John Bolton’s Wars

It falls to the national security adviser to defend the incomprehensible.

It’s tempting to pity John Bolton, President Trump’s national security adviser.

Tempting because it falls to the irascible but experienced Mr. Bolton to try to explain, or even undo, the president’s more impulsive and erratic foreign policy decisions. Pity because of the mortifying contortions required.

This past week Mr. Bolton journeyed to Ankara to discuss the American role in the Syrian civil war with Turkish government officials, only to run smack into another autocrat with a short fuse, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The Turkish leader canceled a planned meeting with Mr. Bolton and then publicly excoriated him.

Such humiliations pale, however, when one considers the Gordian knot that Mr. Bolton went to Ankara to untangle. That is, how to stop Mr. Erdogan from slaughtering Syrian Kurdish forces, who have been essential in fighting the Islamic State, after the Americans leave northern Syria. Mr. Erdogan considers the Syrian Kurds to be terrorists aligned with those in Turkey who have been in a separatist battle with the state for about 40 years.

Mr. Bolton’s diplomatic mission was unusually tough because both Turkey and the Kurds are partners of the United States. The Syrian Kurds are formidable fighters, and the progress against ISIS that Mr. Trump touts would have been impossible without them.

The Turks, meanwhile, are NATO allies, bound to Washington in a formal defense pact. Incirlik Air Base, a major staging point for American military operations throughout the Middle East, is in southern Turkey.

Mr. Bolton, a conservative hard-liner with considerable self-regard, can be a hard person to feel sympathy toward. He has made his own serious errors, not least his aggressive support for the 2003 Iraq War, which destabilized the Middle East, and, more recently, his creation of a White House decision-making system that limits robust discussion.

He certainly knew before taking the position as Mr. Trump’s national security adviser that he would be serving a chaos-driven and temperamental master. Still, Mr. Bolton faces the unenviable challenge of regularly having to defend the indefensible or make corrections after the fact. In October, he flew to Moscow to explain to President Vladimir Putin Mr. Trump’s sudden and ill-advised decision to begin pulling out of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, negotiated by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev.

Mr. Bolton’s latest Middle East visit was intended to reassure anxious regional leaders that the American withdrawal from Syria would be orderly. But the mission ran aground after Mr. Bolton demanded that Turkey protect Washington’s Kurdish allies and pledged that American forces would remain in Syria until the Islamic State was defeated, which could take months or years. That seemed to contradict Mr. Trump’s pronouncement in December that the Islamic State had been defeated and all 2,000 American troops would be out of Syria within 30 days.

Cue Mr. Erdogan, who dismissed Mr. Bolton’s remarks as a “grave mistake” and said, “It is not possible for us to swallow the message Bolton gave from Israel.” A pro-government newspaper went so far as to accuse Mr. Bolton of being part of a “soft coup against Trump.”

A Vice President With Few Virtues

A tough new Dick Cheney biopic is triggering some conservatives. Have they learned nothing?

So instead, I am summoned to a more urgent, if distasteful, task: to try and explain why anyone in the conservative movement (or anywhere else) would want to normalize Dick Cheneylet alone flat-out cheer for him. After all, this was a man who left office with an approval rating as low as 13 percent.

.. That’s lower than Richard Nixon when he resigned, lower than Jimmy Carter when he was replaced by Ronald Reagan. It’s as low as Herbert Hoover during the Great Depression and as low as Barack Obama among Republicans and conservatives.

Even today, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump both have triple the approval ratings that Cheney left office with.

.. To plagiarize what Andrew Sullivan famously said about Hillary, anyone with Cheney’s destructive track record towards his own movement should have been drummed out “under a welter of derision.”

.. We don’t have to be “ordered” to remember and revere historical figures like Reagan, MLK, and JFK, or be shamed into doing so. But who the heck did Dick Cheney ever benefit outside of the corporate-crony one percent?

