Last week, John Bolton ascended to the office of National Security Advisor, following in the hurried footsteps of Michael Flynn and H.R. McMaster. Two peculiar characteristics set Bolton apart from most folks in D.C.: an unabashedly luxurious mustache and an unmatched penchant for unjustified preemptive violence.
At the University of Chicago in 2009, Bolton warned, “Unless Israel is prepared to use nuclear weapons against Iran’s program, Iran will have nuclear weapons in the very near future.” Thankfully, Israel didn’t take Bolton’s advice and, as most predicted, Iran never lived up to his expectations. Similarly, in a 2015 op-ed in the New York Times, Bolton opined, “The inescapable conclusion is that Iran will not negotiate away its nuclear program. Nor will sanctions block its building a broad and deep weapons infrastructure…. Time is terribly short, but a strike can still succeed.” Three short months later, a non-proliferation deal wherein Iran agreed to a 98 percent reduction in its enriched uranium stockpile and a 15-year pause in the development of key weapons infrastructure was negotiated.
More recently in February, Bolton advised in the Wall Street Journal that “Given the gaps in U.S. intelligence about North Korea, we should not wait until the very last minute…. It is perfectly legitimate for the United States to respond to the current ‘necessity’ posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons by striking first.”
By this point Bolton’s record of calling for war in every possible situation had lost the ability to shock. Still, the Founding Fathers would probably be appalled.
A comparatively irenic vision pervades the philosophy of the founders. James Wilson, in his Lectures on Law, wrote that when a nation “is under an obligation to preserve itself and its members; it has…a right to do everything” that it can “without injuring others.” In Federalist 4, John Jay advised that the American people ought to support steps that would “put and keep them in such a situation as, instead of inviting war, will tend to repress and discourage it.” And in his Farewell Address, George Washington asserted that the United States should be “always guided by an exalted justice and benevolence.”
A preemptive nuclear strike justified on the flimsy basis of “gaps in U.S. intelligence” hardly seems concordant with such military restraint and “exalted justice.” And lest it be thought these ideals were mere lofty notions, consider how, as American history proceeded, they became enshrined in American diplomacy.
In 1837, Canadian rebels sailing aboard the Caroline fled to an island in the Niagara River with the help of a few American citizens. British forces boarded their ship, killed an American member of the crew, and then set the Caroline ablaze before forcing it over Niagara Falls. Enraged, American and Canadian raiders destroyed a British ship. Several attacks followed until the crisis was at last ended in 1842 by the Webster-Ashburton Treaty. In the aftermath, the Caroline test was established, which stipulates that an attack made in self-defense is justifiable only when, in the words of Daniel Webster, the necessity is “instant, overwhelming, and leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation.” This principle remains the international standard, though some like Bolton think it’s outdated.
With the Caroline test in mind, Bolton wrote while arguing in favor of a preemptive strike against North Korea, “The case against preemption rests on the misinterpretation of a standard that derives from prenuclear, pre-ballistic-missile times.” In other words, Bolton believes that we can no longer afford to wait for the situation to be “instant” and “overwhelming,” and makes an offense out of abstaining from immediate preemptive action, regardless of the potential costs involved.
Relatedly, one of Bolton’s most colorful jabs at President Obama involved likening him to Æthelred the Unready, a medieval Anglo-Saxon king remembered for his tragic indecisiveness. Yet given the costs of groundless preemption, indecisiveness is often a midwife to careful contemplation and peace. Had Prime Minister Netanyahu or Obama been persuaded by Bolton’s retrospectively warrantless calls for preemption in Iran, tragedy would have followed.
In that vein, it is Bolton who merits historical comparison: to Cato the Elder, a conservative-yet-eccentric Roman statesman who, according to Plutarch, would often and invariably call for the destruction of Carthage, even though the Carthaginian threat was neither imminent nor apparent. Eventually, Cato’s words wended their way into the ears of power and hundreds of thousands of Carthaginians were pointlessly slaughtered. According to the Greek historian Polybius, Scipio Aemilianus, the young Roman General who led the attack, at seeing the carnage of a great people, “shed tears and wept openly.”
In order that we never find ourselves standing alongside Scipio knee-deep in unjustly spilt blood, Bolton should reconsider whether the flimsy merits of rash preemption truly outweigh the durable wisdom of the Founding Fathers and the lessons of history.
Michael Shindler is an Advocate with Young Voices and a writer living in Washington, D.C. Follow him @MichaelShindler.