It’s time to push the panic button.
John Bolton’s appointment as national security adviser—a post that requires no Senate confirmation—puts the United States on a path to war. And it’s fair to say President Donald Trump wants us on that path.
After all, Trump gave Bolton the job after the two held several conversations (despite White House chief of staff John Kelly’s orders barring Bolton from the building). And there was this remark that Trump made after firing Rex Tillerson and nominating the more hawkish Mike Pompeo to take his place: “We’re getting very close to having the Cabinet and other things I want.”
Bolton has repeatedly called for launching a first strike on North Korea, scuttling the nuclear arms deal with Iran, and then bombing that country too. He says and writes these things not as part of some clever “madman theory” to bring Kim Jong-un and the mullahs of Tehran to the bargaining table, but rather because he simply wants to destroy them and America’s other enemies too.
His agenda is not “peace through strength,” the motto of more conventional Republican hawks that Trump included in a tweet on Wednesday, but rather regime change through war. He is a neocon without the moral fervor of some who wear that label—i.e., he is keen to topple oppressive regimes not in order to spread democracy but rather to expand American power.
In the early days of the George W. Bush administration, Vice President Dick Cheney finagled Bolton a job as undersecretary of state for arms control—an inside joke, since Bolton has never read an arms-control treaty that he liked. But his real assignment was to serve as Cheney’s spy in Foggy Bottom, monitoring and, when possible, obstructing any attempts at peaceful diplomacy mounted by Secretary of State Colin Powell.
When Powell got the boot, Cheney wanted to make Bolton deputy secretary of state, replacing Richard Armitage, who resigned along with his best friend Powell. But Powell’s replacement, Condoleezza Rice, who had been Bush’s national security adviser, blocked the move, fully aware of Bolton’s obstructionist ideology.
As a compromise, Bush nominated Bolton to be United Nations ambassador, but that move proved unbearable to even the Republican-controlled Senate at the time. It was one thing to be critical of the U.N.—it’s a body deserving of criticism—but Bolton opposed its very existence. “There is no such thing as the United Nations,” he once said in a speech, adding, “If the U.N. Secretariat building in New York lost 10 stories, it wouldn’t make a lot of difference.”
More than that, he was hostile to the idea of international law, having once declared, “It is a big mistake for us to grant any validity to international law even when it may seem in our short-term interest to do so—because over the long term, the goal of those who think that international law really means anything are those who want to constrain the United States.”
These might be quaint notions for some eccentric midlevel aide to espouse, but the United Nations is founded on international law, Security Council resolutions are drafted to enforce international law, and—as even Bush was beginning to realize by the start of his second term, around the time of Bolton’s nomination—some of those resolutions were proving useful for expressing, and sometimes enforcing, U.S. national security interests. How could someone with these views serve as the U.S. ambassador to the U.N.?
In his confirmation hearings before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bolton put on a dreadful show, grumbling and scowling through his walrus mustache. Finally, in a tie vote, the committee sent Bolton’s nomination to the full Senate “without recommendation.” Properly fearing that this foretold a rejection on the floor, Bush gave Bolton the job as a “recess appointment” after Congress went on holiday. But the law allowing this evasion gave the Senate a chance to take a vote 18 months later. In the second round of hearings, Bolton behaved even more obnoxiously than in the first. When one Republican senator asked him whether his year and a half in the U.N. had altered his ideas about the place, Bolton, rather than seizing the chance to mollify skeptics, replied, “Not really.” The head counters in the White House withdrew the nomination, and Bolton headed back to neocon central at the American Enterprise Institute.
During Trump’s presidential transition, Bolton made the short list of candidates for deputy secretary of state, but Tillerson—who would soon get the nod for secretary—expressed misgivings about working with the guy. (Trump might have recalled that conversation earlier this month, when he decided to fire Tillerson.) After Michael Flynn flamed out as national security adviser, Bolton was also on the short list to replace him. Gen. H.R. McMaster got the nod, but Trump publicly said he liked Bolton and that he too would soon be working for the White House “in some capacity.”
And now, here he is.
In his one year and one month on the job, McMaster, who is still an active-duty Army three-star general, proved a deep disappointment to his friends and erstwhile admirers. He’d made his reputation 20 years ago, as the author of a dissertation-turned-book, Dereliction of Duty, which lambasted the top generals of the Vietnam era for failing to give their honest military advice to President Lyndon Johnson. And now, in his only tour as a policy adviser in Washington, McMaster has wrecked that reputation, committing his own derelictions by pandering to Trump’s proclivities and tolerating his falsehoods.
But at least McMaster assembled—and often listened to—a professional staff at the National Security Council and insisted on ousting amateur ideologues, several of them acolytes of Flynn.
Bolton is not likely to put up with a professional staff, and the flood of White House exiles will soon intensify. One subject of discussion at Bolton’s Senate hearings, back in 2005, was his intolerance of any views that differed from his own. He displayed this trait most harshly when, as undersecretary of state, he tried to fire two intelligence analysts who challenged his (erroneous) view that Cuba was developing biological weapons and supplying the weapons to rogue regimes.
Nor is Bolton at all suited to perform one of a national security adviser’s main responsibilities—assembling the Cabinet secretaries to debate various options in foreign and military policy, mediating their differences, and either hammering out a compromise or presenting the choices to the president.
Then again, there may now no longer be many differences to mediate in this administration. The last of the grown-ups is Secretary of Defense James Mattis, the retired Marine four-star general, who got that job mainly because Trump had heard his nickname was “mad dog.” He didn’t know that Mattis regularly consulted a personal library of some 7,000 volumes on history and strategy, that (like most generals) he’s not too keen to go to war unless he really has to, and that (also like most generals) he takes the Geneva Conventions seriously and opposes torture.
In recent weeks, Trump was said to be tiring of aides who kept telling him no. He might soon tire of Bolton, who, whatever else he is, can’t be pegged as a yes man. But in the short term, Bolton may be just the man to excite Trump’s darker instincts, to actualize the frustrated he-man who raged about pelting Kim Jong-un with “fire and fury like the world has never seen” or fomenting “the total collapse of the Iranian regime,” which he somehow believes was about to happen, if only Obama hadn’t signed the nuclear deal and lifted sanctions.
With Tillerson out, Bolton in, and Pompeo waiting in the wings for confirmation, Trump is feeling his oats, coming into his own, like Trump is free to be Trump. Finding out just who that is may make the rest of us duck and cover.