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John Bolton’s writing is muddled. Is his thinking as well?

Photo by Gage Skidmore via Flickr

Clear thinkers are typically clear writers. In fact, the art of writing helps clarify your thinking, or reveals the flaw in it. With this in mind, let’s look at some writing from John Bolton, President Trump’s soon-to-be new National Security Advisor.

Bolton was UN Ambassador under George W. Bush. He scares people because of his hawkish views, particularly on North Korea. He’s an advocate of striking North Korea first to prevent it from using its nuclear weapons, and he made the case for that in a recent Wall Street Journal editorial. Let’s take a closer look at that editorial and whether the arguments in it are coherent. As usual, I will highlight questionable passages (bold) or passive voice (bold italic), add commentary, and provide a translation:

The Legal Case for Striking North Korea First

Does the necessity of self-defense leave ‘no choice of means, and no moment of deliberation’?

Commentary: A lede for an op-ed should describe what you’re about to justify. This one talks about the Olympics, economic sanctions, and vague threats. A scattered start.

Translation: I need a topical excuse to talk about bombing North Korea.

Commentary: This should have been the actual lede.

Translation: North Korea is just about ready to drop bombs on us.

Pre-emption opponents argue that action is not justified because Pyongyang does not constitute an “imminent threat.” They are wrong. The threat is imminent, and the case against pre-emption rests on the misinterpretation of a standard that derives from prenuclear, pre-ballistic-missile times. Given the gaps in U.S. intelligence about North Korea, we should not wait until the very last minute. That would risk striking after the North has deliverable nuclear weapons, a much more dangerous situation.

Commentary: As soon as he starts his argument, Bolton talks about “pre-emption,” which he has yet to define. The part about whether North Korea poses an imminent threat is important, but Bolton offers no case for that, beyond what he already said about Pompeo’s assessment. He also does not describe why striking now is better compared to after the weapons are deliverable — that makes sense, but I’d like to see a full argument for it. As you’ll see, though, this is the only relevant part of the op-ed; what follows is a bunch of historical claptrap that Bolton fails to connect effectively to current events.

Translation: We should bomb North Korea now before it’s in a position to launch nuclear strikes against the United States. [See how easy it is to write this clearly? If that’s what you mean, say it!]

In assessing the timing of pre-emptive attacks, the classic formulation is Daniel Webster’s test of “necessity.” British forces in 1837 invaded U.S. territory to destroy the steamboat Caroline, which Canadian rebels had used to transport weapons into Ontario.

Webster asserted that Britain failed to show that “the necessity of self-defense was instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means, and no moment of deliberation.” Pre-emption opponents would argue that Britain should have waited until the Caroline reached Canada before attacking.

Commentary: Why are we talking about 1837? Bolton is about to argue that actions in 1837 aren’t representative of today’s situation, but isn’t that obvious? Are these “pre-emption opponents” the same people who were telling us that there’s no justification for bombing North Korea? If so, they’re at least 200 years old. My problem with this is that Bolton has failed to explain why this particular historical precedent is important to discuss (beyond the vague “classic formulation”).

Translation: Britain invaded the US to destroy a ship in 1837. They had to do that because the ship was full of weapons that Canadians were going to use to attack Ontario. This is why we need to bomb North Korea.

Would an American strike today against North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program violate Webster’s necessity test? Clearly not. Necessity in the nuclear and ballistic-missile age is simply different than in the age of steam.What was once remote is now, as a practical matter, near; what was previously time-consuming to deliver can now arrive in minutes; and the level of destructiveness of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons is infinitely greater than that of the steamship Caroline’s weapons cargo.

Commentary: Fails to describe why, if things are so different, that Daniel Webster’s test is still appropriate. Perhaps a historian knows this, but an average intelligent Wall Street Journal reader (like me) doesn’t.

Translation: Things move faster in war now than they did in 1837.

Timing and distance have long been recognized as surrogate measures defining the seriousness of military threats, thereby serving as criteria to justify pre-emptive political or military actions. In the days of sail, maritime states were recognized as controlling territorial waters (above and below the surface) for three nautical miles out to sea. In the early 18th century, that was the farthest distance cannonballs could reach, hence defining a state’s outer defense perimeter. While some states asserted broader maritime claims, the three-mile limit was widely accepted in Europe.

