For those of us who have been closely following politics for the past couple of decades, the following words are undoubtedly ones we never expected to read: Today is John Bolton's first day as national security adviser to the president of the United States. After observing his years of extremist rhetoric and his checkered career in government, it seemed unimaginable that Bolton would ever attain such an important job. But then, it was once unimaginable that a reality TV host and shill for cheap consumer goods could become president either. Perhaps it's time to recognize that we are so far down the rabbit hole that comparing this administration to what we previously called reality isn't particularly relevant.
In an unusual move for this president, Bolton's predecessor, H.R. McMaster, was allowed to leave with some sense of dignity even though he had been subtly critical of the president over his handling of Russia in a couple of speeches in his final days. Trump apparently allowed everyone in the White House to pretend that McMaster wasn't fired, and must have approved his staff giving the departing general a big send-off. (You know they wouldn't have done this without the president's OK.)
This felt...odd...from the North Driveway. This picture only adds to that feeling, since McMaster was FIRED by their boss. Not defiance, but... pic.twitter.com/9RvOlLbYNQ— John T. Bennett (@BennettJohnT) April 7, 2018
I'm sure most of the White House were genuinely sad to see him go, considering who is replacing him. This administration has been careening wildly from the beginning but it's about to take a sharp right turn.
The White House announced on Sunday night that another top national security aide, Michael Anton, would be leaving to spend more time with his far right intellectuals. Anton is best known for his pseudonymous essay "The Flight 93 Election," a bizarre metaphor in which the nation was 9/11's Flight 93, Hillary Clinton was the liberal globalist terrorist who was trying to take over the plane and Donald Trump was the heroic passenger Todd Beamer saying "let's roll" and charging the cockpit. (I confess I never understood why anyone thought this was so inspiring since the plane crashed, killing everyone on board.)
According to the Hill, Anton was once a true-blue Trumper who changed in the White House and became aligned with those considered more moderate. One source was quoted saying that Anton "completely flipped. He was brought in because of [Michael] Flynn but he became the biggest cheerleader for the McMaster faction that fought against implementing the president's policies."
In any case, he's the last of the original America Firsters, and Bolton will be able to build his team in his own image. His biggest problem is going to be the same as any other White House adviser -- making coherent policy with Trump all over the map. Those who believe Trump is an isolationist probably think he and Bolton are a bad match. In fact they share the same domineering sensibilities and, with the exception of Israel, have no affinity for any of America's allies. Much as they might disagree on the wisdom of invading Iraq, they both share a deeply held conviction that "nation building" is for losers.
As Kmele Foster, former host of Fox Business' "The Independents," told Tina Nguyen of Vanity Fair, "Trump and Bolton are probably more alike from a dispositional, philosophical standpoint than most people appreciate. I don't think he's likely to turn [Trump] into a neocon, because I don't think the guy's really that much of a neocon himself. I'm being generous here, or I'm being over-broad but [Bolton] would have been happy to install a dictator [in Iraq] who would have at least been subservient to the United States — even if he was kind of an awful monster — because he's not concerned with those totalitarian impulses or human-rights violations, per se."
I would guess that dovetails nicely with Trump's own view. As long as the U.S. could extract as much of the nation's natural resources as it chooses, he'd be happy to install friendly dictators everywhere. He certainly admires many of those who exist today.
There is little doubt that Bolton would agree whole heartedly with Trump's approach to warfare, as reported by the Washington Post:
Trump's words, both in public and private, describe a view that wars should be brutal and swift, waged with overwhelming firepower and, in some cases, with little regard for civilian casualties. Victory over America's enemies for the president is often a matter of bombing "the s--- out of them," as he said on the campaign trail.
In Trump's current "unleashed" mood he is apparently taking contrarian stances to demonstrate his dominance. The Washington Post reported that the president's directive to the Pentagon to achieve "victory" against ISIS in Syria within six months and then withdraw completely came as a surprise to the brass, since they had in the past had success with presenting Trump binary choices heavily weighted to favor their own consensus. It didn't work this time and he issued the order, leaving them to scramble trying to figure out how to carry out his order. (Personally, I think he just wants to be able to say he "won" a war and then have his big victory parade.)
Unfortunately, over the weekend the world got the horrific news of yet another gas attack in Syria, presumed to be the work of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Trump issued angry tweets, even slightly chastising his pal Vladimir Putin for the very first time:
Many dead, including women and children, in mindless CHEMICAL attack in Syria. Area of atrocity is in lockdown and encircled by Syrian Army, making it completely inaccessible to outside world. President Putin, Russia and Iran are responsible for backing Animal Assad. Big price...— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 8, 2018
....to pay. Open area immediately for medical help and verification. Another humanitarian disaster for no reason whatsoever. SICK!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 8, 2018
You could understand Assad and Putin thinking that Trump had washed his hands of the matter, and was back to his long-held belief that strongmen were needed to stabilize the region. Recall that he made it clear during the campaign that he didn't care at all about using chemical weapons. Of Iran and Iraq he said:
They fight, that's what they do. They fight … and they were equal, militarily. They go this way 10 feet, they go this way 10 feet … then Saddam Hussein throws a little gas, everyone goes crazy: "Oh, he's using gas!" They go back, forth, it's the same. And they were stabilized.
CNN reports that Bolton quietly settled in at the White House over the weekend. He is a rabid Iran hawk, known to favor staying on in Syria to counter Iranian influence. Perhaps he will persuade the president that this provocation requires him to re-evaluate his earlier decision. Maybe they're going to bomb the shit out of somebody and take the oil. Who knows? Trump is so volatile and unpredictable at this point that literally anything is possible.
But one thing is certain: Whatever Trump and Bolton decide to do or not do, humanitarian concerns or keeping the world from boiling over into violence and chaos are not going to be factors. Neither one of them cares at all about any of that.