  • What small, non-monopoly business did he ever give a chance to grow?
  • What did he do to improve our schools and police?
  • What did he do for balanced-budget conservatism, as he overruled Alan Greenspan and his own treasury secretary, gloating that “deficits don’t matter”?
  • How did Cheney make us more secure, with Iraq and Afghanistan all but ruined, Iran and Syria feeling stronger every day,
  • and ISIS having wrought its destruction—and with Osama bin Laden still livin’ large for two-and-a-half years after Cheney retired?
  • How do you defend someone who literally went to the Supreme Court to keep the minutes of his infamous 2001 energy task force meetings secret (they were co-chaired by Kenny-Boy Lay during the height of Enron’s rape of California’s power grid),
  • while at the same time suggesting the outing of a truly top secret CIA agent (Valerie Plame) just to get revenge on her journalist husband?
  • How did Cheney uphold Ronald Reagan’s mantra of curbing big government excesses when he justified warrantless surveillance and straight-up torture?
  • And what lasting benefit did Dick Cheney bestow on the conservative or Republican brand, with Barack Obama winning the biggest landslides since Reagan and Bush Senior?

It was my respected colleague Kelley Vlahos who solved the mystery of why some members of the Beltway press just can’t quit Cheney: “because they still won’t admit that the war was wrong.” Bingo. Expecting the U.S. to export insta-democracy to decidedly non-Western cultures? Putting overwhelmingly Christian and Jewish “viceroys” in charge of historically Muslim nations? Gee, what could possibly go wrong…

.. As chilling and thrilling as Christian Bale is as Dick Cheney, perhaps no scene in Vice is as squirmy as Richard Dreyfus’s impersonation of Cheney in Oliver Stone’s W., when he stands in front of a CGI map in the War Room and smirkingly announces, “There is no exit strategy. We STAY!” (If that scene didn’t actually take place, it might just as well have.)

.. Still, there are scenes in Vice that come close. For a biopic about a man who defined the adage “personnel is policy,” it’s fitting that director Adam McKay, who has a strong comedy background, chose actors who are known for being funny just as much as for their work in dramas. Those include Sam Rockwell as George W., Tyler Perry as Colin Powell, and Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld. (Reuniting Bale and Carell also indicates that McKay rightly sees Vice as an unofficial prequel to his financial meltdown dark farce The Big Short.) Like the aforementioned W., McKay’s Vice is a sometimes frenetic, sometimes eerily calm black comedy satire. And like Josh Brolin in W., Sam Rockwell plays George Jr. as an easily played and comical doofus. There’s no doubt in this film as to who the real president was from December 2000 to the end of 2008

.. Watching Bale as a terse, leering, manipulative young reactionary as he grindstones and plays people against each other from the late ‘60s to his Bush-Cheney heyday, one is struck by his shameless entitlement. Cheney uses movement conservatism and old boy connections as his own Uber. If Christian Bale is a slim and athletic man trapped in a fat and ugly body, Cheney sees himself as the Richelieu or Machiavelli of his own real-life movie, trapped just one step behind the real decision-makers—until he finally gets that chance to ride his horse from Aqueduct to Santa Anita.

.. The other key role among these garbage men is Amy Adams’ take-no-prisoners performance as Lynne Cheney. Mrs. Cheney had the straight-A brains and Ph.D.-level drive to be a powerful judge or executive in her own right, and was, according to Adams, a better “natural politician” than her husband. But as a card-carrying member of the Phyllis Schlafly/Anita Bryant/Beverly LaHaye-era Right from rural Wyoming, Lynne had less than zero plans to transform herself into another bra-burning icon. Instead, “she lived her [considerable] ambitions through her husband,” as Adams said. Adams even added that compared to the iron-fisted Lynne, her husband Dick might have been the “velvet glove”!

