The announcement that John Bolton will become President Trump's new national security adviser is the most alarming news since Trump won the election in the first place, for two reasons. First, Bolton is perhaps the most bloodthirsty warmonger in the entire Republican elite firmament (and the bar for that statement is extremely high). Second, there is little reason to think that the rest of the governing class will be able to mount an effective challenge to Bolton's all-but-certain push for new wars.
America stands a solid chance of waging another senseless, criminal war of aggression because it never reckoned with the wretched foreign policy failures of the new century.
The 15-year anniversary of the Iraq invasion was last week, prompting another round of retrospectives on the incomprehensible scale of the disaster. In the sense of narrow American self-interest, it was one of the worst strategic errors in the history of U.S. foreign policy, ending the lives of thousands of American soldiers, maiming tens of thousands more, spending hundreds of billions of dollars directly and trillions more indirectly — and all in the service of deeply harming the national interest and reputation.
It was also a grievous crime. Iraqi injuries and fatalities were two to three orders of magnitude greater than American ones. A war of aggression is the most serious violation of international law that exists, but the incompetent reactionary ideologues who set up the new Iraqi pseudo-state — complete with a drastically lowered corporate tax and total legal immunity for foreign mercenaries — did one better by doing their torturing in the exact same dungeon that Saddam Hussein had done his. It was, quite literally, stuff that got Nazis hanged at Nuremberg.
And unlike the similarly-criminal Vietnam War, where the North Vietnamese communists built a functioning nation after defeating American forces and conquering South Vietnam (and later even developed reasonably warm relations with the U.S.), the Iraq invasion released a spasm of chaos and violence akin to the Thirty Years' War in its mindless, ongoing butchery. The political structure of the entire region is in ruins to this day, riddled with corruption, extremism, and slavery, largely as a result of the monstrous invasion — and there is little improvement to be seen on the horizon.
What reckoning has there been for this hideous error of collective judgment? Almost none. Let us examine a partial list of left-leaning Iraq War supporters who remained in positions of high power and influence after the invasion, as that is where consequences might be expected to be found. (Virtually all conservatives supported the war, of course, and very few have expressed even slight regret.)
To wit: Hillary Clinton, 2016 Democratic Party nominee for president; Joe Biden, former Democratic Vice President; current Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer; Dianne Feinstein, ranking Democratic member of the Senate Intelligence Committee; John Kerry, 2004 Democratic presidential candidate and 2013-16 Secretary of State; Representatives Henry Waxman and (now-Senator) Ed Markey; Anne-Marie Slaughter, president and CEO of the New America Foundation; Jeffrey Goldberg, editor-in-chief of The Atlantic; David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker; George Packer, staff writer for same; Bill Keller, former editor and columnist of the New York Times; Thomas Friedman, New York Times columnist; Fred Hiatt, editorial page editor for The Washington Post; Jacob Weisberg, former Slate editor-in-chief and current Slate Group editor-in-chief; and Ezra Klein, co-founder and editor-at-large of Vox.
Now, some of those people have written fairly convincing explanations for where they went wrong and the lessons they learned to avoid supporting future blood-drenched atrocities. The real problem is the numbers and high status on display. It is painfully evident that not only were there no meaningful consequences for botching the most important foreign policy call of the last 20 years, it was actually a smart career move to do so. There was no movement to discover, raise up, or hire Iraq War critics after the war became an inarguable disaster. On the contrary, the power elite and arbiters of conventional wisdom generally shunned or passed them over, because they were living testimony to the fact that status quo thinking was (and remains) strategically and morally bankrupt.
As John Kenneth Galbraith once wrote, "In these matters, as often in our culture, it is far, far better to be wrong in a respectable way than to be right for the wrong reasons." Barack Obama, the best political campaigner since FDR, was one of the few to leverage his war opposition into a major victory — and then proceeded to put Hillary Clinton in charge of his foreign policy.
That brings me back to John Bolton. This is a guy so crazed for war that even some Senate Republicans refused to support him as U.N. ambassador back in 2005. Today, of course, there is no such resistance. Bolton has recently been pressing hard for attacking both North Korea and Iran (the latter after tearing up the nuclear deal, naturally). He's someone who — unlike most neoconservatives, who only pick on countries that can't fight back — might opt for war even facing a nontrivial chance of a nuclear strike on U.S. soil, or a serious chance of defeat. This could be very, very bad.
After the Iraq cataclysm, what America desperately needed was an honest debate about its bloody imperial bungling. What we got was, by and large, a lot of evasive mumbling about how "no one could have predicted," and how we need to "turn the page" and "look forward, not backward."
The result is a Republican administration full of people who would still be in prison for war crimes in a country that took the rule of law seriously, and an opposition party too full of idiots and/or cowards to present a united front against war. Just last week, 10 Senate Democrats provided the crucial swing votes that allowed Trump to keep backstopping the genocidal Saudi war in Yemen. I have little confidence there will be a party-wide attempt to stand up to Bolton and Trump when the time comes.