Donald Trump has moved to replace H. R. McMaster with John Bolton, and the verdict is in. Americans should be “terrified.” Or perhaps “horrified.” The New York Times editorial board declares, in no uncertain terms, “Yes, John Bolton really is that dangerous.”
What’s going on? Has Donald Trump selected a crazed warmonger to be his national-security adviser? Is Bolton going to lead us down the path to foolish war? Far from it.
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.
Miscalculate in favor of war, and you risk an unnecessary bloodbath — one that America would win, but at immense cost in blood and treasure. Miscalculate in favor of peace, and you risk — God forbid — American cities in flames, a genocidal nuclear exchange in the Middle East, or (perhaps most likely) future military confrontations with aggressive and hostile foreign powers that we can’t truly win because of their own nuclear shield. Remember the words of Krishnaswamy Sundarji, former chief of staff of the Indian army: “One principal lesson of the Gulf War is that, if a state intends to fight the United States, it should avoid doing so until and unless it possesses nuclear weapons.”
World history is littered with both kinds of mistakes, and our recent histories with both Iran and North Korea indicate that bipartisan policies of engagement, negotiation, and forbearance have not, in fact, moderated either regime. Iran continues to export jihad, work to kill Americans, and ally with our Russian rival to engineer a bloodbath in Syria — even as the Iran “deal” fails to deliver on Obama’s dream of somehow bringing Iran into the community of nations. North Korea is well on its way to developing a nuclear first-strike capability that threatens the mainland United States.
Much of the American intelligentsia lives in a world where the “hawks” — those who supported the Iraq War — are discredited, while the “doves” — those who presided over American foreign policy while Syria burned, ISIS rose, and North Korea tested its nuclear weapons — are not. Yet didn’t Barack Obama himself have to turn hawkish by the end of his second term? Didn’t he reinsert American ground troops in Iraq and put boots on the ground in Syria? Didn’t he keep American troops in Afghanistan during every single day of his presidency and expand the American military footprint in Africa? It turns out that American inaction helped destabilize the Middle East and dramatically elevated the jihadist threat.
Moreover, we should not exaggerate John Bolton’s aggression. To be a hawk isn’t to see war as a first resort. It’s to see war as a realistic option — an option that ideally makes diplomatic overtures more urgent and effective. As the most powerful nation on the face of the earth, we should not conduct our diplomacy as if we fear war more than our potential foes do.
Even one of the pieces that the New York Times cites to justify its alarm — Bolton’s 2017 Wall Street Journal article analyzing military options in North Korea — contains this key sentence: “The U.S. should obviously seek South Korea’s agreement (and Japan’s) before using force, but no foreign government, even a close ally, can veto an action to protect Americans from Kim Jong Un’s nuclear weapons.”
A quarter-century of American nonproliferation policy has failed.
This is a sensible statement, indicating both the desire for agreement with key allies and the necessity of national self-defense, and the Times fails to effectively grapple with the truth underlying Bolton’s essay — a quarter-century of American nonproliferation policy has failed.
I’m not arguing for a strike against North Korea. As I’ve written repeatedly, war with North Korea would risk loss of life on a staggering scale. And even if future developments force Bolton to urge a strike — and the president agrees — it’s imperative that the administration seek the approval of Congress before launching any new military action. It is, however, simply wrong to believe that engagement and appeasement don’t carry their own profound risks.
A nuclear-armed Iran is far more dangerous than John Bolton. A North Korea capable of incinerating American cities is far more dangerous than John Bolton. The question is how we prevent those truly “horrifying” risks. The foreign-policy debate is frequently between hawks and doves, and in the last administration, the doves repeatedly failed. It’s time to give a hawk a chance.