Warrior monk vs warmonger: which of Donald Trump’s advisers will win out over Syria?

Arguing against intervention, Jeremy Corbyn chose to quote James Mattis rather than John Bolton. 

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“Even US defence secretary James Mattis has said we ‘don't have evidence’ and warned further military action could ‘escalate out of control’,” Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said on Friday, in a statement warning against an escalation of military action in Syria.

The fact that Corbyn’s position dovetails with that of Mattis, a Marine Corps general nicknamed “Mad Dog”, is not necessarily that surprising. Ironically, given that he is known for aphorisms like “be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet,” Mattis has been cast as the peacemaker within Donald Trump’s orbit. He has become a figure of international hope as the president mulls his options for a military response in Syria.

Maybe it is no coincidence that the members of the US administration who seem the least cavalier about the idea of leading the country into another war are also those who have fought first-hand. In fact, Mattis himself hates the nickname “Mad Dog”, a moniker which was given him by the press. Troops under his command preferred to call him the “Warrior Monk” for his ascetic lifestyle and intellectual, as well as physical, rigour.

The difference between Mattis and Trump is enormous. The president famously never reads, while Mattis, who led troops into battle in Iraq and Afghanistan, has often spoken about his love of books. Throughout his military service, he reportedly insisted on carrying a 6,000-volume library of books to every posting. His favourite books, he has said, included Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, Barbara Tuchman’s March of Folly and Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of Great Powers.

“You develop by broadening your understanding of human nature, of the ascent of man and everything else so that you can reconcile war’s realities, grim as they are, atavistic and primitive, with human aspirations, without becoming a narrow-minded person,” Mattis said in an excerpt of a book published in Foreign Policy magazine in 2017.

But Mattis is increasingly isolated, as his former allies in the White House – the group which many considered to be the “grownups in the room” – have been pushed out one by one. Secretary of state Rex Tillerson was ignominiously fired while on the toilet by Trump, who made the announcement via Twitter in March. HR McMaster, another former general, was pushed out as Trump’s national security adviser just a few days later.

The national security adviser is one of the most important positions in an administration. He or she is tasked with triaging the advice and information provided to the executive branch by the security services and the military, and laying out the options for the president. Trump, whose understanding of international affairs is not as sophisticated as that of the average president, perhaps even the average adult, and who habitually does not read, requires even more hand-holding through every decision, making his national security adviser an even more influential position.

McMaster was seen as an ideological ally of Mattis. He wrote a book, Dereliction of Duty, which excoriated the Kennedy administration for a series of lies and missteps which led to the war in Vietnam. This was deeply ironic, considering he then accepted a job in this administration. It is no surprise that McMaster never saw eye-to-eye with Trump, but his replacement, John Bolton, a former ambassador to the United Nations under George W Bush, is an entirely different beast.

Not a military man himself, Bolton is one of the most vocal cheerleaders for war in the US foreign policy community. He has called for war with North Korea; he has called for the bombing of Iran. There is seemingly no problem that Bolton believes war cannot solve. He probably opens beer bottles with a battalion of mechanised infantry.

He was, and still remains, a vigorous defender of the 2003 Iraq War. As UN ambassador, he played a huge role in its promotion. Before that, as undersecretary of state responsible for arms control, Bolton had been deeply involved in suppressing dissent or evidence that might have undermined the Bush administration’s line on the imminent threat of weapons of mass destruction in the run-up to the invasion.

The intervening years have not mellowed John Bolton. After leaving the Bush administration he gravitated toward the conservative media sphere, becoming a fixture on Fox News. It is almost certainly there that he attracted the attention of the president, for whom the far-right cable TV network is his favourite and perhaps only news source. Former colleagues have called him a “bully” and a “madman”.

In an open letter published in 2005, during the congressional hearings which would eventually approve Bolton as UN ambassador, Melody Townsel, an aid worker, wrote an extremely disturbing account of an encounter with Bolton in 1994, who at the time was a lawyer representing the lead contractor of a US aid program in Kyrgyzstan.

After receiving her complaints about inefficiencies by the contractor, Townsel claimed: “Mr Bolton proceeded to chase me through the halls of a Russian hotel – throwing things at me, shoving threatening letters under my door and, generally, behaving like a madman”. She went on to allege that the harassment was so bad, she “eventually retreated to my hotel room and stayed there”. She added: “I cannot believe that this is a man being seriously considered for any diplomatic position, let alone such a critical posting to the UN.” 

The Republican-controlled Senate declined to confirm Bolton for the position, but Bush circumvented them with a “recess appointment” that August. At the time, a White House spokesman called the accusations unsubstantiated and unfounded.

During the Obama years, Bolton has drifted even further to the right, finding fellow-travelers in the right-wing media sphere. He wrote a foreword to The Post-American Presidency: The Obama Administration's War on America, a book co-written by Pamela Geller, a famously Islamophobic provocateur. In 2016 he spoke at a conference organised by the American Freedom Alliance, a hardcore anti-Islam group listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization which tracks extremism in the US.

His super PAC, a type of political action committee, was a client of Cambridge Analytica. It used the controversial data-mining firm to support the election campaigns of right-wing candidates like Arkansas Republican Tom Cotton. Among the donors to Bolton’s PAC was Robert Mercer, the billionaire hedge-fund backer of Steve Bannon and Breitbart.

Now, with tensions in Syria rising to boiling-point, Bolton has the ear of the president. More, he has the power to control the flow of information that reaches Trump, and nothing in his past has given any indication or even glimmer of hope that Bolton will not filter all the president’s information through his own ideological lens. With a president who can probably still not be relied upon to find Syria on an atlas, it falls largely to these two men, the warrior monk and the warmonger diplomat, to decide whether or not Trump will take America to war, and how.

Nicky Woolf is the editor of New Statesman America. He has formerly written for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.