Technological developments inevitably challenged maritime-state defenses. Over time, many nations extended their territorial claims, but the U.S. adhered to the three-mile limit until World War II. After proclaiming U.S. neutrality in 1939, in large measure to limit the activities of belligerent-power warships and submarines in our waters, President Franklin D. Roosevelt quickly realized the three-mile limit was an invitation for aggression. German submarines were sinking ships off the coast within sight of Boston and New York.

In May 1941, Roosevelt told the Pan-American Union that “if the Axis Powers fail to gain control of the seas, then they are certainly defeated.” He explained that our defenses had “to relate . . . to the lightning speed of modern warfare.” He scoffed at those waiting “until bombs actually drop in the streets” of U.S. cities: “Our Bunker Hill of tomorrow may be several thousand miles from Boston.” Accordingly, over time, Roosevelt vastly extended America’s “waters of self defense” to include Greenland, Iceland and even parts of West Africa.

Similarly in 1988, President Reagan unilaterally extended U.S. territorial waters from three to 12 miles. Reagan’s executive order cited U.S. national security and other significant interests in this expansion, and administration officials underlined that a major rationale was making it harder for Soviet spy ships to gather information.

In short, both Roosevelt and Reagan acted unilaterally to adjust to new realities. They did not reify time and distance, or confuse the concrete for the existential.They adjusted the measures to reality, not the reverse.

Commentary: Admit it: you got confused there at the end. Of course you did, because these five paragraphs are symbolic of Bolton’s incoherent writing style. We get four paragraphs of questionably relevant information about the history of the three-mile territorial limit, passive voice included. He follows this with the insulting “in short” (it’s not short at all), and then two sentences that launch off into incomprehensible philosophy.

Consider the bizarre “They did not reify time and distance, or confuse the concrete for the existential.” I wasn’t familiar with “reify” so I looked it up: reify means “make something abstract more concrete.” So are we to understand that Roosevelt and Reagan did not make the abstract concepts of time and distance more concrete?

And what in hell does it mean to confuse the concrete for the existential? Does any president do what Bolton warns against, “the reverse” of this formulation, which would be to attempt to adjust reality to match the measures that the president has come up with? Ironically, this description about adjusting reality to match your worldview applies more to Donald Trump, Bolton’s soon-to-be boss, than to any earlier president.

Translation: Presidents get to set new criteria based on reality.

Although the Caroline criteria are often cited in pre-emption debates, they are merely customary international law, which is interpreted and modified in light of changing state practice. In contemporary times, Israel has already twice struck nuclear-weapons programs in hostile states: destroying the Osirak reactor outside Baghdad in 1981 and a Syrian reactor being built by North Koreans in 2007.

This is how we should think today about the threat of nuclear warheads delivered by ballistic missiles. In 1837 Britain unleashed pre-emptive “fire and fury” against a wooden steamboat. It is perfectly legitimate for the United States to respond to the current “necessity” posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons by striking first.

Commentary: This is supposed to be the strong ending. It is very clear. The Israeli strikes are completely relevant. The wooden steamboat is completely irrelevant. But the “fire and fury” — which came directly from Trump — probably got Bolton hired.

Translation: Israel bombed nuclear reactors in Iraq and Syria, so we can bomb North Korea.

Your ability to bamboozle with words isn’t a good proxy for clear thinking

Should we bomb North Korea to stop its nuclear threat?

This is a serious question. There are risks to allowing the isolated madman Kim Jong-Un to control weapons that threaten America and its neighbors. There are risks to dropping bombs on him as well. I’d like to see a clear analysis of both sets of risks, combined with laying out the likely scenarios that would follow. Go ahead, make the case.

But Bolton doesn’t do that. He cites historical precedent but doesn’t show why it’s relevant. His historical arguments are all over the map. His terminology is unnecessarily abstract and vague, when we are actually talking about bombing a country.

He sounds sort of like a thinker, if you don’t look to close. But a real thinker gets to the point directly and makes cogent arguments to support it. Bamboozlement only works on weak minds.

That’s what worries me, both about John Bolton and about the situation he’s about to step into.

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  1. Thank you for a detailed analysis. In addition to your concerns (shared here) with John Bolton, we should question why the Wall Street Journal allowed this content to appear in their publication.

    We’re very fortunate in America: 2 oceans on 2 sides and 2 benign countries on our borders (alarmist words about Mexico, aside.) Most countries do not have this luxury, and I believe this informs some of our “strike first” thinking, too.

  2. I used to read the WSJ daily and this opinion fits squarely in their strength of publishing disjointed, pseudo-intellectual, and strong opinions from big names. I prefer simplified, but not simplistic analyses. But at least reify and claptrap got some play.