The Return of the Chicken Hawks

When Donald Trump started staffing his administration, many of us worried about the number of generals he put in high positions: Michael Flynn, John Kelly, Jim Mattis. Chief Strategist Steve Bannon had never made it to general, but his seven years as an officer in the Navy was a key part of his self-image. So many of the other members of the administration were lightweights who had little-to-no knowledge or experience relevant to their jobs: Ben Carson, Betsy DeVos, Rick Perry, Jared Kushner, Ivanka, and Trump himself. It seemed obvious that in a crisis, everybody would be looking for the generals to tell them what to do.

In a country founded on civilian control of the military, pundits wondered, wasn’t that dangerous?

Subsequently, Flynn was fired and replaced by another general, H.R. McMaster. Bannon left. John Kelly moved up from Secretary of Homeland Security to Chief of Staff. When the press referred to “the grown-ups” in the Trump administration, they meant the generals, plus a few other people like Rex Tillerson and Gary Cohn.

In the latest reshuffle, Cohn has been replaced by Larry Kudlow, another lightweight without any real credentials relevant to his job. (He played an economist on TV, but really isn’t one.) Tillerson is gone, replaced by Mike Pompeo. McMaster has been replaced by John Bolton. Kelly’s (always limited) ability to control Trump is fading, and his job either is or isn’t secure, depending on the hour and who you talk to.

In short, the Day of the General seems to be waning, and we are being reminded that there are people more dangerous than generals: chicken hawks.

What is a chicken hawk? A chicken hawk is somebody full of warlike rhetoric who somehow never gets around to experiencing war first-hand. [1] His (they’re not all men, but great majority are) lack of experience doesn’t make him cautious, it insulates his thinking against consequences. He sees the uses of war and dreams of being a Churchill who maneuvers forces on a global scale, but has never understood the real costs of war. He has never learned that a mistake that starts a war is the worst kind of mistake a statesman can make.

At The Week, Joel Mathis points out the danger of having a chicken-hawk president:

The problem with Trump’s pugnaciousness? He’s never had to face consequences for it. There have always been bone spurs, or security guys, or the fact that professional wrestling isn’t real. As far as we know, he’s never started a fight and gotten his nose bloodied for the trouble. Anybody who has experienced that lesson never forgets it. It’s best not learned on the international stage.

A general is a priest of War who has seen what can happen when he calls down the wrath of his god. A chicken hawk has heard glory-filled stories of that god, watched the priests with envy, and longs to unleash that kind of power.

Bush era chicken hawks. The George W. Bush administration was full of chicken hawks, most notably Vice President Dick Cheney, who engineered the Iraq War after artfully maneuvering to avoid the draft during the Vietnam era. (As he told a reporter, “I had other priorities in the ’60s than military service.”) Other notable Iraq War hawks — Paul Wolfowitz, Karl Rove, Richard Perle, Douglas Feith — were also blissfully devoid of military experience. (As Colin Powell’s top assistant Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson put it: “None of these guys ever heard a bullet go by their ears in combat.“)

Some of the loudest Iraq War hawks outside the Bush administration were similarly uninterested in actual fighting, like Bill Kristol, and any number of gung-ho College Republicans who were of the right age to volunteer for the Iraq War, but chose to leave that honor to someone else. (It’s debatable whether Iraq-invasion-promoting columnist Thomas Friedman qualified as a chicken hawk. He never served in the military, but he probably did hear bullets whiz past his ear when he was reporting in Beirut.)

Bush himself avoided Vietnam by somehow getting a coveted spot in a National Guard unit that was never called up (and maybe, depending on who you believe, he just stopped showing up at some point). His military experience was zipping through the clear skies of Texas in a supersonic fighter jet, and he relived that excitement by landing on the USS Lincoln near San Diego so that he could give his famous “Mission Accomplished” speech declaring victory in Iraq.

By contrast, the top general in the Bush administration, Secretary of State Colin Powell, while consistently loyal to administration policy, was not so eager to invade. He was the one who coined what he called the Pottery Barn Rule: “If you break it, you own it.” He also was subsequently more open than most Bush officials about what went wrong and what might be learned from it. Colonel Wilkerson became a critic of the war.

The once and future chicken hawk. Like George W. Bush, John Bolton used the National Guard to avoid Vietnam, a war he supported. Wikipedia fleshes out his subsequent account of his decision:

He wrote in his Yale 25th reunion book “I confess I had no desire to die in a Southeast Asian rice paddy. I considered the war in Vietnam already lost.” In an interview, Bolton discussed his comment in the reunion book, explaining that he decided to avoid service in Vietnam because “by the time I was about to graduate in 1970, it was clear to me that opponents of the Vietnam War had made it certain we could not prevail, and that I had no great interest in going there to have Teddy Kennedy give it back to the people I might die to take it away from.”

