Wednesday, May 22, 2019


National Security Council Chairman John Bolton, according to his detractors, is squirreled away in his White House office salivating at the prospect of military action against Iran. They picture Mr. Bolton as a blood-thirsty warmonger who signed on last April as President Donald Trump’s national security adviser to undermine the president’s belief that sending in the Marines is not the only or even the best way to respond to the actions of nations that disagree with us.

At the time, the media was full of stories based on alleged leaks picturing the new NSC head as foaming at the mouth at the prospect of military action against our adversaries in Russia, the Middle East and Asia.

The pundits at MSNBC and CNN and even a few traditional Republicans predicted that Mr. Bolton wouldn’t last because the president would realize quickly that he was there to serve not Donald J. Trump, but his own narrow ideological belief that our national security interests might be better served by American bombs and bullets than by diplomatic palaver.

They waited breathlessly for the president to send Mr. Bolton packing — and cannot fathom that he is still reporting to work or that we haven’t gotten ourselves enmeshed in another unwinnable war somewhere. It seems never to have occurred to them that neither Mr. Trump nor Mr. Bolton relish the idea of sending Americans into battle; it’s just that they realize like most of their predecessors that America must be prepared to fight as a last resort when our vital national interests are threatened.

They would have agreed with Gen. Colin Powell when asked by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright why we were spending so much on our military when we weren’t actually using it. Gen. Powell looked Ms. Albright in the eye and said we keep our military strong precisely “so we won’t have to use it.”

Donald Trump campaigned for the presidency promising “to put America first” and John Bolton as public servant or private citizen has always done just that. He is tough, smart and knows how to talk with our adversaries as well as our friends.

I had lunch with former Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak before Mr. Kislyak returned to Moscow. We talked mostly about family, gun collecting and cultural issues rather than politics, but the ambassador did reflect on Mr. Bolton. This was long after Mr. Bolton was passed over for an important State Department position and before his name resurfaced as a possible head of the NSC.

The ambassador said he was disappointed that Mr. Bolton hadn’t gotten the State Department job because, as he put it, “Many of my colleagues and I have dealt with Bolton. We’ve sat across the table from him and found him to be intelligent, knowledgeable and a man whose word is his bond. He is tough, and that is as it should be as our interests are very different, but one always knows where he stands and that he has a clear understanding of both your nation’s interests and how to maximize those interests.”

I thought about those words when the president tweeted that he was making Mr. Bolton his NSC head. Mr. Kislyak’s assessment of Mr. Bolton was similar to the way leaders of the old Soviet Union viewed President Ronald Reagan and made it possible for Mikhail Gorbachev, the general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, to sit down with Reagan in the 1980s to cut a deal that led to end of the Cold War.

Russians, Communist and non-Communist alike, are a tough people. They respect strength and in pursuing their own interests push until they run up against their adversary’s determination. They understand that the current president must be just as tough to have Mr. Bolton at his side. They rarely admit it, but potential aggressors in Russia, China or Tehran know it’s far easier to deal with an adversary who lets them know in uncertain terms what they can and cannot get away with, because it makes it far less likely that they will stumble into a war no one wants.

Most of the wars of the last century and this came about because the parties that ended up shooting at each other didn’t understand until it was far too late that they crossed a line from which there would be no turning back. In advocating for America’s interests in and out of government, John Bolton has never sought war, but has always argued that a bright line serves our national interests and makes war less rather than more likely something President Trump clearly recognizes and appreciates.

• David A. Keene is an editor at large for The Washington Times.

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