Military Vets in Congress Split on Bolton as National Security Adviser

Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton speaks during CPAC 2018 on Feb. 22, 2018, in National Harbor, Maryland.  Alex Wong/Getty Images
Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton speaks during CPAC 2018 on Feb. 22, 2018, in National Harbor, Maryland. Alex Wong/Getty Images

Military veterans in Congress were split Friday on President Donald Trump's choice of former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton to replace Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster as White House national security adviser.

Republicans said Bolton's appointment would send a message of U.S. resolve to adversaries. Democrats labeled him a warmonger who would unravel relationships with allies, although their opposition will have little impact. The appointment does not require Senate confirmation.

"Another step backward for an administration already going full throttle in reverse," said Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Massachusetts, a former Marine officer who served under then-Maj. Gen. Jim Mattis in Iraq.

"If you're worried about our national security today, you should be more concerned about it tomorrow," Moulton said in a Tweet.

But Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, an Army officer and veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, praised both Bolton and McMaster. He called Bolton "an excellent choice to take the baton from General McMaster."

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, an Air Force lawyer, said Bolton's presence in the White House is "good news for America's allies and bad news for America's enemies," adding that Bolton has "a firm understanding of the threats we face from North Korea, Iran and radical Islam."

Sen. Jack Reed, D-Rhode Island, a West Point graduate and former Army Ranger, said that he doesn't. "McMaster was an experienced, widely respected professional who was willing to be an independent voice," he said, and "the same cannot be said for Mr. Bolton."

"This is not a wise choice," said Reed, the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. He called Bolton a "divisive ideologue" who "does not have the temperament or judgment to be an effective national security adviser."

Other Republicans, including United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, were notably silent on Bolton's appointment while praising McMaster for his service.

Haley never mentioned Bolton in her Tweet: "Thank you to Lieutenant General HR McMaster for your service and loyalty to our country. Your selfless courage and leadership has inspired all of us. Most of all, thank you for your friendship."

Bolton, whose has argued in the past for the consideration of pre-emptive strikes against the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea, suggested Friday that his views in public service might be more moderate than those he held as a private citizen.

Bolton told Fox News' "The Story" that his past comments are now "behind me" and what matters is "what the president says."

"During my career, I have written I don't know how many articles and op-eds and opinion pieces. I have given I can't count the number of speeches; I have [done] countless interviews," he said.

"They're all out there in the public record. I have never been shy about what my views are," he said. "Frankly, what I have said in private now is behind me. The important thing is what the president says and the advice I give him."

Bolton's appointment raises the possibility of conflict with White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, the retired Marine general who has been the subject of numerous reports in recent months that he is on shaky ground with Trump.

Kelly has strived to gain control over access to Trump to prevent leaks and bring a sense of order to the formation of policy.

Last August, in a National Review article, Bolton complained that his once easy access to Trump had been cut off following the firing of chief strategist Steve Bannon.

Bolton said Bannon had asked him to draw up a plan for U.S. withdrawal from the deal to rein in Iran's nuclear programs but "staff changes" at the White House prevented him from meeting with Trump.

"Although he [Trump] was once kind enough to tell me 'come in and see me any time,' those days are now over," Bolton wrote.

Bolton's welcome back into the fold was first noticed Thursday when the White House press pool spotted him entering the mansion before Trump sent out a Tweet announcing that McMaster was being replaced.

"I am pleased to announce that, effective 4/9/18, @AmbJohnBolton will be my new National Security Advisor. I am very thankful for the service of General H.R. McMaster who has done an outstanding job & will always remain my friend," Trump said.

Bolton, 69, a prolific and combative conservative author and frequent guest on Fox News, served in the Maryland Army National Guard during the Vietnam war but never deployed.

He had supported the war but wrote in his Yale University 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."

Bolton previously served as U.N. ambassador under a recess appointment by President George W. Bush. He also served under Bush as undersecretary of state for arms control.

His appointment as Trump's top foreign policy adviser comes at a critical time as the president prepares for a tentative summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at the end of May on the "denuclearization" of the peninsula.

In February, Bolton wrote in The Wall Street Journal, "It is perfectly legitimate for the United States to respond to the current 'necessity' posed by North Korea's nuclear weapons by striking first" to eliminate the nuclear threat without somehow triggering all-out war.

Last week before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Adm. Harry Harris, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, said a so-called "bloody nose" limited first strike was reckless and counter to long-held U.S. policy for the region.

"We have no 'bloody nose' strategy. I don't know what that is," Harris said, adding, "I'm ready to execute whatever the president and the national command authority directs me to do, but a 'bloody nose' strategy is not contemplated."

In a phone call Thursday with The New York Times, McMaster confirmed what had been rumored for weeks -- that Trump wanted him out. They had disagreed on policies for Iran, North Korea and Afghanistan and "really, the only issue that had been left open is timing" for his departure, he said.

McMaster said he would have preferred to remain into the summer but his leaving now was dictated by "what was best for him [Trump] and the country."

McMaster, a recipient of the Silver Star in the Gulf War, had also argued for a harder line against Russia, and his fate was apparently sealed last month when he said there was "incontrovertible" evidence that Russia had meddled in the 2016 presidential election.

Trump responded with a Tweet: "General McMaster forgot to say that the results of the 2016 election were not impacted or changed by the Russians and that the only Collusion was between Russia and Crooked H, the DNC and the Dems."

McMaster was the sixth close adviser or White House aide to Trump to announce a departure in the last six weeks, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who was fired last week.

With Bolton replacing McMaster, "I am concerned that we are now entering a dangerous new stage of Donald Trump's presidency -- one in which his paranoia and insecurity will be manipulated by advisers like John Bolton to America's detriment," said Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Arizona, a Marine veteran of Iraq and a member of the House Armed Services Committee.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

 

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