The appointment of John Bolton as President Trump’s National Security Advisor – his third so far – is bad news for anti-interventionists, but hardly the catastrophe #TheResistance is making it out to be. I’ve covered Bolton’s crazed ideology of perpetual conflict in this space on several occasions – you’ll recall he was up for Secretary of State in the first months of the new administration, and he also lost out to H. R. McMaster when Mike Flynn was ousted – and so I won’t repeat myself here. Having made it on the third try, Bolton is now being characterized as the “proof” that Trump has abandoned his “America first” aversion to overseas intervention, as the otherwise sensible Jim Antle avers.
Yet Antle contradicts himself: “In recent weeks,” he writes, “Trump’s ‘America First’ posture seems to have moved in a more bellicose direction, away from the less interventionist impulses he occasionally demonstrated during the 2016 campaign.” However, in the very next paragraph he asks: “As talks between the U.S. and North Korea near, what kind of advice will Trump get from his new national security hand?” [Emphasis added.]
Of course, these are not merely talks with North Korea: that’s happened before, to no avail. Trump is meeting with the North Korean leader himself, Kim Jong-un, an unprecedented occasion that not even I thought at all likely (although I did suggest it).. How is this moving “in a more bellicose direction”? Indeed, Trump has said that he believes peace on the Korean peninsula is within reach and has blasted the skeptics.
Bolton, for his part, has recently suggested a first strike on North Korea, and opposes a peace treaty that would formally end US-North Korean hostilities, and so we know what kind of advice Trump’s new National Security Advisor will give him. Yet there’s no reason to believe the President will take that advice, any more than he took McMaster’s advice – or anyone’s advice, for that matter.
The Bolton appointment, together with Mike Pompeo at State and Gina Haspel at the CIA, is being touted by #TheResistance as the signal that “the neocons” have taken over the Trump administration. This is nonsense: none of these appointees is a neoconservative, which is largely a biographical characterization. Pompeo, far from being a former Trotskyite, is a former protégé of libertarian-ish billionaire Charles Koch. Haspel is a career CIA apparatchik, no worse than any of them. The real neocons – Bill Kristol, Max Boot, the Weekly Standard crew – are firmly in the NeverTrump camp, because these people are relentless.
Amid all the brouhaha over Bolton, what stands out is that the “we’re going to war” crowd has been predicting disaster for over a year now, and yet that bloody denouement is nowhere to be seen. If we take a closer look at these carping critics, we find that each and every one of them has an agenda – they hate Trump’s domestic policies, particularly when it comes to immigration, they hate all Republicans (except for Ben Saase) as a matter of high principle, and/or they simply hate Trump personally: he’s not dignified, he tweets (just like they do), he’s too much like an ordinary person and not a presidential persona who takes the mystery and majesty of his office with the same semi-religious reverence as the Beltway power-worshippers. In short, the focus in Washington is on personality and partisanship instead of policy.
If Hillary Clinton had won the election it’s likely that she would have followed the failed Obama template: waiting for North Korea to collapse. Hillary & Co. would never have even contemplated the kind of breakthrough summit that we’ll be witnessing sometime in May.
The decidedly anti-interventionist Christopher Preble, over at the Cato Institute, asks the question on the mind of every America Firster: why Bolton, of all people?:
“Americans who voted for Donald Trump believing he would be disinclined to start new wars should be puzzled by his decision to tap John Bolton as his third national security adviser. The rest of us should be concerned.”
While I have no inside knowledge of the Trumpian decision-making process, I’m disinclined to go with the conventional wisdom – focused, again, on personalities rather than policy – that attributes the President’s choice to a mutual bellicosity. While Trump is no Gandhi, and his rhetoric is often over-the-top, in my view it’s Bolton’s unapologetic unilateralism that won him Brownie points in the White House. While there is a Jeffersonian side to Trump’s “America first” foreign policy – to utilize Walter Russell Mead’s categories – it is stylistically Jacksonian, i.e., prone to drama and dangerous if roused.
The Korean summit is showing off this administration’s Jeffersonian side, but the Bolton appointment is evidence that Trump, while hopeful his initiative will meet with success, is signaling to Pyongyang that “fire and fury” is still an option. This approach appears to be working: there’s evidence that North Korean activity around developing long-range missile technology that will enable them to hit American cities has slowed.
There are plenty of hot takes about the Bolton appointment, but they’re coming from instant “experts” whose prejudices are on full display – and whose knowledge of the two Koreas is thin, at best. As an antidote to this, I suggest a good dose of Tim Shorrock, who has been writing about Korea since the 1970s. Shorrock’s perspective is that the peace process is being driven by the South Koreans, whose new president, Moon Jae-in, ran and won on a platform of reviving the “Sunshine policy” of rapprochement with the North.
The paleoconservative scholar Claes Ryn has characterized our political class as inveterate narcissists, and the debate over the Korea initiative underscores his diagnosis. But this isn’t about us: it’s about the Koreans. They want their country back – and Trump seems inclined to hand it over. That’s a good thing, a development every advocate of a more peaceful world should be cheering.
If the Korean peace talks succeed, Bolton – as well as Trump – will own it. The War Party, which has been mobilizing both the right and the left against the initiative, will have a hard time answering the Trumpian comeback: even John Bolton supports this!
Much of the opposition to Trump, particularly from the “intelligence community,” is motivated by his fearless critique of an American empire where everything goes out and nothing but trouble comes in. As confrontational as he can be, it looks to me like Trump is co-opting potential critics inside the traditional Republican foreign policy consensus. Whether this is a good strategy remains to be seen, but a complete turnabout it isn’t.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.
I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.