Of Ajit Bolton & John Doval

Print edition : May 25, 2018

U.S. President Donald Trump with John Bolton, his National Security Adviser, on April 9. Photo: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his National Security Adviser, Ajit Doval. Photo: By Special Arrangement

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (left) is greeted by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ahead of a press conference in Tel Aviv on April 29. Photo: Thomas Coex/AP

Foreign policymaking is a sphere where dissenting voices are indispensable. Certitude, a vice of the ideologue, leads to disaster. But in the U.S. and in India professional values in foreign policymaking are discounted.

“IT is an infallible rule that a prince who is not wise himself cannot be well advised, unless by chance he leaves himself entirely in the hands of one man who rules him in everything, and happens to be a very prudent man. In this case he may doubtless be well governed, but it would not last long, for that governor would in a short time deprive him of the state; but by taking counsel with many, a prince who is not wise will never have united councils and will not be able to bring them to unanimity for himself. The counsellors will all think of their own interests, and he will be unable either to correct or to understand them. And it cannot be otherwise, for men will always be false to you unless they are compelled by necessity to be true. Therefore it must be concluded that wise counsels, from whoever they come, must necessarily be due to the prudence of the prince, and not the prudence of the prince to the good counsels received” (Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince).

The parallels are striking. Both Donald Trump and Narendra Modi were men with a dubious past when they won power in 2016 and 2014 respectively, albeit with a difference. Trump’s personal and business lives were sordid. But he did not preside over a pogrom. Modi did, in 2002. For the rest, they possess very many common characteristics (see this writer’s “Of Donald Modi & Narendra Trump”, Frontline, September 15, 2017). Both spurn contrary views. Modi made a man famous for his hawkish views his National Security Adviser, Ajit Doval of the Doval doctrine analysed earlier (“The Doval doctrine”, Frontline, November 13, 2015).

On March 23, Trump acquired his Doval, John R. Bolton, as his National Security Adviser. This came close on the heels of his sacking of Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State and appointment in his place of Central Intelligence Agency Director Mike Pompeo. Both are opponents of the nuclear accord with Iran, which Trump threatens to discard. He wants as his advisers those who will provide music to his ears. Bolton was a fervent advocate of the invasion of Iraq.

David Sanger of The New York Times reported on March 24: “When President Trump suddenly announced two weeks ago that he would meet the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, John R. Bolton suggested a pithy strategy for how the meeting should proceed. It should ‘be a fairly brief session where Trump says: “Tell me you have begun total denuclearisation, because we’re not going to have protracted negotiations. You can tell me right now or we’ll start thinking of something else?”’ He made no secret of what the ‘something else’ should be: a pre-emptive strike against North Korea, which he wrote last month would be a ‘perfectly legitimate’ response to what he views as an imminent threat.”

Trump’s announced plan is not much different. He will walk out of the summit with North Korea’s President Kim Jong-un if things do not go his way. Bolton’s contempt for the United Nations is well known. In 1994, he declared that there was no such thing as the U.N. If 10 storeys of its headquarters in New York disappeared, “it wouldn’t make a lot of difference”. On both Iran and North Korea, Bolton’s policy prescription is the same: a military strike.

Trump has decided to meet Kim Jong-un. But his main target is Iran. His allies Israel and, more profitably, Saudi Arabia will support him.

There is another issue on which Trump and Modi are in agreement: they are ardent Islamophobes. Bolton and Pompeo share this passion. Laurie Goodstein of The New York Times reported: “Bolton is chairman of the Gatestone Institute, a think tank that regularly features articles on its website promoting the notion that pliant European countries, especially Britain, are submitting to ‘Islamisation’ by hostile Muslim migrants.”

No wonder American Muslims, Jews, civil rights groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and former State Department officials are among those pushing Senators on the Foreign Relations Committee to take a closer look. “My concern is that Mr Pompeo has left a trail of horrific, inaccurate, bigoted statements and associations vis-a-vis Muslims around the world,” said Shaun Casey, former Director of the State Department’s Office of Religion and Global affairs under the Barack Obama administration. Casey questioned whether Pompeo, with such a record, could be “a credible representative” for the dozens of Muslim-majority countries he would have to conduct diplomacy with. Islamic and Jewish groups have raised similar concerns about Bolton ( The Hindu, April 8, 2018).

