Debate Magazine

Neocons Do Not Give Credits to Bolton

Posted on the 17 April 2018 by Shahalexander

The global community was startled when President Donald Trump reshuffled the cabinet to replace Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with CIA Director Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster with Former UN Ambassador John Bolton. As tensions over the North Korean nuclear crisis grows, the nomination of loyalist hawks raises critical concerns among foreign policy experts all over the world. While Pompeo needs approval at the Senate, Bolton has started his job from April 9. It is commonly understood that outspoken Bolton is a good match with unorthodox Trump. However, there are some discrepancies in foreign policy views between the both. Particularly, Bolton is commonly regarded as a neocon, and willing to make cases for regime changes against rogue nations like Iran and North Korea, while Trump is inclined to businessman styled costs and benefits thinking and isolationism. Therefore, I doubted Bolton’s appointment to the Secretary of State, when people rumored it in the transition period (”Bolton would consider serving as Trump's secretary of State”; Hill; August 23, 2016). From this point of view, his appointment to the National Security Advisor is rather surprising, despite the mismatch between Trump and McMaster.
However, there are some policy discrepancies between Bolton and Trump, notably on Russia and the Middle East. According to the BBC, their policy match is just 3 out 5 issues. Both think there is nothing wrong with a preemptive attack on North Korea. They also agree to bomb Iran when necessary. In addition, they distrust the United Nations, and prefer the world system based on sovereign states. On the other hand, Bolton strongly believes it was necessary to remove the threat of Saddam Hussein in the Iraq War, which is completely at odds with Trump. Russia is another issue that both disagree. Ironically, Bolton admits Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, although his predecessor McMaster was forced to clash with Trump on this issue (“John Bolton: Five things new Trump security adviser believes”; BBC News; 23 March, 2018). From this perspective, Russian dominance in Syria and its neighborhood could trigger some frictions between Bolton and Trump in the future. Despite vehement criticism from renowned experts, Trump clings to his notorious election pledges like tariff hikes against trade partners whether allies or non-allies, troop deployment on the border with Mexico as he failed to win the budget for the wall, withdrawal from the TPP, repeal of the Paris Accord on Climate Change, and so forth. Whoever the advisor is, it is extremely difficult to avoid a clash with Trump.
Even more vicious criticism to Bolton comes from his fellow “neocons”, most of whom joined the Never Trump movement during the election, as opposed to his firm endorsement to Trump against Hillary Clinton. Let me talk about some example. Professor Eliot Cohen of the SAIS, who led an anti-Trump movement during the election, is critically worries that there is no one to check Trump in the cabinet after he nominated Bolton and Pompeo to take place of McMaster and Tillerson. Thus, Cohen recommends McMaster to write a memoir to tell Trump’s confused management of his administration to awaken the public (“McMaster's Choice”; Atlantic; March 23, 2018). Max Boot at the Council on Foreign comments even acrimoniously. Contrary to historical presidents who explored to seek common ground with the Congress and the federal bureaucracy when they reshuffled the cabinet, Trump appointed friction prone Bolton to replace McMaster. During the Bush era, Senate approval for his appointment to the UN Ambassador was delayed due to his disrespect to international treaties and organizations. As the Ambassador, he failed to exert American leadership at the UN. The National Security Advisor needs interpersonal skills to coordinate foreign policy and defense agencies, but Bolton is not good at it. Most dangerously, he is endorses preemptive attack on nuclear armed North Korea, and withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action without showing an alternative for the United States to denuclearize Iran (“Add another zealot to the White House”; Washington Post; March 22, 2018.) Though Boot agrees with Bolton for his criticism to overstaffed and red taped UN, he comments that Bolton’s nationalist and authoritarian mindsets as shown in his antipathy to the EU and Islam are incompatible with idealistic internationalist Republican mainstream, but more compatible with Trumpism (“Why I changed my mind about John Bolton”; Washington Post; March 26, 2018).
Though Bolton joined the campaign for the regime change in Iraq by the Project for the New American Century (“PNAC and Iraq”; New Yorker; March 29, 2009), William Kristol told that he is not a neocon but a national interest hawk in an interview with his Weekly Standard on March 23. In fact, Bolton is not so much interested in universal moral issues like democracy promotion and human rights, although he still endorses the regime change in both North Korea and Iran (“Bolton Brings Hawkish Perspective To North Korea, Iran Strategy”; NPR News; March 22, 2018). In other words, he just wants to overthrow dangerous regimes that pose critical threats to US national security. Kristol’s analysis is plausible as Bolton hardly supported democracy initiatives in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. He would not care dictatorship of President Abdel el-Sisi and Gulf emirates, as long as they remain close allies to the United States. Therefore, he is more in line with Trump’s America First than neoconservative idealism. On the other hand, Kristol mentions that Bolton does not agree to Trump’s isolationist view, and he believes in strong alliances with NATO, Japan, and so forth, to boost American foreign policy. From this point, it is critical how much Bolton can exert influence on Trump’s Russia policy. The imminent problem is whether Bolton reinforces or restrains Trump’s instinct of war against North Korea and Iran. Since he argues preemptive attack on the North and repeal of the JCPOA, he is more likely to reinforce Trump’s belligerence. Kristol is not so sarcastic as Boot, but he is critically concerned with the combination of hawkish Bolton and irascible Trump, which was not the case with the same Bolton serving Republican mainstream presidents like Bush Sr and Jr.