But his turning away from personally serving in Vietnam was not part of a more general turning away from war. Bolton was not just part of the crew that maneuvered the country into the Iraq War, he also worked to expand that war.  In “The Untold Story of John Bolton’s Campaign for War with Iran“, The American Conservative charges:

Bolton’s high-profile advocacy of war with Iran is well known. What is not at all well known is that, when he was under secretary of state for arms control and international security, he executed a complex and devious strategy aimed at creating the justification for a U.S. attack on Iran. Bolton sought to convict the Islamic Republic in the court of international public opinion of having a covert nuclear weapons program using a combination of diplomatic pressure, crude propaganda, and fabricated evidence.

Despite the fact that Bolton was technically under the supervision of Secretary of State Colin Powell, his actual boss in devising and carrying out that strategy was Vice President Dick Cheney.

Most of the other Iraq War chicken hawks are in history’s trash can by now. Whether they learned anything from that blunder or not, no one is listening to them any more. But Bolton has now returned to influence, emphatically has not learned a lesson, and does not even admit that invading Iraq was a mistake.

Preventive War. The Iraq War was premised not just on manufactured reports about Saddam’s weaponry, but also on a doctrine of preventive war: If we think a country is developing a threat to us, we should attack it before that threat materializes. [2] Bolton still believes that doctrine. Here’s what he wrote in the WSJ at the end of February:

It is perfectly legitimate for the United States to respond to the current “necessity” posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons by striking first.

In other words, North Korea is developing weapons that could strike us, so we should treat that as if it were a plan to strike us, and strike them first. Our strike could result in a retaliatory nuclear strike against Seoul or Tokyo, or just a devastating bombardment of Seoul (a city of 25 million) by conventional artillery. But hey, collateral damage. It’s better that cities of our Asian allies get destroyed than our own cities.

In 2015, he advocated a preventive strike against Iran, and scoffed at the possibility of resolving the nuclear issue peacefully.

The inescapable conclusion is that Iran will not negotiate away its nuclear program. Nor will sanctions block its building a broad and deep weapons infrastructure. The inconvenient truth is that only military action like Israel’s 1981 attack on Saddam Hussein’s Osirak reactor in Iraq or its 2007 destruction of a Syrian reactor, designed and built by North Korea, can accomplish what is required. Time is terribly short, but a strike can still succeed.

When Obama got the deal Bolton said was impossible, Bolton denounced it, and has urged Trump to pull out of it. That, of course, takes us back to Square One with regard to Iran’s nuclear program: Either we accept the reality of Iran getting nuclear weapons (as President Bush did with North Korea) or we attack them.

In The Daily Beast, Mark Leon Goldberg characterizes Bolton’s tenure as UN Ambassador in 2005-2006:

The memoir he wrote of his experience at the UN was titled “Surrender is Not an Option.” But Bolton’s time at the UN suggests that, to him, the natural give and take of diplomacy is akin to “surrender” and must be avoided at all costs. Understanding how he performed his job at the UN gives us big clues as to how he might approach the job as National Security Advisor to which he has just been named.

At the United Nations, Bolton demonstrated a profoundly zero-sum view of international relations. Other countries’ gains — no matter how insignificant —  were ipso-facto America’s losses.

In other words, he will reinforce one of Trump’s greatest weaknesses: his inability to see the win/win nature of good diplomacy.

Leading the chorus for war with Iran. As National Security Advisor, Bolton will not have any planes or troops under his direct command. Nor will he have a staff capable of generating attack plans without cooperation from the Pentagon. He chairs the National Security Council; his job is to consolidate the advice of the military, foreign policy, and intelligence establishments and package it for the President. His power rests entirely in his ability to influence the President’s decisions.

That job is particularly important when the President has no expertise or experience of his own. (Dwight Eisenhower, who had already managed half of a global war before he became president, changed NSAs almost every year. It didn’t make a huge difference.) As a tough-talking chicken hawk himself, Trump needs to be surrounded by people who understand the reality of war. Initially, he was, but that is becoming less and less true.

With the possibility of a Trump/Kim summit meeting — I’m still not convinced that’s really going to happen — North Korea is the challenge most people are focused on right now. But another deadline on Iran is also looming: U.S. sanctions on Iran were not repealed after the 2015 agreement; instead (according to the Corker-Cardin law) the President must waive them every 90 days. The current waiver runs out on May 12. If the sanctions on Iran are resumed, the deal that stopped Iran’s march to nuclear weapons will start to unravel.

Trump didn’t want to issue the previous waivers, but he let Tillerson and McMaster push him into doing so. Back in January, he warned that he wanted major changes in the agreement, which during the campaign he had called “one of the most incompetently drawn deals I’ve ever seen“. So far, these demands have led to no additional concessions from the Iranians. [3]

This time around, Tillerson and McMaster are gone. Like Bolton, new Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is an Iran hawk. So is UN Ambassador Nikki Haley. [4] Along with Trump’s own inclinations, this chorus virtually guarantees that the next waiver will not be granted, sanctions will be reimposed, and Iran stop complying with the nuclear deal.

