US NSA’s incoherence seen in South Asia outlook

John Bolton

By Arul Louis,

New York : Behind the bravado that verges on intemperance and the ultra-hawkish ideology of John Bolton, who will take over as President Donald Trump’s National Security Adviser on Monday, is an incoherent outlook exemplified by his approach to South Asia that puts him at odds with his boss on some issues.

He has suggested that Washington co-opt China to deal with Pakistan and privatise the fight against the Taliban by hiring defence contractors for the job.

“What President Trump needs is a China component to his nascent South Asia policy,” he wrote last August in The Wall Street Journal.

“It must, therefore, be core American policy to hold China to account, even belatedly. The US 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 problem here is that Trump is in the midst of an economic confrontation with Beijing as Bolton comes into the White House.

The “nascent” South Asia policy assigns a role for India in helping Afghanistan.

Last year, he cautioned India to back off pressuring Pakistan.

“In this unstable environment (in Pakistan), blunt pressure by the US and, by inference, India — could backfire.

“The gravest threat is that its arsenal of nuclear warheads, perhaps up to 100 of them, would fall into radical hands,” Bolton said.

Bolton has been soft on Pakistan, perhaps a holdover of the Reagan-era spirit of co-operation with Islamabad to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan, but this time he is using the former allies, the Islamists, as the pretext.

In 2013, he opposed moves in the US Congress to cut off aid to Pakistan, saying that it must “grit its teeth” and pay off Islamabad because “if we didn’t support this government, the government could fall to Pakistani radicals”.

While Trump has been trying to develop India as a counterweight to China through a quadrilateral grouping with Australia and Japan, Bolton recently raised the possibility of India “representing significant but less immediate challenges to US national security”, according to a summary of a lecture in February at the Daniel Morgan Graduate School of National Security.

He had initially opposed the US-India nuclear deal reached under former President George.W. Bush, but dutifully turned a supporter after it was signed.

His short stint as Permanent Representative to the UN during 2005-06 was marked by adversarial relations with India and a personal antipathy towards New Delhi’s then-envoy Nirupam Sen.

US government cables leaked on Wikileaks reveal his opposition to India’s bid for Security Council permanent membership.

He accused India of “taking out extreme positions at odds with US” and repeated an accusation that Sen was an “unreformed communist”, according to the cables.

Bolton predicted correctly on The Wall Street Journal soon after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s election that driven by nationalistic impulses he would loosen the Third World ties and economic factors would move him closer to the US.

Bolton’s overall foreign policy approach may seem like Trump’s on his worst days, except that he lacks the President’s bargaining skills honed over years in business that lurks behind his rants and could bring a character like North Korea’s Kim Jong-un to the negotiating table.

Bolton has also called for a pre-emptive strike against North Korea.

He was one of the front-runners for the post of Secretary of State in Trump’s cabinet but was dropped from consideration because of his unpopularity within even the Republican Party and the risk of his nomination being held up in the Senate – a repeat of his failure as Permanent Representative to the UN.

Unable to get the Senate to approve his nomination, Bush had snuck him through the backdoor to the UN while the Senate was in recess in 2005, but he had to quit the next year when he could not be confirmed.

Bolton’s appointment as NSA is in a way a repeat of the Bush strategy because he will wield power over foreign policy as Trump’s top adviser but this position will not need Senate confirmation.

Henry Kissinger, who held the job under President Richard Nixon, demonstrates the NSA’s outsize potential to radically reshape US policy.

A proponent of “Realpolitik”, Kissinger made the diplomatic breakthrough with China, paved the way for detente with the Soviet Union and negotiated a ceasefire with North Vietnam, which won him the Nobel Prize for peace (even though the truce didn’t hold), while he was the NSA and later became the Secretary of State.

Although a hardliner in certain areas – Kissinger vehemently opposed India during the Bangladesh War and backed right-wing military coups in Greece, Chile and Argentina – he was also flexible and could negotiate at a personal level, which Bolton’s abrasive personality doesn’t seem amenable to.

With two pragmatists gone – H.R. McMaster, a seasoned general, as the National Security Adviser, and Rex Tillerson, an international businessman, as Secretary of State — the foreign policy establishment now is with three hardliners – Bolton, Secretary of State nominee Mike Pompeo and cabinet-level UN Permanent Representative Nikki Haley.

(Arul Louis can be reached at



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here