Here Comes Bolton, There Goes Arms Control
John Bolton’s appointment as national security adviser to President Donald Trump is the latest blow to hopes for a less confrontational U.S.-Russia relationship that would include new talks on arms control. Mutual trust is now hanging by a very thin thread.
One wag suggested to me that the Bolton appointment should not really come as a surprise, since it fits the recent Washington pattern — if White House chaos can be considered a pattern. For Kremlin leaders, though, White House zig-zags are no laughing matter. Let’s try to put ourselves in their shoes and imagine how the unfolding of recent events may have looked to them.
On March 1 in his state-of-the-nation address, President Putin revealed several new strategic weapons systems that Russia developed after the Bush/Cheney/Bolton administration abrogated the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which had been the cornerstone of strategic stability for the previous 30 years. (John Bolton is included in that august company because, as Undersecretary of State for Arms Control, he was Vice President Dick Cheney’s enforcer to put the kibosh on the ABM Treaty.)
You would not know it from the “mainstream media,” but in that same speech Putin offered to “sit down at the negotiating table” and “work together … to ensure global security” — taking into account the strategic parity Moscow claims.
Referring to what he called “our duty to inform our partners” about Russia’s claimed ability to render ABM systems “useless,” Putin added: “When the time comes, foreign and defense ministry experts will have many opportunities to discuss all these matters with them, if of course our partners so desire.”
One “Partner” So Desires
On March 20, two days after Putin was re-elected President of Russia, President Trump decided to congratulate the winner — as is the custom — without insulting him. For this he was excoriated by mainstream media for squandering the chance to point his finger, once again, at alleged Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election. Sitting atop Mark Landler’s New York Times article that day was this headline: “Trump Congratulates Putin, but Doesn’t Mention Meddling in U.S.”
That was not Trump’s only offense. He also disregarded instructions to berate Putin with the evidence-and-logic-free accusation that Moscow poisoned, for no apparent reason, a former Russian spy and his daughter living in the UK. Landler lamented, “Instead, Mr. Trump kept the focus of the call on what the White House said were ‘shared interests’ — among them, North Korea and Ukraine — overruling his national security advisers …”
Parsing the NYT
The Times’ initial report included “arms control” in the headline and quoted Trump: “We had a very good call … We will probably be meeting in the not-too-distant future to discuss the arms race, which is getting out of control.” It was not long, however, before the NYT pared down that last sentence to “We will probably be meeting in the not-too-distant future.”
Landler did include (buried in paragraph 25 of 29) the following: “During their call on Tuesday, a senior official said, Mr. Trump told Mr. Putin he had been concerned by a recent speech in which Mr. Putin talked about Russia developing an “invincible” intercontinental cruise missile and a nuclear torpedo that could outsmart all American defenses.” But Landler (or his editors) took pains to omit any mention of Trump’s actual reaction in suggesting an early summit to discuss arms control.
Parsing what is allowed to appear in the NYT (sometimes in altered iterations) is not very different from the “Kremlinology” tools that we analysts used to apply, back in the day, to eke insights out of the turgid prose in Pravda, Izvestiya, and other Soviet media.
More important, how the NYT played Trump’s reaction to Putin’s re-election — specifically, his swiftly excised suggestion of an arms control summit, probably did not escape notice among present-day Russians who do analysis of U.S. media. It requires little imagination to conclude that for the U.S. Establishment, for which the NYT is a mouthpiece, arms control is off the table, despite anything the President may have said.
Lots of $ For Arms Dealers
There are a lot of powerful people making a lot of money profiteering from arms manufacture and sales, with a portion of the profits going to senators and representatives in Congress, who get re-elected and then oblige by appropriating still more funding for what Pope Francis warned Congress are the “blood-drenched arms traders.”
On March 26 President Trump ordered the expulsion of 60 Russian diplomats the U.S. identified as intelligence agents and the closure of the Russian consulate in Seattle, in response to Russia’s alleged role in the poisoning of Sergei Skripal, the former Russian spy now living in England. Russia responded tit for tat, expelling 60 U.S. diplomats and closing the U.S. consulate in St. Petersburg. Russian culpability for the poisoning is far from proven.
Doesn’t Make Sense
Writing on March 28, Gary Leupp, history professor at Tufts University, put it this way: “Why follow up that cordial call [the congratulatory one] to Putin with the expulsion of so many diplomats? What the hell. Doesn’t make sense.” Leupp worries that as President Trump’s political situation deteriorates, “he will be more prone to lean on his generals … while also heeding the horrific Bolton. This is a very bad situation.”
Another encomium came this week from author Daniel Lazare, who pretty much summed it up:
“John Bolton is without doubt a dangerous man. Not only did he champion the war against Saddam Hussein, but, even before U.S. troops had set foot in Iraq, he told Israeli leaders that the next step would be to take out Syria, Iran, and North Korea, a goal he has pursued with single-minded consistency ever since. For Bolton, the aim is to create a growing cascade of Third World wars so as to propel the U.S. into a position as unchallenged military dictator of the entire globe. The more numerous the conflicts, the more he’s convinced that the U.S. will come up on top.”
There is great — and justified — concern that John Bolton will have the President’s ear and reinforce Trump’s worst inclinations. A Yale law school graduate, Bolton has not shown much respect for the law. His record places him toward the top of the list of “crazies,” the sobriquet we all used for those who later became known as neoconservatives. I discussed this background in a recent interview on The Intercept. (See 16-minute segment beginning at minute 35.)
Back in the day, I recalled, when I was working at CIA in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, we didn’t talk about neocons, we talked about “crazies.” We noted that George H.W. Bush was careful in keeping “the crazies” in check, giving them positions in government with prestigious job titles but where they couldn’t do great harm to the country.
When George Bush, Jr. came in, he put the crazies in positions of power. Under John Bolton’s influence, George W. Bush took the extreme step of scrapping the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which was the bedrock for strategic stability since 1972 when it was signed. Bolton was also one of the prime movers behind the Iraq invasion.
Despite Trump calling the Iraq war “a big fat mistake,” apparently he now admires Bolton for his many Fox News appearances, and he is, of course, the darling of the “blood-soaked arms traders.”
Let me add one new vignette regarding his negotiating style: A senior U.S. diplomat recently shared with me that, when Bolton was Undersecretary of State for Arms Control, a colleague diplomat provided a rather revealing insight into Bolton’s attitude toward international treaties.
That colleague had just returned home from arms control talks between Bolton and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mamedov, and described how surreal and embarrassing it had been to hear Bolton lecture Mamedov about how international treaties are worthless, with the Russian arguing strongly that treaties are important and should be taken seriously.
Just the guy for the job. Strap yourself in.