Fifteen years after the invasion of Iraq, a Republican president who called the war a “big, fat mistake” has named one of its leading proponents as his national security adviser.
If one wanted to make the case that U.S. policymakers have learned little from their biggest foreign-policy blunder of the past two decades, John Bolton’s appointment would be Exhibit A. Bolton, set to take the job in April from current national security adviser H.R. McMaster after Trump tweeted the news on Thursday night, played an important role in shaping prewar intelligence and seems to be itching for a repeat elsewhere.
Much of the debate over Bolton will center over whether he is a “neocon.” Unlike others who more proudly wear that label, Bolton is skeptical of democracy promotion in the Middle East and cannot trace his intellectual lineage back to the political left. But this misses the point.
An unreconstructed advocate of regime change after repeated failures in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, Bolton favors a lower threshold for the use of military force than prevailed under most Republican presidents prior to George W. Bush. He would like a more confrontational posture toward Syria, Iran, North Korea, and Russia, following up Bush-era talk of the “Axis of Evil” with warnings about a “Moscow-Tehran-Damascus-Hezbollah axis.”
The U.S. could use leaders who are clear-eyed about the threats posed by militant Islamism, North Korea, and Russian election interference, but not hysterical about any of them. Bolton is a skilled polemicist whose selection undoubtedly reflects the influence of Fox News, the cable network on which he frequently appeared, on the right broadly and Trump in particular.
Yet anyone who looks at our recent foreign policy and thinks the problem was not enough preventive war without end should not be high on the list of national security adviser candidates. “If our presidents had gone to the beach for 15 years, we’d be in a lot better shape than we are right now,” observed one critic of this approach.
That critic is now the sitting president of the United States. One of the most valuable things about Trump’s challenge to Washington’s governing class and the bipartisan political elites was his willingness to break from these obvious failures, even when perpetrated by Republicans.
No more nation-building abroad, no more regime change without a clear plan for what will happen next, no more exporting chaos in already troubled regions with a history of terror.
“All former Bush administration officials should have zero standing on Syria,” Trump tweeted in 2013. “Iraq was a waste of blood & treasure.”
Trump has at times exaggerated his prescience on Iraq. But he was criticizing the war as early as 2004, long before most Republicans did. (In fact, the Democrats nominated two senators who voted to authorize that war — John Kerry and John Edwards — for president and vice president, respectively, that year.)
Now Trump’s latest national security adviser appears to view Iraq as a template for dealing with rogue regimes, albeit with perhaps fewer boots on the ground.
In recent weeks, 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. There are mounting signs, from the firing of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and his likely replacement with CIA Director Mike Pompeo, that the Iran deal is about to go the way of the Paris climate accords and the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
As talks between the U.S. and North Korea near, what kind of advice will Trump get from his new national security hand? “It is perfectly legitimate for the United States to respond to the current ‘necessity’ posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons by striking first,” Bolton wrote in the Wall Street Journal just last month.
Unlike Pompeo, there is nothing Rand Paul or any other senator can do about Bolton.
Trump’s previous national security advisers have generally not displayed much war-weariness either. Michael Flynn was a noted Iran hawk. H.R. McMaster was said to have been a proponent of strikes in Syria and staying in Afghanistan. Pre-Bolton, it is hard to find a conflict Trump has actually drawn down.
Trump nevertheless advertised himself as a departure from the Bush Republicanism that helped elect Barack Obama and Democratic congressional supermajorities. Other than on immigration, he has so far not delivered.
We are once again seeing a GOP-controlled Washington growing government and billowing red ink and a foreign policy fed by threat inflation, whereby tough talk belies a lack of confidence in America’s ability to dominate weak foes without shooting first and asking questions later.
Now John Bolton is getting that old band Axis of Evil back together.


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