Donald Trump was elected president with no government experience or in-depth knowledge of foreign policy. That ignorance was reflected in some of his first choices to fill key administration positions. Yet after another shakeup this week in which former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton replaces Gen. H.R. McMaster as national security advisor, it would appear that after 14 months, Trump finally has the team members he needs. The only question is whether the president will have the wisdom to listen to them.
As far as the mainstream media is concerned, McMaster’s exit is just another example of the revolving door of personnel that has cycled in and out of the White House during Trump’s presidency. Liberal critics are not only damning Bolton as just another television personality, but proof that chaos is the only guiding principle of this administration. He is depicted as a knee-jerk hawk who understands nothing about diplomacy and is only interested in getting the United States into wars. His past stand on the Iraq War and his lack of enthusiasm for diplomacy with North Korea also might put him at odds with Trump, who became a harsh retroactive critic of that war and has just agreed to meet with Kim Jong Un.
From that perspective, Bolton’s appointment makes no sense. Naysayers think that like Trump’s appointment of fellow hawk Mike Pompeo to replace Rex Tillerson as secretary of state, Bolton will be just another passing fancy who will be tossed out the next time the erratic commander-in-chief feels like overturning the administration apple cart once again.
Given the unpredictable nature of this president, it’s impossible to say with certainty that they’re wrong. However, we can only hope that Trump has, by a process of trial and error, finally figured out that what he needs are principled conservatives who see the world as it is, rather than through the prism of diplomatic wishful thinking. He needed aides unencumbered by the foreign-policy establishment’s conventional wisdom about how to deal with America’s enemies. That’s exactly what he has now with Pompeo at the State Department, Nikki Haley at the United Nations and Bolton at his side in the White House.
The accusations about Bolton lacking knowledge of diplomacy are simply not correct. He has a long résumé of government experience in the State Department, the Justice Department and at the United Nations with service under former President Ronald Reagan, and the older and younger Bush presidents. Bolton is not a novice; he is an experienced hand with a firm grasp of both the foreign-policy expertise and how the bureaucracy works—or more to the point, often doesn’t work. That’s especially true compared to his two immediate predecessors: Gens. Michael Flynn and McMaster.
The foreign-policy establishment doesn’t like Bolton, but that’s nothing to be ashamed of. His sterling record stretches back to his time during the presidency of George H.W. Bush, when he headed the diplomatic team tasked with the campaign to rescind the infamous “Zionism is racism” U.N. resolution. His success there belies the notion that he’s allergic to diplomacy, but what he doesn’t tolerate is the casual acceptance of discrimination against Israel that governs so much of the international community’s actions. During his term as George W. Bush’s U.N. ambassador, he took stands that were remarkably similar to the ones Haley is taking now. He stood up for Israel against its tormentors and took a dim view of the notion that the United States needed to appease its enemies by sacrificing the security of the Jewish state.
Like everyone else who served in W’s administration, he was implicated in what turned out to be an ill-advised decision to invade Iraq. In his defense, he was right that removing Saddam Hussein from power was a good thing. Unfortunately, among the unintended consequences of that move was the strengthening of Iran, along with the chaos and bloodshed that convulsed Iraq after Saddam was toppled.
Even if we concede that invading Iraq was a mistake, Bolton has been right far more often than he’s been wrong. His steadfast opposition to the Iran nuclear deal and his clear thinking about the absolute necessity of American action to either renegotiate or add on to that pact is correct. And fortunately, Trump seems to be in agreement with both him and with Pompeo on this issue.
The term “realist” is identified with a school of thought that embraces the notion of jettisoning Israeli interests and bowing to the dictates of European allies, who have always been unenthusiastic about stopping Iran’s nuclear ambitions. But that is America’s only realistic option. True realism, as embodied by the stands of Bolton and Pompeo, involves understanding that the defense of U.S. interests involves halting Iran’s quest for regional hegemony and a nuclear weapon, not enabling it as President Obama did with his deal. It also means not being deceived by international opinion about the Palestinians, instead demanding that they embrace peace and renounce terror before asking Israel to sacrifice its security for the hope of peace.
Due to his instinctual distrust of the establishment—and against the desires of both Tillerson and McMaster—Trump has re-established close relations with Israel after Obama’s quest for daylight. The result was a long overdue recognition of Jerusalem and the beginning of an effort to strengthen restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program. To carry out this shift, Trump needs Pompeo and Bolton, not more establishment hacks determined to prevent him from following the right course.
Pompeo and Bolton also are tough-minded enough to prevent Trump from making a mistake on North Korea. Their combined thinking about the threat from Russia might also persuade the president to begin backing away from his fixation on a futile effort at a rapprochement with Moscow.
Contrary to the purveyors of conventional wisdom who have been wrong for decades, the pick of Bolton is actually an inspired choice that could help keep Trump from making the sort of unforced errors on foreign policy that he has so often made with ill-advised statements on Twitter. Let’s hope the president is smart enough to stick with a winning foreign-policy team now that he has one.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS — The Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.