Longtime diplomat Christian Whiton joined me this morning to discuss what President Trump’s appointment of John Bolton to lead the president’s NSC means:
HH: Joined by Christian Whiton, who you see on the Fox News network often, former senior advisor in the Bush State Department, also during the transition of George, to Donald Trump and former special senior envoy to the DPRK under W. He’s just a very experience diplomat and the author of Smart Power. Christian, welcome, good to have you on this morning.
CW: Great to be here, Hugh. Thanks.
HH: Can you give me your reaction to the reaction of the appointment of John Bolton?
CW: You know, it’s very predictable. The vestal virgins in this town, in New York and the establishment, are very upset by this. You know, I remember a cartoon when President Bush sent John to the UN, it was all these thugs and dictators and very scary looking people who were acting like scared children when this nerd walked through the door. You know, John’s a very effective bureaucrat, and I mean that in the good sense of the word. And that’s what I think they’re really disappointed at, not that he is going to take us to war. In fact, he believe, I think, in peace through strength, but that he can, you know, enforce down on a bureaucracy what the President wants done, which is something that’s been a little bit lacking in this administration, and frankly, in the Bush administration, too. So I think that’s what the real gripe is.
HH: Now Christian, John Bolton is a Reagan conservative, full stop. He’s not a neocon, he’s not anything other than a peace through strength Reagan conservative, and that’s when he got started as the assistant attorney general at the civil division when I was a briefcase carrier for Ed Meese. But he’s worked for Ed Meese, for Cap Weinberger, for George Schultz, for Ronald Reagan, for W, for H.W. I’ve known him a long time, not as long as you, not as well as you, but he’s also affable, courteous, generous, good humored, and this caricature that comes out, I believe, and you correct me if I’m wrong, because you know the chin stroking class a lot better than I do. I run with the lawyers, and you run with the diplomats. And the media people are on my team, and we both do that. But the chin strokers really hate being out-argued, and nobody out-argues John Bolton.
CW: I think that’s right. And if you go back to some of the fights in the Bush administration, you know, John did his homework. John was prepared. And the lazy opponents that he faced didn’t like that at all. You have a lot of poohbahs coming over from the CIA and the State Department, the foreign service, the interagency meetings, or meetings when John was at State, for that matter, and you know, he just asked them simple questions. He asked them why they are arguing something. You provide a counterpoint. And they really don’t like that, a lot of times. That leads to a lot of leaking, a lot of phony accusations that John is unprofessional, which there’s never really been any solid evidence of. And all of the staff, including ones who are very committed, say quite the opposite. But you know, it’s just someone when they’re outside of the establishment doesn’t get a lot of fans, and you know, you point out John is a Reagan conservative. That’s absolutely right, and even though he was in favor of getting rid of Saddam Hussein, something incidentally that even Barack Obama would later say was a good thing, he didn’t favor putting a foreign service officer, Paul Bremer, in charge of the country or attempting the democracy project there. He just thought we should get rid of the bad guy and go, and go back if necessary. But you know, that’s, I think, the kind of foreign policy the American people can get behind.
HH: Christian Whiton, that’s the Weinberger doctrine classically stated. And I believe, and I read memoirs if I believe they have been written by the principal, and I don’t if I don’t believe it. And the four best memoirs by long serving public servants are Dick Cheney’s, Donald Rumsfeld’s, Bob Gates and John Bolton’s. And John Bolton’s Surrender Is Not An Option is a detailed exploration, sometimes numbingly so, of what it takes to stone butt it through these endless negotiations with totalitarian cement-faced, never move their lips bureaucrats. And Bolton can outlast them. That’s the thing that I think people don’t understand. He wins the bureaucratic showdowns in D.C. because he will simply outlast you at the table.
CW: I think yeah, that’s absolutely right. You make a good point with books. John has a very good memory. And I think that’s important. You know, looking as an amateur historian, I think the sort of first round of Trump appointments, probably not a lot of book writers. But I think John will not only do a great job as national security advisor, but also make a great contribution to history by eventually memorializing a pivotal time where our policy toward China changed fundamentally, policy toward Iran changed fundamentally. With negotiations, you’re absolutely right. You know, he was tough in talks that were, I think, forced on him by Bush, you know, first outreach to Iran that was fruitless, but you know, that was good. John stuck by his guns. Also, I worked on North Korea human rights when John was U.S. ambassador to the UN, and very tough. You saw right away that Chris Hill’s approach, which is throwing as many goodies at Kim Jong Il, the current North Korean dictator’s father, throwing all these goodies at him, trying to buy him off for his nuclear arsenal, that that wouldn’t work. And of course, it didn’t work. So I think John will be much better at counseling Trump in negotiations than frankly Chris Hill and Condi were in counseling George W. Bush.
