John Bolton’s Living Obituary
“I confess I had no desire to die in a Southeast Asian rice paddy. I considered the war in Vietnam already lost.” —John Bolton, in his Yale University 25th reunion book
Fitting words from the gold standard in Washington “chicken hawks.” For John Bolton has made a career of sending other people’s sons, daughters, husbands and wives to fight and die in wars just as ill-advised, immoral and unwinnable as the Vietnam conflict he consciously avoided by joining the Maryland National Guard. That the man has done so, with a straight, mustachioed face, for decades now is a testament to his truly remarkable lack of self-awareness, empathy or shame. It’s almost impressive.
Like a bad penny, Bolton has weaved in and out of public life, either as an insider in Republican administrations since Reagan’s or waiting in the wings, voicing opposition to Democratic executives. For now, though, Bolton is out, fired this week by Donald Trump just after the president foolishly spiked seemingly promising peace talks with the Taliban. On this issue and most others, Bolton was the leading administration opponent of anything that resembled peace or military withdrawal from America’s countless, 9/11 vengeance-seeking forever wars. As such, his departure must cautiously be celebrated, though one fears whomever Trump may appoint to replace Bolton as national security adviser. Odds are it won’t be Sen. Rand Paul or Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, no matter how hard we anti-interventionists wish and dream.
Bolton lives on, of course, and expect to see his ubiquitous face back on Fox News, keynoting paid events hosted by the bizarre Iranian terrorist cult, the People’s Mujahedin, and shuffling through the halls of one of Washington’s many neoconservative think tanks. So it seems appropriate to review highlights in the life and work of the man who never met a regime he didn’t want to change. Indeed, his personal trail of failure and policy disaster befits the times and illustrates the absurdity of U.S. military operations worldwide. Consider it a living obituary to a true hawk’s hawk.
During the Reagan and Bush I years, a younger Bolton bounced between the State and Justice departments and got his first taste of dabbling with proxy war, interventionism and regime change operations in Central America. He was even caught up in the Iran-Contra scandal, in which the Reagan team secretly and illegally sold arms to the Iranians, laundered the windfall through Israel and funded Contra death squads in Nicaragua. More than 100,000 people died at the hands of various U.S.-backed, right-wing militias in Central America during the 1980s, though hardly anyone remembers this now that the U.S. war machine has moved on to bigger and better things in the Greater Middle East.
Wallowing in opposition during the Clinton years, Bolton was once again plucked into government during the disastrous Bush II administration. First, as undersecretary of state for arms control, he helped derail nuclear negotiations with North Korea and helped sell the Iraq invasion on the basis of flawed, frankly dishonest, assertions that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. The death count in Iraq since 2003, though uncertain, easily has topped 280,000.
Furthermore, unsatisfied with his technical position, Bolton stepped out of his lane to argue, in a speech responding to Bush’s “Axis of Evil” address, that the U.S. should add Cuba, Libya and Syria to the Iran-Iraq-North Korea axis on Uncle Sam’s regime-change checklist. He even publicized the totally unsubstantiated claim that Cuba had a WMD program of its own. Ultimately, he got his wish in Iraq and Libya; Bolton was still working on toppling the governments of Syria and Iran before his firing.
Next, he briefly served as ambassador to the United Nations, though Bush had to use a recess appointment due to expected opposition to Bolton in the Senate. This was an odd—though fitting for the Bush team—position for a man long opposed to the very concept of the U.N. or collective diplomacy in general. Indeed, in 1994, Bolton had said, “There is no United Nations. There is an international community that occasionally can be led by the only real power left in the world, and that’s the United States, when it suits our interests and when we can get others to go along.”
Finally, and most recently, Bolton—the worst possible choice for the position—served as perhaps the most hawkish national security adviser in history. Throughout his tenure, he called for and worked toward instigating war with and regime change of the governments of Iran and, in a Cold War throwback move, Venezuela. Bolton’s obsession with Iran was particularly noteworthy—he’d previously written a New York Times op-ed unsubtly titled “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran”—and helped push Trump and the U.S. right to the brink of war with the Islamic Republic this year. To his credit, Trump seemed to stare over the cliff into the abyss, then flinched and inched backwards, deciding—for now—against a military strike and overruling Bolton’s pugnacious advice.
Most recently, Bolton—along, it must be said, with a bipartisan array of Trump advisers, congressional representatives and media pundits—opposed any attempt to negotiate peace with the Taliban, the only near-term hope for extracting U.S. troops from an endless, failed war in Afghanistan. This was Bolton’s last victory, as Trump caved to his and the entire establishment’s pressure and canceled the talks, labeling them “dead.” But this was perhaps the last straw for The Donald, whose “instincts” have long been to pull out and who fancies himself an epic dealmaker, as he lost an opportunity for a grand but necessary diplomatic dog and pony show at Camp David.
On the Afghan peace talks, Bolton seems to have won the battle; still, with his firing, let us collectively hope he may yet lose the war. With Bolton gone, one major (though far from the last) roadblock to ending the war in Afghanistan has been removed. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo should be the next to go, and Trump should clean house and craft a new national security team that agrees with the vast majority of the American people, and, according to recent polls, two-thirds of U.S. veterans: that it’s time to end our nation’s disastrous and bloody forever wars. That may be unlikely, but it’s not impossible. Trump is just erratic enough, just unprincipled enough, to turn on a dime and resurrect the “dead” Taliban talks within days or weeks, sending Bolton rolling in his living grave.
So, yes, Bolton is out of government—for now—but have no fear, he’ll be just fine. In the year prior to his appointment as national security adviser, Bolton reportedly earned some $2.2 million in speaking fees and Fox News appearances. Apparently, drumming up war with, well, anyone and everyone is a profitable venture. Meanwhile, America’s wars, so to speak, must go on, in what must be termed the “Age of Bolton.”’TIS THE REASON…
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