Remember that jargon—and President Donald Trump’s long-standing love of professional wrestling—when trying to understand the seemingly bizarre appointment of John Bolton as the third national security adviser of the Trump administration, replacing Lieutenant-General H.R. McMaster, a hard-charging army officer and intellectual who rubbed his president up the wrong way.
Judged as an act of high statecraft, the appointment is one to furrow brows in capitals worldwide. Mr Bolton, a former ambassador to the United Nations under George W. Bush, is a ferocious war hawk who is one of the few men in public life still willing to defend the Iraq invasion of 2003. He is an implacable critic of President Vladimir Putin and gleeful fan of the NATO military alliance. In an op-ed for The Hill in February Mr Bolton called for a “decidedly disproportionate” cyber campaign on Russia, right here and right now, in retaliation for what is already known about Russian subversion and attacks on the 2016 presidential elections. He further urged the White House to get Mr Putin’s attention by letting Russia’s president “hear the rumble of artillery and NATO tank tracks conducting more joint field exercises with Ukraine’s military.” He urged similarly robust American muscle-flexing in the Middle East to push back against “Russia’s probes” in that region, including what he scorned as Mr Putin’s propping up of Bashar Assad’s dictatorship in Syria.
Mr Bolton believes to his bones that Mr Putin is a liar and that Russia cannot be trusted, any more than China can, or Iran or North Korea or a long list of foes who he believes need to take seriously the possibility that America might reduce their cities to dust. Contemplating the recent rapprochement between North and South Korea during the Winter Olympics, Mr Bolton cleared his throat, cracked his knuckles and cranked out a treatise in the Wall Street Journal entitled “The Legal Case for Striking North Korea First”, making an argument for a preventive strike on the Stalinist north, before it perfects missiles that can hit American cities.
In contrast, Mr Trump is a blustering showman who would always rather cut a deal than fight a war, and who calls the invasion of Iraq “the single worst decision ever made”, akin to “throwing a big fat brick into a hornet’s nest”. Mr Trump has repeatedly grumbled about the costs of NATO and suggested that America’s defensive alliances with its members are conditional on their paying more for their own defence.