The next question is: What then? During the campaign, Trump’s “America First” slogan seemed to point away from foreign adventurism. [5] He was almost unique among Republican presidential candidates in clearly declaring the Iraq War a mistake. [6] But with no brakes on Iran’s nuclear program, and with Bolton leading the chorus of Pompeo and Haley, war with Iran will be a constantly available option, waiting for the moment when Trump is in a war-making mood.


[1] It’s worth pointing out that I also have never served in the military, observed combat, or even been shot at in civilian life. But I am also cautious about committing someone else to fight on my behalf. When military people tell me that war is hell, and that the outcome is never as predictable as you think, I believe them.

[2] There’s an important distinction between preventive war and preemptive war. Both are examples of striking first, but a preemptive war is much less controversial than a preventive one, because it makes fewer assumptions about an enemy’s intentions. A preemptive strike disrupts a specific imminent attack, while a preventive strike intends to eliminate the possibility that an enemy might eventually attack at some indefinite time and place.

An example helps here: If the U.S. had struck the Japanese fleet just as it got within range of Pearl Harbor, that would have been preemptive: A specific attack was in the works, and our attack would have disrupted theirs. But the Japanese attack itself was preventive. At the time the U.S. had no specific plan to attack Japan. But the Japanese anticipated that the U.S. would eventually go to war to stop Japanese expansion, so they crippled the fleet that would spearhead that war.

When you start a preventive war, you turn your back on the possibility that the attack you claim to be preventing could have been averted in some peaceful way. A key example there is the Cold War: Various American military figures in the 1950s and 60s advocated for a preventive nuclear strike against the USSR. But we didn’t strike that preventive blow, and the nuclear war those men were anticipating never happened anyway.

[3] That’s typical. Trump dislikes all our international agreements and believes he can negotiate better ones, but so far he has not produced any significant new deals. (Wait: Something with South Korea was announced this morning.)

[4] Experts seem to agree that Iran is fulfilling its end of the agreement, so Haley has been moving the goalposts.

The question of Iranian compliance is not as straightforward as many people believe. It’s not just about the technical terms of the nuclear agreement. It requires a much more thorough look.

[5] In an address to Congress a little over a year ago, he implicitly criticized the expense of the Iraq War: “America has spent approximately six trillion dollars in the Middle East, all this while our infrastructure at home is crumbling. With this six trillion dollars we could have rebuilt our country –- twice.”

[6] He considered it such a mistake that he had to rewrite history to portray himself as a war critic from the beginning.

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Comments

  • cgordon  On March 26, 2018 at 10:40 am

    “waiting for the moment when Trump is in a war-making mood” …or needs a bump in the polls…

    • Larry Benjamin  On March 26, 2018 at 12:43 pm

      Fortunately, many of his most fervent supporters don’t actually want to go to war. Michael Savage consistently portrayed Hillary Clinton as a “warmonger” (despite his own support for the Iraq war) who would have started a war with Russia if she’d been elected, and was very disappointed with Bolton’s appointment to NSA. Trump pays attention to right-wing media.

  • Alan  On March 26, 2018 at 11:54 am

    Bolton’s article (Free link) sure as hell seems to argue that North Korea has the grounds to attack the US! We present a far more “imminent threat” to them than they to us.

    Of course, Bolton would scoff at that idea. He, and too many others, believe that America can and should do things that we’d condemn in any other country.

    • weeklysift  On March 26, 2018 at 12:14 pm

      That’s what “American exceptionalism” really means.

  • Guest  On March 26, 2018 at 2:33 pm

    “Most of the other Iraq War chicken hawks are in history’s trash can by now.”

    Perhaps the most brutal dig at Hillary Clinton I’ve seen on this site. Just savage.

    “Whether they learned anything from that blunder or not, no one is listening to them any more.”

    In Jesus’ name we pray…

    • weeklysift  On March 28, 2018 at 7:41 am

      As I read Clinton’s record, she was more of a fellow traveler on the Iraq War than a proponent. Bush created a political situation where Democrats who didn’t trust him would appear to be trusting Saddam. Clinton (and Kerry and a bunch of other Democrats) weren’t willing to take that risk. Her speech justifying her “yes” vote is full of worry, and is not a gung-ho endorsement of war.

      I am puzzled by the lingering hostility to Clinton. From both Trump and Sanders supporters, her name comes up as if she were a current threat, rather than someone who holds no office and has no plans to run for one.

  • Anonymous  On March 26, 2018 at 4:23 pm

    “Trump dislikes all our international agreements and believes he can negotiate better ones.” A useful response to this is to ask if he has negotiated with Mexico to pay for the border wall yet. This was his ongoing, oft-repeated campaign promise. If he can’t negotiate that deal, then don’t believe that he can successfully negotiate any other international deal for the U.S.

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