Is the third time the charm? President Trump has already run through Mike Flynn, who enjoyed the shortest tenure in history of any national security adviser. Next came three-star General H.R. McMaster. Now John Bolton, the former George W. Bush ambassador to the United Nations who has been angling for the job ever since Trump won the 2016 election, has gotten the nod.
Bolton’s ascension is temporarily eclipsing other events such as the 700 point stock market plunge today thanks to the imposition of tariffs on China or the resignation of Trump’s lawyer John Dowd. No one personifies the hawkish wing of the GOP better than Bolton whose appointment is being greeted with hosannas by neocons such as Senator Marco Rubio. Diplomacy, in Bolton’s mind, is for wussbags. Just a month ago this hardest of the hardliners made the case in the Wall Street Journal for preventive war against North Korea. In September 2017, on Fox News Channel’s `Sunday Morning Futures,’ Bolton explained that the “only diplomatic option left is to end the North Korean regime by effectively having the South take it over.” He also wants to take out the mad mullahs in Tehran. It’s been a few years since the United States went to war, but perhaps it’s time to have another go at it. At a minimum, the Iran deal is dead when it comes to the United States, but what this would actually mean in practice is another question. The Europeans could continue to adhere to it, leaving Washington standing on the sidelines.
It certainly looks like Trump is assembling a war cabinet. The ouster of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and his replacement by CIA director Mike Pompeo, another Iran and North Korea hawk, suggests that the days of the adults in the room, as they are known, are long gone, to the extent that they ever had much sway.
The most benign case that can be made is that Trump, who was known to shy away from appointing Bolton because he feared the optics of his mustache, doesn’t really love the idea of going to war so much as the appearance of it. In this scenario, he would also value Bolton as an articulate defender of him and his foreign policy, something that the plodding Tillerson was unable to deliver and that Defense Secretary Mattis was unwilling to even really try.
But the more likely scenario is that Trump, who has embarked upon a massive military buildup, is intent on confronting North Korea and Iran. So much for the isolationist notes and opposition to the Iraq War that he sounded during the campaign. This is the conservative nationalism of the George W. Bush administration on steroids.