Foreign Policy

Bolton, Pugilist From the Right, Takes a New Position

Trump's new national security adviser is more establishment-oriented than he looks at first glance.

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Here’s a prediction that is sure to annoy everyone: Now that he’s national security adviser, John Bolton will become more moderate.

Some extremists moderate when they take public office because of bureaucratic pushback from the middle. That’s not what I expect for Bolton. He’s made a career of fighting the bureaucracy from the right.

I predict Bolton will moderate for the opposite reason: In this stage of President Donald Trump’s administration, there’s almost no one left to push back at Bolton from the center. Without such opposition, Bolton is going to realize that he’s the grown-up in the room, and the closest thing to a realist anywhere in Trump’s foreign policy circles.

Bolton, despite himself, will discover that he has no choice but to take the role of war-skeptic, asking the president to consider the consequences of aggressive action and intervention.

Ideologically, Bolton isn’t a neoconservative. He rejects democracy-building and its associated idealism.

Rather, Bolton is a nuts-and-bolts national power right-winger, who thinks the U.S. needs to project power outward and use force when it’s pragmatically necessary to do so. That means he will also consider when the use of force could backfire -- especially if no other senior member of the administration is looking out for the risks.

Even if Trump now thinks he has surrounded himself with advisers who will let him indulge extremist impulses, he actually hasn’t, at least not in Bolton. Bolton, I’m saying, will likely constrain Trump.

The key to this admittedly counterintuitive prediction is a close reading of Bolton’s career. Yes, Bolton has consistently occupied a position at the right extreme of Republican foreign policy. But he has never been truly outside the spectrum.

To the contrary, Bolton has always made sure that he was a member of the establishment -- albeit the member with no one remaining to his right.

The psychology of social class is relevant here. Bolton’s father was a Baltimore firefighter. But Bolton went -- on scholarship -- to a fancy prep school, then to Yale College and Yale Law School. Like his educational peers, and unlike many other working-class kids from urban backgrounds, he got around service in Vietnam by enlisting in the National Guard.

In other words, the meritocratic engine that once worked so well in the U.S. launched Bolton on an elite path. He has never deviated from it. He worked at two white-shoe law firms, and spent a stretch as a named partner in a firm founded with other elite lawyers.

In government, Bolton worked for the Justice Department and the State Department in assistant secretary level roles. Those are the insider-power positions of these large bureaucracies. You have to fight to move the agenda -- but you still have to play as part of the team.

Bolton reached the position of undersecretary of state for arms control and international security in the George W. Bush administration -- another job that required him to stay within the administration’s boundaries. He was never confirmed as ambassador to the United Nations, partly because Senate Republicans weren’t sure it was worth the cost to leave him on his own. Bush eventually installed him as a recess appointment.

Out of government, Bolton held a senior position at the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank within the mainstream conservative establishment. He wrote for the Weekly Standard -- again, establishment conservative. He has been a commentator on Fox News, not a Breitbart contributor.

The point here is not only that Bolton’s niche has always been at the right wing of the establishment. It’s that he has always had others in the conservative establishment to push back against him. He’s never had to be the backstop against extremism, so he’s always been free to advocate the most right-wing stance.

That’s about to change. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has been replaced by Mike Pompeo, a former congressional ideologue who is further right than Bolton. If Gina Haspel is confirmed as the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, the agency will likely have trouble occupying the “voice of caution” role.

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis might be the only figure against whom Bolton could struggle from the right. That depends, however, on whether Mattis himself stays in place -- and whether he is interested in trying to constrain Trump from using military force abroad.

In any case, Mattis and the senior military brass have been inclined to be more interventionist than Trump, insisting for example on keeping troops in Syria even after Islamic State has been defeated.

The upshot is that Bolton will probably have the first opportunity in his lifetime to push hard-right interventionist policy into place, and to own the consequences of that policy. The unfamiliar situation is going to make him think twice.

Like any good prediction, this one is falsifiable. If in the next few years the U.S. finds itself fighting in lots of new places, including perhaps the Korean peninsula, then I will have been wrong, and Bolton will have played the game according to his old role.

But if we see a foreign policy that, trade aside, continues to look a lot like the one we’ve seen in the first year and change of the Trump administration -- one not altogether unlike Barack Obama’s foreign policy -- that will be a sign that Bolton’s bark has all along been worse than his bite.

It’s one thing to be the most right-wing member of the establishment. It’s another thing to put policies in place that break the establishment’s norms altogether.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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    Noah Feldman at

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