People have to look for solace and hope wherever they can find them in these scary Trumpist times, and I view my job to be helping their search for peace of mind.
There was a palpable national sigh of relief on Sept. 10 when President Trump fired his third national security adviser, John Bolton, the fiercest war hawk of modern times. It seemed to mean that the United States suddenly was far less likely to find itself in still another war and especially a civilization-ending nuclear holocaust, a peril that millions of Americans had glimpsed when Trump won the Republican nomination in 2016.
Trump had wondered why the president shouldn’t use his vast arsenal of nuclear weapons and why we shouldn’t help Japan, South Korea and other dependent allies get their own nuclear stockpiles rather than expecting the United States to protect them from the likes of China, Russia, North Korea or hostile neighbors. He threatened the annihilation of defiant third-world countries like North Korea and Iran. Most Americans, though not in Arkansas, were unnerved by his threats and wild promises of total victories against the enemy, or else!, on every front — its Middle East wars, diplomacy, trade, the economy, deficits, corporate taxes, climate freaks and environmentalists.
So sleep ought to come a little easier for everyone now that Bolton is gone, probably back to Fox News, which is where Trump fell in love with him for his diatribes against Barack Obama and his bold talk about taking no prisoners either from the country’s old Cold War foes, enemies in the Middle East’s religious wars or shaky allies in Europe or the Americas.
But the nightmares about nuclear war or just fresh wars in the Middle East, Southeast Asia or South America, where with Bolton’s encouragement he briefly threatened to use our armed might against the leader of Venezuela, should have been dispelled long ago. We just lacked a good grasp of Trump’s anti-social or narcissistic personality disorder. It was a simple lesson most of us learned on the schoolyard. Bullies are usually cowards and their boasts are only bluffs. They nearly always capitulate before claiming victory.
So it always was with Trump. Everyone knows that despite his efforts to ally himself with the military and battlefield heroism, Trump avoided military duty himself by repeatedly claiming a sore heel. For that matter, so did John Bolton, who also avoided the draft as the war in Vietnam escalated by joining the National Guard, doing some basic training and going to a few weekend drills. Bolton said he was a strong advocate of the war, but he realized that hippies ultimately would prevent America from whipping North Vietnam, so he dodged the draft because he didn’t want to die in a losing cause after getting a degree from Yale.
But Bolton was different from Trump. Bolton really believed in wars as the basic instrument of foreign policy, as long as others did the fighting. He was a leader of the band of nationalists — Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Bill Kristol and others — who called themselves the Project for the New American Century and infiltrated the second Bush administration to plan the invasion and capture of Iraq to plant the seeds for U.S. domination of the oil-rich Middle East and from there the world. In the Bush administration and afterward, Bolton promoted wider and more destructive wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria and the threat and use of force to overthrow the hostile regimes of North Korea and Iran.
The latter-day Trump claimed to have opposed war in Iraq from the start, although the record shows he lukewarmly supported it at the time, but it became clear very early that Trump was afraid of war and would go to any lengths to avoid one as long as he could somehow claim victory without it. He discovered that it was easy, at least with his base. He merely needed to declare victory, not achieve it.
North Korea leader Kim Jong-un, along with most of the world, realized that long before Americans did. Trump claimed that the little dictator, who killed family members whom he suspected of wanting his job, had bullied Barack Obama but wouldn’t bully him. When Kim said he was going to build intercontinental missiles capable of reaching the United States and a modern nuclear warhead that could be delivered to U.S. metropolises, Trump would tweet, “It will never happen.” Kim soon launched two ICBMs that could reach Washington, D.C., and then a modern nuclear device that scientists said could be delivered across the Pacific. Trump called him bad names.
Trump wanted to meet Kim and strike a deal on nuclear weapons and missiles. Kim first went to Beijing, where the Chinese premier obviously told him to treat Trump like a prince and an admired friend, as the Saudi royalty and the Chinese leaders had done with salutary effect in the early months of the presidency. Kim wrote Trump worshipful personal letters. You know the rest. Their negotiations were over after a short morning chat, Trump declared their hostility was over, the U.S. and North Korea were now friends and that he was going to make the poor little country rich and powerful. His approval rating shot up a few points into the 40s. Kim has resumed testing and bomb production. Trump said that was fine.
One reason Trump finally fired Bolton was that the old warmonger with the Taft mustache kept running down his pal Kim, who needed to be hugged, not shunned or bombed.
To Bolton’s dismay, Trump secretly set up and then angrily canceled a big meeting at the presidential retreat at Camp David to announce a deal with the Taliban for the total withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, leaving the people’s government at the mercy of the insurgents, as the Russians had done 30 years ago. Trump left open the possibility that he could just pull out of Afghanistan and let the insurgents have it.
He withdrew the U.S. from the agreement with Iran to stop the development of nuclear weapons and threatened the country with annihilation. When Iran’s elected leaders said that, because the U.S. had reneged on the bargain they would abandon their part, too, and resume uranium enrichment, Trump hinted that he wanted to meet with them as he had with Kim with the prospect of the same nice result. He said he would make Iran and its leaders rich.
The Iranians are shrewd. They know that they can get a better deal from Trump than they got from Barack Obama and John Kerry any time. The only price is that they have to let him say he won. Let’s hope the Iranians don’t overplay their hand and that they cut the deal right away before Benjamin Netanyahu and the Saudi royalty force the destabilized president into a military action that he fears.
Everyone in the world except his base and the terrified majority long ago learned the pathology of the president’s narcissism. He needs relentless victories; symbolic or pyrrhic ones are just fine. Mexico and Canada learned giddily that the brief trade war could produce a beneficial revision of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Trump boasted about the NAFTA “victory” but never submitted the new agreement to the Republican Congress for ratification, assuming no doubt that it would demonstrate how fruitless it was for his country. The U.S. trade deficit hit a record last year.
There is plenty to worry about for the remaining 16 months of the Trump presidency — the increasing poisoning of our air and water, climate catastrophes, more corporate grifting, the undermining of the national security apparatus and democratic institutions like elections, and bureaucratic and White House graft.
But all those nightmares of precipitous war were for naught. John Bolton realized it and is gone. Start sleeping better.