John Bolton’s reputation as a non-proliferation guru, outspokenness on Pakistan’s nukes will be of keen interest to India

The dismay on social media on the appointment of John Bolton as the National Security Advisor (NSA) is already evident. His reputation is that of a warmonger, fired by the conviction that the United States should remain the unchallenged super power, deciding the fates of lesser countries for their own benefit. In short, a kind of “Hunger Games reloaded” foreign policy that is typical of the neoconservatives.

That’s the general consensus. But here’s the thing about Bolton: He’s not afraid to say what others are secretly thinking. Just a month ago, he argued powerfully for pre-emptive strikes against North Korea, citing decisions from Theodore Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan to support his position. His arguments are probably supported by recent revelations that Israel struck a Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007, in a textbook case of pre-emption.

That move was quietly approved by the then president George Bush, under whom Bolton served as Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security Affairs. Bolton was also briefly part of the delegation holding talks with North Korea, but was removed after he chose to make some scathing remarks about the leadership. On the face of it, therefore, he’s bad news for Pyongyang. And he is likely to strongly oppose President Donald Trump’s decision to parley with the “supreme leader”. He would much prefer to pulverise him.

With regard to North Korea, it is his reputation for being a non-proliferation guru that is likely to be of interest to India. Proliferation from North Korea has long been a serious problem for New Delhi, since there is a considerable body of evidence that it benefitted Pakistan’s missile program. Bolton would be fully aware of this. He was, after all, virtually the architect of the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), a programme aimed at preventing nuclear or missile related equipment being illegally shipped to ‘states of concern’.

What will interest Bolton is whether there is a continuing pattern of nuclear assistance taking place, particularly after Pyongyang claimed it tested a miniaturised nuclear weapon in August 2017. The parameters collected would be of immense interest to both Pakistan and China. The likelihood of either or both financing the North Korean tests — which costs a prohibitive amount of money — is possible. Indian intelligence agencies, therefore, need to exert themselves in this direction to provide grist to the Bolton mill of non-proliferation.

Bolton’s views on Iran are similarly harsh. His own writing on the subject — and he writes a lot — is unequivocal, calling it former president Barack Obama’s “diplomatic waterloo”, which is as clear as it could possibly get.

While Bolton is widely known to have been the architect of the war against Iraq, there was also enough to indicate that he would have liked to have extended this to Iran as well in one broad sweep of regime change. Thankfully, that didn’t take place.

At present, however, Bolton and his coterie are driven by the fear that the Ayatollahs are still fixated on getting a nuclear weapon for themselves. Unfortunately, this is a view shared by many, most worryingly by Trump himself. The hard fought nuclear deal by the earlier administration is, however, the bedrock of regional stability, and as such is also vital for Indian security. Though India has now begun the process of investment in our national currency, the difficulties inherent to balancing our Iran policy with an intransigent US administration is likely to be fraught with difficulties.

The most problematic area of concern is likely to be Pakistan. Bolton’s knowledge, and more importantly, his concerns about Pakistan are largely limited to its nuclear weapons, and not terrorism per se. Following the killing of Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan and the ensuing anger in the US, Bolton argued that cutting aid was not an option since Pakistan’s nuclear weapons (from 60-100) could fall into the hands of radicals.

This seems to point to a very poor knowledge about the dynamics inherent to Pakistan’s proxy war strategy and its shrewd rattling of a nuclear sabre in aid of this. The most recent statements attributed to Bolton where he warned that as a nuclear capable terrorist country, Pakistan would be “like Iran or North Korea on steroids”, typifies this view and underlines what his foremost concerns are: Of Pakistani nuclear weapons falling into the wrong hands.

Expect that in the coming days, Pakistani analysts will be sent far and wide to take about just how unstable their country is likely to get in the midst of an upswing in radicalism, and ergo, the need for American aid to prevent such a horror. Hopefully however, Trump has Pakistan’s measure. A businessman to the core, he would still want to know what he gets out of his billions in aid.

Bolton as NSA will certainly retain all crusading convictions against the bad guys, in part because this is what the American public likes to hear. But going adventuring abroad goes against the grain of Trump’s beliefs that the administration should concentrate on building America and leave the rest of the world to chase itself round the block.

Bolton’s policies on North Korea and Iran are therefore likely to be tempered by Trump, even as he gives free rein to his NSA to build up the military and modernise the nuclear arsenal. Another round of nuclear one-upmanship is inevitable, particularly in anti-ballistic missile technologies. India has no particular reason to fear a hardening of policy other than on trade, and that was inevitable anyway.

However, it might well consider speeding up ways to get around the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Act, 2010, and allow the India-US nuclear deal to reach its full potential so that US entry into the lucrative nuclear energy business can be facilitated. Money talks, always, to neocons and liberals alike.


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