John Bolton and the unlearned lesson of Iraq

Former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton

Former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), Friday, Feb. 24, 2017, in Oxon Hill, Md. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

How sickeningly fitting it is that during the same week we marked the 15th anniversary of our Iraq invasion, Donald Trump managed to hire, as his national security adviser, a notorious cheerleader for that disastrous war.

Lest we forget, uber hawk John Bolton was one of the key propagandists who pounded the drums and spewed fake news. While serving as George W. Bush’s undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, he declared in 2002: “We are confident that Saddam Hussein has hidden weapons of mass destruction and production facilities in Iraq.” Bolton and the rest of Bush’s neoconservatives (infamously known as “neocons”) were repeatedly warned by skeptical intelligence sources and U.N. weapon inspectors that, in truth, Saddam had nothing — but they didn’t listen, because they wanted their war.

And they got their war. They destabilized the Middle East, allowing Iran to fill the vacuum left by Saddam’s downfall. They racked up an American war tab that’s now estimated at $3 trillion — most of which went on Uncle Sam’s credit card, thereby cratering the U.S. debt. They got 4,400 Americans killed, with another 32,000 wounded, and they killed as many as 1,000,000 Iraqis, although a final accounting may never be known.

Earlier this week, when Iraqi scholar Sinan Antoon marked the war’s 15th anniversary by calling America’s invasion “a crime,” he pointed out that “those who perpetrated it are still at large. Some of them have even been rehabilitated thanks to the horrors of Trumpism and a mostly amnesiac citizenry …. The pundits and ‘experts’ who sold us the war still go on doing what they do.”

He was talking about people like John Bolton.

And he was right about the amnesia. It’s often said that truth is the first casualty of war; it can also be said that when a war goes badly, the second casualty is memory. Most Americans willfully tuned out Iraq long ago; there’s no appetite for reliving the lies that greased the invasion.

Bolton was part of the mendacious crew that gave us the “Mission Accomplished” banner. (Bush declared that “major combat operations in Iraq have ended” roughly eight years before our major combat operations finally ended.) Bolton and the rest of that crew cooked a toxic stew of deceptions, slippery wordplay, and outright falsehoods. (“There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction,” and “We know where the WMDs are. They’re in the area around Baghdad and east, west, south, and north somewhat.”) They falsely insisted that Saddam had conspired with al Qaeda to plot 9/11. In truth, al Qaeda was not in Iraq — until after the invasion. Their fighters were drawn to the war we launched under false pretenses.

Has Bolton voiced any regrets about his contributions to one of the worst strategic miscalculations in the history of American statecraft? A miscalculation that our seriously wounded vets are fated to experience for the rest of their lives? A miscalculation that — according to a 2006 National Intelligence Estimate — actually worsened the global terrorist threat and strengthened radical Islam? Has Bolton apologized for any of that?

Nah. Three years ago, he told the conservative Washington Examiner: “I still think the decision to overthrow Saddam was correct …. You can’t assume if he had stayed in power, sweetness and light would prevail in the Middle East today.”

Whoa there, war hawk. Nobody ever expected Saddam to deliver “sweetness and light.” But notwithstanding his brutality and human rights abuses, Saddam’s Sunni regime did function as a counterweight to the Shia regime in Iran. With Saddam gone, Iran is far stronger in the region. And today, what’s Bolton’s solution? Bang the war drums again. He thinks we should be more militarily aggressive toward Iran. (As well as toward North Korea. As well as toward Cuba, for Pete’s sake.)

The philosopher George Santayana famously wrote in 1905 that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” What’s even worse is that those who whitewash the past, those who are incapable of learning the lessons of past miscalculations, are doomed to repeat them. Leave it to Trump to scrape the bottom of the neocon barrel.

Meanwhile, the newest casualty of Trump’s multi-front legal war is John Dowd, the White House attorney who finally found it impossible to abide his choleric client. But fear not, there’s at least one lawyer in the land who’s tanned, rested, and ready, someone with vast experience defending a criminal enterprise.

I’m referring, of course, to Saul Goodman, the lawyer on “Breaking Bad.” Saul could take some of his best lines to the White House. Tell it to Trump, Saul!

“Did you not plan for this contingency? I mean, the Starship Enterprise had a self-destruct button.”

“There’s no honor among thieves — except for us, of course.”

“Clearly [your] taste in women is the same as [your] taste in lawyers. Only the very best — with just a right amount of dirty.”

But alas, Saul would probably quit, too.  As he once lamented on the show, “Some people are immune to good advice.”

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.