I was a teenager during the tenure of President George W. Bush, but I’d like to think that I was still keenly aware of what he was, what he promised to be, and what he most certainly was not. I understood why people liked Bush’s disarming nature, and the allure of small-government conservatism. The popularity of White House policies based on deregulation, social conservatism, bureaucratic cutbacks and the like are not new, even in the short lives of we Millennials. Granted, the legacy of many of these policies turned out to be profoundly negative: If Bush’s goal was to get government out of peoples’ lives, he failed spectacularly.
But at this point, most everyone agrees that the greatest failure of the Bush administration was foreign policy. Led by Vice President Dick Cheney, the administration was historically hawkish, with an approach to diplomacy so heavy-handed that even W.’s father, President George H.W. Bush, criticized its reaction to 9/11 as “just iron-ass.” Two hot wars and one amorphous war on terror later, Bush left his successor with trillions in war-related debt, a scandal-tarred image of America’s global brand, and no end in sight for multiple conflicts. Bush’s legacy was so appallingly unforgivable that just about every presidential candidate since then has run on a foreign policy platform that highlights their differences from those of his administration. Barack Obama’s 2008 victory was partially due to the fact that he was the only major candidate of either party who could legitimately claim no part in the decision to invade Iraq.
President Trump has been no different. Before and after his election, he publicly ridiculed the legacy of his party’s White House predecessor, calling the invasion of Iraq “the single worst decision ever made.” Like everything else involving the former reality star, Trump’s position on the Iraq war has shifted countless times; to the best of my knowledge, his current stance denies that he ever supported it, despite audio evidence to the contrary. But Trump, being the master public messager he is, likely understood that “America First” was about as opposite as could be from Bush’s holy crusade to champion democratic values abroad. Indeed, while Trump and Bush share a lot of domestic views, Trump’s meteoric rise was due in large part to his ability to prove that a different, less hawkish version of conservatism could exist — and win. He was so successful that some people viewed the Republican ticket as the dovish option in the 2016 election.
Yet if one looks at Trump’s actual foreign policy, not just his rhetoric, you could be forgiven for thinking that Cheney and the Bush-capades still run the show. Trump’s administration has already killed more civilians fighting ISIS in the Middle East, and dropped more bombs on foreign countries, than Obama’s. America is well on its way to record-setting defense spending in 2018. It took Trump less than a year to launch an airstrike on a sovereign nation without authorization from Congress, an act so brazen it seems straight out of a Bush-Cheney daydream, circa 2002.
In this context, then, it should come as less-than-surprising that Trump’s recent cabinet changes follow a particularly — eh-herm — Cheney-ish pattern. Out are many of the so-called “adults” in the room, such as Rex Tillerson and H. R. McMaster. In are cast-offs and wannabes from the Bush administration’s past. Gina Haspel, who ran a Thai torture facility under Bush, will replace Mike Pompeo as Director of the CIA. When Sen. John McCain said that Haspel should answer for her role in alleged torture, Cheney’s wife, Lynne, torture-splained the virtues of “enhanced interrogation” to a man held captive by the Vietcong for five years. I must have missed the name of the “enhanced interrogation” facility Lynne Cheney survived, but then again, I’m sure being married to America’s real-life Darth Vader is its own form of cruel and unusual punishment. Pompeo, meanwhile, has been nominated for Secretary of State. While he never served under Bush, his fervent adoration for Middle East conflict certainly proves him a loyal acolyte.
Then there is John Bolton, to whom Trump will grant the position of National Security Advisor. The former US Ambassador to the UN, Bush got him into that job through a recess appointment because the Senate — alert to allegations made by a former co-worker — wouldn’t approve him. They were extraordinarily disturbing allegations, too, exposing Bolton as a deranged lunatic who’d stand in front of the hotel room of a female staffer who raised a complaint, screaming and kicking at her door while threatening her with consequences if her complaint wasn’t withdrawn. Exactly like the kind of guy Trump would get along with.
Prior to serving as U.N. Ambassador, Bolton was Under-Secretary of State for arms control and international security. During that time, he strategized a justification for the US to attack Iran. With Cheney’s approval, Bolton worked with Israeli counterparts to demonize Iran, and promised privately that after Iraq was pacified, Iran would be next. These views haven’t changed. Bolton is still extremely vocal in his desire for Iranian conflict, and makes constant appearances on Fox News to ridicule and call for an exit from President Obama’s Iran deal. Nor is his bloodthirstiness limited to Iran: Bolton’s think piece on North Korea for the Wall Street Journal argues that it is in our national interest to strike first and soon.
Do any of these people sound like they abide by the isolationist, “America First” rhetoric of Trump’s presidential campaign? It sounds exactly like the kind of conservatism I associated with Cheney throughout my youth. The kind of conservatism that sees every hostile actor as the gravest threat, every cautious ally as dead weight, every costly military escapade as a justified exertion of power to remind everyone who’s in charge. The kind of conservatism that views average Americans as a collective piggybank to fund global hegemony. Nothing about this puts “America First.”
Perhaps Trump should knock-off hiring knock-offs and simply hire Darth Cheney himself. It’s not like these recent appointments will represent a change in policy: Trump has acted like a neocon since day one. If you’re going to double-down, why not go for the real deal? If Vice President Mike Pence is any judge, Trump loves a fall guy waiting in the wings, and Cheney is an expert fall guy. He will forever be the face of 2000s military adventurism, failed foreign conflict and secret torture, while his old boss enjoys a resurgence in popularity. Trump’s legacy would undoubtedly benefit from this human sponge of responsibility delegation.
Regardless of who takes the blame, though, someone should remind the President of what happened to the last administration that let loose a bunch of neocons convinced that war must be waged everywhere at all times. Remind him that just as nobody remembers Bush for his tax cuts, deregulation or warm homages to middle America, nobody will remember Trump for the same. What they will remember him for is dragging America, kicking and screaming, back into more useless, unwanted foreign wars that suck money from domestic initiatives and decimate global confidence in American leadership. Someone should remind Trump before he becomes the one thing that Republican voters asked him not to be: a total neocon hawk.