, you have to go into Iraq. Going into Iraq was something that he felt very strongly about. So we’re right now in for over $7 trillion into the Middle East. And I don’t say it was his decision; you had a president, and you had other people also, but he was very out there, I can tell you. …
We were set back very badly when John Bolton talked about the Libyan model. And he made a mistake. And as soon as he mentioned that, the Libyan model, what a disaster. Take a look at what happened to Gaddafi with the Libya model. And he’s using that to make a deal with North Korea? And I don’t blame Kim Jong-un for what he said after that, and he wanted nothing to do with John Bolton. And that’s not a question of being tough. That’s a question of being not smart, to say something like that.
AMY GOODMAN: John Bolton becomes the third national security adviser to be ousted by President Trump so far. Trump is expected to announce a replacement next week.
We’re joined now by Phyllis Bennis, fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. She’s written several books, including, most recently, Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer.
We thank you very much, Phyllis, for being with us. Why don’t you talk about John Bolton’s role, during the Trump administration and before?
PHYLLIS BENNIS: One of the things about John Bolton that I think is so crucially important is his absolute, consistent commitment to militarism. This is a man who does not believe in diplomacy anywhere. He does not believe there are any international crises that can be solved by anything other than direct military intervention, whether it’s sending troops, whether it’s bombing. His op-ed in The Wall Street Journal calling for a first strike against North Korea; his consistent years of calling for bombing Iran; his calls for regime change in Venezuela; most recently, of course, his opposition to even negotiating with the Taliban in Afghanistan, let alone a partial, small-scale troop withdrawal — all of this is of a piece. All of this is a consistent position that says, “America first means America military first and only.”
So, this has been a consistent pattern that, of course, helped to lead to the Iraq War. Ironically — doesn’t happen very often — President Trump was right in how he described Bolton’s role as a major — not just a major cheerleader, but somebody who actually orchestrated some of the things that made possible the U.S. war in Iraq back in 2003.
Specifically, it was Bolton who at that time was, again, a bit ironically, the deputy secretary of state for arms control and disarmament affairs. He arranged to have the director of the U.N.’s chemical weapons watchdog agency, the Organization for Prevention of Chemical Weapons, José Bustani — he arranged his firing, on the basis that Bustani was trying to get Iraq to join the anti-chemical weapons organization so it would be obligated to have even more direct inspections throughout the country, to prove that indeed there was no chemical weapons program, there was no weapons of mass destruction program. And instead of allowing that to go forward to prevent the possibility of war, Bolton got him fired so that he could install somebody who would refuse to allow it.
He tried to do the same thing with the director of the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog, Mohamed ElBaradei, when ElBaradei had the temerity to actually testify to the Security Council that, no, Iraq did not have a viable nuclear weapons program. And in response, Bolton tried to get him fired, but he failed on that account.
But he has consistently worked around the administrations he’s worked for with one goal, which is the deploying of military force by the United States, not in the interest of nation-building, democratization. He doesn’t even talk like a neocon in that sense. His goal is purely military, and that’s been a consistent position.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Phyllis, as you say, and there’s ample evidence, as you’ve outlined, his positions were by no means a secret. So, why do you think Trump appointed him in the first place? And why sack him now?
PHYLLIS BENNIS: Well, I think the appointment had less to do with his strategic commitment to militarism than to the fact that he had spent a year or so on Fox News praising President Trump. And we know that’s what motivates Trump to want to bring people into the administration, those who praise him on TV. That’s what Bolton was doing to get into that position.
Secondly, we should be very clear that while there are these differences between Trump and Bolton, Trump is by no means opposed to U.S. military assaults. The notion that he was against the war in Iraq is simply false. The notion that he did not want to ever use military force, simply not true. He just had a different view on some of these specific issues than Bolton had, and he has a very short memory, as we know. So I think he either had forgotten or really didn’t care that in the past there had been this consistent Bolton pattern of calling for more military force than Trump might have chosen at any given moment.
