The Worst of Times for Hawkish Designs

If Never Trump conservatives believe their own assessments of the commander in chief, they should favor avoiding war during his tenure.

Joshua Roberts / Reuters

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.

Admittedly, there are even worse fates than risking war under an unfit, untrustworthy, morally depraved, erratic commander in chief—say, having California overrun by a foreign despot, or seeing Japan, South Korea, or Israel obliterated.

Otherwise, as hard as it may be for conservatives who value American leadership to see it, Trump’s unfitness should make hawks into doves at least until he is impeached or voted out. They should oppose any conflict, like the Iraq invasion that John Bolton championed in the aughts, that is coherently understood as a war of choice.

That conclusion would seem to follow from National Review’s anti-Trump editorial:

Sometimes he wants to let Russia fight ISIS, and at others he wants to “bomb the sh**” out of it. He is fixated on stealing Iraq’s oil and casually suggested a few weeks ago a war crime—killing terrorists’ families—as a tactic in the war on terror. For someone who wants to project strength, he has an astonishing weakness for flattery, falling for Vladimir Putin after a few coquettish bats of the eyelashes from the Russian thug. All in all, Trump knows approximately as much about national security as he does about the nuclear triad—which is to say, almost nothing.

Surely the country should avoid war if at all possible while governed by a man fixated on stealing oil from abroad, given to breezily advocating murderous war crimes, easily manipulated by a geopolitical rival who’d love to use any war to weaken America, and utterly ignorant about even the basics of national-security policy.

And it would seem to follow from French’s own assessment:

Donald Trump fundamentally misunderstands the American military. He sees it as an instrument of savage brutality, restrained only by political correctness. There is no honor. There is no law. If only the military were free to torture, murder, and blaspheme, then America would win its wars. By believing that American soldiers would follow those orders—or would want to follow those orders—he slanders the character of the American military.

For months, he has promised that he would order the military to commit war crimes, torturing militants and targeting their families for execution. He was just as emphatic in promising that those orders would be followed.

He was wrong. There is no scenario under which the military would ever follow directives so offensive to its honor and so blatantly illegal. No man I served with in Iraq would comply with an order to intentionally kill an innocent woman or child, and no officer with a shred of decency or honor would give such an order. The Pentagon has many flaws, but truly bad soldiers are few and far between, and the military is institutionally hard-wired to resist exactly this kind of corruption. Trump would instantly sever the relationship between America’s armed forces and their commander-in-chief just by asking them to do such things.

If French believed all that—as I know he did—he should oppose risking the state of war that would enable Trump to order war crimes, torture, and murder. Even if he is correct that the military would not go along, the best-case scenario, severing the military’s relationship with its civilian leader in wartime, would be hugely worrisome in its own right.

It will not do to suppose that Trump’s advisers will lead him to firmer ground.

As we all know, the president does not reliably listen to his advisers, he sometimes acts to spite them, and anyone can be terminated as fast as Trump can tweet. What’s more, Trump reliably alienates American allies, lacks steadfastness in his priorities, and cannot even be trusted to refrain from blurting out classified information. It is hard to imagine a man less suited to leading a successful war.

Yet where has any hawk shown any understanding of these factors?

They all amount to an airtight case for the exact opposite conclusion that David French reached: The Trump administration is the worst possible time to give a hawk a chance, and Congress ought to act as soon as possible to tie Bolton’s hands.