David French on John Bolton
David French, who writes for National Review and was backed as a presidential candidate by Bill Kristol of the American Enterprise Institute, says John Bolton is not “extreme” because after all, he is affiliated with NR and AEI.
Bolton is not — as some in the media would have you believe — a mere flame-throwing Fox News “talking head.” He’s a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. He’s on the board of trustees of the National Review Institute. He’s a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He’s a conservative hawk, yes, but he’s squarely in the mainstream of conservative foreign-policy thought.
He’s not extreme. The reaction against him, however, is. Moreover, the reaction betrays a sad reality: The foreign-policy Left still hasn’t learned the lessons of the recent past.
To put it simply, all too many people view the challenge of North Korea and Iran something like this: There is a clearly safer path, including engagement, talks, and continued fidelity to the Iran deal; and there is a clearly more dangerous path — saber-rattling, increased sanctions, public advocacy for regime change. All right-thinking people should seek more engagement with North Korea. All right-thinking people should support the Iran deal.
The “clearly safer” argument always has a short-term advantage. When choosing between less risk of war and greater risk of war, there is a proper default preference for less risk and a presumption in favor of making immediate moves toward peace. When dealing with jihadist regimes like Iran’s or evil regimes like North Korea’s, however, the problem is that every single path is perilous.
In principle, much of this rings true, at least as an answer to the Left, except that French ignores the elephant in the room, which is that the Left doesn’t oppose conservative foreign policy because they “haven’t learned the lessons of the recent past.” They oppose it because they hate America and want her enemies to thrive and ultimately defeat her.
As for Bolton as national security advisor, however, French straw mans the principled opposition. The question isn’t whether Bolton is extreme. “Extreme” is just an empty smear thrown at everyone these days. (Extreme is also neither good nor bad outside the context of the specific issue. As Aristotle observes, no one would advocate being “moderately virtuous.”) The proper question is whether Bolton’s views on foreign policy and the use of the U.S. military are views that constitutional conservatives ought to be embracing.
A lot of people get their backs up over the use of the word “neoconservative” to describe Bolton. True, that word is often used as an anti-Jewish slur by the alt-right (i.e., Trump fans), but in fact the term goes back to the 1970s, and was fully accepted as a self-description by the “godfather” of the movement, Irving Kristol (Bill’s dad).
A neocon, in broad terms, is a believer in pro-active big government projects but without the explicit anti-market overtones. The early neocons were originally Democrats, many with neo-Marxist educations and leanings, but became disillusioned with the Democratic Party’s growing isolationism and pacifism, and wanted America to have a more robust, “global democracy project” foreign policy.
Bolton is of that general school of thought, particularly the Bush-Cheney era hawkishness. That is why many constitutionalists have reservations about him. They have learned from experience what this foreign policy leads to in practice, and what it costs in American lives and treasure. This is not Ron Paul stuff. It’s rational limited government republicanism.
As for Bolton’s great qualifications, noted by French and many others: Simply having served in a lot of administrative roles does not constitute being qualified. If it did, every lifelong bureaucrat and connected government official would also have to be called “qualified.” Job titles held do not equal “qualifications.” A history of sound decisions, policy successes that achieved their (desirable) aims, cool-headed judgment in a crisis, and having repeatedly proven to be on the right side of controversial or difficult policy questions in practice — that’s what it means to be qualified.
Bolton, like Trump, avoided the Vietnam draft — and then, a quarter century later, excused himself by saying, in effect, that he preferred to let other Americans be sent to die in a rice paddy rather than him. Now, from his comfortable post as an aloof “expert,” he talks as if every hotspot and scary problem on the globe is worthy of American blood, tomorrow morning.
People like him for his “tough talk.” I sometimes like him for it too. But it’s no big deal to talk tough when you know you personally will never be at risk, and that all the suffering and loss you are recommending as a “necessary evil” will be borne by others.
Furthermore, whatever may be objectively reasonable in French’s argument on behalf of Bolton’s hawkishness in the abstract, Trump is exactly the kind of president who ought to be kept away from advisors inclined to recommend the “clearly more dangerous path” of pre-emptive strikes and saber-rattling.
Why? For two interrelated reasons:
1. He is a vain and insecure man, desperate for attention and love, and willing to do anything, sell out any friend or faction, and overturn any previous position, in order to gain or maintain the fan base that defines his self-worth.
2. He is a compromised man, embedded in many serious scandals, exposed in various lies and breaches of voter trust that threaten to drain support (i.e., love and admiration) from him, and owned by various interests — from porn stars to Putins — who have, or certainly seem to have, embarrassing information to hold over him.
Put these two things together — a man whose identity is inseparable from his thirst for adoration, and a man who has many scandals and sell-outs hanging over his head that daily threaten to destroy his popularity — and you have a perfect recipe for reckless and catastrophic military adventurism. Add a dash of narcissistic infantilism, and a teaspoon of war rationalization from a “highly qualified” advisor (one who has been on the pre-emptive strike side of every single foreign policy conflict of the past sixteen years), and voilà! Thousands of American lives and trillions of American dollars cast before a swinish president’s ego.
Conservatives didn’t like the idea of Barack Obama enjoying his killing privileges in the White House, because Obama was an anti-constitutional egomaniac who could not be trusted to act in the genuine public interest, or to weigh seriously the cost of his decisions in precious American blood and treasure. (Remember his remarks about the Marine “corpse”?) The same should apply to Trump, with the added concerns that Trump is even more megalomaniacal than Obama, and that Trump, as a nominal Republican, is much more likely to surround himself with advisors who would be only too happy to take advantage of his emotional immaturity to goad him into military adventures.
If you think that now is the time for serious confrontation with North Korea (which likely means with China and Russia in the long run), you still have to weigh that thought against the present reality of President Donald Trump as the man making (and then carelessly unmaking) the decisions.