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“In my 50 year of service, John Bolton is the most dangerous American I’ve met,” says Col. Larry Wilkerson

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SHARMINI PERIES: It’s the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.

President Trump’s appointment of John Bolton as his national security adviser last week is still making waves. Bolton is well known for his warmongering foreign policy positions clearly articulated on Fox News. Trump and Bolton agree on tearing up the Iran nuclear agreement, and possibly even a military intervention in Iran. However, if we are to believe what the president is telling us through various means, his tweets and so forth, he and Bolton seem to disagree on several issues, such as isolating Russia, engaging in direct talks with North Korea about the nuclear weapons program, or the wisdom of having invaded Iraq 15 years ago. Why, then, did Trump appoint John Bolton as his national security adviser?

Joining me now to analyze this question is Col. Larry Wilkerson. Larry is former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, now a distinguished professor at the College of William and Mary. Thanks for joining us, Larry.

LARRY WILKERSON: Thanks for having me, Sharmini.

SHARMINI PERIES: So, Larry, many foreign policy experts are trying to analyze why Trump chose Bolton. Some say it’s because Trump was watching Fox, where Bolton appears regularly, and that he was somewhat auditioning for a position in the Trump administration, and Fox and Trump, well, Trump liked what he was hearing. Now, others are saying appointing such a controversial figure was to distract attention from the Stormy Daniels interview on CNN airing that night. Either way now we have a dangerous man in the position of national security adviser. Would you agree that he’s dangerous, and why did Trump appoint him?

LARRY WILKERSON: I would agree that John Bolton is one of the most dangerous Americans, and I use that term loosely with regard to John, because of his affiliation so closely with Israel, that I’ve ever met in all my years, 40, 50 years of service. I think you’re right and those whom you were listening to are right, on the one hand, that Trump this at least in part to deflect attention away from some more serious crises that he personally is involved with, everything from Stormy Daniels to the Russia scandal. But also because he wanted to send a signal that he’s seeking unanimity within his cabinet. And by unanimity I mean people who will ask him what he wants to do and then go do it for him, without any dissent, without any questioning, without any additional advice, if you will.

As you pointed out, some of the things John Bolton wants to do might not be done. But that’s a question, too. Let’s examine the position for a moment. I just spent three hours with some very brilliant students doing just this. The position of national security adviser, of course, is not contemplated at all in the 1947 National Security Act. It just sort of grew out of whole cloth from Eisenhower on. The position only has power if the president gives it power. The proximity to the president, the president’s relationship with the national security adviser, that’s what gives it power. Ronald Reagan, for example, had six different ones. Trump is on the run towards that record, having three already.

But Reagan did it for a reason. He did not want Henry Kissinger or Zbigniew Brzezinski, who’d worked for Carter, of course, and had emulated Kissinger. He didn’t want a national security adviser taking over his administration, so he had six of them. What happened in that event, though, is that Bud McFarlane and John Poindexter went out and found their own power, picked it up and ran with the Iran-Contra affair, which almost got Reagan impeached. So we could see that doing this has its advantages for the president, but it also has its disadvantages. All this to say John Bolton is not going to be any more powerful than Donald Trump chooses to make him. I suspect John Bolton will walk the length of the White House trying to find some power to pick up.

Then that’s very, very dangerous, in the sense that if he can’t find it from the president he’ll out try to find it either through the bully pulpit, and Trump will cut him off at the knees if he does that, national security advisers don’t normally speak to the press or the people, or he’ll try to find it the way Bud McFarlane and John Poindexter did for Reagan. That is, he’ll find something he can do out there with the nefarious Mike Pompeo at the CIA and create his own realities, in which case he’ll get the president in deeper trouble than he’s already in. Any way you cut it, it probably is not a very good decision.

SHARMINI PERIES: What does the fact that Pompeo, Bolton, and Trump on the same page when it comes to the Iran nuclear agreement mean to keeping the Iran agreement intact?

LARRY WILKERSON: I think it’s very, very likely, and I would bet on it, that on May the 12th Trump is going to, from his presidential position, extricate the United States from the agreement. Then we’ve got several things that we need to look at very closely.