HH: Now the joint comprehensive plan of action, or what I refer to as the joint comprehensive plan of giveaway seems to me to be not even on life support. I think it’s flat-lined. Do you agree?
CW: I think so, and every additional missile that Iran’s proxies, the Houthis, lob at our ally, Saudi Arabia, proves that. It’s a violation of the agreement, because the agreement requires compliance with all UN resolutions, which believe it or not, do prohibit proliferating missiles to radicals, to terrorists in the Gulf. So yeah, it’s dead.
HH: All right, let me ask you. I was asked this last night at a lecture I gave at Arizona State University O’Connor School of Law by a very smart questioner in the audience. If we reneg, not reneg, if we declare the deal not operative because it has been violated by the Islamic Republic, and we reimpose sanctions, what will our allies do? My answer was I don’t really care. We have to lead at this point, because we can’t allow them to cheat forever. But what’s your answer to that, Christian Whiton?
CW: I think that’s, we have to do that, and we have to put pressure. I mean, it would be nice to actually have an ambassador to Germany if the Senate could get off its butt and confirm Rick Grenell, because that’s the one concern is that you know, we get tough, and the Europeans want to make a buck, and they’ll do that. But you know, U.S. sanctions, for example, there’s enough technology not only on a Boeing, but on an Airbus that U.S sanctions could prevent sale on those items to Iran. And if we lead, and if we use our diplomacy and find common interests with countries like Germany, then I think the world will follow. They did before, but yes, it does start with determined leadership, and it starts with slamming the door on an untenable and fundamentally wrong approach, which in this case, is the Iran deal. I would put Paris in that category, too. And yeah, it comes down to leadership.
HH: Now Christian Whiton, Stephen Hayes has tweeted out a link to Michael Warren’s piece – White House Watch: Will There Be A Bolton Purge. I wouldn’t call it a purge, but you only get to land on the beach once. And so you bring as many people as you can at the moment that you land. That’s been sort of orthodox doctrine since we did MacArthur island hopping and Eisenhower channel crossing. What’s your advice to John Bolton about landing at the NSC?
CW: Well, the NSC, like State and Defense, has suffered from a lack of a real network of political appointees. And you know, this is not new, although it’s more acute in the Trump administration. You know, a lot of people who run around the NSC saying I work for the President, in fact, are detailees. They are not true political appointees, but they’re detailed from the Pentagon and the CIA, the State Department. Some of them are very fine at what they do. Some of them become loyal and enact what the President wants. But others don’t and have their own agenda. For a bureaucratic twist, I heard that Obama staffed up the NSC so much that when those people departed at the end of his administration, there’s so much accrued vacation time, that it was extremely hard for the NSC to hire people, which made this NSC even more dependent on bureaucrat detailees. Regardless, I think John does need to put his own people in there. There are a handful of very good people who I think should remain. I think Matt Pottinger, for example, who covers East Asia is very good. There’s some other people, I won’t go into all of them, but yes. Bringing in his own network of people who not just are loyal to him, but who want to enforce down on the bureaucracy what the President wants. That’s the fundamentally important role of the NSC.
HH: Let’s close on that and reinforce how big the NSC is, because the average audience listener doesn’t understand how it operates, how it has the deputies committee, how that enforces policy choices made by the President through the NSC. There’s the Scowcroft model and the Kissinger model, and I think Bolton will embrace both as needed. But you can’t do that on your own, right? Would you just explain the breadth and depth of the NSC?
CW: Yeah, it’s, you know, it’s sort of a mini State Department within the White House. And it’s supposed to be a coordinating mechanism to get all the agencies on the same page. But it also, when it functions correctly, has a policing mechanism, which is to make sure that the summaries of conclusion that come out of White House meetings, the decisions reached by the principals committee meeting, or by the true NSC, which is the President plus statutory and invited members, the Secretary of Defense, State, et cetera, that that actually happens, and also to make sure that the President gets the advice and information he needs for meetings and foreign initiatives, et cetera. So it’s sort of a fundamental command and control. It was created in the National Security Act of 1947, modernizing our national security apparatus for the Cold War, and still is more relevant today than ever especially for Republican presidents who don’t have a lot of allies among bureaucrats in these agencies. So it’s a fundamentally important tool.
HH: Quick last question, what will John Bolton’s policy be on leakers?
CW: Yeah, I hope he fires them, and if they leak classified information, they get prosecuted. It’s always a little tricky to find them, but I think John will not suffer these saboteurs gladly.
HH: I think you’re right, and I hope you’re right. Christian Whiton, thank you for joining me so much.
End of interview.