Return of the Neocons: Trump’s Surprising Cabinet Candidates
Policy + Politics

Return of the Neocons: Trump’s Surprising Cabinet Candidates

REUTERS/Las Vegas Sun/Steve Marcus

The neocon boys are back in town – and more than one could land a significant role in the emerging Trump administration.

During the campaign, Donald Trump pointed to Hillary Clinton’s authorization of the Iraq invasion an example of her flawed judgment and called the war a horrible mistake. Now he is at least entertaining the notion of hiring some of the most hawkish of the neoconservatives who supported the Iraq War.

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Among those under consideration who loudly banged the drums for war is John Bolton, a former under secretary of state and ambassador to the UN under George W. Bush. One allegation against Bolton — contained in a Senate Foreign Relations Committee report when he was being vetted for the UN job — is that he pressured intelligence analysts to verify that Saddam Hussein had the weapons of mass destruction that justified Bush’s war.

As recently as July, Bolton, now a Fox New commentator and fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, mounted a vigorous defense of the Iraq War, which Trump has called “a big, fat mistake.”

In an exchange with Jeb Bush during a Republican primary debate last February, Trump said, “We spent $2 trillion, thousands of lives … George Bush made a mistake. We can make mistakes, but that one was a beauty … We should have never been in Iraq. We destabilized the Middle East.”

Bolton could not agree less with his potential boss. In an op-ed in Britain’s Daily Telegraph, Bolton wrote: “The war’s opponents point to today’s chaos in the region and ascribe it to Saddam’s overthrow. That conveniently ignores the tidal wave of radical Islamic ideology that was already rising in the twentieth century’s last decades, and now continues unabated, Saddam or no Saddam … Iraq today suffers not from the 2003 invasion, but from the 2011 withdrawal of all US combat forces.”

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Four months before the nuclear agreement with Tehran was signed, Bolton proposed bombing Iran. “The inescapable conclusion is that Iran will not negotiate away its nuclear program,” he wrote in a New York Times op-ed in March 2015. “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.”

The resistance to Bolton and his brethren among Trump’s populist supporters is clear. An article at Townhall, “Trump Shouldn't Choose a Neocon as Secretary of State,” is accompanied by a big photo of Bolton. And Trump’s sometime adviser Roger Stone wrote on Twitter, “President-Elect Donald Trump must repel the neocon ‘never Trump’ boarding party. @realDonaldTrump did not beat Jeb to empower his lackeys.”

Bolton isn’t the only neocon who could land an influential role. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, also said to be a candidate for secretary of state – among other positions – was called by Newsweek in 2007 a “consistent cheerleader” for Bush’s handling of the war in Iraq.

At the Republican National Convention in New York in the summer of 2004, Giuliani compared Bush with Winston Churchill and Ronald Reagan and spoke passionately and positively about the invasion of Iraq.

But Giuliani, who was perhaps Trump’s most vigorous surrogate on the campaign trail, is already catching flack for his involvement with foreign governments as a consultant after he left office. And The Hill is reporting that South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley may also be considered for State and is meeting with Trump Thursday.

Another neocon with his head already under the Trump tent is James Woolsey, the ex-CIA director who was appointed national security adviser to the campaign in September. Woolsey was a vigorous supporter of the Iraq War and a member of the Defense Policy Board, a neocon-heavy group that advised the Defense Department. At one point, Woolsey tried unsuccessfully to establish a link between Saddam Hussein and the 9/11 attacks. What role he could play in the incoming administration remains unclear, but Reuters calls him a contender.

One of Woolsey’s neocon compatriots, Frank Gaffney, a former Pentagon official who heads the Center for Security Policy, was reported to be advising the Trump transition team by the Times and The Wall Street Journal. However, both Gaffney, who has spoken and written forcefully about the threat from radical Islamists, and Trump spokesperson Jason Miller denied that he has any role in suggesting who will be appointed to the more than 4,000 jobs that must be filled.

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Still, the neocon presence in the Trump camp may give pause to the many military veterans who voted for the president-elect because he promised to strengthen the military – and to keep America out of foreign adventures.

On the other hand, Team Trump is turning off some neocons. Eliot Cohen, a professor at Johns Hopkins University and one of the most forceful voices in academia for going to war against Iraq, wrote a column in The Washington Post on Wednesday cautioning colleagues against working for Trump. “By all accounts, his ignorance, and that of his entourage, about the executive branch is fathomless,” Cohen wrote.