John Bolton
Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

While serving as the under secretary of state for political affairs in the Obama administration, Wendy Sherman was the lead negotiator for the Iran nuclear agreement. In the New York Times today, she lays out why the appointment of John Bolton as President Trump’s national security advisor is a likely disaster of massive proportions, but she frankly doesn’t go far enough in asking us to imagine the consequences. In most ways, she offers a comprehensive account of the predictable fallout from a unilateral abrogating of the nuclear deal by the United States. We, rather than Iran, would find ourselves isolated on the world stage. It will put great strain on the transatlantic partnership and erstwhile allies in Asia will move away from us and into the orbit of Moscow and Beijing. Iranian hardliners will be empowered and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards will grow more aggressive in the region, causing increased security problems for our allies there, including Israel. And Iran will most likely begin enriching uranium again as fast as they can, while North Korea will become more disinclined than ever to make a deal on their own nuclear program.

But Sherman soft sells the likelihood of war. She mentions it but she doesn’t explore it.

The destruction of the nuclear deal will also increase the Revolutionary Guards’ malign activities in the Middle East, making the challenge to Israel’s security and to America’s other allies even more difficult. These activities, in turn, will increase American calls for military action against Iran as the only viable option, since no Iranian will be able to enter new negotiations with the United States any time soon.

The march to military conflict will be hard to stop, especially with Mr. Bolton leading the National Security Council.

The single most important factor here is that John Bolton wants regime change in Tehran and Pyongyang, and ripping up the Iranian agreement is his way of making this happen. When Sherman diagnoses what will follow the abrogation of the agreement, she is likely to be correct. When she states that “the march to military conflict will be hard to stop,” she is also correct. But when she spells out the myriad ways that things will begin to go awry, she doesn’t delve into the fact that these misfortunes will be the crucial factors that create a casus belli for war.

When it comes to making war in Asia, the country is exhausted. Bolton knows this. Trump knew it when he was a candidate for the Republican nomination and the presidency. There can be no frontal argument for war. If there are to be wars, first there must be crises and calamities that stir the American public out of their current mood of cynicism and restraint. Given a choice, the American people will demand diplomacy precede bombings and invasions, so all avenues of diplomacy must be cut off. And conditions must worsen considerably, including our perception of our own vulnerability, before people are frightened enough to once again support the use of extreme violence.

If the Iranians can be provoked into resuming nuclear program activities that are currently in mothballs and to take provocative steps in the asymmetrical war in the Middle East, and if North Korea can likewise be wrong-footed into making menacing moves, then the public will begin to support military action. If all diplomatic alternatives are cut off, America may be conditioned to support another round of mass killing. The more isolated we are, the more dire our condition will appear.

This is how “the march to military conflict” becomes “hard to stop.”

As national security adviser, Bolton will be positioned to orchestrate this even against the wishes of the president, the Pentagon, the State Department and the intelligence community. If Mike Pompeo is confirmed as Secretary of State, he may even have an ally in the State Department making the failure of diplomacy that much easier to sell to the public.

For Bolton, there can be no other point to taking this position, whether the president realizes it or not. And Bolton is a seasoned bureaucratic infighter in the mold of Dick Cheney who will quickly purge the National Security Council of anyone who too forcefully resists his war plans.

On Friday, I wrote that we’ve reached the most dangerous moment for humanity since the Cuban Missile Crisis, and I meant it. Wendy Sherman wrote a good cautionary piece, but it wasn’t as alarmist as it should have been.

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Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at