Siege mentality

To get a full measure of the man, one must read his Mein Kampf entitled Surrender is Not an Option. The title reflects the siege mentality that possesses our Dovals. It leads to arrogant assertions of power: India in South Asia and America in the world and at the U.N.

Fundamentally, Bolton holds that “it is inherently untenable that America submit to any decision-making process in which it is simply one nation with one vote among 192 ‘equal’ nations. There is nothing ‘equal’ about them except the diaphanous idea of ‘sovereign equality’ that no one outside the U.N. pays the slightest attention to. There is no doubt that the one-nation-one-vote principle—as fraudulent an analogy to real democracy as has ever been made—completely dominates U.N. programme, budget, and management decision-making, almost entirely to the detriment of the United States. Moreover, the General Assembly, the specialised agencies’ governing bodies, and lesser lights of the U.N. system (such as the Human Rights Council/Commission) have also attempted to assert authority in a variety of ways, especially through ‘norming’ efforts that increasingly cover areas of traditionally ‘domestic’ public policy. Unfortunately, we cannot tarry here long enough on this critical issue. In fact, however, the U.N. Charter confers potential power only on the Security Council, where the five permanent members are protected by the veto....

“Accordingly, I conclude only one U.N. reform is worth the effort, and without it nothing else will succeed: Voluntary contributions must replace assessed contributions. If America insisted it would pay only for what works, and that we get what we pay for, we would revolutionise life throughout the U.N. system. There is simply no doubt that eliminating the ‘entitlement’ mentality caused by relying on assessed contributions would profoundly affect U.N. officials around the world. As noted in Chapter V, U.N. agencies that are now voluntarily funded—like WFP [World Food Programme], the High Commissioner for Refugees, and UNICEF—tend to be effective and transparent, thus providing clear lessons for the remainder of the U.N. To argue otherwise would ignore the experience of market-driven imperatives throughout human history, which is really what switching to voluntary contributions would mean. If member governments providing resources were not satisfied with the outcomes produced by their U.N. contributions, they could shift their funds elsewhere, thus providing a ‘market test’ for effectiveness.”

The man has lived in a bubble. Everyone knows that the Soviet Union and later Russia were opposed to India’s nuclear programme and ambitions. Yet, he asserts: “Russia and China have been active WMD [weapons of mass destruction] proliferators over the years. Russia’s close relationship with India and China’s with Pakistan were undoubtedly key factors in the development of the Indian and Pakistani nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities, a case study in how competitive proliferation works.” Pakistan’s nuclear programme depended a lot on China and North Korea. India’s success was largely, albeit not exclusively, due to indigenous achievement. More than one Indian is attacked in Bolton’s book.

Stifling dissent

In the U.S. as in India, professional values in foreign policymaking are discounted. This is a sphere where dissenting voices are indispensable. Policy is made on imperfect knowledge and amidst a multitude of imponderables. Certitude, a vice of the ideologue, leads to disaster.

Mark J. White’s book Against t he President is a historical survey of dissent within the White House, of criticism of the President’s policies by those who served under him. (The book was published by Ivan R. Dee, Chicago, 2007. Sadly, this one-man publishing house folded because Dee, an idealist, published books that went against conventional wisdom about the Cold War.) After a careful scholarly survey of decision-making on foreign policy since Franklin D. Roosevelt, the origins of the Cold War to Lyndon Johnson and the Vietnam War, the author concludes: “Charles Wilson, Adlai Stevenson, and George Ball, however, offered convincing criticisms of the foreign policies of the Presidents under whom they worked. Had the advice of Wilson and Ball been heeded, the calamity of the Vietnam War would have been avoided. Had John Kennedy listened to Stevenson (and other dissenting officials), the Bay of Pigs disaster would have been averted and—assuming that [Nikita] Khrushchev’s decision to deploy missiles in Cuba was in part a response to JFK’s [John F. Kennedy] hostile approach to Castro—the October 1962 missile crisis avoided. The facile assumption cannot be made that every critique of U.S. policy developed by administration officials in these years was cogent; several instances dissenting officials succeeded in providing sound alternatives to presidential policies.”

