John Bolton’s tenure as National Security Advisor ended in spectacular fashion this week when President Trump fired him. Bolton insists he resigned. Critics on both the right and left celebrated Bolton’s exit from the White House. The left saw Bolton as a war-monger and war-criminal directly responsible for the five-year campaign in Iraq. The right saw him as a Neoconservative holdover looking for new enemies and determined to keep America in Afghanistan for as long as it takes to defeat the Taliban.
Bolton was controversial long before going to work for President Trump. He is a lawyer by trade and worked at several high-powered Washington law firms. He served in the Ronald Reagan Administration, holding positions in both the Department of State and Justice. He also served in George Bush’s State Department. After practicing law in the 90’s, in 2001, Bolton joined the George W. Bush administration, serving as Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security. In this role, Bolton was an advocate for war with Iraq. In 2005, he became Ambassador to the United Nations even though he was known for his disdain for international institutions such as the Internal Criminal Court and the United Nations. He has long pushed for tough measures against Islamic terror worldwide and against the Taliban and Iran.
Since becoming National Security Advisor in 2018, John Bolton has been the Trump Administration’s most hawkish member. He supported efforts against Venezuelan president Nicholas Maduro, advised against talks with Kim Jon-Un and, most importantly, favored tough sanctions on Iran. For a few weeks now, the Trump Administration has been floating the idea of re-starting negotiations with Tehran. According to a Bloomberg report, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin suggested easing sanctions as a way to get Iran back to the negotiating table. Bolton opposed the idea. Bolton also opposed peace talks with the Taliban and hosting their representatives at Camp David. Whether resigned or fired, on Tuesday September 10th, John Bolton left Trump’s national security team. Bolton is probably the last of the Neoconservatives.
Neoconservatism is today associated with President George W. Bush and the Iraq War but predates both. There was much more to Neoconservatism than bellicose foreign policy and the public understanding of Neoconservatism has changed over time. In the 70’s and 80’s, the term usually referred to a former Democrat who had joined the Republicans over the former party’s soft stance against communism. Many of the toughest anti-communists in the Reagan Administration were former Democrats. These included arms control negotiators Richard Pearl and Paul Wolfowitz as well as Elliot Abrams who was an assistant Secretary of State. Abrams oversaw American policy in Latin America, at the time a major battleground in the Cold War. All three men later held positions in the administration of George W. Bush where they advocated for the liberation of Iraq. Finishing off Saddam Hussein was long a Neocon goal. On domestic policy it was often joked that a Neoconservative was a liberal who’d been mugged.
After the Reagan Administration, Neoconservatism was usually associated with magazines like Commentary, a journal of conservative Jewish thought, and especially The Weekly Standard, founded in 1995 by William Kristol, former chief of staff to Vice President Dan Quayle and son of important Neoconservative thinker, Irving Kristol. The Weekly Standard was deeply opposed to the Clinton Administration but also a forum for domestic policy ideas about healthcare, education, tax reform, and so on. Abroad, the Neocons supported Israel, opposed the now failed ‘peace process’, and warned about the rise of China. Neocons were also free traders, supporting NAFTA in the 90’s and more recently the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Neoconservatives were thinkers first, but their domestic policy ideas were difficult to implement. Ideas like Medicare and Social Security reform needed to be explained, hard to do when the Democrats screamed that reductions in the growth of Medicare would lead to old people being thrown out into the streets. Nothing neoconservatives advocated domestically was as sloganable as ‘Make America Great Again’, just one of the reasons why candidate Donald Trump annihilated the field.
After 9/11, the Neoconservatives in the Bush administration took control of foreign policy. In the wake of 9/11, they called for preemptive war and the liberation of Iraq. Paul Wolfowitz said liberating Iraq would be a ‘cake walk’. Instead, the war took five years, costs 45,000 casualties and a trillion dollars. By 2008, Neoconservatism was discredited in the smoldering ruin of the Financial Crisis and Iraq. Barrack Obama easily defeated war-hawk John McCain for the presidency.
Eighteen years after September 11th, the United States is still in Afghanistan and has no idea how to win the war. As shown by President Trump’s ongoing trade war with China, Neoconservative ideas on free trade have been largely abandoned by the GOP. John Bolton was a holdover from another time and the last Neoconservative.