On Tuesday night, former US diplomat John Bolton provided what will likely go down as one of the more damning examples of saying the quiet part out loud.
Appearing on Jake Tapper’s prime-time CNN show to discuss the January 6 commission, the bland seventy-three-year-old, whose only distinguishing feature is his bushy white mustache and unbending commitment to US militarism, downplayed the threat that former president Donald Trump posed to US democracy. Trump is, “to use a Star Wars metaphor, a disturbance in the force,” Bolton said. His attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 election were “not an attack on our democracy. It’s Donald Trump looking out for Donald Trump. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence.”
Bolton criticized Trump’s actions, but suggested that their shambolic nature ensured the would-be coup had no plausible chance of succeeding. Tapper pushed back, noting that coordination and intelligence are not prerequisites to a successful putsch. Then came Bolton’s astounding retort: “I disagree with that. As somebody who has helped plan coups d’état — not here, but, you know, other places — it takes a lot of work. And that’s not what he did. It was just stumbling around from one idea to another.”
Jake Tapper: "One doesn’t have to be brilliant to attempt a coup."
John Bolton: "I disagree with that. As somebody who has helped plan coup d’etat, not here, but other places, it takes a lot of work." pic.twitter.com/REyqh3KtHi
— Justin Baragona (@justinbaragona) July 12, 2022
Bolton is right about one thing: coups are not trivial affairs. They almost always require buy-in from many different social sectors, including the press, the business class, and enough of the armed forces to repel serious contestation. At no point in his administration — including on January 6 — did Trump have these uniformly at his back, even if his autocratic actions were an incredibly dangerous assault on electoral democracy.
But put that aside. Bolton’s imperial hubris is galling: discussing with serious concern the relative perils facing US democracy while acknowledging in passing the US role in subverting democracy elsewhere. It’s as if the only sacrosanct institutions in the world were those created and maintained by the United States. The practice of undermining elections through force is a crisis worthy of serious alarm when it happens in the United States, but when it happens abroad with the encouragement or active planning of the United States it is simply “foreign policy.” Fear not, he implies — we would never presume that the same heavy-handed tactics used to topple a democratically elected president in, say, Chile would be used stateside. Everywhere else? Have at it.
We should never read too much into any one statement by a single government official. But Bolton’s throwaway line adds to the overwhelming evidence that US foreign policy has repeatedly subverted democracy and self-determination. The political scientist Lindsey O’Rourke has found that during the Cold War, “the United States supported authoritarian forces in forty-four out of sixty-four covert regime changes, including at least six operations that sought to replace liberal democratic governments with illiberal authoritarian regimes.” On top of that, “countries that were targeted by the United States for a covert regime change during the Cold War were more likely to experience a civil war or an episode of mass killing afterward.” At its heart, the US exceptionalism epitomized by Beltway apparatchiks like Bolton holds that only the United States should be immune from the kind of threat posed by authoritarians like Trump.
So when did Bolton play coup monger? Presumably under Trump, when he was serving as national security adviser and attempts to oust Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro were at a fever pitch. But who knows — when you’re the world’s “essential nation,” when you insist that the best way to order the world is to have a pecking order with the United States at the top, any year can be a good year for a coup.
Before serving as Trump’s national security advisor from 2018 to 2019, Bolton was George W. Bush’s UN ambassador from 2005 to 2006. During that time, as Peter Baker put it, Bolton was “a hawk among hawks,” someone with a “blunt, hard-edge, confrontational approach to the world.” Bolton has spent his entire professional life as a fierce partisan of the Republican Party and US empire — which is not to say the latter is the exclusive province of US conservatives. US empire is a thoroughly bipartisan affair, encompassing everyone from “liberal humanitarians” like Samantha Power to hardened “realists” like Henry Kissinger to “neocon” hawks like Bolton.
Plenty of Democratic presidents have signed off on the kinds of coups Bolton seemed positively giddy about having helped plan. It was John F. Kennedy who began chipping away at Brazil’s democratic order in the early 1960s, and his successor, Lyndon Johnson, who deployed US military assets to aid in the 1964 overthrow of João Goulart, Brazil’s reformist president. More recently, Barack Obama’s State Department signed off on the permanent ouster of Honduran president Manuel Zelaya in 2009, a policy Mark Engler described at the time as “a victory for State Department hacks and old foreign policy hands from the Clinton administrations of the 1990s.”
Across the twentieth century, successive US administrations have treated interference in the affairs of foreign governments as a matter of course. Bolton’s coup-plotting humblebrag could quite literally have come from the mouth of any national security advisor since the National Security Council was created in 1947.
As for Bolton, scholars will continue to argue over whether Bush-era figures like him really believed in the professed idealism of early 2000s neoconservatism or whether it was a ploy to mask the aggressive posture deployed much more openly under Trump. The same questions can be raised regarding Bolton’s current views: Does he really care about the integrity of US democracy, or is he just seizing a chance to needle Trump for firing and publicly humiliating him? In a way, it’s immaterial.
Writing about the 1954 US-backed coup in Guatemala, journalist Vincent Bevins asserts that “the motivation didn’t matter much to the millions of people reading the events back in Asia, nor to the Latin Americans watching up close. Whatever their reasons, the United States established a reputation as a frequent and violent intruder into the affairs of independent nations.”
The fact is, Bolton and his coup-making brethren — Republicans and Democrat alike — should be banished from public life. Their deeds tell us all we need to know about their commitment to democracy. Let us hear instead from those working to strengthen democracy everywhere.