‘Changing the Hagia Sophia back into a mosque… was troubling to many people in Turkey, but I don’t attribute these policies to the failed coup,’ John Bolton tells Kathimerini. ‘I think this is simply a manifestation of what Erdogan has had in mind for a long time now being made palpable.’
John Bolton is one of the most famous US foreign policy hawks and a man who worked very closely with Donald Trump until the now former national security adviser was ousted by the US president.
In an exciting book that he recently released, “The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir,” Bolton vividly describes the chaotic manner in which decisions are made at the White House on the basis of personal or/and family criteria. A key reason for the confrontation between the two men was allegedly Trump’s close relationship with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which Bolton interprets as being a result of the former’s admiration, perhaps even envy, of authoritarian leaders.
Interestingly, Bolton believes that the statements made by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during his visit to Greece reflect the views held by 95% of America’s national security and foreign policy agencies, but not necessarily Trump. Bolton claims that the only person to decide on US national security issues is Trump. Pompeo, he says, is the only exception, because he has great influence on the president, although he does not have the status or power of his predecessors at the State Department.
Bolton advises the Greek prime minister to go into hibernation mode, as it were, until the new US president assumes office, particularly if Joe Biden is elected, and describes that intermediate period as being very dangerous. According to Bolton, it is extremely difficult to predict what Trump would do in the event of a Greek-Turkish crisis, if re-elected. On the contrary, he deems that a Biden administration would place much greater emphasis on the issues of the Eastern Mediterranean.
He believes that Greece’s exceptional relations with Congress leaders play a key role in securing Greek interests and influence.
Foreign policy doesn’t seem to be a big part of the debates and the political discussion right now. Do you think there will be major changes depending on whether Trump or Biden is elected?
Well I think if Trump is re-elected, what I’ve tried to explain to people and explained at some length in my book, is that it’s really very hard to predict that his policy in a second term will be consistent with what it was in the first. The president doesn’t really have a philosophy, he doesn’t operate on the basis of grand strategy or policy. And many of the decisions he made in the national security space – when I was there certainly – depended less on the merits of the policies we were discussing than on what he expected the political reaction in the United States to be to the choices that he made, so if he’s re-elected, a significant political guardrail will be removed. He doesn’t have to worry about facing the voters again, he has to worry less about Republicans in Congress. So, the idea that there would be a consistency in his policy is eliminated and I think some of the things that he thought about doing in the first term, that he eventually rejected, might come back in a second term, like, for example, withdrawing the United States from NATO.
Now, by contrast, if Vice President Biden is elected – and he, as you rightly say, has not talked much about foreign policy – the Democrats don’t see that as a significant issue for them in the campaign against Trump. But I’ve known Biden for a long time. I think his policy as president would look a lot like the Obama administration policy. With the caveat that the left wing of the Democratic Party is much stronger today than it was four or eight or 12 years ago. We don’t know really much about what their foreign policy is, they focus more on domestic issues, but I do think there will be significant pressure on Biden from the left of the Democratic Party on both foreign and domestic issues, and what the effect of that will be on a Biden presidency, we just don’t know at this point.
It’s very confusing for some of us here in Athens to figure out who is in charge of foreign policy in the US right now and who is in the mix – let’s say, who’s in the loop. Could you enlighten us?
Well, I think what Donald Trump has tried to make clear is that he’s the only one that matters, and obviously the US system of government is set up so that in the executive branch, which does have primacy in foreign policy, the president makes the important decisions. No one disputes that. But the way the president looks at how to run the White House, basically, it’s to emphasize his primacy and to downgrade the role of others. So Mark Esper, the secretary of defense, a very solid fellow, I think has less influence than other secretaries of defense have had. And it’s not because of Mark Esper – it’s because of Donald Trump. I think I’d say the same of other key advisers, although I think Mike Pompeo is probably more significant than any of the others at this point, but even he, I think, pales in comparison, historically, to other secretaries of state. That’s one reason why I think Trump’s presidency, even in one term, has done so much damage to the United States internationally.
A president doesn’t increase his authority by pulling all the decisions into the Oval Office. He increases his authority by empowering the top senior advisers that he trusts. I think that gives him leverage across a whole range. Trump simply doesn’t do that.
One thing that is very clear from your book is that President Trump seems to have a soft spot for the Turkish president. And I wonder if that’s like admiration for another tough guy. Is it financial or family ties, how do you explain that?
Well, it’s very hard to explain. I think Trump has an affinity for a lot of authoritarian leaders, Kim Jong-un, Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin, and Erdogan ranks among them. I think it’s because he likes watching what big guys do, and those kinds of countries, and probably wishes he could do it in the United States, too. Fortunately, he can at least so far. He also seems immune from understanding that Erdogan is pursuing domestically in Turkey an Islamicist policy, and he has aspirations in the Middle East that really hearken back to the days of the Ottoman Empire. Much of what he’s done is a rejection of the post-World War I settlement of the empire. The Kemal Ataturk constitution that was put into place – Erdogan has really undermined that. And you know President Emmanuel Macron of France for example has repeatedly told Trump that Erdogan is an Islamicist and he supports extremist organizations which normally Trump would be happy to condemn. But when it comes to Erdogan he just seems incapable of doing it now. Mike Pompeo was recently in Greece and I think gave a number of supportive statements about the ongoing controversy between Greece and Turkey over developments in the Eastern Mediterranean. I would say that’s basically where about 95% of the US national security community is, Democrat and Republican alike. I don’t know that’s where Trump is though.
