Notes From the Margins…

John Bolton: American Psycho

  • August 14, 2019
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Over here in the 51st state we’ve been hearing  and seeing a lot from US National Security advisor John Bolton in the last few weeks.  First there was a photo-op with our stupefyingly dense and utterly out of her depth Trade Secretary Liz Truss in Washington:




Then there was Dominic Raab’s visit to Washington, where the latest appointee to bring the foreign office into disrepute checked in with Bolton and Mike Pompeo to chat about the dazzlingly quick and easy trade deal that awaits us in the sunlit uplands.

Now the man with the civil war mustache has come all the way to 10 Downing Street to meet with our esteemed prime minister, the Right (Dis)Honourable member for Demagogue & Charlatan, where he promised that the UK is ‘first in line’ for a trade deal with the US that could be done on a ‘sector-by-sector basis.’

To anyone with any real concern for the future of this country and the welfare of its population – not a category that Raab, Truss or Johnson belong to obviously – these promises should be less than reassuring coming from anyone in the Trump administration.  But the fact that they have been brought to us by a dyed-in-wool paleoconservative like Bolton should set all alarm bells ringing amongst those who still retain any capacity for being alarmed by our increasingly dire national predicament.

In his analysis of American military and political decline Losing Military Supremacy: The Myopia of American Strategic Planning (2018), Andrei Martyanov writes scathingly of ‘the incompetence of the contemporary American political and intellectual classes, especially of their complete obliviousness to the realities of war and the horrors it unleashes.’.

Few people embody this combination of incompetence and obliviousness more than John Bolton.  This is a man whose entire career is predicated on strategic myopia, which has generally expressed itself through lobbying for American wars and manipulating people into supporting them.   Bolton has never seen a war he didn’t like, except the Vietnam War, which he avoided fighting in by joining the National Guard on the grounds that ‘ I had no desire to die in a Southeast Asian rice paddy.’

An understandable sentiment, had it not come from someone who has never expressed a shred of concern for the Americans who fight and die in the wars he supports, not to mention the mostly dark-skinned folk who are usually on the receiving end of them.   With apologies to Tina Charles, some love to love, but John Bolton just loves to bomb, he loves to bomb, and no amount of destruction and devastation ever seems to diminish the thrill.

Bolton has often been described as a neoconservative,  but despite his associations with the Weekly Standard and the American Enterprise Institute he doesn’t really embody the ‘reactionary idealism’ that Jean-Francois Drolet has identified as a central characteristic of the neoconservative movement.

With Bolton there is no ‘idealism’, only the troglodyte reactionary politics which reach  back to his mentor Senator Jesse Helms.   What Bolton does share with the neocons is a taste for – or rather an addiction to – war as a primary instrument of American strategic power, coupled with an absolute indifference to the human consequences of these wars that can only be described as psychopathic.

Like most of the neocons who hovered in the slipstream of the Bush administration, Bolton also lies whenever necessary to achieve his aims.   As Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legislative Affairs in 1986 and 1987 he once tried to block the Kerry inquiry into allegations of drug smuggling and gunrunning by the Nicaraguan Contras.  He has lied about WMD programs in Iraq, Cuba, Syria – and of course Iran – which he is currently trying to provoke into allowing the US to bomb it.

In short, this is a man you don’t want on your side, and who never will be on your side unless he thinks there is something that he or his country can get out of it.  But  Bolton also has some other principles that are likely to appeal to some of the more ideologically-motivated Brexiters amongst the Britannia Unchained crowd.

Like them, Bolton does not think much of taxation, the public sector, the welfare state or any regulations that smack of ‘big government’ – beyond the ‘big government’ that makes his fantasies of unlimited military destruction possible.  He doesn’t like international law or the organisations that try, however imperfectly, to implement it.  As ambassador to the United Nations he made his hostility clear on more than one occasion, so it comes as no surprise to find that he doesn’t like the European Union.

In a 2010 op-ed for Fox News, Bolton suggested that Obama represented a flawed ‘European’ model of politics that was anathema to most Americans.  This ‘model’ was reflected in an unwillingness of European politicians to implement ‘cutbacks in welfare and other national subsidies’ that Bolton insisted were necessary.

Though Bolton approved of Cameron’s austerity measures, which he eagerly predicted ‘will cause sweeping revisions in the excessive expectations many Britons have from their government’, be worried that defense budget cutbacks might limit the UK’s ability to ‘sustain its leading role in NATO.’

Beyond that, public sector strikes and resistance to austerity in Greece and France only

emphasize both how hard it is to withstand the endless expansion of the state’s role in civil society, and how hard it is to roll back even failed and financially debilitating statist policies. Public expectations become entrenched, citizens become dependent and attached to their benefits, which come to be seen as “entitlements,” and the steps necessary to redress the balance can be painful.

You bet it can.  But faced with these outcomes, Bolton exhorted Americans to reject Obama’s ‘massive European-style health-care reform, and his extravagant Federal spending increases’ which risked turning the US ‘to descend further into the status of European social democracies like France and Greece.’

All this will be music to the ears of the ideologues in Johnson’s hard right cabinet, who share his antipathy to social democracy, taxation and the European Union.  They won’t ask why a national security advisor with such a dismal record has become the Trump administration’s pointman in discussions about trade.

On the contrary, they will prattle on about Trump’s ‘warmth’ towards us and the ‘special relationship’, and ‘shared language and culture’ etc, and how lovely it all is.

Beyond the waffle and the propaganda, there is a nastier and more pathetic reality:  of a desperate and foolish island whose leaders have abandoned a trade bloc in which the UK had genuine influence, in order to place itself at the mercy of a predatory superpower; of trade negotiations between rightwing Thatcherites on both sides of the Atlantic linked by a common desire to rollback the welfare state still further and destroy and sell off the NHS; of an international nationalist assault on the European Union and any other international institutions seen as brakes on American military and/or political and economic power.

That’s what being ‘first in line’ means.  That’s why the dead-eyed psycho with the walrus mustache is over here to give us a big hug.  He would like us to believe that any trade negotiations will be a nice easy deal cooked up by two friends acting in their mutual interests.

But for Bolton there are only American interests.  And from where I’m standing Johnson, Raab and co look like the crew of a sinking ship running to the edge of the boat, and if you look closely beneath the hairy curtain that hangs down over John Bolton’s benevolent smile, you might just see the teeth of the shark waiting to swallow us up.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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