If John Bolton frightens the nation’s enemies half as much as he frightens Chicken Little and all the Democrats at home, all the strife, evil and deceit in the world will soon be history. Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un will lie down with the lion and not have to worry about being the midnight snack.
Mr. Bolton’s critics call him blunt, impolite and a “reactive saber-rattler,” and it’s true that he does not speak in the dulcet tones and soft words Washington expects from the State Department types who think their job is to see how far weakness can go, to fritter away as many of the nation’s advantages in the name of co-operation, penitence and national contrition.
He’s a good match for Donald Trump. Neither man cultivates a flaccid front, either for himself or for the nation. Mr. Bolton once had the bad manners to write a book called “Surrender is Not an Option.” The very title was an affront to every nation that aspires to be an enemy of the United States.
Bluster is an effective weapon in the hands of someone who knows how to use a weapon. Mr. Bolton, like the president, has never been interested in being polite to the imams in Tehran or to Rocket Man in Pyongyang. He has never been a fan of nation-building, particularly when it means deconstructing the nation and everything about it, from its history, culture, even its religion. He’s not a fan because it can’t be done.
He told an interviewer in London more than a decade ago, in the wake of the war in Iraq, that he didn’t think democracy in Iraq, which is the best if not always the most efficient system of government, should be considered a relevant American interest. “I don’t think there’s an American interest in what kind of Iraq emerges from the present circumstance. I think the American interest is in making sure that no part of Iraq be used by terrorists against us.”
From all accounts, Mr. Bolton understands the perils in the committee approach to protecting and defending American interests. This is the approach much favored at Foggy Bottom tea and white wine parties, where the favorite song of the nursery is that favorite of an earlier time: “If your friends like my friends, and my friends like your friends, we’ll all be friends together, now won’t that be fine.”
The president’s new national-security adviser served under Presidents Bush father and son, and his blunt style clashed with George W.’s idea of what the world could be, and Mr. Bolton’s idea of what the world already is. Mr. Bolton thought George W. was insufficiently hawkish in dealing with North Korea. George W.’s idea, like that of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, was to smother Rocket Man’s father and the ghost of his grandfather under a mush of food and technology that would inspire gratitude and a rush of good feeling.
Reuel Marc Gerecht, a neo-conservative scholar at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and a onetime colleague of Mr. Bolton at the American Enterprise Institute, tells Tom Rogan of the Washington Examiner that Mr. Bolton “is not really interested in democracy,” but in the binding of American sovereignty and security. Nothing is more important to the survival of the world’s greatest and important democracy.
He describes the national-security adviser as “tenacious,” and fond of “ruffling feathers.” For that he has a singular talent. He seems particularly eager to work with Britain. Anglo-Saxons together, as the French grumble, and all that. He told a Fox News interviewer, who had suggested that the United States should distance itself from the aggressive British response to the Russian poisoning of a former spy and his daughter as they sat peaceably on a park bench, that no, Britain should get even tougher. Prime Minister Theresa May should expel not only the Russian ambassador but the entire diplomatic staff in London, shutter the embassy and close all the Russian consular offices in Britain.
That’s pretty tough, but suggesting something and actually doing it are two different things. But bluster has its uses. The way to get the attention of a contrary mule is to bust him with a 2 by 4 between the eyes. Donald Trump’s bluster against Rocket Man and the North Korean government, conducted over a period of weeks when the Democrats and the pundits exhausted the capital’s inventory of smelling salts, was followed by Pyongyang’s asking for tickets to the Olympics in South Korea and then for a meeting with President Trump.
That meeting has now been pushed off to June, and this gives the president and his new national-security adviser time to tune the piano. Neither man knows how to lead from behind. It should be interesting.
• Wesley Pruden is editor in chief emeritus of The Times.
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