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John Bolton’s obsession with one word is a hint of what America’s in for

Former U.S. Ambassador to the UN John Bolton arrives to speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), Friday, Feb. 24, 2017, in Oxon Hill, Md.
AP Photo/Alex Brandon
I’ve got a word for you.
  • Steve Mollman
By Steve Mollman

Weekend editor

Published This article is more than 2 years old.

Donald Trump has chosen John Bolton to be his new national security advisor, he announced via tweet yesterday. While H.R. McMaster, whom Bolton will replace, has been viewed as a moderating force on the US president, Bolton is a defense hawk who is often, like Trump, dismissive of international diplomacy. He’s called for using military force against Iran and North Korea, and for taking a hard line against Russia.

How exactly the appointment will affect international affairs remains to be seen—last year Trump said, “I’m the only one that matters” in setting foreign policy—but in the meantime, we can say one thing for certain about Bolton: The man likes the word “reality.”

He likes it a lot. In fact, he likes the word so much that examining his use of it could illuminate his hawkish outlook and help make sense of the years (or at least months) ahead. 

Looking through his past tweets and columns, “reality” pops up again and again. Certainly he’s had plenty of opportunities to use it. Among other roles, Bolton is a Fox News analyst, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (a conservative think tank), and a former US ambassador to the United Nations.

His recent writings on North Korea illustrate Bolton’s love affair with the word. Last year, Bolton managed to use “reality” three times in a single Washington Post column (paywall). First he criticized another opinion writer of being “heedless of reality.” Then he wrote “The real problem is that many otherwise sensible people are prepared to believe that agreements constitute reality, rather than actual behavior” before ending dramatically with, “Time to face reality instead.” The “reality” he was referring to is the fact Pyongyang wants the ability to hit the US with nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles, and it’s lied in the past about halting its efforts toward that goal.

Bolton often repeats the same basic formula in his columns: First he criticizes those who fail to recognize reality, then he demonstrates that he, by contrast, succeeds brilliantly in seeing it. In an opinion piece appearing in the Hill last month, he faulted the US media for its positive coverage of North Korea’s participation in the Winter Olympics. He wrote: “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.” After establishing the “boundless gullibility” of reporters, he then shared his clear-eyed assessment of the situation: The regime of Kim Jong-un is bad.

But Bolton wants action, not just words. He recently penned a column (paywall) for the Wall Street Journal entitled “The Legal Case for Striking North Korea First.” He again rolled out the dependable formula: First he set out who was being naive—in this case, anyone opposed a pre-emptive military strike against North Korea. Such thinkers are using outdated standards that apply more to the 1800s than to the age of ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons, he argued. He then praised two former US presidents—Franklin D. Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan—for taking pre-emptive measures for the sake of national security. Roosevelt “vastly extended America’s ‘waters of self defense'” in the face of Nazi aggression, while Reagan extended US territorial waters, “making it harder for Soviet spy ships to gather information.” Bolton added: “In short, both Roosevelt and Reagan acted unilaterally to adjust to new realities… They adjusted the measures to reality, not the reverse.” He ends the piece with, “It is perfectly legitimate for the United States to respond to the current ‘necessity’ posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons by striking first.”

He uses the word more broadly, of course. In late 2014, he offered advice on his website on how to defeat ISIL, contending the “reality is we need US boots on the ground right now.”

In a 2015 National Review column, he argued for an attack on Iran, with the headline, “Facing reality on Iran.” He wrote that “as of today, only a preemptive military strike can block Iran from becoming a nuclear-weapons state… neither wishful thinking nor outright deception can change the fundamental strategic reality.”

This year he called for creating a “new reality” by nixing the Iran nuclear deal:

When Trump announced in December that the US embassy in Israel would be moved to Jerusalem, Bolton tweeted him a three-“reality” salute:

By contrast, he lambasted Trump’s predecessor using the same word, writing on his website in 2015, “Obama’s national security strategy is most noteworthy for its detachment from reality.” He wrote in 2014, in response to Russia’s military incursions into Ukraine, “[Putin] understands that Obama is a man who lives in a fog of words. To Obama, rhetoric is reality. To Putin, power is reality.”

It’s easy to see why Bolton has latched on to “reality.” If you’re pushing for military intervention, the word allows you to paint anyone who’s against it as being dangerously naive, or so enamored of lofty ideals as to be oblivious to the true intentions of enemies posing a direct threat. Or if not oblivious, then, perhaps worse, unwilling to see the dangers all around.

Trump is famously thin-skinned, with a tendency to bristle at perceived slights. He encourages similar emotions in his base, warning them repeatedly that on trade and other issues the world is “laughing at us.” Now, Bolton will be  whispering in his ear about those who can see reality versus those who are being taken for a ride. And since the position of national security advisor does not require a Senate confirmation, there appears to be little to stop that unsettling scenario from becoming a reality.

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