Above all, the media use the word of neocon too broadly to anyone who supported the Iraq War. Actually, those who are commonly called neocon include a broad range of foreign policy pundits from Bolton who sees himself a diehard conservative from the beginning, to Robert Kagan who proclaims his thoughts are based on liberal and traditional international interventionism, and endorsed Clinton in the last election from the early phase. The media and foreign policy experts should use the word more precisely defined. But even though Bolton is not a neocon, why he endorses Trump so firmly despite his long career at the State Department? Until the rise of Trump, foreign policy circles both inside and outside the United States assumed that America would restore global leadership under the new president after post-American Barack Obama, whether Hillary Clinton or someone from Republican mainstream. However, Bolton was extremely skeptical to Clinton’s interventionism. One example that he mentions is US intervention in the Libyan Civil War in 2011. As opposed to popular notions of Clinton as a liberal hawk, he argues that she was too timid to remove Muammar Qaddafy without international authorization when Libya was resuming terrorist sponsorship. In his view, UN backed humanitarian intervention is a standard Democrat foreign policy, and hardly compatible with the vision of Henry Jackson (“Hillary and ‘interventionism’”; Pittsburgh Tribune Review; May 7, 2016). While blaming Clinton’s "passive" diplomacy, Bolton praises Trump for his understanding that the War on Terror comes the hate ideology of Islamic extremism to the West. Thus, he endorsed Trump’s Muslim immigration restriction, as opposed to law enforcement approaches of Obama and Clinton. Quite interestingly, Bolton is scornful to nation building in a country without legal, political and cultural foundations as Trump is, though he endorses the regime change in Iran and North Korea (“What Trump’s foreign policy gets right”; Wall Street Journal; August 21, 2016).
Despite such a contradiction, there are some discrepancies between Bolton’s proactive nationalism and Trump’s Fortress America isolationism. From this perspective, the Syrian Civil War is a critical test for both. Though Trump launched air raids along with Britain and France against the chemical attack by the Assad regime (“US strikes three Syrian sites in response for chemical attack”; Military Times; April 14, 2018 ), he hinted a plan to withdraw US troops from Syria before this incident, while generals strongly resisted that (“Trump gets testy as national security team warns of risks of Syria withdrawal”; CNN News; April 5, 2018). Trump may have shown the power, but Richard Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations tweets, “The US strikes in were a legitimate but narrow response to Syrian CW use. There is no visible change in US policy toward Syria, ie, the US did not act to weaken the regime. Nor is there any more clarity re future US policy or presence in Syria.”
Current Syria policy is deeply entangled with Russia and Middle East policy. Can Bolton persuade Trump to shed his Fortress America instincts? The problem is Trump’s election base. They lament that an interventionist Trump is turning to another Hillary Clinton or George W. Bush, over Syria (“Trump supporters rip decision to strike Syria”; Politico, April 13, 2018). Though alt-rights like Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka left the administration, Trump supporters' favorite FOX News anchorman Tucker Carlson propagates isolationism through blaming bipartisan foreign policy leaders (“Tucker Takes on Critics Over Skepticism of Syria Strikes: They Want You to 'Shut Up and Obey'” FOX news; April 11, 2018). Bolton may not believe in neocon idealism, but as a foreign service veteran, he must override populist isolationism on which this administration is founded. That is an extremely tough job.


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