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Opinion Why I changed my mind about John Bolton

Democracy Post editor Christian Caryl says President Trump's new national security adviser is more capable than other officials. That's the problem. (Video: Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

In order to accommodate President Trump, the Republican Party has betrayed its principles on issues including Russia, immigration, free trade and fiscal austerity. Yet to listen to the president’s fans, the real hypocrites are Trump’s conservative critics.

Google enables a never-ending game of “Gotcha!” The Internet search engine makes it easy to find past writings that seemingly contradict more recent ones. Case in point: My Post column critiquing newly appointed national security adviser John Bolton for ideological extremism and poor managerial skills. Trump’s fans predictably dredged up a 2005 Los Angeles Times op-ed I had written supporting Bolton’s nomination for United Nations ambassador. Ben Boychuk, managing editor of the website American Greatness, tweeted: “Gee, I wonder what changed.” James Taranto, the Wall Street Journal op-ed editor, wrote: “I mean, c’mon dude.” With its trademark subtlety, the pro-Trump FrontPage magazine hyperventilated: “Max Boot’s slimy smear of Bolton shows his hypocrisy.”

So if one’s views change over the course of 13 years, that’s evidence of “hypocrisy”? I would say that a lack of change in one’s views over so many years is evidence of a terminally closed mind. I’m in sympathy with the quote commonly attributed to John Maynard Keynes: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”

Quite a few facts have changed since 2005. Back then, Bolton was being nominated for a post in which he was supposed to echo the president’s views. And that president — George W. Bush — was a traditional conservative who believed that the United States needs to promote free trade and freedom more broadly.

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Even then, I noted that “I don’t see eye to eye with Bolton on everything. His animus toward the International Criminal Court — which led him to antagonize valuable allies because of his insistence that they sign treaties pledging never to refer U.S. soldiers for prosecutions —  seems excessive to me. And he has never been known as a fan of nation-building or humanitarian interventions, which I believe are necessary in the post-9/11 world.” But, I concluded, “he seems like a good choice to help drain the U.N. cesspool of corrupt bureaucrats and self-serving tyrants.” Note to the flip-flop patrol: I still agree with Bolton that if the 38-story U.N. Secretariat building “lost 10 stories, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.”

But today Bolton isn’t being sent to Turtle Bay. He is going to the West Wing, where he will be one of the most important influences on a president who is so ignorant that he makes Bush seem like an international relations PhD by comparison — and whose protectionist, isolationist, authoritarian instincts are at odds with more than 70 years of U.S. foreign policy.

Like Bolton, I was a proponent of the Iraq War, but unlike him, I have concluded it was a bad idea. I wouldn’t go as far as my esteemed colleague George F. Will, who calls the Iraq War “worse than Vietnam” — the United States lost nearly 13 times more service personnel in Vietnam than in Iraq — but neither would I echo Bolton’s tone-deaf refrain that “I still think the decision to overthrow Saddam was correct.” As I wrote in 2013, “I would not have backed the invasion if I had known what we now know — that Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction.”

The failure of the Iraq intervention has soured me on preventative wars in general. Not so Bolton: He remains an advocate of bombing Iran and North Korea. Anyone who favors a “war of choice” against a nuclear-armed state belongs in a psychiatric ward, not the White House —  although, admittedly, the difference between the two may no longer be consequential. Bolton has also become notorious for bashing the European Union and Islam. He has been chairman since 2013 of the Gatestone Institute, an Islamophobic think tank that has propagated the myth that parts of Europe and North America are “no-go zones” for non-Muslims.

Bolton is not, as David French wrote in National Review, “squarely in the mainstream of conservative foreign-policy thought” — unless conservative foreign policy has been redefined to mean Trumpism. Nor is he, as countless reporters have written, a “neocon,” insofar as he is hostile to democracy promotion.

Bolton does not, to be sure, agree with Trump on everything. He is, for example, a hawk on Russia — but so is virtually every other foreign-policy expert, which makes Trump’s affection for Vladimir Putin all the more conspicuous. But in general, Bolton is far more in sync with Trump’s “America First” worldview than he is with the more idealistic and internationalist agenda of past GOP presidents. With his ideological zeal and bullying style, Bolton has alienated even many conservatives once inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Among those who have soured on him is George W. Bush. “I don’t consider Bolton credible,” Bush told a group of conservative writers, including me, in the Oval Office in 2008. If the president who sent him to the United Nations can change his view of Bolton, so can I.

Elected officials and others spoke on March 25 about John Bolton, who has been selected by President Trump to be the next national security adviser. (Video: Patrick Martin/The Washington Post)