President-elect Trump’s State Department selections have managed to trigger opposition from two distinct and opposed camps. The neocons and anti-Russians oppose Exxon chief Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state designate, as too inclined to accommodate Putin. The disparate but occasionally united liberal, arms-control, and realist types are equally alarmed about John Bolton’s apparent selection for the number-two deputy secretary of state slot.
The problem with Bolton is simple. If you liked George W. Bush’s foreign policy, especially the Iraq War and the idea of regime change carried out by the American military on a multi-country, pan-regional scale, and you want get that kind of policy going again, the search is over: he’s definitely the guy. Most of the upper-middle-level officials who plotted the Iraq War have retreated quietly into private life, but Bolton has kept their flame alive, claiming quite recently that invading Iraq was the right thing to do, writing incendiary op-ed pieces about the desirability of bombing Iran, and seemingly (before a pro-Israel student group at the University of Chicago) encouraging Israel to launch a nuclear strike on Iran. In every realm where Trump—for all his Jacksonian bluster—has consciously sought to reassure us that he understands the radically extreme danger of nuclear-weapons use, Bolton has done the opposite. Where Trump quite courageously—before a hawkish South Carolina audience—criticized the Iraq War as an unmitigated disaster fomented by officials who consciously twisted intelligence findings, Bolton was one of the twisters, actively propagating the falsehood that Saddam had an active nuclear-weapons program. There may be literally no issue where he doesn’t take an extreme position: in 2002, as a Bush under secretary of state, he made the charge, later debunked, that Castro was engaging in advanced biological-weapons activities.
As always, one is reduced to making guesses about the Trumpland personalities whispering in the ear of the president-elect: does Trump feel he needs a rabid hawk to keep the right wing of the GOP in line? Does he simply appreciate Bolton as a TV foreign-policy personality? Does he fully recognize that Bolton, in the key State Department managerial position, would shape the department at its middle levels for years to come, effectively ensuring Trump’s own stated views were marginalized and received no bureaucratic support? It’s almost as if Trump is being counseled to let #NeverTrump form his administration, leaving the president-elect to glory in “Making America Great Again” while keeping an eye on his lovely golf and hotel properties.
The best—though hardly an adequate—reason to designate Bolton for such an influential position is that it might divert fire from Rex Tillerson, who seems an interesting and quite possibly inspired choice for secretary of state. Tillerson is obviously a brilliant man and a superb manager; you don’t rise to the top at Exxon without that. He comes with high recommendations—from Jim Baker, Condi Rice, and Bob Gates, according to Joe Scarborough.
Perhaps most importantly, he seems relatively untouched by the current Beltway fad of treating Vladimir Putin as a dire and irredeemable enemy. One can find it quite plausible (as I do) that the Russians preferred Trump’s election to Hillary Clinton’s: Clinton, after all, has been an active foe of Russia for years, and her State Department played a major role in fomenting the Ukrainian coup d’etat on Russia’s doorstep. This is hardly uniquely a Hillary failing. Washington is now full of people who would be justifiably outraged if China instigated a “people’s democratic revolution” in Mexico and made plans to bring Mexico into a China-dominated anti-U.S. military alliance, but utterly fail to perceive how their campaign to foment “color revolutions” and expand NATO up to Russia’s Western borders might be perceived in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
As for “interfering” in the U.S. election, spare me the tears. The U.S. crowed about interfering in Russia’s elections in the 1990s, helping to persuade Russians to vote for a man who oversaw the looting of Russia’s nationalized industries and a genuinely tragic rise in the country’s mortality rates. If some Russian intelligence agency imagined that leaking John Podesta’s emails would help Trump, it probably did Americans (now beginning to suffer a similar kind of unexplained increase in death rates) a favor.
The politicians and voters of Western Europe seem to be fast recognizing that their social systems are far more threatened by uncontrolled migration and terrorism than than they are by Moscow’s fumbling efforts to retain political influence in its near border areas. That is eminently sensible, and one hopes that some variant of this conclusion make its way across the Atlantic. Perhaps, with Trump’s election, it already has.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.