Thoughts about L’Affaire Bolton

I hadn’t given much thought to the Bolton business until prompted by a link my son sent to me this morning. But given Trump’s past pronouncements about foreign interventions and Bolton’s known hawkish views, it’s possible that the appointment of Bolton was a setup (by Trump) from the beginning:

First, hiring Bolton was a signal to Iran and North Korea of Trump’s seriousness — a way of getting their attention.

Second, bringing Bolton inside the tent meant that he couldn’t criticize Trump if Trump made “nice” with Iran and North Korea after his (usual) hard opening. Trump could play “good cop” to Bolton’s “bad cop”.

Third, when that ploy was no longer needed, Bolton became excess baggage. His firing means that his future criticisms of Trump’s foreign-policy actions will be taken as sour grapes. It also means that the left has been partially disarmed when it comes to criticizing Trump’s foreign-policy agenda.

I am becoming more and more convinced that Trump is a master strategist.

Bellicosity or Bargaining Strategy?

Yesterday, George Will doubled down on his previous invocation of the Nuremberg Trials. The first time, on December 8, Will opined that

[a] U.S. war of choice against North Korea would not be a pre emptive war launched to forestall an imminent attack. Rather, it would be a preventive war supposedly justified by the fact that, given sophisticated weapons and delivery systems, imminence might be impossible to detect….

It would be interesting to hear the president distinguish a preventive war against North Korea from a war of aggression. The first two counts in the indictments at the 1946 Nuremberg trials concerned waging “aggressive war.”

Now that John Bolton has been named Trump’s new national-security adviser, Will has again come off his hinges. This is from yesterday’s piece:

Bolton will soon be the second-most dangerous American. On April 9, he will be the first national security adviser who, upon taking up residence down the hall from the Oval Office, will be suggesting that the United States should seriously consider embarking on war crimes.

The first two charges against the major Nazi war criminals in the 1945-1946 Nuremberg trials concerned waging aggressive war. Emboldened by the success, as he still sees it, of America’s Iraq adventure that began 15 years ago this month, Bolton, for whom a trade war with many friends and foes is insufficiently stimulating, favors real wars against North Korea and Iran. Both have odious regimes, but neither can credibly be said to be threatening an imminent attack against the United States. Nevertheless, Bolton thinks bombing both might make the world safer….

Bolton’s belief in the U.S. power to make the world behave and eat its broccoli reflects what has been called “narcissistic policy disorder” — the belief that whatever happens in the world happens because of something the United States did or did not do. This is a recipe for diplomatic delusions and military overreaching.

Speaking of delusions, one died last week — the belief that this president could be safely cocooned within layers of adult supervision. Bolton’s predecessor, H.R. McMaster, wrote a brilliant book (“Dereliction of Duty”) on the failure of officials, particularly military leaders, who knew better but did not resist the stumble into the Vietnam disaster. McMaster is being replaced because he would have done his duty regarding the impulses of the most dangerous American.

Regarding Nuremberg, I wrote this on December 10:

The counts [in the indictments at the Nuremberg trial] refer to the aggression against Poland. There is no parallel between Poland, with its relatively primitive armed forces and lack of bellicosity, and Kim Jong-un’s North Korea….

Will himself has questioned the legality of the Nuremberg trials. It was an act of intellectual desperation to bring them into the discussion.

All in all, Will’s recent column is weak on the facts and weak as a matter of historical analysis. The main impetus for the column seems to be Will’s fixation on Trump. His doubts about Trump’s stability and soundness of judgment may be justified. But Will ought to have stuck to those doubts, and elaborated on them.

Will’s armchair psychologizing of Bolton (“narcissistic policy disorder”) is backwards. Bolton’s record — as I read it — is that of a person who wants the world to leave the U.S. alone, not that of someone who believes that whatever happens in the world is a consequence of something the United States did or did not do.

Will’s endorsement of McMaster’s Dereliction of Duty is misplaced. As I say here,

McMaster was derelict in his duty to give a full and honest account of the role of the service chiefs in the early stages of the Vietnam War.

The book’s focus is on the political-military machinations of November 1963 to July 1965. Most of the book is taken up with a detailed (almost monotonous) chronological narrative….

In the narrative and subsequent analysis, LBJ and McNamara come across as the real heavies, which is what I thought of them at the time….

Though McMaster goes into great detail about people and events, there’s nothing really new (to me), except for the revelation that the chiefs were supine — at least through July 1965. LBJ’s deviousness and focus on the election and his domestic programs is unsurprising. McNamara’s arrogance and rejection of the chiefs’ views is unsurprising. Service parochialism is unsurprising. The lack of a commitment by LBJ and McNamara to winning the war and devising a requisite strategy are unsurprising.

But there was something at the back of my mind when I was reading Dereliction of Duty which told me that the chiefs weren’t as negligent as McMaster paints them. It has since come to the front of my mind. McMaster’s narrative ends in July 1965, and he bases his conclusions on events up until then. However, there was a showdown between the chiefs and LBJ in November 1965. As recounted by Lt. Gen. Charles Cooper, USMC (Ret.), who was a junior officer at the time (and present at the showdown), “the chiefs did their duty.”

… Cooper’s story … is drawn from his memoir, Cheers and Tears: A Marine’s Story of Combat in Peace and War (2002)…. [Go here for a long, relevant excerpt.]

Will has nevertheless raised a question that is on the minds of many these days: Does the appointment of John Bolton, coupled with the replacement of Rex Tillerson by Mike Pompeo at the State Department, signal a change in Trump’s attitude toward involvement in foreign wars? Specifically, is Trump assembling a “war cabinet”, as several (left-wing) sources claim?

A much more likely scenario is that Trump is doing something that Barack Obama failed to do in his zeal to “lead from behind”, which is to say, in his zeal to undermine America’s strength vis-a-vis its actual and potential adversaries: Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea (to name a few). (I still maintain that Obama was guilty of “Presidential Treason“.)

Of course, it is risky to confront one’s enemies instead of lying supine before them. But it is no more risky than being kicked to death while one is lying supine. In fact, it is less risky because the upright warrior can do something to deter his enemies, or fight them if necessary; the supine warrior only invites abuse.

What I see, then, is the adoption by Mr. Trump of an upright stance — backed by a resolve that is made all the more credible by surrounding himself with men like Pompeo and Bolton.


Related reading: Roger Kimball, “Why John Bolton Is No Warmonger“, Spectator USA, March 24, 2018


Related posts:
Much Ado about Civilian Control of the Military
Presidents and War
LBJ’s Dereliction of Duty
Terrorism Isn’t an Accident
The Ken Burns Apology Tour Continues
Planning for the Last War
The Folly of Pacifism
A Rearview Look at the Invasion of Iraq and the War on Terror
Preemptive War Revisited