Gage Skidmore / Flickr John Bolton...
Gage Skidmore / Flickr

It’s impossible to overstate just how incompetent new Trump national security adviser and ex-Bush United Nations representative John Bolton is. The man is a military-minded Larry Kudlow.

Bolton’s repeated public declarations that he anticipates North Korean disarmament to follow the “Libya model”—an abandonment of the nation’s nuclear program in exchange for a promise of United States non-involvement that the United States would freely break soon afterward, with the leader who negotiated that agreement ending up quite thoroughly dead—has of course not been taken kindly to by the North Korean figures Team Trump would be negotiating with. To North Korean leaders, Libya is precisely the fate they wish to avoid—the entire reason for having a nuclear program to begin with. Repeatedly invoking a denuclearization deal that directly or indirectly led to the overthrow and execution of another nation’s dictator would seem to be a sublimely stupid negotiation tactic—unless, perhaps, it is not incompetence but intended.

“It pushes all the wrong buttons,” said Joe Cirincione, president of Ploughshares Fund, which seeks to reduce and eventually eliminate nuclear weapons. “The diplomacy with North Korea is going very well and Bolton threw a spanner in the works. ”

It may have been intentional. Bolton has long taken a hard line with North Korea, and had called for regime change in the country, rationalized preemptive military action and opposed direct talks with Kim’s government before joining the White House last month.

The problem with Bolton is it’s seldom possible to distinguish between incompetence and belligerence; the man is a creature of both. His tenure in the Bush administration was marked by an abject disgust for the very idea of international negotiations or cooperation—especially in any conflict in which Bolton, personally, believed a military solution would be a more expedient path. Since those days, he has settled into a position on the far-right outskirts of Republicanism, discredited in every circle except among the Fox News crowd, but constantly bellowing of the need to give this or that region another shooty-bomby asskicking, allies be damned. Putting Bolton anywhere near a disarmament treaty is itself a good way to ensure a deal never happens. Donald Trump is, sigh, too ignorant to know that, but the rest of the White House is not.

But this highlights just how many different paths the Trump Team has to fiasco. Trump has set high public expectations for an upcoming summit. If North Korea walks away, at worst they suffer the current status quo, but to Trump it will be yet another failure in administration with few successes to tout. That he appears to have been sabotaged by his own handpicked staff even before the summit’s details are worked out is … interesting.

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