Secretary of State John Bolton Would Be the Anti-John Kerry

(Bloomberg View) -- In most presidential transitions you can tell who is likely to get the job by who has declined to talk about it with the press. By this logic, John Bolton--a retired diplomat known for his mustache, love of Ford Mustangs and loathing of America's enemies--looks like the front-runner for secretary of state.

Currently Bolton is, to use the Trumpian phrase, a finalist. Republican sources tell me that Rudy Giuliani has had trouble in the vetting process because of his past business ties. Mitt Romney can't quite bring himself to give the kind of public apology the next president's most ardent supporters would demand. Senator Bob Corker is seen as too much of a squish. Ditto for former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman. And a David Petraeus nomination would make a mockery of the Trump campaign's primary attack on Hillary Clinton for her use of a private email server. 

All of this brings us to Bolton. To be sure, he has some liabilities. Bolton has spoken on behalf of the People's Mujahadin, or MEK, a cult-like Iranian opposition group that was designated as a U.S. terrorist organization until 2012. Bolton is not alone here. Democrats including Howard Dean and Ed Rendell have all taken money from the group's supporters in the U.S. So has Giuliani. Even still, the People's Mujahadin getting a foothold in the Trump White House would not only complicate U.S. outreach to Iran (if Trump is even interested in that), but also outreach to Iran's democratic opposition, which regards the MEK as authoritarians in waiting.

Since leaving the George W. Bush administration, Bolton has also been far too close with the nuttier fringes of the anti-Sharia movement. For example, he wrote the forward to Pamela Geller's 2010 book, "The Post-American Presidency." In case you were wondering, this treatise is dedicated to the idea that Barack Obama actually despises the country that elected him twice to the White House.

This kind of thing has earned Bolton some enemies. Joe Scarborough, the host of the MSNBC program "Morning Joe," has pointed to the Geller connection on Twitter. Republican Senator Rand Paul last month pledged that he would not support Bolton for the top State Department job. That's no small matter. If the Republican wins the runoff race in Louisiana this week, this will give the GOP 52 Senate votes to 48 Democrats. The minority will only need two more nays to derail a Bolton nomination.

That has happened before. In 2005, Democrats blocked Bolton's nomination as ambassador to the United Nations, when Senator George Voinovich, a Republican who left Congress in 2011, blocked the nomination. Bolton was appointed in recess, but he eventually resigned his position at the end of 2006 after Democrats won Congress in the midterms.

All of that said, there are strong reasons why Bolton would be a good fit for a Trump administration. To start, unlike the other candidates for the job, he has significant experience navigating the State Department. Trump should expect resistance from the foreign-service and diplomatic bureaucracy to his foreign policy. Bolton is someone who knows where the bodies are buried at Foggy Bottom.

Bolton, despite his undiplomatic reputation, has also been a successful diplomat. In 1991, when he was assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs, he led the fight at the U.N. to repeal resolution 3379, which said Zionism was racism. That resolution had passed 72 to 35 in 1975. In 1991 the General Assembly revoked it with a vote of 86 to 46.

In George W. Bush's first term, when Bolton served as undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, he had three important accomplishments. To start, Bolton negotiated the U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which placed limitations on U.S. development of missile defense systems. He managed to pull off this feat without any immediate consequences for the U.S.-Russian relationship, which didn't begin to sour until Bush's second term.

Bolton was also instrumental in conducting the first round of diplomacy to exempt U.S. soldiers from prosecution of the International Criminal Court. Bolton did some arm-twisting to get these bilateral immunity agreements. He cajoled and harangued ambassadors, threatening to cut off U.S. assistance. In the end, it worked. More than 100 countries had agreed to exempt U.S. forces from prosecution to the court by the end of the Bush administration.

Finally, Bolton is the architect of an arrangement between U.S. allies to interdict ships suspected of transporting weapons of mass destruction. This arrangement, known as the Proliferation Security Initiative, survives to this day. A testament to this is that President Barack Obama in his landmark 2009 arms control speech in Prague praised Bolton's brain-child as “an important tool in our efforts to break up black markets, detect and intercept WMD materials in transit, and use financial tools to disrupt this dangerous trade."

If Trump nominates Bolton, his critics will dust off their 2005 playbook against him again. In his nomination hearing that year, Carl Ford, who headed the State Department's Bureau for Intelligence and Research, described him as a "kiss up, kick down kind of guy." Another State Department intelligence analyst, Greg Thielmann, told journalists about how Bolton pressured analysts to get intelligence assessments he wanted.

Bolton also takes a hard line with rogue states. He was one of the most ardent opponents of Bill Clinton's nuclear agreement with North Korea. After Trump's electoral victory this month, Bolton called for regime change in Iran and said he hoped Trump would abrogate the nuclear deal with that regime.

Needless to say, Secretary of State Bolton would represent a sea change for U.S. foreign policy. The man who currently heads the State Department, John Kerry, is in temperament and ideology Bolton's opposite. Kerry has bent over backwards to meet America's adversaries halfway, whether it's in talks with Russia over Syria, or the negotiations over the Iran nuclear deal.  

But it's worth asking what the Kerry approach has gotten us. As he finishes up his tenure, Iran tests missiles, arrests Americans and still demands new concessions from the U.S. China builds artificial islands in the South China Sea. And Russia continues to bomb civilians in Syria. Meanwhile, the Israelis and Palestinians are further away from a negotiated settlement than they were when Obama took office.

This is the Obama-Kerry legacy. The president-elect ran his campaign promising to take a different approach. In this respect, he couldn't ask for a better secretary of state than John Bolton. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story: Eli Lake at