Bolton Flip-Floppers and the Death of Ideas

By Jonathan S. Tobin

National Review

March 27, 2018


The hysterical reaction of the foreign-policy establishment to the appointment of John Bolton as national-security adviser is not a surprise. In particular, those who are invested in preserving the Iran nuclear deal rather than scrapping or even revising it are upset about the prospect that one of its most articulate and determined opponents is now in a position to influence its future.

When former State Department staffer Wendy Sherman, who was a key figure in the appeasement of North Korea before being the principle architect of Obamaís attempt at rapprochement with Tehran, made the case for preserving the Iran deal and opposing Bolton in a New York Times op-ed article, she ignored the fact that her achievement legalized Iranís nuclear ambitions and, in exchange for a temporary pause, made its acquisition of a game-changing weapon inevitable. But as unpersuasive as her argument was, it was at least consistent with her ideas about foreign policy and the role of the United States in the world. What is harder to understand is the willingness of some writers and thinkers who spent years opposing Sherman and the rest of the establishment on Iran and other key issues to switch sides and join them in bashing Bolton.

The two most prominent examples of such behavior are the Washington Postís Jennifer Rubin and author and Council on Foreign Relations scholar Max Boot. Both are former colleagues of mine at Commentary magazine and talented writers. But in the last year I have found myself increasingly astonished at their willingness to turn every issue into a referendum on President Trump, which has led them to stands on issues like Iran that it would have once been inconceivable for them to take.

Charles C. W. Cooke already did an in-depth takedown of Rubinís willingness to turn on a dime on any issue in a never-ceasing effort to oppose Trump. From a climate-change accord to U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israelís capital, no principle has proven sacred for Rubin. If Trump is for it, sheís against it. If heís against it, sheís now for it, even if, as with the Iran deal, she was once among its most articulate detractors. Her Post blog was once considered to provide some conservative balance to a liberal publication, but now it is merely a daily rant urging opposition to all things Trump.

While most of us who write about policy worry about consistency and are sensitive to charges of hypocrisy, Rubinís shameless indifference to these concerns is so complete as to be almost comical. The only principle she seems to care about is her obsession of the moment, which right now is opposing Trump. If that means writing a piece on Boltonís appointment in which she approvingly quotes Jake Sullivan, a key adviser to President Obama, whose policies she excoriated on a daily basis at Commentary and the Post, while damning Bolton as an extremist who is not to be trusted, so be it. If it creates opportunities for her critics to cite past articles in which she not only backed Boltonís stands but also approved of his flirtation with a presidential run and his nomination as ambassador to the United Nations, she doesnít seem to care.

Boot, a talented historian, is also indifferent to the fact that his opposition to Trump puts him in the same boat as Rubin. In a Washington Post op-ed, he denounced Bolton as an extremist and mimicked the attacks on him coming from the left without ever noting that he, too, stood with Bolton in the past on topics like the Iraq War and was a strong supporter of his nomination as U.N. ambassador. Only a couple of years ago, Boot was an ardent opponent of the Iran deal who believed reversing it was a matter of primary importance for whoever was elected in 2016. But now he sides with the so-called adults in the administration whose primary purpose has been to stop Trump from doing what only a couple of years ago he thought was right.

That these two conservatives have seemingly abandoned conservatism for what they have come to see as the more important cause of opposing the president is significant not because of the foolishness and cringe-inducing nature of their flip-flops but because of what it says about the current state of public discourse.

The duty of serious people and patriots toward any administration is to support it when possible and to oppose it when necessary. That is why so many conservatives who were ardent foes of Trumpís presidential candidacy now find themselves backing him when he chooses, as he has for the most part, to govern like a conservative. While there is still much about him personally and about his administration that causes dismay, Trumpís picks of Mike Pompeo, Bolton, and Nikki Haley to lead his foreign-policy team are, like his positions on Israel and Iran, the sorts of things that many conservatives doubted he had the wisdom or guts to do. A willingness to support stands and nominations that you would have cheered if any other Republican had made them isnít an abandonment of the scruples that caused many of us to doubt Trumpís fitness for the presidency to begin with. Even the most imperfect people sometimes do the right thing. Such issues should transcend parties and politicians. But not for Rubin and Boot.

The only explanation is that their animus for the president is so deep and all-encompassing as to cause them to oppose him at all costs. Everything, including the nuclear threat from Iran, is secondary to fighting their own Great Satan. But squeamishness about Trumpís obvious shortcomings is a poor excuse for judgment on matters that ought to transcend oneís opinion of any individual, even if he is president.

We know that the public square is diminished when the voters confuse partisanship with principle. Those who decide where they stand on the issues depending on the stand of their political party reduce everything to electoral horse races. Thatís understandable for officeholders who understand that politics is a team sport. Perhaps itís even forgivable for members of the public who think of policy debates in the same way.

But adopting mindless partisanship is something else for those whose business it is to explain issues on a deeper level. When self-described thought leaders behave in this manner, they bring into disrepute the very idea of public debate. What neither Rubin or Boot seem to understand is that monomaniacal opposition to Trump suggests issues and ideas donít matter. What could possibly be worse for the republic than that?