The negative reaction to President Trump's choice of John Bolton to be his new national security advisor has been as unsurprising as it has been swift and overwhelming. How overwhelming? As Jacob Heilbrunn writes in The National Interest, "Here's just how radical Donald Trump's appointment of John Bolton as national security advisor really is: The Financial Times reports that even Iran hawks such as Mark Dubowitz, the head of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, are rubbing their eyes in disbelief."
Disbelief may be spreading in certain precincts on the Trump-friendly right as well. As Daniel McCarthy, former editor-in-chief of The American Conservative — a magazine founded by right-wing opponents of the second President Bush's foreign policy — points out, Trump, like Obama before him, owed a considerable portion of his success to his opposition to the Iraq War. That opposition may have been more belated than Trump himself admits, but once engaged it was certainly full-throated. McCarthy enthusiastically supported Trump precisely because of the radical break he represented with Washington orthodoxy on foreign policy, as well as other issues like immigration and trade. A return of the most war-obsessed neoconservatives was surely not what such voters expected.
Is that what Bolton and Pompeo portend? Not exactly — and yet the differences between Trump's ascendant uber-hawks and neoconservatives are subtle enough that they may seem like hair-splitting to some. Heilbrunn describes Bolton as "not a neocon, but there is definite consanguinity," while David Bosco sees a sharper divide between the cracked idealism of neoconservative enthusiasm for democracy promotion and a purportedly-benign American imperium, and the quasi-realism of Bolton's reflexively militaristic and unilateralist outlook, which respects nothing beyond the blunt reality of power.
Splitting these particular hairs is important, however, both to understand correctly the threat that Bolton and Pompeo — and Trump — represent to world order, and to understand how they could have fooled the kinds of people who had kind words for the anti-interventionism of Ron and Rand Paul, or who could edit a magazine dedicated to "realism and restraint," about the likely consequences of electing an unabashed nationalist to the American presidency.
In certain precincts on the right, there persists a conviction that the aggressive foreign policy of the Bush administration was largely a consequence of the neoconservative migration of certain left-wing intellectuals toward the right in the 1970s. Having started as Trotskyists battling Stalinists at City College, so goes the story, neither they nor their children and now grandchildren ever truly shed their fundamentally ideological and revolutionary outlook, they just transferred their revolutionary allegiance from Marx to Madison. And the same crusading spirit that brought Trotsky to Warsaw brought Bush to Baghdad.
But this conviction is founded on a fantasy, that before Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz the right was divided between restrained Eisenhower-style internationalists and even more restrained, inward-looking small-r republicans like Taft. And that is not the case. Barry Goldwater was not a neoconservative; Curtis LeMay was not a neoconservative; and the most nakedly imperialist wars in American history, the Mexican War and the Spanish-American War, were launched long before Trotsky had ever come to power (and in the former case, before he was even born).
This is the true pedigree of aggressive American nationalism, to which neoconservatism was a belated addition, and it should not be surprising to see modern descendants of that line appointed to power in a new American nationalist administration. As I wrote in The American Conservative on the eve of the 2016 election, endorsing Hillary Clinton (not a popular position at that magazine):
My primary reservation about Clinton involves her foreign policy instincts, which I believe are distinctly bad. She is an American primacist with a genuinely disturbing lust for military action. She was wrong on Iraq, wrong on Libya, and wrong or Syria. I expect her to be wrong repeatedly and in a similar fashion during her administration. I have deep concerns about her approach to both Russia and Iran, problematic actors on the international stage that require deft diplomacy rather than reflexive hostility. She is the most belligerent Democratic nominee since Johnson, and I would not be shocked to see her presidency end in a similar fashion to his.
But Trump provides no responsible alternative, just as Goldwater was not a responsible alternative to Johnson. Trump's notion of an "America First" foreign policy is neither a restrained, Jeffersonian conservatism of the heart, nor a cool, calculating Hamiltonian conservatism of the head, but an unbridled Jacksonian conservatism of the testicles. I am confident that in the best case a Trump presidency would seriously damage American interests. The worst case is difficult to calculate. [The American Conservative]
It is fair to point out that the worst case has not actually happened yet. Trump has not launched a pre-emptive strike against North Korea or Iran; he has not, in fact, done anything remotely as destructive as the war in Iraq, and he may actually be aware, on some level, that doing so would be the surest way to destroy his presidency. But Trump also says his recent choices reflect his desire to have a team that is on the same page with him, and it's not hard to discern what page Pompeo and Bolton are on. Moreover, as the adage goes, personnel is policy. Trump is making very clear gestures with his recent personnel choices, but even if they are only intended as gestures, they will wind up shaping the policy choices he is presented with, and as such they have the opportunity to shape the choices he makes.
Meanwhile, for those on the right who supported Trump in part because of his attacks on the people who brought us Iraq, these personnel choices should prompt a reckoning. If the Iraq War was like Vietnam in effect, weakening American power and prestige and spreading death and destruction across a whole region, it was like the Spanish-American war in intent: unilateralist, aggressive and nationalist, though wrapped in a ribbon of idealism.
It should be clear by now to that war's opponents that rallying the right around a nationalist banner was a poor strategy to prevent a recurrence.