President Donald Trump secured an improbable win in 2016 by tapping into widespread but largely ignored disgust among American voters for the governing elite, who had driven the economy to near ruin and mired U.S. troops in endless war.
Along with conventional wisdom on the benefits of free trade and open immigration, he unapologetically attacked the liberal interventionism favored by Washington’s foreign policy establishment.
No foreign policy decision earned more of Trump’s scorn than the George W. Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq in 2003. On the campaign trail, he consistently denounced the invasion and occupation as a waste of American blood and treasure.
Trump delivered this scathing indictment of the Iraq war during a GOP debate in December 2015:
We have done a tremendous disservice not only to the Middle East — we’ve done a tremendous disservice to humanity. The people that have been killed, the people that have been wiped away — and for what? It’s not like we had victory. It’s a mess. The Middle East is totally destabilized, a total and complete mess. I wish we had the 4 trillion dollars or 5 trillion dollars. I wish it were spent right here in the United States on schools, hospitals, roads, airports, and everything else that are all falling apart!
Trump’s assertion that resources that could have been put to use at home were needlessly squandered abroad formed the core of his “America First” message. It comported perfectly with his denunciation of the Beltway political class, which, through incompetence or malfeasance, had failed regular Americans by promoting foreign wars, ruinous trade deals, and mass immigration.
Ironically, one of those foreign policy elites so disdained by then-candidate Trump is about to become his national security adviser. John Bolton, the famously hawkish Bush administration official, will replace H.R. McMaster at the White House, effective April 9.
As the undersecretary of state for arms control and international security in the Bush State Department, Bolton was a leading voice in favor of toppling the regime of Saddam Hussein. In that role, he was instrumental in making the case that Hussein had developed weapons of mass destruction and forged ties with al-Qaeda, the group responsible for the 9/11 attacks.
“We are confident that Saddam Hussein has hidden weapons of mass destruction and production facilities in Iraq,” Bolton told the BBC in the run-up to the Iraq war. He added that “the Iraqi people would be unique in history if they didn’t welcome the overthrow of this dictatorial regime.”
Both of those assessments turned out to be deeply flawed. Later, it was revealed that Bolton, Colin Powell and other Bush administration officials used skewed analysis of shoddy intelligence to hype the threat of Hussein’s supposed WMD program.
In typically blunt fashion, Trump went so far as to accuse the Bush administration, and Bolton by extension, of deliberately misleading the American public about the threat of Iraqi WMDs.
“You call it whatever you want. I want to tell you — they lied,” Trump said during a Republican debate in February 2016. “They said there were weapons of mass destruction; there were none. And they knew there were none. There were no weapons of mass destruction.”
Trump never singled out Bolton in his denunciations of the Iraq War. Still, his criticism could make for some awkward moments in the Oval Office given that Bolton continues to insist that the 2003 invasion was the right call, even if its aftermath still haunts U.S. foreign policy today.
“I still think the decision to overthrow Saddam was correct. I think decisions made after that decision were wrong, although I think the worst decision made after that was the 2011 decision to withdraw U.S. and coalition forces,” he toldthe Washington Examiner in 2015. “The people who say, ‘Oh, things would have been much better if you didn’t overthrow Saddam,’ miss the point that today’s Middle East does not flow totally and unchangeably from the decision to overthrow Saddam alone.”
That decision was informed by a plan that Bolton and like-minded foreign policy experts at the Project for a New American Century (PNAC) put together long before 9/11. Founded by neoconservatives Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan, the now-defunct think tank in 1998 sent an open letter to former President Bill Clinton calling for regime change in Iraq.
Bolton was among the signatories of the letter, which called for a new strategy to deal with Saddam Hussein, a threat “more serious than any we have known since the end of the Cold War.
“That strategy should aim, above all, at the removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime from power,” the PNAC letter advised. “We stand ready to offer our full support in this difficult but necessary endeavor.”
Clinton never did fulfill PNAC’s wish, settling instead for a four-day bombing campaign on Iraqi targets in response to Hussein’s intransigence over U.N. weapons inspections. Five years later, though, Bolton and many of PNAC’s core members got the chance to turn their recommendation into policy as leading national security officials in the George W. Bush White House.
On the eve of the 2003 invasion, PNAC alumni serving in the Bush administration included Bolton, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz, Special Assistant Elliot Abrams, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, and Chairman of the Defense Policy Board Richard Perle.
When he takes the helm at the National Security Council in April, Bolton will become the first of those Iraq War architects to return to government service since the end of the Bush era.