By Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis, USA, ret.
During the 2016 campaign, then-Candidate Trump distinguished himself because he rejected the failed status-quo policies of the post-9/11 world. His anti-establishment message resonated strongly with Americans and catapulted him to the White House. Trump’s selection yesterday of John Bolton to succeed H.R. McMaster as National Security Advisor is a step in the wrong direction, as Bolton is as status-quo as they come.
You can say one thing for the former UN Ambassador, however: he has been consistent throughout his career. Consistently wrong, that is. In 1998, Bolton was one of 25 co-authors who published an open letter to President Clinton advocating for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
Because it would be too difficult to confirm whether or not Iraq was genuinely disbanding its WMD program, Bolton’s letter warned, “in the not-too-distant future we will be unable to determine with any reasonable level of confidence whether Iraq does or does not possess such weapons.” As a consequence, the authors said the president must show “a willingness to undertake military action as diplomacy is clearly failing.”
Yet diplomacy had in fact not failed, and Saddam had actually disarmed. Perhaps the most damning finding from Bolton and his colleagues was this claim: “Although we are fully aware of the dangers and difficulties in implementing this policy, we believe the dangers of failing to do so are far greater.” Now after more than 15 full years later, the spiral of chaos and violence unleased in 2003 continues to burn in Iraq (and now Syria), and thousands of U.S. troops are still deployed there.
One might give the Ambassador some slack for having been wrong before-the-fact, but would expect that with the passage of time and as the true scope of the failure has become clear, Bolton would have grudgingly acknowledged that fact. Yet in an opinion article penned more than a decade later—and despite mountains of evidence to the contrary—Bolton remains emphatic in his claims that the invasion was a good idea.
In the 2016 article, Bolton asserted that by, “eliminating Saddam’s threat to Middle Eastern peace and security, the 2003 invasion fully justified itself.” Leaving Saddam in power, Bolton argued, “would have all but guaranteed further conflict with other Arab states, and a resumed quest for weapons of mass destruction.”
The evidence not only doesn’t support that theory, it directly refutes it: as was authoritative confirmed, the UN weapons inspectors had successfully disarmed Saddam, he had dismantled his nuclear facilities, and with the sanctions then in place, he would have had no way to reconstitute the program and would have posed no threat to the region. Moreover, al-Qaeda would never have carved out a presence in Iraq and ISIS would never have risen. Unfortunately, that’s not the only incidence of Bolton’s suspect judgment.
Earlier this year, Bolton argued that “talking to the North Koreans is a waste of time.” Yet Trump has now scheduled historic talks with North Korea’s leader, and it appears the president actually does value talking to the North Koreans.
On Iran, Trump has made no secret of the fact he considers the nuclear agreement with Teheran to be “the worst deal ever,” and he wants to negotiate a better one. He does not, however, seek regime change. As president-elect in December 2016, Trump categorically said the United States, “will stop racing to topple foreign regimes that we know nothing about, that we shouldn’t be involved with.” Bolton, however, recently advocated the opposite. “Our goal should be regime change in Iran,” he stated.
Bolton will have to temper some of his personal views and recognize that the role of the National Security Advisor is not to push his own agenda, but to advise the president on how best to accomplish his objectives. George W. Bush’s NSC chief Stephen J. Hadley, warned that whoever fills the role must avoid “using the privileged position accorded to the National Security Advisor in this process to ‘tilt’ the process in favor of the outcome favored by the National Security Advisor.”
Over the past 17 years, the total number of people estimated to have been killed in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria since those wars began is close to 819,000. Using a so-called ‘preventive’ strike in North Korea would almost certainly explode into an all-out war, potentially resulting in a million deaths in the war’s opening weeks. Before advocating for either regime change in Iran or war in North Korea, Bolton must offer a credible plan for how the likely results will not harm U.S. interests and make the situation materially worse than it is today.
President Trump has had good instincts on several foreign policy matters since the 2016 campaign. If he does indeed hire Bolton to become his next National Security Advisor, let us hope that Trump does not sacrifice his good instincts in deference to Bolton’s poor track record of advocating hawk-like impulses.
Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who retired in 2015 after 21 years, including four combat deployments. Follow him @DanielLDavis1.
This piece was originally published by CNBC.com on March 23, 2018. Read more HERE.