The other shoe dropped. On the heels of his cowardly fire-by-tweet dismissal of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Donald Trump has dismissed National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and replaced him with hardline former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton. Uber-hawk Mike Pompeo is headed from the CIA to State, and Gina Haspel, a CIA loyalist who ran a torture site for George W. Bush and authorized the destruction of videotapes documenting what the CIA was doing, has been picked to replace him. Just how scared should you be?
There seem to be two general reactions to the latest upheaval in Trump’s topsy-turvy. One interpretation is that this latest reshuffle amounts to Trump getting rid of the “grownups” who have been trying to manage the Tweeter-in-Chief for the past year, and replacing them with advisers who see the world as he does and will “let Trump be Trump.” In this view, the new team will enable him instead of trying to rein him in, and he’ll become the Donald of 2016, who called U.S. foreign policy a “complete and total disaster,” and promised “America First.” Trump himself has encouraged this view, by suggesting that he is finally assembling the sort of team he’s always wanted. (Which raises an obvious question: who was the idiot who picked his first team? Or his second? Oh, right.)
The second interpretation is more alarmist, and basically tells you to start digging that backyard bomb shelter. In this view, the departures of Tillerson and McMaster and the arrivals of Bolton, Pompeo, and Haspel herald the ascendance of a hawkish contingent that will tear up the Iran deal, reinstate the torture regime, and eventually start a war with North Korea that goes way beyond a simple “bloody nose.” And with Bolton in the White House, Trump is going to be advised by a guy who never saw a war he didn’t like (when observed from a safe distance, of course).
Let me be clear: Bolton’s appointment is on a par with most of Trump’s personnel choices, which is to say that it’s likely to be a disaster. His views on foreign policy are crude and bellicose, and his track record as a policy advocate and pundit do not, to put it politely, inspire confidence. Nor does he seem to have learned a thing from his past mistakes. And where McMaster and Tillerson did what they could to limit the damage that Trump has done to America’s international reputation and critical alliance partnerships, Bolton’s particular skill as a diplomat seems to have been finding creative new ways to offend America’s friends.
But Bolton’s arrival is hardly a return to the Donald Trump that we saw in the 2016 campaign. Trump ran for president by attacking the entire foreign policy establishment, suggesting that it was out of touch, unaccountable, and prone to get us into pointless wars.
Since become president, however, Trump has increased defense spending, escalated in Afghanistan, given the Pentagon and certain headstrong U.S. allies the green light to use more force in more places (with disappointing results), and generally doubled down on the same overly militarized approach to foreign policy that had repeatedly failed under Clinton, Bush, and yes, even Obama. Bolton’s appointment (along with Trump’s other personnel shifts) is not a bold move toward “America First,” if that term means a smarter and more restrained foreign policy that would reduce U.S. overseas burdens, improve the country’s strategic position, and actually make Americans safer and richer.
Instead, whether Trump knows it or not, putting Bolton, Pompeo, and Haspel in key positions looks more like a return to “Cheneyism,” by which I mean a foreign policy that inflates threats, dismisses serious diplomacy, thinks allies are mostly a burden, is contemptuous of institutions, believes that United States is so powerful that it can just issue ultimatums and expect others to cave, and believes that a lot of thorny foreign policy problems can be solved just by blowing something up.
Boy, that formula really worked well that last time we tried it, didn’t it? No wonder a sophisticated foreign policy expert like Donald Trump wants to try it again.
Thus, the real lesson of the Bolton appointment has less to do with Bolton himself and more about what it says about our foreign policy establishment. You’re undoubtedly going to read a lot of heartfelt, knickers-in-a-twist commentaries in the next few weeks about the dangers of appointing a wild-eyed radical to such a sensitive position, but the plain fact is that John Bolton is not really an outlier within the American foreign policy community. It’s not like Trump just appointed Medea Benjamin (from the left) or Rand Paul (from the right), or even an experienced and knowledgeable contrarian like Chas W. Freeman or Andrew Bacevich. Instead, he appointed someone with decidedly hawkish views, yet who is still within the “acceptable” consensus in Washington.
Look at Bolton’s pedigree and career. He’s a graduate of Yale and Yale Law School. He worked at Covington & Burling, a venerable D.C law firm that was once the home former of Secretary of State Dean Acheson. He’s been a Senior Fellow for years at the conservative but mainstream American Enterprise Institute. He writes frequently for obscure, wild-and-crazy “radical” publications like, er . . . the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and even Foreign Policy. This is your idea of a “fringe” figure?
True, Bolton was a vocal supporter of the Iraq War, but that hardly makes him a weirdo. As I’m sure he’d be the first to point out, a lot of other people drank that particular Kool-Aid, including Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Jim Steinberg, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Susan Rice, Robert Gates, and a long, long list of other “respectable” figures. And don’t forget that the other geniuses who dreamed up and sold that disaster - people like William Kristol, James Woolsey, Robert Kagan, Bret Stephens, Max Boot, Eliot Cohen, David Frum, Paul Wolfowitz, etc. - are still respected figures in the foreign policy establishment despite having never admitted they were wrong or expressed any public regret for launching a disastrous war in which hundreds of thousands of people died.
Like Trump, Bolton seems particularly worried about Iran and North Korea, but so are most members of Congress and much of the think tank world in DC too. Indeed, there are plenty of people who strongly support the current nuclear deal but who also believe the United States should get tougher with Tehran. Nor is Bolton the only person in Washington who has proposed taking military action against North Korea. After all, it was Bolton’s predecessor, the now-departing McMaster, who kept making the case for the “bloody nose” approach.
Bolton is also something of an Islamaphobe and is deeply suspicious of international institutions, but that hardly makes him unique in American foreign policy circles either. He seems especially fond of using military force, but how many prominent foreign policy intellectuals are openly opposed to it, and willing to stand up and say so? I’d say damn few, because nobody angling for a top job in Washington wants to be seen as “soft.” Remember how Democrats and Republicans alike applauded Trump when he authorized some strategically meaningless cruise missile strikes on the Assad regime? That simple fact goes a long way toward explaining how the United States came to be waging wars of various sorts in a dozen or more countries, with no end in sight and with hardly anyone saying boo about it. Bolton is just a more outspoken member of the consensus here too.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not trying to “normalize” this appointment or suggesting that it shouldn’t concern you. Rather, I’m suggesting that if you are worried about Bolton, you should ask yourself the following question: what sort of political system allows someone with his 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?
So by all means worry. But the real problem isn’t Bolton, it’s a system that permits people like him to screw up and move up again and again.
Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.