Reports that John Bolton met with President Trump in the White House on Tuesday to discuss the possibility of him succeeding H.R. McMaster as national security adviser should send a chill down the spines of every American — and indeed of every person on the planet.
In a country with a less bellicose foreign policy establishment, Bolton would be considered a warmongering lunatic. But America’s foreign policy establishment inclines toward reflexive militarism (on the grounds that American bombs, troops, and special operations forces are invariably a force for good in the world), and so Bolton comes off as merely somewhat more unhinged than his peers. But that shouldn’t blind us to the enormous danger confronting us all if he were to ascend to such a powerful position in the Trump administration.
Bolton thinks that war — by which I mean everything from the launching of missiles to the deployment of ground forces to foreign theaters of battle — is the solution to every problem the United States confronts in the world. That is not an exaggeration. I challenge readers to find any statement Bolton has made against any American act of war at any time anywhere. And no, Bolton’s harsh words for the Obama administration’s plans for a limited air strike against Syria in retaliation for Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons in the country’s civil war doesn’t count, since the criticism amounted to the argument that the bombing would be too limited in scope.
The pattern goes all the way back to the Vietnam War, which Bolton supported as a young man (while personally avoiding deployment to Southeast Asia by joining the Maryland National Guard). Like most Republicans, he supported Ronald Reagan’s confrontational stance against the Soviet Union and George H.W. Bush’s Persian Gulf War to turn back Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. During the Clinton administration, he advocated military interventions in the Balkans and the use of force to topple Saddam Hussein. He strongly advocated for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and as recently as 2015 defended the latter as the “correct” decision, despite our failure to find the weapons of mass destruction that were Bolton’s primary reason for supporting the war in the first place.
Along the way, he also tried to assimilate Cuba into the “axis of evil” by accusing the country (on the basis of intelligence that was later debunked) of developing biological weapons and distributing them to Libya and Syria. He later advocated the targeted assassination of Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi and then backed the Obama administration’s military intervention there (which of course didn’t stop him from blasting the Libyan action after it had devolved into Iraq-like chaos as “too little, too late”). He thinks the U.S. should have invaded Syria and overthrown Assad shortly after the Iraq invasion of 2003, just as he’s made clear over and over again that he thinks it would be a splendid idea for the U.S to bomb Iran — and perhaps even a good thing for Israel to launch a preemptive nuclear strike against the country.
And then there’s North Korea, one of the biggest problems confronting the Trump administration and the world. It will surprise no one that Bolton favors a massive preemptive strike against the country — or that he waves away concerns about the potential for massive casualties and the possible negative consequences for America’s strategic interests throughout the region. We would simply ask for China’s help in bringing about a “controlled collapse of the North Korean regime.” Sure the costs could be enormous. But for Bolton, the costs of avoiding war would clearly be greater.
This is what defines Bolton’s foreign policy thinking: the conviction that war is always the best option.
Having a man who so consistently — one might almost say instinctually — favors military action serving as the national security adviser to the president would be dangerous in any White House. But in the Trump administration it could be catastrophic.
Trump is utterly ignorant of the world, 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 United States 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.
One of those wars (in Iraq) was launched by another president lacking foreign policy experience who deferred to the hawks in the room (Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld), who combined paranoia about threats with absurdly optimistic prognostications about the efficacy of using American bombs to shape the future course of the region. It ended up destabilizing much of the Middle East.
Eight years later another inexperienced president deferred to his hawkish advisers (Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice, Samantha Powers) in launching another war (in Libya) on the basis of an overly sanguine assessment of the likely consequences. It ended up destabilizing much of North Africa.
Both acts of destabilization have led to enormous refugee flows from those areas of the world to Europe, where they have helped to provoke a right-wing populist-nationalist reaction that is transforming politics in an anti-liberal direction across the European Union.
Are we really supposed to believe that the results of putting John Bolton in a senior advisory position from which he could persuade President Trump to launch wars against North Korea and Iran would have less disastrous consequences for the United States and the world? If the stakes weren’t so high, the suggestion might be considered a punchline.
The position of national security adviser isn’t confirmable by the Senate, so there may be nothing that Congress can do formally to stand in the way of Bolton’s appointment. But that doesn’t mean that Congress, or the public, should be silent. On the contrary, the president needs to hear in no uncertain terms from people he respects in his own party that Bolton is bad news.
The alternative could be the very worst news for the rest of us.