On March 23, U.S. President Donald Trump announced in a tweet that he was removing H.R. McMaster as his national security advisor, and that John Bolton would take over on April 9, 2018.
The choice of Bolton (who previously served as U.S. ambassador to the UN during George W Bush’s presidency), has evoked strong reactions in the United States, with both Democrats and certain Republicans skeptical because of his mercurial nature and outlandish views on complex foreign policy issues. Senator Bob Menendez, a top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, went straight to the point: “While the President may see in Mr. Bolton a sympathetic sycophant, I would remind him that Mr Bolton has a reckless approach to advancing the safety and security of Americans – far outside any political party.”
One significant point being made by a number of analysts who have watched Bolton closely is that while Trump is an isolationist, Bolton believes in “preventive war.” While Trump was a critic of the Iraq war, for example, Bolton has defended it.
How is Bolton’s appointment viewed in India?
The key question for New Delhi is how Bolton’s appointment will impact India’s strategic interests in South Asia. It would be pertinent here to point out a bit of history: even at a time when India-U.S. relations were at a peak, during the George W. Bush-Manmohan Singh era, Bolton, then the U.S. ambassador to the UN, vociferously opposed – along with his Chinese counterpart – India’s bid for permanent membership in the United Nations Security Council. Bolton had also expressed skepticism with regard to the Indo-U.S. Nuclear Deal.
However, a lot of time has gone by, and nothing is static in international affairs. New Delhi will be hoping that as NSA, Bolton’s policies are favorable toward India. To that end, New Delhi should be watching for Bolton’s stance on countries like Pakistan and Iran.
Bolton and Pakistan
It is interesting to observe that Bolton, a hawk on North Korea and Iran, is not particularly hawkish on Pakistan. In an interview for Breitbart News last August, Bolton, commenting on Trump’s then-recent speech on Afghanistan, argued that the Obama administration had been excessively soft on Pakistan, and Trump’s policy is far more realistic. He also argued however, that pushing Pakistan to the wall was not in U.S. interests. According to Bolton:
If you push too hard, this government in Pakistan is fragile. It has been since the partition of British India …The military in Pakistan itself is at risk, increasingly, of being infiltrated through the officer ranks by radical Islamists. Many people believe the intelligence services unit already is heavily dominated by Islamists.
Bolton had also tweeted a warning that “Pakistan is a nuclear power and if it were to tip into terrorist control it would be like #NorthKorea or #Iran on steroids.” In a column for the Wall Street Journal, titled “The Danger of a Jihadist Pakistan,” Bolton articulated similar views.
Interestingly, Bolton has also spoken in favor of the U.S. making use of China’s leverage in Pakistan. In his Wall Street Journal column he argued:
The U.S. can use its leverage to induce China to join the world in telling Pakistan it must sever ties with terrorists and close their sanctuaries. The Trump administration should make clear that Beijing will face consequences if it does not bring to bear its massive interests in support of this goal.
This point is interesting, and has been suggested by many other strategic analysts from the United States and India as well. One of the reasons cited for India’s attempts to reach out to China in recent months is a realization that Beijing – through its economic clout — has the ability to influence Pakistan’s behavior. Bolton’s pragmatism and realism vis-à-vis Pakistan, and his view that China is in a better position than the United States to pressure Pakistan to act against terrorist groups, should not be a cause of concern in India, but cautious optimism. By keeping a working relationship with Islamabad, Washington will ensure that it does not completely lose influence. New Delhi would certainly not mind that. Second, in spite of tensions with Beijing, Washington is in a better position than New Delhi to prevail upon Beijing to ask Islamabad to change its attitude toward terror groups.
It remains to be seen how Trump and Bolton handle their differences over Pakistan, and whether or not Washington would be in a position to ask Beijing to pressure Pakistan, particularly given rising trade tensions between the United States and China
Bolton’s Views on Iran
However, Bolton’s views on Iran should worry India. Bolton has vehemently opposed the Iran Nuclear Agreement or the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) signed between the P5+1 countries and Iran in 2015. Bolton termed the deal a “strategic debacle.” Bolton’s predecessor McMaster and ousted Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had prevailed upon Trump to not scrap the treaty. A decision with regard to the renewal of the agreement will come up in May 2018; a roll back of the deal would be disastrous, and cannot be ruled out.
Bolton’s hawkishness on Iran is not confined to disagreement with the deal. In the past he has gone to the extent of advocating the bombing of Iran. In an article for the New York Times, “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran,” Bolton wrote:
Iran will not negotiate away its nuclear program. Nor will sanctions block its building a broad and deep weapons infrastructure. The inconvenient truth is that only military action like Israel’s 1981 attack on Saddam Hussein’s Osirak reactor in Iraq or its 2007 destruction of a Syrian reactor, designed and built by North Korea, can accomplish what is required. Time is terribly short, but a strike can still succeed.
Trita Parsi leader of the National American Iranian Council, sounded the alarm on Bolton’s appointment: “People, let this be very clear: The appointment of Bolton is essentially a declaration of war with Iran. With Pompeo and Bolton, Trump is assembling a WAR CABINET.”
Bolton’s and Iran: Why India Would Be Watching Closely
Given India’s strategic and economic interests in Iran, heightened tensions between the United States and Iran are certainly not good news. India has already invested in Phase 1 of Chahahar port; during Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s India visit in February 2018, an agreement was signed to lease out Phase 1 for 18 months. India is also keen to make Chabahar port an integral part of the International North South Trade Corridor (INSTC) project, which will facilitate Indian connectivity to Russia and Europe. Iran is thus important not only in the context of being India’s gateway to Afghanistan, Central Asia, and beyond, but economic ties have also strengthened in the past three years. In fact, during Rouhani’s visit both countries delivered an unequivocal message of wanting to strengthen business ties.
With Bolton as NSA, it is time to be prepared for major geopolitical upheaval and turbulence. Indian policymakers would be advised to put forward their concerns with regard to Trump’s approach toward Iran. So far, New Delhi has managed to maintain good relations with both Washington and Tehran, but given the changes which have taken place within the administration it will be far from simple to continue that balance. New Delhi will not be as concerned about Bolton’s views with regard to India’s past strategic goals or his willingness to give Pakistan a long rope, but his excessively hawkish views on Iran could have disastrous consequences.
Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi-based policy analyst associated with the Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat.