Ever since President Trump appointed John Bolton to be the new national security advisor last week, a torrent of commentary has poured forth about the hawkish Fox News pundit and American Enterprise Institute senior fellow, who once served as United Nations Ambassador for 18 months in the George W. Bush administration. Two pieces published today, however, stand out for their precision and insight.
The first is by The Atlantic’s Peter Beinart, whose central argument is that Bolton is not the learned foreign policy scholar many believe him to be. While Bolton certainly has years of experience, it hasn’t been of the right kind. Bolton’s “militancy,” his “incessant, almost casual, advocacy of war,” Beinart argues, is positively “Trumpian: The less evidence you have, the more certain you sound.”
Bolton’s analysis and prognostications - particularly about Iraq, Iran, and North Korea - have so frequently been proven wrong by events that it can be tedious to lay it all out. Beinart does a good job of it, but his real insight is to suggest a possible explanation for why Bolton has been so extremely hawkish, and wrong, for so long.
[I]f Kissinger is right that “[high] office teaches decision making, not substance” and that it “consumes intellectual capital; it does not create it,” then the narrow professional experience through which Bolton has amassed his intellectual capital matters a great deal. He has never served in the military. He has never studied another region of the world, or another period of history, at the graduate level. He has spent his entire adult life in the interlocking world of hawkish think tanks, Washington law firms, Republican politics, and the right-wing media. And he manifests that narrowness in the smugly insular worldview he brings to his new job.
Over the past two decades, Bolton has written dozens of columns and essays, often for the flagship publications of the American right. To read them is to enter a cocoon. His writing is filled with assertions—about the purity of America’s intentions, the motivations of its adversaries, the uselessness of diplomacy, and the efficacy of war—for which he offers either feeble evidence or no evidence at all.
Do read the whole thing.
The second must-read on Bolton’s appointment comes from Josh Shifrinson, assistant professor of international affairs with the Bush School of Government at Texas A&M University. In the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog, Shifrinson argues that an extremist like Bolton can rise to the top of television punditry, and now to immense power as the president’s right-hand man on all things national security, only because of America’s peculiar place atop the international system. The unusual outsize power of the United States in the post-Cold War era has several implications for foreign policy.
First, it is a permissive environment for foreign policy activism in that there are few external constraints on the exercise of U.S. might. We face fewer negative consequences for strategic blunders and foolish wars, compared at least to states that face retaliation from peer competitors.
Second, this peculiar position of U.S. dominance means that domestic politics and the idiosyncrasies of individual leaders matter more for foreign policy than it otherwise would amid a more equal balance of power. “All this means sage leadership that screens policy ideas is especially important,” Shifrinson writes. “With an inexperienced leader like Trump in the Oval Office, Bolton’s views can gain traction partly because America still reigns as the sole superpower.”
Third, while other powers, like China, are beginning to compete with the U.S. in the economic and diplomatic spheres, America still reigns supreme in the miltiary arena. Using force and projecting power are our comparative advantage, and so Washington’s incentive is to play to this strength, wisely or not.
Both Beinart and Shifrinson illustrate just how hazardous it is to have a man like Bolton in the Oval Office advising a man like Trump. If his history of erroneous analysis and impulsive support for elective wars is any guide, Americans should be bracing for a bumpy remainder to the Trump presidency.