In the old days, if there were to be a crisis between Greece and Turkey, we knew that there would be a Clark Clifford, George Ball, or Richard Holbrooke or somebody like that arriving in the area immediately. If something like that were to happen now – let’s say, you know, the days after the inauguration of the next president – what do you think would happen? Would the US get involved, would Trump get involved?
Right, I think you should understand Trump as an anomaly in American history. I think the decisions he has made on national security – and I won’t say whether I agree with them or not – don’t form any coherent pattern. That’s part of the problem of the Trump presidency. So, if he prevails and has a second term, I don’t know that we can really predict or give an answer to the kind of question that you’re asking. I do think if Biden is elected that it is much more likely his administration would take an active role, especially if some other behaviors of Turkey and Libya and Syria, really throughout the Middle East, continue as well. I think a Biden presidency would be a return to the normalcy of a Democratic president who alternates with a Republican president. I think Trump simply does not fit in that mix at all, and therefore, once he is out of the Oval Office, whether Biden has one term or is himself replaced by a Republican president in 2024, neither of those administrations, Biden or his Republican successor, hypothetically, will look like the Trump administration.
I want you to put your strategic-thinker hat on and tell me how you view the US interest in the Eastern Mediterranean, because you have Turkey, you have Israel, you have Russia, you even have China to some extent trying to enter the area. So I wonder how you see the situation here.
Well, I think it’s critical for US security. You have correctly said we’ve seen naval maneuvers by China and Russia in the Eastern Med. This is almost unthinkable. I think we know what Putin is up to, he said back in 2005 that the breakup of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century. I think he’s trying to re-establish Russian hegemony in the space of the former Soviet Union, trying to extend Russian influence into the Middle East. I think Erdogan does have Ottomanist aspirations; I don’t know how else to put it, given his behavior in a variety of areas. But I think if you look at where US interests lie, the increased cooperation between Israel, Greece, Egypt on some of the oil and natural gas assets in the Eastern Mediterranean and the possibility of closer relations among those countries are all very positive from the US point of view. And I haven’t lost hope in Turkey. I think in the elections in 2023, if they’re free and fair, which I think is open to doubt, that the opposition to Erdogan we saw in the local and municipal elections that showed a turning away from Erdogan are also possible. It’s a very exciting time in the Middle East and I think we’re seeing some of that in the Eastern Mediterranean as a whole and it’s important to keep extending this cooperation there and it’s very important I think to keep the US presence up.
What would your advice be to a Greek prime minister in case a crisis breaks out in the coming months?
Well I think before the election I wouldn’t expect much of anything and just from Greece’s point of view if everybody went to sleep for 35 days until we had a result that would probably be the best outcome. If Biden is elected, obviously he’s not sworn in until January 20, that long transition – not long for Americans but long to the rest of the world – is always a point of vulnerability. But I think any Greek government, but especially this government, which has, I think, excellent relations across the board with the United States, has to recognize the uncertainty that we face in a second Trump term as I’ve described, and also if Biden is elected to use the transition period to establish relations with the new advisers he will bring in. I think Greece has excellent relations across the spectrum in the US Congress in the House, in the Senate, and that’s very important to keep strong. So, while I acknowledge there’s uncertainty, I think, by and large, there’s a positive outlook that Greece should have in terms of relations with the US.
I also know you have studied Erdogan for a long time. A lot of people think that he has changed since the 2016 coup attempt. Do you think he is structurally moving away from the West? What do you think he will do next?
I don't think it’s the coup that has caused his behavior over the past couple of years. I think this is a manifestation of where he’s wanted to go for a long time and he has made that clear in a number of respects. He has tried to replace senior military officers who uphold the Kemalist constitution, which is that Turkey should be a secular state. It’s somewhat unusual from the Western perspective to have the military responsible for the constitution, and that has led to problems in the past, but Erdogan is trying to put in generals who have an Islamicist perspective; he has done the same thing in the Turkish judiciary. And I think this is evidence he has had a sustained plan for some time. Changing the Hagia Sophia back into a mosque I think is another aspect that I think that was troubling to many people in Turkey, but I don’t attribute these policies to the failed coup; I think this is simply a manifestation of what Erdogan has had in mind for a long time now being made palpable.
Is there a moment that you can recall from your tenure at the National Security Council dealing with Greece, or dealing with Greek-Turkish relations, when you got very concerned?
Well certainly I’ve been concerned about it for a long time because of this direction of Erdogan’s policies and we’ve seen how obstreperous he can be. I remember back to the Second Persian Gulf War when we wanted permission to bring the 4th Infantry Division into northern Iraq through Turkey and it was Erdogan and his party that essentially blocked that in the Turkish Parliament. So this has been something of great concern to me. I would say I think it was a real plus for Greece to resolve the question of the name for North Macedonia. I think anything that can be done to increase stability in the Balkans is a positive for Greece because you can’t really deal just with a Greek-Turkish dichotomy. This threat of instability and the interference of Russia that we’ve talked about is also an ever-present issue.