.. And as these Cheney-rehabilitating articles prove, Lynne wasn’t the only one who got off on Dick’s raw exercise of power and privilege. Watching Dick Cheney at work must have been intoxicating for a Dwight Schrute or Montgomery Burns in his small pond, for someone who coveted the kind of vulgar bullying power that Cheney wielded. It was no accident that Stephen Bannon famously and semi-humorously put Dick Cheney in his own hall of heroes, behind only Darth Vader and Satan, citing Cheney’s peerless talent at “disrupting” established orders.

.. Sorry, I’m just not there for conservative writers infantilizing Cheney and going all triggered snowflake at what big meanies the Hollywood libr’als are being to him. Christian Bale said it himself: “[Cheney’s] a big boy…he says himself he has no remorse, no regrets, he’d do everything again in a minute.” Exactly.

George H.W. Bush was the accidental catalyst that built the new Republican Party

It was a statement designed to jump-start budget talks that had been stalled for months. It did that and more, providing the catalyst that changed the Republican Party into an aggressive and hard-edge brand of conservatism that would hold sway for two decades.

The statement was a renunciation of one of the most famous campaign promises in modern American politics: Bush’s declaration of “no new taxes,” which he made as he accepted the Republican nomination in 1988. The pledge was a bow to conservatives, who always regarded him with suspicion, if not outright hostility. When he reneged on the promise, they exacted revenge.

.. As president, Bush proved that experience matters, that knowledge of the world is an asset, that careful and methodical can be more effective than big and bold, that responsibility to country takes precedence over loyalty to party, even if sometimes it comes at great cost, that compromise is not a dirty word.

..  If Reagan’s presidency hastened the end of the Cold War, it was left to Bush to manage the decline and fall of the Soviet empire and to do so safely and without bloodshed. He accomplished that with skill and strategy, aided by Secretary of State James A. Baker III, a longtime friend, and trusted national security adviser Brent Scowcroft.
.. After the war ended, with U.S. forces ordered to stop short of Baghdad, Bush’s approval rating soared close to 90 percent, scaring away veteran Democrats who were thinking of challenging him. Twenty-one months later, he was driven from office by the voters. A transition inside the Republican Party that was already underway accelerated.
.. Two years after that, the House was in Republican hands for the first time in 40 years, and the dominant figure in the party was House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who was the antithesis of the defeated president in so many ways. The party began to shift from a philosophy of smaller government to one of anti-government, particularly anti-Washington.
The statement that appeared on the bulletin board in the White House pressroom on that morning in June 1990 showed Bush to be a president who was prepared both to compromise with the Democrats, even if it meant breaking a campaign promise, for what he believed were the best interests of the country and to take personal responsibility for his actions.

.. The statement that appeared on the bulletin board in the White House pressroom on that morning in June 1990 showed Bush to be a president who was prepared both to compromise with the Democrats, even if it meant breaking a campaign promise, for what he believed were the best interests of the country and to take personal responsibility for his actions.

.. The conflicting interests of Bush and the Gingrich forces continued for the duration of Bush’s presidency. Gingrich’s wing saw conflict with the Democrats as essential to creating sharp differences between the parties; Bush saw cooperation with congressional Democrats in the name of effective governing as essential for the country and, he hoped, for winning reelection as president. On that, he proved mistaken.

.. As other Republicans lamented the fall of a president whom they much admired, those in the forefront of creating the new Republican Party were relieved that Bush had been defeated.
.. Tom DeLay, who would become House majority whip, later told me of his feelings on the night Bush lost in 1992. “Oh, man, yeah, it was fabulous,” DeLay said in a 1995 interview. DeLay admitted then that he had feared that, if Bush were reelected, it would mean “another four years of misery” for House GOP conservatives. He acknowledged mixed feelings about seeing the White House fall into Democratic hands but added, “If we had another four years of this [Bush], we’d never take over the Congress.”
.. Bush’s eldest son, George W. Bush, sought to restore something of his father’s sensibility to the GOP when he ran for president in 2000 and won the White House as a “compassionate conservative.” But he could neither remake nor retrofit the party. Though he was more conservative than his father, he nonetheless drew the ire of those on the right on issues such as immigration and spending.
.. The end of George W. Bush’s presidency further accelerated the changes within the Republican coalition, including the rise of a tea party movement that brought an even more unyielding form of anti-government conservatism. Today President Trump is redefining the party in his own image, moving it ever further from the GOP over which George H.W. Bush presided.

