John Bolton is out. It was a long time coming — Trump resisted hiring him in the first place, passing him over in favor of a military man, H.R. McMaster, at first. Bolton is a near-synonym for war and regime change, a hawk’s hawk. That was an obviously awkward fit for a president who got elected by campaigning against America’s Mideast wars.
But just because John Bolton is gone doesn’t mean Boltonism is. Secretary of state Mike Pompeo is hardly less hawkish, just less principled. And Pompeo is the worse for mixing human rights-moralizing with his bellicosity: he represents an opportunistic confluence of humanitarian hawkishness and neoconservatism. It’s the optimal formula for being taken seriously by the Republican establishment and the nation’s left-of-center media alike. Trump was never more beloved by network news and CNN producers than when he was bombing Syria, after all.
Trump has disappointed the more optimistic doves among his supporters, but ending today’s wars, like fighting them in the first place, is a long game. Trump has made bold peace overtures from Pyongyang to Kabul, and if they have yet to bring the troops home from Afghanistan or prompt Kim Jong-un to curtail his missile tests — denuclearization is an unrealistic objective — they are nonetheless efforts in the direction of ending conflict, rather than starting new ones. John Bolton couldn’t have been happy with that. Trump has even seemed open to new negotiations with Iran, when Bolton would like the endgame for greater pressure on the regime in Tehran to be a quick, easy war to finish the regime for good. Only as everyone now knows, the quick and easy wars turn out to require endless occupations and police actions, with the prospect of chaos or a return to Islamism awaiting if America ever goes home. That’s the case in Afghanistan and Iraq, and war in Iran would have faint hopes of producing better. Only internal change brought about by Iranians themselves will suffice.
(And even the example of the Soviet Union’s collapse is a cautionary tale about happy democratic endings — Bolton is after all a Russia hawk as well as a Mideast one. The fall of the Soviets didn’t take down their ‘intelligence community,’ to use today’s Western euphemism, and totalitarianism’s remnants along with liberalism’s incompetence cleared the way for Putin, a man hyped by our own foreign-policy establishment as a greater menace than Gorbachev’s USSR.)
Trump is a 1989-1991 moment of our own. He had to get rid of an old regime element like Bolton, who never should have been brought into the administration in the first place. But getting rid of Bolton is only the first step of ridding the country of Boltonism and its deadly folly.