Last year, National Review published an article by John Bolton, the perennial war hawk who last served in government during the George W. Bush administration, fittingly titled “How to Get Out of the Iran Nuclear Deal.” At the beginning of this year, The National Interest favorably reported on the idea that President Trump may replace his national security advisor, H.R. McMaster, with Bolton. Earlier this week, amid rumors that McMaster will soon resign, CNN reported on an Oval Office meeting between Trump and Bolton.
The problem isn’t just that Bolton is singularly ill-suited for the role—he also represents a set of views diametrically opposed to the policies that helped the president secure his job. Trump won the GOP primaries and the White House in part by taking the position that the Iraq War was a dumb waste of American lives and resources.
Here’s what he told voters:
We’ve spent $4 trillion trying to topple various people that, frankly, if they were there and if we could have spent that $4 trillion in the United States to fix our roads, our bridges, and all of the other problems—our airports and all the other problems we have—we would have been a lot better off, I can tell you that right now. We have done a tremendous disservice not only to the Middle East—we’ve done a tremendous disservice to humanity. The people that have been killed, the people that have been wiped away—and for what?
It’s not like we had victory.
It’s a mess. The Middle East is totally destabilized, a total and complete mess. I wish we had the $4 trillion or $5 trillion. I wish it were spent right here in the United States on schools, hospitals, roads, airports, and everything else that are all falling apart!
Around the same time, John Bolton was telling David Drucker of The Washington Examiner, “I still think the decision to overthrow Saddam was correct. I think decisions made after that decision were wrong, although I think the worst decision made after that was the 2011 decision to withdraw U.S. and coalition forces. The people who say, ‘Oh, things would have been much better if you didn’t overthrow Saddam,’ miss the point that today’s Middle East does not flow totally and unchangeably from the decision to overthrow Saddam alone.”
Across the West, some are losing faith in liberal democracy because they feel that it doesn’t matter who they elect, or what position those candidates campaigned on—an unaccountable elite just keeps perpetuating its preferred policies.
President Obama contributed to that problem when he got elected largely on the proposition that Hillary Clinton and John McCain had supported a dumb war in Iraq, then staffed his foreign-policy team with hawks who supported that same war. His team’s ill-fated intervention in Libya showed that the staffing mattered.
Trump hiring Bolton would fuel this same loss of faith in democratic politics, even as it poses similar substantive risks: Bolton is another hawk who shows no evidence of having learned from past mistakes; and he’d be put in a position to urge many new wars—he has favored many more wars in his lifetime than America has fought, including all the most ill-considered wars that it has actually fought.
What’s more, the risks that a hawk prone to supporting ill-considered wars would pose to any administration are likely to be magnified under the erratic, bellicose Trump, especially if he seeks to compensate for his fragile ego or insecure masculinity, or simply decides he wants to be an even greater object of attention.
Even setting psychology aside, the elevated risks remain.
After all, Obama’s cautious instincts made him much less interventionist than (to cite just two examples) his Iraq-War supporting secretaries of state, whereas Trump, in spite of his anti-interventionist, “America First” campaign rhetoric, has his own long history of hawkishness, even recording a video in 2011 urging the U.S. to go into Libya and overthrow the regime there. Plus, Trump is arguably less prepared to prosecute a war than any of his predecessors in living memory (for reasons noted at length in this case against more U.S. warring in Syria), making it especially fraught for him to have an extreme hawk as an adviser.
As Damon Linker, who shares all of these concerns, points out, Trump is “prone to making impulsive decisions” and “tends to defer to the most forceful voice in the room, especially when it conveys information with confident bluster. That would give Bolton enormous power to shape policy—which means the power to get the U.S. to launch big new wars as well as expand the numerous ones we're already waging across wide swaths of the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia.”
Bolton is also unusually brash and undiplomatic in his rhetoric. The White House needs a counterbalance to those qualities, not another rhetorical bomb thrower. And just as Obama’s appointments carried an opportunity cost, robbing Democrats of a bigger bench of noninterventionists going forward, so too will the Trump administration deprive the GOP of folks who share the noninterventionist ideas that clearly appeal to a large swath of its primary electorate.
All things considered, Bolton seems uniquely ill-suited to the job. Do noninterventionist Trump supporters care enough to speak up against him? As yet, Tucker Carlson’s smug trolling is the most vocal opposition on offer; and because Carlson has already deployed his one skeptical facial expression and undifferentiated contempt in ostensible takedowns of everyone from a Teen Vogue editor to America’s Roma community, even regular viewers have been trained to regard his words as mere mercenary theater. Bolton’s possible rise thus lays bare this problem: The populist right is without any means to stop recklessness, leaving Bolton skeptics to hope superficial Trump still doesn’t like his mustache. Wouldn’t it be something if in the end that spared us from a catastrophic war?