Hillary Will Run Again

Reinventing herself as a liberal firebrand, Mrs. Clinton will easily capture the 2020 nomination.

Get ready for Hillary Clinton 4.0. More than 30 years in the making, this new version of Mrs. Clinton, when she runs for president in 2020, will come full circle—back to the universal-health-care-promoting progressive firebrand of 1994. True to her name, Mrs. Clinton will fight this out until the last dog dies. She won’t let a little thing like two stunning defeats stand in the way of her claim to the White House.
This was arguably the most successful version of Hillary Clinton
But Hillary 2.0 could not overcome Barack Obama, the instant press sensation. During the 2008 presidential campaign, Mrs. Clinton held fast to centrist positions that would have assured her victory in the general election. But progressive leaders and donors abandoned her for the antiwar Mr. Obama. Black voters who had been strong Clinton supporters in New York and Arkansas left her column to elect the first African-American president.
.. Licking her wounds, Mrs. Clinton served as secretary of state while she planned her comeback. It was during this time that the more liberal Hillary 3.0 emerged. She believed she could never win a primary as a moderate, so she entered the 2016 primary as a progressive like Mr. Obama. Then she moved further left as Sen. Bernie Sanders came closer to derailing her nomination. This time she was able to contain her opponent’s support, crucially by bringing African-American voters into her camp.

.. But Mrs. Clinton’s transformation during the primaries, especially on social and cultural issues, cost her an easy win against Donald Trump. As Hillary 3.0 catered to the coastal elites who had eluded her in 2008, Mr. Trump stole many of the white working-class voters who might have been amenable to the previous version. Finally she had the full support of the New York Times and the other groups that had shunned her for Mr. Obama—but only at the cost of an unforeseen collapse in support in the Midwest.
.. She will not allow this humiliating loss at the hands of an amateur to end the story of her career. You can expect her to run for president once again. Maybe not at first, when the legions of Senate Democrats make their announcements, but definitely by the time the primaries are in full swing.
Mrs. Clinton has a 75% approval rating among Democrats, an unfinished mission to be the first female president, and a personal grievance against Mr. Trump, whose supporters pilloried her with chants of “Lock her up!” This must be avenged.
.. Expect Hillary 4.0 to come out swinging. She has decisively to win those Iowa caucus-goers who have never warmed up to her. They will see her now as strong, partisan, left-leaning and all-Democrat—the one with the
  • guts,
  • experience and
  • steely-eyed determination

to defeat Mr. Trump. She has had two years to go over what she did wrong and how to take him on again.

.. Mrs. Clinton won’t travel the country in a van with Huma Abedin this time, doing small events and retail politics. Instead she will enter through the front door, mobilizing the army of professional women behind her, leveraging her social networks, and raking in donations. She will hope to emerge as an unstoppable force to undo Mr. Trump,
  • running on the #MeToo movement,
  • universal health care and
  • gun control.

.. The generation of Democrats who have been waiting to take over the party from the Clintons will be fuming that she is back and stealing their show. But they revealed themselves to be bungling amateurs in the Brett Kavanaugh nomination fight, with their laughable Spartacus moments.

.. Mrs. Clinton will take down rising Democratic stars like bowling pins. Mike Bloomberg will support her rather than run, and Joe Biden will never be able to take her on.

.. Don’t pay much attention to the “I won’t run” declarations. Mrs. Clinton knows both Mr. Clinton and Mr. Obama declared they weren’t running, until they ran. She may even skip Iowa and enter the race later, but rest assured that, one way or another, Hillary 4.0 is on the way.