One is how courageous are the Europeans in standing up to Trump and giving the agreement some resilience even with the without the United States, and thus ultimately isolating the United States, not Iran. Not the agreement, but the United States. And also, how much courage Bob Corker, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and of course the rest of the Senate and the Congress have with regard to not doing things that follow up on Trump’s extrication of the U.S. That is to say, making sanctions back for the U.S., snapping them back to the United States, making more sanctions on ostensibly other things like ballistic missiles, terrorism, and so forth, more draconian. And doing things that make Iran, particularly the hardliners in Iran, figure they’ve got more influence and therefore that they bring Iran out of the agreement. Maybe increase the number of centrifuges again, begin to do things that look like they might be moving more towards a more robust nuclear program aimed at eventually producing a nuclear weapon.

These are all scary things. All things that have been put in check by the nuclear agreement. But if any of these things don’t happen, if the Europeans don’t have the courage, if Congress doesn’t have the courage to stand up to Trump and more or less remain in compliance with the agreement, the Iranians will have no choice but to back out, and then it’s anybody’s guess what happens after that.

SHARMINI PERIES: Now, Larry, the magazine Foreign Policy ran an article last Friday saying that Bolton plans to clean house and fire dozens of White House officials. Now, given what you just said about the ways in which he, meaning Bolton here, will express the lack of power he might have up against Trump and how he might try to gain more power is by, of course, rearranging the board in terms of how he might wield more power.

So what do you say to how Bolton might approach foreign policy, and does this sort of smack of, say, Henry Kissinger because national security adviser under Nixon took control over the entire foreign policy establishment at the time, superseding the influence of the secretary of state, then Bill Rogers. Is this another situation we might be faced with?

LARRY WILKERSON: John will be faced with only the NSC staff that he can clear out of the White House, as it were. That is to say, he will have hiring and firing power over the NSC staff, that has become, even more markedly so with Trump, the center of security and foreign policymaking, because the State Department has virtually been disassembled. So John will have power in that regard. But again, I come back to the basic point. He can hire all the right-wing warmongering people who agree with him. War with North Korea. War with Iran. War eventually with Russia and China. This is John. This is John Bolton. He can hire all the people who are in mind meld with him over those objectives. But it won’t make any difference if the president doesn’t make decisions that align with John Bolton’s wishes.

So I come back to the other point that I made earlier, the very important point, the national security adviser is only as powerful as the president chooses to make him or her.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Larry. With that I’ll let you go for now, and we’ll look forward to having you back. Thank you so much for joining us today.

LARRY WILKERSON: Just one parting comment. John Bolton is the very last person on the face of this earth that Donald Trump should have made national security adviser.

SHARMINI PERIES: Larry, who would have been your pick? Given the circumstances, of course.

LARRY WILKERSON: If I were king for a day, president for four years, I think I’d pick as my national security adviser someone with whom I can have a real substantive discussion about issues in the world and be brought maximum expertise to those issues, even though I might disagree with him. And that would be Ambassador Richard Haass, whom I’ve worked with before, who’s now, of course, president of the Council on Foreign Relations. But Trump doesn’t want someone like that on his team, he wants lockstep people on his team.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right. So what are the particular features of Haass that you appreciate the most?

LARRY WILKERSON: Well, he’s a brilliant man. He doesn’t suffer fools well, but you know, you can get around that. Kissinger didn’t suffer fools well, either. And he’s a man who brings a broad, comprehensive understanding of many, if not all, of the global issues that confront us right now, security and foreign policy, and brings a sound head to those issues, and sound recommendations based on those issues. I might not agree with him all the time. I don’t. And Richard didn’t agree with me all the time. But there are so many much more better people than John Bolton, and Richard would be at the top of the list of five or so that I would have.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Larry, as always, I thank you so much for joining us today.

LARRY WILKERSON: Thanks for having me.

SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on the Real News Network.

photo credit: Donkey Hotey

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Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Government and Public Policy

Lawrence Wilkerson's last positions in government were as Secretary of State Colin Powell's Chief of Staff (2002-05), Associate Director of the State Department's Policy Planning staff under the directorship of Ambassador Richard N. Haass, and member of that staff responsible for East Asia and the Pacific, political-military and legislative affairs (2001-02). Before serving at the State Department, Wilkerson served 31 years in the U.S. Army. During that time, he was a member of the faculty of the U.S. Naval War College (1987 to 1989), Special Assistant to General Powell when he was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (1989-93), and Director and Deputy Director of the U.S. Marine Corps War College at Quantico, Virginia (1993-97). Wilkerson retired from active service in 1997 as a colonel, and began work as an advisor to General Powell. He has also taught national security affairs in the Honors Program at the George Washington University. He is currently working on a book about the first George W. Bush administration.