Beware of Mustachioed Napoleons

John Bolton serves the foreign-export Enlightenment wing of the American uniparty

John Bolton has a reputation as a fierce conservative. Fifteen years ago or so, I used to think he was, too. I would watch Bolton, who was President George W. Bush’s Ambassador to the United Nations, appear on the television and lay into Washington liberals like a dog going at a bone. Adjusting his glasses and twitching his prominent polar bear-colored moustache, Ambassador Bolton would hit his Democrat interlocutors with staccato fact-bursts of figures and proper names. It was a sight to see. I loved every minute of it.

Later, after both he and George Bush had left office, Bolton the private citizen could still be seen on the conservative news programs, firing off verbal salvoes against the Barack Obama administration, for which Bolton seemed, and still seems, to nurture a particular disdain.

Lately I have been reading Bolton’s big book from 2020, The Room Where It Happened. You all remember the story. Bolton was National Security Advisor for Barack Obama’s successor, President Donald J. Trump, for a tumultuous year and a half from April 2018 to September of 2019. Having clashed with Trump on all manner of things great and small, Bolton finally had enough and resigned. In June of 2020, not six months before the upcoming doozy of a presidential election, Bolton published his Room Where It Happened memoir. Written from a supposedly rock-ribbed conservative perspective, Bolton’s book is meant, in part, I suppose, to solidify (as though it were necessary) Bolton’s bona fides as the biggest and truest Republican in Washington.

My impression of it so far? Republican, yes. Conservative, no. Reading Bolton’s inner thoughts and how he rationalizes the policy choices he prefers, I can’t for the life of me figure out why I ever thought of John Bolton as a conservative, or why anyone else would, either. The man is a mustachioed Napoleon, an Enlightenment crusader forever saddled up and ready to ride out in the name of democracy-via-napalm-delivery. He is liberalism’s most insatiable exporter. And he always has been. I don’t think of Bolton as a conservative anymore, and I am wondering why I ever did.

Well, that’s not quite true. Back in the late aughts, it must have been the fact that Bolton manifestly opposed all things Obama that made me think Bolton was Captain Conservative to the rescue of our flailing republic. Also, Bolton really, really does not like the leadership in Iran. When I still thought of American foreign policy as a perfect overlay for Israeli foreign policy, I too got riled up listening to Bolton say that Iran was no good and needed to be roughed up, pronto. Which Obama wouldn’t do. It was all catnip for my National Review-subscribing self.

This all wore off over the years, however. I remember noticing I had changed my mind about Bolton when I watched a speech he gave to a Free Iran gathering in 2017. At the end of the talk, Bolton fired up the already-swooning crowd by vowing to “celebrate” with them in Tehran “before 2019.” What is conservative about this kind of warmongering? What is humane about it, even? In order to celebrate in Tehran, Bolton meant that first the Iranian government must be overthrown. Indeed, that is precisely what, in his talk, he proposes to do. Whether Bolton understands how much blood—American, Iranian, and otherwise—will have to be spilled before this happens, he doesn’t say. One thing is clear, though. Bolton wants regime change in Persia. And he is apparently willing to send many, many people to their deaths to get it.

I quit subscribing to National Review after the Great Breakup of 2016. That was also around the time I realized that it’s not conservative at all to stand on a stage and root for Armageddon.

Now I have an even clearer idea what is rubbing me the wrong way about John Bolton. By reading The Room Where It Happened, Bolton’s two hates, Obama and the Ayatollahs, come into sharp focus — as does Washington as a machine for grinding liberalism into foreign soils (think Adam Smith in an F-35).

Bolton sniffs at Obama because Obama was too diffident, in Bolton’s view, toward the Islamic Republic. Should have taught them some lessons, he thinks. Should have unloaded on Iran. With enough firepower, Bolton could have strolled into Ferdowsi Square like General Allenby entering Jerusalem in December of 1917. Bolton never got that chance, due, as he sees it, to Obama’s fecklessness and Trump’s fickleness (and generally chaotic management style, which Bolton also makes no secret of reproving in his memoir). Hence, the anti-Obama-ism. I was against Obama for many reasons, including, especially, his attacks on the Little Sisters of the Poor. Far too liberal at home, that Obama was. But Bolton was against Obama because the latter wasn’t nearly liberal enough abroad. Bolton was willing to overlook the horrors that Obama and the Democrats were visiting on the weakest of Americans. What Bolton really wanted was to visit some horrors on the weakest in Iran. Well, there you go. The false choice, jacked up with wild rhetoric and threats of all-out war. American mainstream conservatism, right there on Fox News in a tailored suit. Liberalism, locked and loaded.

If you think I am being unfair, please read The Room Where It Happened. Bolton obsesses over how he can export American liberalism at the barrel of a gun—or a much bigger weapon if that is available. He simply doesn’t see any other way to get the job done in many instances. Bolton, on that note, is forever returning to the theme of “the lesson.” He thinks it educatory to apply cruise missiles and smart bombs on the heads of foreign despots, who otherwise are immune, Bolton holds, to learning anything about American liberalism at all. Bolton rues missed chances to attack Syria and, of course, Iran. He watches in frustrated impotence as generals and other bigwig bureaucrats thwart his schemes to drop the hammer on Bashar al Assad and other unsavory types.

He also is out for the Russians, another favorite bugbear of the Washington tribe. For some reason, which I still have not discerned, Bolton wants Russia to pay some kind of price for existing which only sanctions and nuclear stockpiles can extract, to learn some kind of big lesson about their awful crimes which only violence and misery can convey. Bolton pushes Trump to withdraw from arms-control treaties with Moscow on the grounds that the Russians are in breach of the treaties, so America needs to catch up. Catch up to what? Does Bolton really want to go down the road of another nuclear standoff with the remnants of the Soviet Union? As with Iran, does he understand that what he is ultimately asking for is not the good of the country but the extinction of mankind?

What is conservative about any of this? And where the denizen of a land which has aborted more than ten Shoahs’ worth of babies in the past five decades finds the moral authority to dictate terms to foreign governments, I remain without any clue. Bolton is untroubled by this, it seems. But those who really do love America might interject that it is better to save American children first before going on bombing runs against the crust-end of the Achaemenid Empire.

What is most instructive about The Room Where It Happened is that it shows Bolton just as he is, the representative of the foreign-export Enlightenment wing of the American uniparty. The Democrats are Bolton’s nemeses because they are the domestic Enlightenment wing. They go after nuns in the broken streets of the USA, after babies in American wombs. Bolton, for his part, wants to go after the Major Mullahs of the Persians abroad. Obama—who internationally speaking was greatly more conservative than Bolton was or is—did not saddle up with the tousle-haired Bonaparte to stamp out noncompliance with Washington’s wishes in the deserts of Eurasia or the mountains of the Korean Peninsula. Fie on Obama, then.

Fine. Bolton is a politico and he has to make his case in the context in which he works. But he must realize the irony, at least in his more reflective moments, in this: Obama and Bolton are agreed that it is the Enlightenment forever, the Enlightenment or else. The room where what happened? Where Democrats and Republicans fought one another over whether to export the Enlightenment via scalpel to Detroit, or via Tomahawk missile to Baghdad. I’ll take neither, thank you. Which, according to many like John Bolton, somehow makes me a Russian asset. Go figure.

There was a time I thought Bolton, the zig to Obama’s zag, was a conservative. No more. The Room Where It Happened only confirms me in my change of heart.

As for Iran: instead of bombing it into liberalism, why not pray it into the fold of the Catholic Church?


Jason Morgan is associate professor at Reitaku University in Kashiwa, Japan.

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