by William D. Hartung
The appointment of uber-hawk John Bolton as Donald Trump’s national security advisor has understandably sparked concerns among groups on the center-left who rightly fear that it raises the prospects for war against Iran, North Korea, or some enemy yet to be imagined. But the more interesting question is how Bolton’s ascendancy will be viewed on the right.
Donald Trump presented himself as a critic of the Iraq War during his campaign for president, declaring the U.S. intervention a “disaster” and suggesting that the trillions wasted on America’s Mideast wars could have been used to rebuild America. Whether Trump truly believed this or was cynically speaking out against the war to use it as a political weapon against Jeb Bush in the primaries and Hillary Clinton in the general election matters little. Trump’s stance indicated that there was a significant swath of his base that was both war-weary and anti-interventionist, whether from “isolationism” or a prudent assessment of the disastrous results of the U.S. interventions of this century is hard to gauge. Nevertheless, the anti-Iraq position of at least some portion of the Trump base is a political fact worth considering in figuring out how to respond to Trump’s choice of Bolton.
Trump’s stance on Iraq, along with his harsh rhetoric about NATO and other U.S. alliances, prompted alarm among interventionist neoconservatives and Iraq War proponents like Bill Kristol, Robert Kagan, and Eliot Cohen, among others. This gave rise to a letter by neocons and other conservatives asserting that Trump was “fundamentally dishonest” and not fit to be commander-in-chief. The letter was one part of a broader “never Trump” movement, a network of conservative foreign policy analysts who basically argued for anyone but Trump for president and implied that they would refuse to work in a Trump administration. Bill Kristol even headed up a short-lived effort to gin up an independent candidate to run against Trump. And Robert Kagan and a number of other prominent neoconservatives went so far as to come out in favor of Hillary Clinton (gasp!).
To their credit, figures like Robert Kagan, Eliot Cohen, and The Washington Post’s “Right Turn” columnist, Jennifer Rubin, have stood their ground as reliable, persistent, and biting critics of Trump and his administration. I, along with many progressives, felt a sense of cognitive dissonance, shaking our heads at the thought that we could have real points of agreement with pundits and analysts who had supported America’s disastrous misadventure in Iraq. I’m still opposed to many of the foreign policy positions espoused by this group, as well as by Max Boot, who has also found his voice as a trenchant Trump critic. But I share their fears of the threat to the Republic posed by Trump’s incompetence and recklessness, not to mention his disdain for basic democratic norms. Kagan went so far as to write a column about Trump’s campaign entitled “This is How Fascism Comes to America.”
Although some Republican hawks and erstwhile neoconservatives have maintained their distance from Trump, others, Bolton first among them, have shed their past misgivings in hopes of gaining power and influence in the first Republican administration since that of George W. Bush. Bolton is particularly hungry for power after being forced to step down as George W. Bush’s nominee for U.N ambassador as the result of an effective, broad-based campaign that used his hawkish views and intemperate style as weapons against him in the fight over his confirmation.
Not only is there a split among neocons over the wisdom and morality of serving in a Trump administration, but there is a split in the larger conservative community over the appointment of Bolton. From libertarians and mainstream conservatives to prominent Fox News commentators, the selection of Bolton is a bridge too far that could cause Trump untold troubles with his base. To cite just one example, the conservative Daily Caller quickly posted an article entitled “Trump Said the Iraq War Was a ‘Disaster.’ His New National Security Advisor Was Its Biggest Cheerleader.” Tucker Carlson took the occasion of a recent interview with Bolton to mock his unreconstructed view of the alleged benefits of the Iraq War.
Add to that the fact that Bolton is a loose cannon who is likely to grab media attention that might otherwise go to his new boss, and there’s a real possibility that Bolton’s tenure could be short—perhaps not as short as Anthony Scaramucci’s, but still a person can dream. Cutting the Bolton era short won’t happen of its own accord, however. A broad right-left coalition of the type that denied Bolton the U.N. ambassadorship is mobilizing to discredit, delegitimize, and ultimately, make Bolton such an embarrassment that Donald Trump will decide he’s more of a liability than an asset and decide to dump his third national security advisor in his first year and a half in office. Trump needs to hear from his supporters as well as the loyal opposition what a truly disastrous decision he has made.
Of course, it’s not just about John Bolton. It’s about Donald Trump. The ultimate goal of any campaign to sideline Bolton should be to hold Trump accountable to the anti-interventionist pledges that he made on the campaign trail and rein in his more reckless foreign-policy impulses. That’s no mean feat, but it’s a fight that can’t and shouldn’t be avoided.
Photo: Tucker Carlson (Gage Skidmore via Flickr).