But in the case that we see now, why was he ousted, I think it was primarily cumulative. There were some specific events in the recent period. One, of course, was the negotiations with the Taliban, which Bolton had strongly opposed. He had wanted the U.S. to remain as a major military power in Afghanistan for the indefinite future. And when these negotiations were underway, and particularly when the negotiations looked like they were succeeding, after almost a year, with Bolton’s former replacement at the United Nations, Zalmay Khalilzad, in charge of those negotiations, it looked like there was agreement on what we might call step one of a process in Afghanistan, which would have meant the United States pulling out most of its troops. Even though there was likely to be a continuing war, the U.S. would be out of that equation, which would significantly lessen the numbers of civilian casualties in Afghanistan, that are primarily because of U.S. and U.S.-backed airstrikes. That was not going to be allowed to happen, if John Bolton had his way. So that was one of the big parts of the impetus for the immediate part.
We’re now hearing that there’s also the possibility that there were negotiations underway with Iran for the possibility of talks between Trump and President Rouhani on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, which meets in a couple of weeks in New York. I don’t know if those reports are true; there are often these kinds of reports as ways of just testing the waters to see what the response might be. But, certainly, the Iranians have made clear that if there was an easing of sanctions, and not before, they are very eager for new talks with the United States and anyone else, particularly with the former signatories of the Iran nuclear deal.
So, all of these things were underway just in recent weeks. But I would say that the overall decision of Trump to get rid of his national security adviser had more to do with the consistency of these disagreements and the fact that Bolton had no compunctions about going on television and condemning the policies of his boss. And Trump does not like to be upstaged on television.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s go back to November 2018, when Bolton characterized Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela — we’ll say Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua — as a, quote, “troika of tyranny.”
JOHN BOLTON: The troika of tyranny in this hemisphere — Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua — has finally met its match. … This troika of tyranny, this triangle of terror stretching from Havana to Caracas to Managua, is the cause of immense human suffering, the impetus of enormous regional instability and the genesis of a sordid cradle of communism in the Western Hemisphere.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go back to President Trump speaking yesterday.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: So, we’ll see what happens. No, I disagreed with John Bolton on his attitudes on Venezuela. I thought he was way out of line. And I think I’ve proven to be right. But we are always watching Venezuela very, very closely.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Phyllis Bennis, should we expect a change in policy here, or was John Bolton very much representing what Trump feels in this area? And where does Pompeo fit into this picture, of course, his nemesis, now being talked about as possibly replacing him but remaining as secretary of state? The only time that was ever done in history was with Henry Kissinger under Nixon, doing both NSA, national security adviser, and secretary of state.
PHYLLIS BENNIS: Right. On the question of Venezuela, I think there’s no question that at the time that the U.S. launched its massive escalation of sanctions against Venezuela, that have had such a devastating impact on the people of Venezuela — there was no question that President Trump agreed and was eager to impose those sanctions. Where he seems to have had a disagreement with Bolton was on how easy it might be to carry out a U.S.-backed coup.
The U.S. was very involved in supporting the attempted coup by Guaidó, the opposition leader, who the U.S., President Trump had been very eager to recognize as the supposedly legitimate leader of Venezuela. And it turned out, of course, that that so-called coup failed. It did not get support from the military in Venezuela. And what we hear is that Bolton had promised Trump, very much in the language of what people promised President Bush during the run-up to the war in Iraq, “it will be a cakewalk,” “it will be easy,” “we can do this without any problem.” Turned out it didn’t work.
And while the conditions in Venezuela remain very, very tough for the Venezuelan population, and there are huge political challenges, both to the diminished support for the opposition and increasing opposition to the elected leadership of Venezuela, what we’re now seeing is that Trump is singling out this one area where he had a disagreement with Bolton, and implying that somehow that was a disagreement on the entire range of Venezuela policies. I don’t think we can expect a serious transformation of that policy in the form of withdrawing those crippling sanctions, for instance. Unfortunately, I think what we will see is a stasis position. We will leave in place, Trump will say, these sanctions that are in place now. We won’t go any further towards a military coup or direct military intervention, but we will leave in place these very dramatically devastating sanctions that are having such a crippling impact on the economy in Venezuela.
