Former Ambassador John Bolton is again raising the battle cry for pre-emptive war on television and in the newspapers, this time with North Korea, though this is hardly new, considering he did his best to derail diplomatic talks between the U.S. and the Kim regime when he was a member of the Bush Administration in 2001. Like a bad broken record, Bolton offers the same reckless militarism that’s proven him wrong so many times before, though his reputation as a foreign policy “expert”—particularly in conservative media circles—didn’t seem to suffer much.
His latest call is for reunifying the Korean peninsula—with China leading the charge. If that fails, the U.S. should consider its own military attack on the regime. He admits that it would “undoubtedly be dangerous and somewhat chaotic,” but “whatever the risks, they pale before the risks of nuclear conflict emanating from the erratic Kim regime.”
On paper, Bolton’s got the credentials of an established Washington policy official and seasoned public servant. He’s an alumnus of three different Republican administrations—Reagan and Bush I—and worked in the State Department and served as Ambassador to the United Nations under Bush II. He advised Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign on foreign policy, and he’s a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
His public statements throughout the last 16 years of war, however, have been more in line with the radical warmongers of the extreme right of the Republican Party, and are as predictable as a daytime soap opera.
He also maintains the situation is analogous to the Cuban Missile Crisis. But, as U.S. Naval War College Professor Tom Nichols points out, we are “nowhere near a Cold War scenario.” Nevertheless, Bolton likes to say it isn’t warmongering to suggest the use of preemptive military force against the Kim regime, which General Gary E. Luck, former commander of both U.S. and U.N. forces in Korea, says would result in a “horrendous loss of life.”
But why should we even listen? Like many of the prominent neoconservatives of the Bush era, Bolton has been incredibly wrong on the key foreign policy and national security issues of our time. Reason journalist Eric Boehm has a nice summary of the Bolton follies, including his continued insistence that invading Iraq and toppling Saddam Hussein was the right thing to do. Meanwhile, he was a cheerleader for Obama’s intervention in Libya, despite the fraudulent justifications, the destabilizing sectarian conflicts, and the subsequent rise of ISIS.
Parallel to all of this, Bolton maintains a staunchly hawkish position on Iran, often advocating strikes against its nuclear facilities in concert with our Israeli allies. He wants the U.S. to jettison the Iran nuclear deal that was negotiated under the Obama administration, despite the fact that international monitors say Iran has been holding up its end of the bargain, and the agreement is working, so far, exactly as intended.
It’s ironic that Bolton is now on television evangelizing about military options in North Korea, as Kim Jong-Un’s insistence on obtaining a functional nuclear capability is at least partially driven by the regime change precedent set by the U.S. in Iraq and Libya. As Vox’s Matt Yglesias and the New Republic’s Jeet Heer noted on Twitter, there’s very little discussion in D.C. policy circles about the negative impacts American foreign policy will have on rogue states pursuing nukes because people like Bolton, who almost reflexively advocate regime change, still dominate the conversation.
Bolton, who might have been Secretary of State under Trump if he was clean shaven, has done nothing but beat war drums since the 1990s. And, partly because of his role as key voice for the pro-war Right wing, regime change is still considered a serious policy option among the Republican establishment and conservative base today. There is clearly no easy answer for North Korea, but overthrowing the government of a population that resembles the “abused victims of a cult ideology,” is bound to present more problems than it solves. As Suki Kim, author of Without You, There Is No Us: Undercover Among the Sons of North Korea’s Elite, says, “[e]ven if the Great Leader is gone, another form of dictatorship will take its place…Every path is a catastrophe.”
Obviously, the marketplace for ideas at the highest levels of foreign policy is hugely inefficient. The cost of being wrong is too low, and being wrong doesn’t impact credibility as long as one subscribes to Washington’s pro-war ideology. Lest we think this is solely a phenomenon of Fox News, former CIA chief Michael Hayden, who called people who denied the effectiveness of torture “interrogation deniers,” is a regular on CNN. Neoconservative war cheerleader and Weekly Standard editor-at-large Bill Kristol is a frequent guest on MSNBC now. Erik Prince, founder of the infamous private security firm Blackwater USA, has recently popped up on the op-ed pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post with his plan to turn the Afghan conflict over to private mercenaries.
A surgeon who botches operations doesn’t get to be a surgeon anymore. A mechanic who can’t fix cars is fired from the shop. But in the D.C. media and policy bubble, awful pundits fail up the ladder. They get an indefinite number of opportunities to be wrong again. Sadly, Bolton & Company’s legacy of wrongness already has a pretty high body count. And that should mean something in the real world.
Jerrod A. Laber is a writer, former classical singer, and non-profit program director residing in Northern Virginia. He is a Young Voices Advocate. Follow him on Twitter @JerrodLaber.