Donald Trump began to express doubts about the wisdom of overthrowing Saddam Hussein soon after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and by 2004, he was criticizing the war as senseless and counterproductive — or, as he put it more recently, "a big fat mistake." Hillary Clinton, by contrast, did not admit the war was a mistake until more than a decade after she voted for it.
John Bolton, the former U.N. ambassador whom Trump reportedly plans to nominate as deputy secretary of state, has Clinton beat. He still thinks the war was a good idea. Bolton's stubborn defense of a disastrous war he helped engineer, which by itself should be enough to disqualify him from any position related to foreign policy, reflects interventionist instincts that are glaringly inconsistent with Trump's critique of reckless regime change and naive nation building.
In recent speeches, Trump reaffirmed his "commitment to only engage the use of military forces when it's vital for national security interests of the United States." He said that "we will stop trying to build foreign democracies, topple regimes and race recklessly to intervene in situations that we have no right to be there," promised that his administration will instead be "guided by the lessons of history and a desire to promote stability" and declared that the "destructive cycle of intervention and chaos must finally ... come to an end."
It is hard to think of a worse candidate to help implement that vision than Bolton. As undersecretary of state for arms control and international security affairs, he was largely responsible for the deception used to justify the invasion of Iraq, a stratagem that Trump has condemned in no uncertain terms.
"They lied," Trump said during a debate last February. "They said there were weapons of mass destruction. There were none, and they knew there were none."
Bolton is not only a liar, according to Trump himself, but a liar who does not learn from his big fat mistakes. "I still think the decision to overthrow Saddam was correct," he told the Washington Examiner last year.
Undaunted by the results of that intervention — which, according to Trump, created chaotic conditions conducive to terrorism — Bolton supported overthrowing Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi, which, according to Trump, continued the "destructive cycle of intervention and chaos." More recently, Bolton has advocated bombing Iran and argued that the U.S. should have intervened earlier and more decisively in Syria's civil war.
Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who briefly vied with Trump for the Republican presidential nomination and who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is dismayed by the gap between Bolton's belligerence and Trump's criticism of wanton war-making. "I want Trump to pick somebody who agrees with what he said on the stump," Paul told Reason magazine last week. "The fact that the administration would consider Bolton makes one wonder how deeply felt or deeply held those beliefs are."
In a Rare essay explaining why he will oppose any nomination of Bolton for a State Department position, Paul described him as "a longtime member of the failed Washington elite that Trump vowed to oppose, hell-bent on repeating virtually every foreign policy mistake the U.S. has made in the last 15 years — particularly those Trump promised to avoid as president." Paul noted that Bolton has "more often stood with Hillary Clinton and against what Donald Trump has advised."
Trump's puzzling fondness for Bolton, whom he calls "a tough cookie," is of a piece with his promise to "build up" a military that already receives more money than its seven closest competitors combined. "I'm a very militaristic person," Trump bragged during a debate last year, even as he criticized the Iraq War.
Trump says he aims, like Ronald Reagan, to achieve "peace through strength." But a military buildup hardly seems consistent with Trump's complaint that "we're all over the place, fighting in areas that ... we shouldn't be fighting in." An outsize military budget invites outsize thinking about how to use it, and an adviser such as Bolton would have plenty of ideas.
Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @jacobsullum. To find out more about Jacob Sullum and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.