On the question of Pompeo, I think what we’re seeing is that Pompeo has been very successful as secretary of state in anticipating the trajectory of where Trump is likely to want to go, and getting out ahead of that position and, in fact, then turning to his boss and saying, “I think we should do X,” hoping — and in most cases, it seems he’s got a good sense of what Trump might want to do — Trump saying, “Oh, yeah, that’s a good idea. Let’s go in that direction.” Pompeo doesn’t seem to be basing his positions on any level of principle, any sort of consistent foreign policy, other than making his boss happy. So, in that context, although there are a half a dozen or so people being touted as possibilities to replace Bolton as the national security adviser, it’s certainly possible that Trump may simply throw up his hands and say, “Hey, this guy seems OK. He likes me. I like him because he likes what I like. Let’s just keep him around.” That’s a definite possibility.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Yeah. So let’s go to the question of Bolton’s successor. In an editorial Tuesday, The New York Times said it’s not likely to matter much, given Trump’s chaotic approach to foreign policy. The Times said the president’s naming of Bolton as national security adviser in March 2018 was itself, quote, “an instance of Trumpian chaos. [Mr.] Trump wanted to pursue an end to hostilities in Korea and Afghanistan and proved wary of conflict in Iran and Venezuela. Yet he chose a proponent of belligerence who disdains diplomacy, supports allies-be-damned unilateralism and thinks bombing North Korea and Iran is the best way to neutralize their nuclear threat,” The New York Times wrote.
Meanwhile, Democratic Senator Chris Murphy said in a statement, quote, “No one of any quality is going to take a job in the nation’s national security cabinet so long as everyone’s head is permanently hovering slightly above the chopping block.”
Phyllis Bennis, your assessment of what’s been said and who you think will actually replace Bolton, and if it will make a difference?
PHYLLIS BENNIS: Well, I think this question of what Chris Murphy said, that no one of quality, it depends how you define “quality.” If you define “quality” as people who are looking to get higher on the hierarchical ladders of the Washington foreign policy establishment, there’s plenty of people out there who would do it. It could be Bolton’s former deputy, who’s right now the acting national security adviser.
This is a position that’s going to have very little power. We see that, in fact, with Bolton. Bolton had the president’s ear, and he was able to get his ideas into Trump’s mind. But on some of these key issues where there were these tactical disagreements, we did not see his position prevailing, because while the title is national security adviser, for a president who doesn’t take advice, that doesn’t have a huge amount of influence.
We should be very careful, though, not to get into the assumption that Trump somehow represents a diplomatically based foreign policy. Trump is as scornful of diplomacy as — of real diplomacy as Bolton is. The difference is, Trump sees diplomacy as a way where he can promote himself as a great showman, as the leader who’s made possible all these things that nobody else could pull off — “I stepped foot into North Korea. I shook hands with the North Korean leader.” This is the kind of circus that he wants to be able to carry out. That was the basis for wanting the Taliban to come to Camp David. It wasn’t because there were unresolved issues in the negotiations that he thought last-minute talks could solve. It was because he wanted to preside over this very dramatic, world-altering ceremony. So, this is very much a symbolic set of positions.
I think what is true and what has been relatively consistent with Trump is that he doesn’t think it’s worth it to deploy large numbers of U.S. troops abroad when there’s no discernible interest politically for him or for something he can claim for U.S. policy. The notion that he is somehow concerned about what happened, for example, to Muammar Gaddafi, who was of course captured and tortured to death by opposition forces backed by NATO and the United States, in a NATO intervention that was carried out, somewhat reluctantly, but regardless of that, by President Obama at the behest and the urging of Hillary Clinton — this was a horrific end to that regime. And the notion that President Trump somehow is concerned about what happened to Gaddafi rather than what happened to U.S. credibility around the world, that again took a dive because it was seen by so many around the world as carrying out this absolutely illegal intervention and bombing campaign, in which so many people died and so many people continue to die in Libya, creating an enormous set of humanitarian crises that include a refugee crisis — it’s just set in motion a regional disaster across North Africa and the Middle East. I don’t think President Trump is concerned about that.
AMY GOODMAN: Phyllis Bennis, we want to ask you to stay with us as we move on to our next subject. But Phyllis is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, serving on the national board of Jewish Voice for Peace, written a number of books, including Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer.