It’s awfully fitting that John Bolton has been named national security adviser just a few days after the 15th anniversary of the beginning of the war in Iraq. Bolton was one of the staunchest advocates for the war within the George W. Bush administration, and, as under secretary of state for Arms Control and International Security, one of the most prominent voices making the case that Saddam Hussein’s government possessed weapons of mass destruction. That someone with Bolton’s dangerous views and unimpressive record has been appointed to this critical position is not only a galling next turn in the increasingly frightening Trump years, but also the latest sign of a national failure to grapple with the legacy of the Bush years.
As the Iraqi novelist Sinan Antoon wrote in a widely-read New York Times op-ed this week, Americans have
Bolton has continued to publicly expound on international affairs, not just as a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and from his perch at Fox News, but in the pages of the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal. Often, despite the dismal results of preemptive war in Iraq, he has been invited by these outlets to make the case for a similar course of action in Iran and North Korea—policies he is now in a position to set in motion.
Bolton’s ascension to his new position comes as part of a larger reshuffling of Donald Trump’s national security team that includes Gina Haspel—who oversaw a black site in Thailand and advocated destroying video evidence of torture—being named as the president’s choice to run the CIA. When Haspel was named deputy director in February, the Times gently described it as a sign that “the agency is being led by officials who appear to take a far kinder view of one of its darker chapters than their immediate predecessors.”
In 2015, an Amnesty International report accused Barack Obama, who, once elected, was generally reluctant to “refight old arguments” about what had occurred under his predecessor, of effectively granting impunity to practitioners of torture. The report warned that this lack of legal consequences, or the kind of truth and reconciliation process used by other countries to address past human rights abuses, “not only leaves the USA in serious violation of its international legal obligations, it increases the risk that history will repeat itself when a different president again deems the circumstances warrant resort[ing] to torture, enforced disappearance, abductions or other human rights violations.” Today, 48 percent of Americans believe there are circumstances where the use of torture is justified.
As far as we know, techniques like waterboarding have not returned under Trump, despite his campaign pledges to bring them back. And while Trump announced during his state of the union that he would be keeping the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay open and has effectively halted detainee transfers out, no new inmates have been sent there. In both cases, this may have quite a bit to do with Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, who famously talked Trump out of the idea that torture works with a quip about beer and cigarettes. But at this rate, who would put money on Mattis remaining in his post indefinitely? And while recently passed legislation would make torture legally tricky to reinstate, it’s not as if these techniques were entirely legal before. If you can oversee torture and still be named director of the CIA one day, why would anyone fear the consequences, either legal or professional, of doing the same now?
In 2008, Americans elected a president who ran on a platform of opposing the Iraq war, Guantánamo, and the use of torture. In 2016, they elected one who distinguished himself from his Republican rivals by describing the Iraq war as a blunder and Bush’s foreign policy as catastrophic. And yet, this month’s appointments suggest we haven’t even begun to reckon with what happened during those years.