Last week, President Trump’s announcement that he would appoint John Bolton as his national-security adviser inspired a lot of concern rooted in his unusually frequent support for new wars—and a defense from David French at National Review, who believes that “the foreign-policy Left still hasn’t learned the lessons of the recent past.” French pushed back against the antiwar view that ongoing engagement with North Korea and preserving the Iran deal are obviously the best, safest courses for the United States:
The “clearly safer” argument always has a short-term advantage. When choosing between less risk of war and greater risk of war, there is a proper default preference for less risk and a presumption in favor of making immediate moves toward peace. When dealing with jihadist regimes like Iran’s or evil regimes like North Korea’s, however, the problem is that every single path is perilous.
Miscalculate in favor of war, and you risk an unnecessary bloodbath—one that America would win, but at immense cost in blood and treasure. Miscalculate in favor of peace, and you risk—God forbid—American cities in flames, a genocidal nuclear exchange in the Middle East, or (perhaps most likely) future military confrontations with aggressive and hostile foreign powers that we can’t truly win because of their own nuclear shield.
As a general matter, the postwar years suggest that the U.S. is more prone to miscalculate in favor of costly war than the opposite; and in the particular cases of Iran and North Korea, any war could be catastrophically costly. But rather than adjudicate those arguments here I want to offer a different rebuttal.
French regards himself as staking out a sensible middle ground:
I’m not arguing for a strike against North Korea. As I’ve written repeatedly, war with North Korea would risk loss of life on a staggering scale. And even if future developments force Bolton to urge a strike—and the president agrees—it’s imperative that the administration seek the approval of Congress before launching any new military action. It is, however, simply wrong to believe that engagement and appeasement don’t carry their own profound risks. A nuclear-armed Iran is far more dangerous than John Bolton. A North Korea capable of incinerating American cities is far more dangerous than John Bolton. The question is how we prevent those truly “horrifying” risks. The foreign-policy debate is frequently between hawks and doves, and in the last administration, the doves repeatedly failed. It’s time to give a hawk a chance.
But his analysis suffers from a failure to squarely face the alarming situation in which the U.S. finds itself: The country is too polarized to prudently enter a war that would stoke extreme discord at home; and even if it were adequately united, it is led by a commander in chief who cannot be trusted to prosecute a war. It is folly to keep talking about the prospect of war as if we are led by a typical president, with success as likely as it would have been under, say, President George H.W. Bush.