john bolton
Credit: Gage Skidmore/flickr

There were two basic responses I noticed on the left last night to the announcement that John Bolton will be taking over for H.R. McMaster as the president’s national security adviser. One was that we are all going to die, and the other was rage at anyone who voted for Trump or who ever suggested that Hillary Clinton was the greater threat to world peace. For anyone familiar with John Bolton’s record of rabid and irresponsible warmongering, the former response is largely self-explanatory. As to the latter complaint, it comes down to people having credited Trump with sincerity when he consistently attacked the Bush administration for launching the war in Iraq.

It was widely reported during the campaign that the only recording of Trump having an opinion about the Iraq War before it commenced was a statement of tepid, somewhat reluctant support rather than opposition. That places him close to the mainstream of elite public opinion at the time, but he was lying when he said he was against the war from the beginning.

There is also a strain of thinking on the left that is permanently weary of confrontation with Russia as a result of battles that took place long ago during the Cold War. At its most noble, this is a simple concern that the likeliest way to end life as we know it is for the United States and Russia to go to war and start launching nuclear weapons at each other. Therefore, anyone recommending reconciliation and negotiation with Russia is a more prudent choice than someone advocating we take a hardline stance against their foreign policies.

Russia was keen to exploit this preexisting sentiment on the left, so they amplified the concern that Hillary Clinton was a threat to world peace because of her hawkishness on Syria (Trump said the Russians should handle Syria) and her position on the annexation of Crimea (Trump said the Crimeans were happier with Russian overlords). This argument had a lot of resonance and I suppose it had a degree of substance to it, too. But it no longer makes any sense whatsoever now that Trump has hired John Bolton to advise him on foreign policy. Clinton might have inadvertently caused a shooting war with Russia through some miscalculation, but Bolton is guaranteed to make miscalculations of this sort whenever he opens his mouth.

The shooting wars are much more likely to start with North Korea and Iran than with Russia, but that’s no guarantee that nuclear weapons won’t be used by our forces or by our adversaries. Bolton will move to tear up the nuclear agreement with Iran despite the fact that it was co-signed by all the other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany. Having made us a pariah on the international stage, he will then try to mobilize the nation for preemptive strikes on Iran that will likely require a nuclear component to be effective in destroying their nuclear program. We will still find ourselves in an actual war with Iran, either directly or by asymmetrical means. A ground war to affect their capitulation will be required, and it’s not likely to go as well as the war in Iraq for a whole host of reasons, including our pariah status.

On North Korea, he is likely to argue that we need to attack now while their missiles are still relatively untested, and to disregard any concerns that much of South Korea will be destroyed in the conflict or that North Korea may still find a way to detonate a nuclear weapon on our allies, our foreign bases, or even on the mainland of the United States. Russia and China will not stand still for such provocations, let alone the unimaginable toll in human lives this will cost.

It’s being reported that John Bolton promised the president that he would not start any wars if he was given responsibility for our foreign policy, but John Bolton wouldn’t want the position if he couldn’t steer the nation toward war with Iran and North Korea. Our only hope is that Trump hired him for his lively performances on Fox News but won’t ultimately follow his advice. But I think that hope is ill-founded because it misunderstands the role of national security adviser as well as the power Bolton will have in the vacuum created by Trump’s lack of engagement and understanding of world affairs.

This is the most dangerous moment for humanity since the Cuban Missile Crisis. There’s nothing Congress or the public can do directly to prevent Bolton from taking his post, but all means for resisting his influence must be employed.

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Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at