With the appointment of John Bolton as national security adviser, President Trump has put the finishing touches on his war Cabinet, with bellicose Mike Pompeo heading the State Department and Gina Haspel, who ran a torture site under President George W. Bush, heading the CIA. With Bolton’s appointment, Trump has broken another campaign promise — and it is surely his most dangerous betrayal yet. The candidate who promised to get us out of stupid wars is now loading up for war. With Congress having surrendered its national security responsibilities, the United States, already mired in endless wars across the broad Middle East, seems on the verge of even greater military catastrophe.
Bolton, who will be the last one in the room to whisper in Trump’s ear and the first one in the morning (along with “Fox & Friends”) to frame the news, proudly made his name as a warmonger, never seeing a war that he wouldn’t promote (nor one that he would fight in). Under Bush, he cooked intelligence to fit the case for the Iraq War. He still defends what was the greatest foreign policy debacle since Vietnam. He has advocated “preventive war” — a euphemism for an illegal war of aggression — against both Iran and North Korea. He has also urged ramping up the pressure on Russia in Ukraine and China in the South China Sea. He believes U.S. military might entitles the United States to dictate terms in every corner of the world.
By all accounts, Bolton is smart, tenacious and relentless in peddling his fanatical views. Senate Republicans derailed his nomination under Bush to serve as U.N. ambassador when a former assistant secretary of state in the Bush administration described him as a “kiss-up, kick-down sort of guy” and a “serial abuser” of people under him in the chain of command.
Bolton wants to tear up the Iran deal, despite the fact that this historic, multilateral deal is working, and is strongly supported by U.S. allies, to be followed by an Israeli or U.S. attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. He has consistently dismissed negotiations with North Korea as a waste of time. He already has outlined how Trump’s meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un can serve as “diplomatic shock and awe” to set the stage for attacking that country.
It’s a far cry from the foreign policy Trump claimed to support during the campaign. He claimed — dishonestly — that he opposed the Iraq invasion from the beginning. He scorned “nonsense” wars without victory. He charged that “the people opposing us are the same people — and think of this — who’ve wasted $6 trillion on wars in the Middle East — we could have rebuilt our country twice — that have produced only more terrorism, more death and more suffering. Imagine if that money had been spent at home.”
Upon taking office, he abandoned these populist postures. Trump sent more troops to both Afghanistan, sustaining the United States’ longest war into its 17th year, and Syria, with the Pentagon announcing that they would stay even after the Islamic State was defeated. He doubled down on U.S. support in Saudi Arabia’s criminal assault on Yemen, while increasing the pace of drone bombings.
And now he has brought the most extreme and unreconstructed of hawks into the White House. New and more dangerous wars of aggression seem virtually inescapable. Bolton, supported by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Pompeo, will presumably push to tear up the Iran deal in May. An attack by Israel or the United States on Iran’s nuclear facilities will be the likely result, as Bolton has urged in writing. Bolton, supported by Pompeo, likely will use unrealistic demands to blow up the North Korea talks. If Bolton succeeds, he’ll push for far more than a “bloody nose” attack on Kim’s regime.
What will stand in the way of catastrophic interventions that will further drain this country, establish it as an outlaw nation, and shatter alliances and goodwill? Perhaps Mattis, the last remaining “adult in the room,” will balk at adding to the burdens on the military. Perhaps Trump is merely bluffing, enacting the “madman theory” of the presidency to scare allies and adversaries into cutting a deal. Perhaps Trump will change his mind once more. There is much riding on these slim reeds.
As national security adviser, Bolton doesn’t need Senate confirmation. A responsible Senate would use the hearings on the Pompeo and Haspel nominations to expose their extreme histories and views, and to alert the public to the true threat posed by a war Cabinet anchored by Bolton. Neither Democrats nor Republicans, however, did the agonizing reappraisal so necessary after the Iraq debacle. None of the architects of the endless wars in the Middle East have been discredited or held accountable. Neither party has challenged the ruinous ongoing wars without victory. The war zealots such as Bolton and the torture defenders such as Haspel should long ago have been discredited, if not prosecuted.
Instead, as Stephen Walt has written, we have a political system that allows one with Bolton’s views to serve in high office, “where he helps talk the country into a disastrous war, never expresses a moment’s regret for his errors, continues to advocate for more of the same for the next decade, and then gets a second chance to make the same mistakes again.” With this appointment and the consolidation of the war Cabinet, Trump’s presidency has taken a foreboding turn — from madcap farce and unending melodrama toward grim tragedy.
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