[Noah Feldman] Bolton, pugilist from the right, takes a new position

By Bloomberg

Published : Apr 12, 2018 - 18:00
Updated : Apr 12, 2018 - 18:00

Here’s a prediction that is sure to annoy everyone: Now that he’s national security adviser, John Bolton will become more moderate.

Some extremists moderate when they take public office because of bureaucratic pushback from the middle. That’s not what I expect for Bolton. He’s made a career of fighting the bureaucracy from the right.

I predict Bolton will moderate for the opposite reason: In this stage of President Donald Trump’s administration, there’s almost no one left to push back at Bolton from the center. Without such opposition, Bolton is going to realize that he’s the grown-up in the room, and the closest thing to a realist anywhere in Trump’s foreign policy circles.

Bolton, despite himself, will discover that he has no choice but to take the role of war-skeptic, asking the president to consider the consequences of aggressive action and intervention.

Ideologically, Bolton isn’t a neoconservative. He rejects democracy-building and its associated idealism.

Rather, Bolton is a nuts-and-bolts national power right-winger, who thinks the US needs to project power outward and use force when it’s pragmatically necessary to do so.

Even if Trump now thinks he has surrounded himself with advisers who will let him indulge extremist impulses, he actually hasn’t, at least not in Bolton. Bolton, I’m saying, will likely constrain Trump.

The key to this admittedly counterintuitive prediction is a close reading of Bolton’s career. Yes, Bolton has consistently occupied a position at the right extreme of Republican foreign policy. But he has never been truly outside the spectrum.

To the contrary, Bolton has always made sure that he was a member of the establishment.

The psychology of social class is relevant here. Bolton’s father was a Baltimore firefighter. But Bolton went -- on scholarship -- to a fancy prep school, then to Yale College and Yale Law School. Like his educational peers, and unlike many other working-class kids from urban backgrounds, he got around service in Vietnam by enlisting in the National Guard.

In other words, the meritocratic engine that once worked so well in the US launched Bolton on an elite path. He has never deviated from it. He worked at two white-shoe law firms, and spent a stretch as a named partner in a firm founded with other elite lawyers.

In government, Bolton worked for the Justice Department and the State Department in assistant secretary level roles. Those are the insider-power positions of these large bureaucracies.

Bolton reached the position of undersecretary of state for arms control and international security in the George W. Bush administration. He was never confirmed as ambassador to the United Nations, partly because Senate Republicans weren’t sure it was worth the cost to leave him on his own. Bush eventually installed him as a recess appointment.

Out of government, Bolton held a senior position at the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank within the mainstream conservative establishment. He wrote for the Weekly Standard -- again, establishment conservative. He has been a commentator on Fox News, not a Breitbart contributor.

The point here is not only that Bolton’s niche has always been at the right wing of the establishment. It’s that he has always had others in the conservative establishment to push back against him.

That’s about to change. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has been replaced by Mike Pompeo, a former congressional ideologue who is further right than Bolton. If Gina Haspel is confirmed as the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, the agency will likely have trouble occupying the “voice of caution” role.

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis might be the only figure against whom Bolton could struggle from the right. That depends, however, on whether Mattis himself stays in place -- and whether he is interested in trying to constrain Trump from using military force abroad.

In any case, Mattis and the senior military brass have been inclined to be more interventionist than Trump, insisting for example on keeping troops in Syria even after Islamic State has been defeated.

The upshot is that Bolton will probably have the first opportunity in his lifetime to push hard-right interventionist policy into place. The unfamiliar situation is going to make him think twice.

If we see a foreign policy that, trade aside, continues to look a lot like the one we’ve seen in the first year and change of the Trump administration, that will be a sign that Bolton’s bark has all along been worse than his bite.

It’s one thing to be the most right-wing member of the establishment. It’s another thing to put policies in place that break the establishment’s norms altogether.

Noah Feldman
Noah Feldman is a Bloomberg View columnist. -- Ed.



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