Whereas the George H.W. Bush administration had insisted on setting clear, well-defined objectives for its presence in the war-ravaged country, the Clinton White House, in its zeal to strengthen the role of the UN, and to pioneer a new “assertive multilateralism,” had blundered its way into disaster: “The real lesson of the American experience in attempting to relieve the famine in Somalia,” according to Bolton, “is that any administration must play out the long-range consequences even of humanitarian decisions because of the complex political and military consequences inevitably entailed.” The irony won’t be lost on those who point to Bolton’s later role in making the case for the invasion of Iraq. Yet, there, too he has emphasized the importance of policy coherence, and its utter absence during the period stretching from the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s government to the 2007-8 “surge strategy.”
In 2010, still licking his wounds after having served in the George W. Bush administration, Bolton reviewed Hard Line, Colin Dueck’s analysis of the evolution of Republican foreign-policy doctrine, for National Review. And his review is revealing. Bolton accepts Dueck’s premise that GOP presidents since Eisenhower have been committed to “a consistent, hard-line American nationalism,” and that their goal has been “to preserve their country’s freedom of action in world affairs, and have tried to avoid what they view as excessive accommodation toward hostile or threatening nations.”
Yet Bolton takes strong exception to Dueck’s claim that the chief dividing line among Republicans has been the one separating anti-interventionists from hawks, on the grounds that anti-interventionism and hawkishness are less guiding ideologies—for that, look to nationalism—than tactical alternatives, the wisdom or foolishness of which will depend on contingent circumstances. It’s at this point that he offers his interpretation of the Iraq debacle: Essentially, he argues that the problem wasn’t the decision to intervene, which was rightly aimed at eliminating a serious threat to U.S. interests, but rather “a failure of presidential leadership in operational matters.”
One could object that this is a cop-out: The fact that the aftermath of the Iraq invasion saw failures of presidential leadership is beyond dispute. The more challenging question, for Bolton and for all of us who support a more assertive U.S. foreign policy, is whether such failures were intrinsic to such a vast undertaking, in a country senior officials didn’t understand terribly well. It is this confidence that ambitious interventions can be carried out successfully, provided the right leadership is in place, that accounts for misgivings that Bolton may greatly overestimate the utility of military power.
There is another side to Bolton, though, which offers cause for cautious optimism. Consider his success in crafting the Proliferation Security Initiative, a multinational coalition of the willing to halt the unlawful transport of fissile materials and other potential weapons of mass destruction that has achieved considerable success, and that seems to belie his reputation as a scourge of international cooperation. Did this represent a departure from Bolton’s nationalism? Not at all. In his review of Hard Line, Bolton makes it clear that PSI was rather a manifestation of a prudent, pragmatic nationalism.