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MATTHEW BOOSE: John Bolton may be gone, but Boltonism lives on
Another “adult in the room” has left the Trump White House. President Donald Trump’s unceremonious firing of John Bolton is fantastic news for America and a sign that change may still be possible in an administration that seemed to have sunk into the establishment quagmire.
The familiar creatures have their objections, from Mitt Romney to Nancy Pelosi. As the “adults” see it, John Bolton was bringing discipline — yes, you read that right, John Bolton and discipline in the same sentence — to an otherwise chaotic administration.
In the liberal universe, the role of “advisers” is to thwart Trump’s instincts, to give shape to his rudderless rule and ensconce the power of the Swamp. But as Bolton’s firing shows, Trump’s instincts are often good. Trump has established diplomacy with North Korea, gestured towards ending wars in the Middle East, and at the very least, has not started any new ones.
What matters now is whether Bolton’s firing is a sign that Trump will start to assert some control over his foreign policy, or hire another neocon. But it may not be so simple as all that. The Swamp is a vicious, sclerotic monster that will not easily be overcome. The full force of the media, the national security establishment, and the establishments of both parties are arrayed against any challengers who would dare shift policy in a more realistic direction.
Look no further than the establishment’s meltdowns over Trump’s efforts to make peace. Back in December, Trump had a good instinct, one that was quickly snuffed out: the president announced abruptly that the United States would be withdrawing from Syria and Afghanistan.
The establishment went into a bloody frenzy. How could this be allowed, a president making executive decisions in the national interest? Didn’t he remember to consult the experts first? James Mattis resigned in protest, presumably after solemnly meditating on some chapter of Plutarch, and was promptly rehabilitated by the media as a Wise Man who had Had Enough.
Now, the media and the Democrats are giving Bolton the same treatment: Trump fired person X, so person X must be wise and experienced, unlike the “dangerous Drumpf.” Sad, but not surprising, has been the Democrats’ simultaneous sidelining of Tulsi Gabbard, whose impassioned opposition to regime change wars have made her a pariah in her party.
Trump’s nationalist foreign policy is one of the few areas where the populist Right and the vanishing anti-war Left of Gabbard actually agree. The Russia-crazed liberal left, meanwhile, have converged with the neocons in common cause against the Orange Man and his nationalist platform.
Surely, part of the left’s hawkish turn is pure politics. The liberal left is committed to opposing anything Trump supports, whether it’s peace with North Korea or withdrawal from Afghanistan. They’ll make vague promises about ending the wars, but none of them mean what they say.
Trump fired Bolton, so the left now defends him. But has the left embraced Bolton, or Bolton-ism?
As Tucker Carlson ably put it, Bolton, like all neocons, was a man of the left; the liberal left, like Bolton, has embraced a conviction in the emancipatory power of military force. The Bolton-ite left very much thinks that bombing remote Afghan villages into accepting feminism and LGBT rights is in the national interest.
What could the left’s idea of the national interest be, anyway, when they don’t believe in the nation? Thursday night’s debate was an unintelligible disaster of woke word salad. There was plenty of sympathy for foreign migrants, plenty of buzzwords about racism and institutional oppression. But foreign policy was an afterthought (thanks in part to Gabbard’s exclusion.) The spirit of Boltonism was apparent when Kamala Harris gave a nod to John McCain, the late titan of neoconservatism who was canonized by the left upon his death.
Now, the liberal left is piling praise on Bolton, of all people, for keeping Trump from pushing the big red button. Pelosi called Bolton’s firing a “symbol of the disarray that has unnerved our allies” since Trump took office. Bolton’s ouster has deprived Americans of “steady leadership & strategic foreign policy.” Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) said he was “legitimately shaken by the grave instability of American foreign policy” betokened by Boston’s ouster.
What can be deduced about Boltonism, from these utterly insane tributes? Boltonism is a form of idealism, completely at odds with reality and infinitely capable of making the facts of experience conform with its assumptions. As Carlson suggested, Boltonism is the ideology of Washington: it doesn’t matter how the job gets done, as long as it gets done. The results are irrelevant.
Whenever attacked over its blatant failures, the neocon establishment fights back with the same clichés to shut people up and suppress challenges to its power. The same cast of characters that supported destructive, pointless wars will invoke “discipline” and the need for steady leadership, the goal of which is always left mysteriously undefined, because the real aim is the self-preservation of the monster. To speak of Bolton, a man who has never seen a war he didn’t like, as a chastening influence is absurd.
Or else there is a fatalistic invocation of unknown consequences that might be worse than the knowable, extremely harmful consequences that have already manifested. This is the “if we withdraw from X country where Americans have no clear national interest, the terrorists win” response. The term for that kind of thinking is “insanity.” Its proponents seldom elaborate on the obvious implication: that America can never leave these engagements.
The establishment had another Bolton-ic convulsion in this vein just days before Bolton’s exit, this time dealing with one of Boltonism’s greatest triumphs: the 18-year-long Afghanistan war. Trump suddenly scuttled peace talks with the Taliban, thereby suspending hopes of withdrawal. Again, the media exploded, but not because diplomacy had fallen apart. Just like “Drumpf” had “cozied up” to Kim Jong Un, so now he was “cozying up” to the Taliban. This is the level of depth in liberal foreign policy, apparently: we can never attempt to make peace with America’s enemies. Indefinite conflict is the only answer.
After Bolton, Trump’s foreign policy needs discipline, just not the kind of “discipline” the establishment wants. That discipline is the opposite of order, and not at all the kind that Americans want. Americans are ready to move on from these wars. The most dangerous thing about Trump’s foreign policy is not his volatility, but that he has not been aggressive enough in curbing the power of the military establishment he campaigned against in 2016.
A clean break with this establishment is impossible without a fight. Trump’s brawler instincts, in this sense, are a positive good. They are volatile, yes, but far from “dangerous”; more costly is continuing to repeat the disastrous mistakes of the past several decades. Hopefully, instead of hiring a neocon to stymie his agenda, Trump will assert himself and discipline the “adults” in the room instead, who don’t think diplomacy is even an option.
America must be disabused of Boltonism, which is to say that it must move towards a more realistic foreign policy. But the forces arrayed against change are profound. Like Carlson said, Trump may have fired Bolton, but there are many more Boltons. The specific John Bolton is a mere man; but Boltonism is a universal, and it is alive and well in Washington.
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