This experience of history sheds light on the White House decision-making process and has implications for policymakers in India. “Too often Presidents, when identifying a consensus of opinion in their administration in favour of a policy option they themselves find attractive, have sought to stifle the kind of wide-ranging debate that might result in the consensus being challenged. Too often they have appeared concerned that the development of strong internal criticism of a preferred approach to a foreign-policy problem would cast doubt on the legitimacy of that approach. In other words, they have seen a correlation between the degree of support for a policy option and the value of that option.”

Before the Bay of Pigs invasion, Kennedy confined the debate to his advisers. Chester Bowles, Adlai Stevenson and Ted Sorensen were deliberately kept on the periphery of the administration’s discussion of the operation precisely because he anticipated their opposition. But it was the dissenters, not the majority of the Kennedy team that backed the Bay of Pigs, who provided the President with sounder advice.

Leaders should resist the impulse to strengthen a consensus they desire and nullify opposition within their regime. They should encourage opposition and encourage dissenters to articulate their views and win converts to their point of view. “Policy alternatives backed by the majority, even when the support is overwhelming, has been the wrong option on several occasions: Stevenson and Cuba (before the missile crisis) and Ball and Vietnam show that to be the case. Wilson and Vietnam, arguably, show that to be the case. Colin Powell and the war in Iraq certainly does....

“A policy decision is always a relative judgment in that it is based on the assumption that it is the strongest of available choices. Any sensible discussion on whether to adopt a particular approach to an international issue should therefore include a rigorous analysis of all reasonable options. Considering the idea of dissenting officials may not only prevent the implementation of a misguided policy (as it could have done, for instance, had Johnson accepted Ball’s sage counsel), it may also serve to confirm the value of a preferred option....”

Similar assumptions lie at the core of the conventional wisdom of India’s foreign policy establishment—the state and the “nationalist, patriotic” media. The Cuban missile crisis offers a fine example of a free discussion of the options. Kennedy converted his National Security Council to a smaller body, ExComm. We now have the tapes of its deliberations from October 16 to October 29, 1962. Kennedy relied on his brother Robert, used the back channel, the services of a journalist and kept his head. Dean Acheson advised bombing. It became known in 1992 when Americans and Russians met that the Russian missiles in Cuba had nuclear warheads ( The Kennedy Tapes, edited by Ernest R. May and Philip D. Zelikow, Harvard University Press, 1997).

Committee on Indian Foreign Service

On June 15, 1965, Lal Bahadur Shastri set up a committee on the Indian Foreign Service headed by N.R. Pillai, former Secretary General of the Ministry of External Affairs. Its report submitted on October 17, 1966, said: “The generally accepted principle is that the Foreign Office has the primary responsibility for relations with foreign governments and coordinates the relations of other departments with them. This applies equally to relations with international organisations, with the exception that relations with specialised agencies and purely technical commissions are conducted by the Ministries concerned with their field of work, though against the general diplomatic background provided by the Foreign Office. The strands of foreign relations are manifold and are fashioned by many hands, but it is for the Foreign Office to weave them into a coherent whole. This involves the establishment of systematised procedures for interdepartmental coordination and consultation.... If the Foreign Office is to establish its leadership and to earn the respect of other departments operating on the technical side in the same region, it must develop sufficient competence to deal successfully with the basic problems arising and at the same time exercise its primary responsibility with understanding and restraint. Subject to this, any shift in responsibility should be towards rather than away from the Foreign Office....

“We propose the creation of a post with the designation of Secretary General (or such other designation as may be considered appropriate by the government). The holder of the post will have the following main functions: (i) He will be the principal adviser to the Minister on the conduct of foreign affairs; (ii) He will be responsible for coordinating the activities of the Ministry; (iii) He will have the final responsibility for ensuring the establishment of suitable coordinative arrangements with other Ministries and their satisfactory operation; (iv) He will be Chairman of the Policy Planning and Review Committee, to which we refer later in this chapter, and be responsible for the direction of policy planning in the Ministry; and (v) He will be the head of the Foreign Service and be generally responsible for the good administration of the Service.”

The committee was set up because an eminence grise, V.K. Krishna Menon, had overshadowed the Ministry of External Affairs. This was done again eminently by Indira Gandhi’s Krishna Menon—P.N. Haksar—sitting right inside the Prime Minister’s Office. The less said about the Haksars who followed and about the ambition and intrigues of G. Parthasarathy, the better. G.P. had a bad influence on India’s policies towards China, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. He lingered on in New Delhi well after Rajiv Gandhi was done with him.

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