John Bolton: the view from India

On March 23, 2018, US President Donald Trump tweeted that he was removing H.R. Mcmaster as his National Security Advisor, and that John Bolton would take over on April 9, 2018.

Bolton, the US Ambassador to the UN during George W Bush’s Presidency, has evoked strong domestic reactions in the US, with both Democrats and certain Republicans being skeptical of him because of his mercurial nature and outlandish views on complex foreign policy issues. Bob Menendez, a top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, publicly commented on his appointment:

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, which is being made by a number of analysts who have watched Bolton closely, is that while Trump is a pure isolationist, Bolton, according to conservatives, believes in ‘preventive war.’ While the US President was a critic of the Iraq war, Bolton has defended it. In a tweet in 2013, Trump had stated:

All former Bush administration officials should have zero standing on Syria. Iraq was a waste of blood & treasure.

How is Bolton’s appointment viewed in South Asia

The key question in New Delhi is how will Bolton’s appointment impact New Delhi’s strategic interests in South Asia. It would be pertinent to point out that, even at a time when India-US relations were at their peak – during the George W Bush-Manmohan Singh era – Bolton, then US ambassador to the UN, vociferously opposed – with his Chinese counterpart – India’s bid for permanent membership of United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and had also expressed his skepticism with regard to the Indo-US Nuclear Deal.

Bolton’s approach towards Pakistan

A lot of time has gone by, and nothing is static in International Affairs. New Delhi would be hoping, that as NSA Bolton’s policies are favourable towards India. What New Delhi should be watching now is Bolton’s stand on countries like Pakistan and Iran.

It is interesting to observe that Bolton, a hawk on North Korea and Iran, is not particularly hawkish on Pakistan. In an interview with Breitbart, Bolton, commenting on Trump’s speech on Afghanistan (August 2017), argued that the Obama Administration had been excessively soft on Pakistan and Trump’s policy is far more realistic. He also stated that pushing Pakistan to the wall was not in US interests. Said 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 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 ‘Danger of a Jihadist Pakistan,’ Bolton has articulated similar views.

Interesting approach towards China

Interestingly, Bolton has also spoken in favor of US making use of China’s leverage in Pakistan. In his Wall Street Journal column he argued that:

[…] 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 US and India as well. One of the reasons cited for India’s attempts at reaching out towards China in recent months is a realization that Beijing – through it’s economic clout — has the ability to influence Pakistan’s behaviour. Bolton’s pragmatism and realism vis-à-vis Pakistan, and his view that China is in a better position to pressure Pakistan to act against terrorist groups, should not be a cause of concern, 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 to prevail upon Beijing for asking Islamabad to change its attitude towards terror groups.

It remains to be seen how Trump and Bolton handle their differences over Pakistan, and whether or not, given the trade disputes between China and US, Washington would be in a position to ask Beijing to pressure Pakistan to act against terror groups.

Bolton’s views on Iran

What should worry India is Bolton’s views on Iran. Bolton has vehemently opposed the Iran Nuclear Agreement or the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), signed between P5+1 countries and Iran in 2015, terming it as a ‘strategic debacle.’ Bolton’s predecessor, McMaster, and the previous Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, had prevailed upon Trump to not scrap the treaty. The discussion with regard to renewal of the agreement will come up in May 2018, and a roll back of the deal would be disastrous but can not be ruled out. Bolton’s hawkishness on Iran is not confined to disagreement with the deal, as in the past he has gone to the extent of advocating a bombing campaign against Iran. In an article written for New York Times (titled ‘To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran’), he 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, commenting on Bolton’s appointment stated: ‘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.’

India’s apprehensions with regard to Bolton’s approach towards Iran

Given India’s strategic and economic interests in Iran, heightened tensions between US and Iran are certainly not good news. India has already invested in Phase 1 of the Chahahar Port, and during President 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 as an integral part of the INSTC (International North South Trade Corridor) project, which will facilitate Indian connectivity to Russia and Europe. Iran is thus important not only in the context of being a 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.


In conclusion, it is time to be prepared for some major geopolitical upheavals and turbulence. Indian policy makers would be advised to put forward their concerns with regard to Trump’s approach towards 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. 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, as it will with his excessively hawkish views on Iran, which could have disastrous consequences.

8 thoughts on “John Bolton: the view from India

  1. Your description of Bolton’s views on Pakistan seem charitable to me. I can’t make heads or tails of what he’s trying to say. Obama was excessively lax, he tells us. Was the assassination of bin Laden an instance of laxity? At face value, it was an unapologetic violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty. Or take the Raymond Davis case. It’s a little known fact that three (not two) people were killed in that 2011 incident, one of them an innocent bystander. Though the bystander was killed when a US diplomatic vehicle hit him in the attempt to rescue Davis (going the wrong way on a one way street), the United States has refused to compensate the victim or admit wrongdoing. I wouldn’t call any of that laxity.

    Granted,neither thing bears directly on Pakistan’s relationship to the Taliban. But neither really indicates “laxity,” and Bolton offers no specifics about how Trump would do better. Bolton’s own stricture on pressuring Pakistan suggests why Obama was as “lax” as he was, though arguably more severe than Bush II was.

    I also don’t really understand what “leverage” China is supposed to have over Pakistan. If Pakistan’s ISI is full of Islamists, why would they listen to a bunch of Chinese atheists or polytheists about what to do with their “Islamic bomb”?

    The only sane part of the Pakistani government is its civilian leadership. But it is not clear to me that Pakistan’s civilian leaders really need to be lectured, whether by Chinese or American diplomats, about the threat they face from the Taliban. At the same time, it’s not clear to me that Pakistan’s military leadership is rational enough to process information of any kind. And of course, the problem is that the military leadership is not really under civilian control. People always make big claims about the dividends to be gotten from “pressuring” Pakistan, but it’s not clear to me that anyone knows how to exert the sort of pressure that would get positive results.

  2. […] Trump administration has ignored the diplomatic corps. Previous Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, who fell out with Trump over the Iran issue, had differences with diplomats over a number of issues; budget cuts, leaving important positions […]

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