middle east

John Bolton and Mike Pompeo Will Explain the Middle East to You Now

Pompeo (yellow tie) and Bolton ('stache).
Pompeo (yellow tie, glower) and Bolton (’stache). Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

If the pundits who claimed that Trump-era Republicans would be ostracized were right, Will Hurd must have gotten out before the stench became unwashable. When he left politics in January 2020, the ex-CIA operative was the last Black representative in the House GOP caucus, and the second-to-last Black Republican member of Congress altogether. (Two more Black representatives have since been sworn in. Tim Scott is still the only Black Republican senator.)

Hurd won a narrow election in a heavily Latino district in Texas in 2014. He believed that a big part of his role, as one of the GOP’s few Black officials, was to prove that the de facto party of white people was compatible with multiracial democracy. Then Donald Trump took over. Just over six months after Hurd won election, the eventual president began winning over the GOP base with a message of racial exclusion, undermining the exact principle on which Hurd claimed his political career was based.

As he watched in apparent dismay while his party fell in line behind a gleeful bigot, Hurd did what any Republican with a conscience would’ve done: He voted with Trump’s agenda more than 80 percent of the time, and surprised his admirers by opposing the first articles of impeachment against him. He left Capitol Hill soon after, just in time to avoid getting too caught up in the craze that gripped his party in the subsequent months: a false insistence that Joe Biden’s presidency was fraudulent, and that Trump had won the 2020 election.

Hurd was much less sycophantic toward Trump than most of his colleagues, and earned a reputation as one of the few congressional Republicans willing to speak out against him. But the degree to which even the officials closest to the ex-president have avoided being ostracized for their support — including by the institutions we’ve been told are the most biased against them — reaffirms how giving power to reprehensible people typically makes them more indispensable to our cultural and political institutions, not pariahs outside of them.

Since leaving Congress and joining the private sector, Hurd has become a willing facilitator in this process. On Monday, Deadline reported that the former representative will host an upcoming six-part online streaming series called Influence and Power in the Middle East, produced by A Starting Point, the civic media organization founded by Captain America actor Chris Evans. The series will “explore America’s past, present, and future in the region” by publishing video interviews with influential foreign-policy figures. They will include former national security adviser John Bolton and former secretary of state Mike Pompeo, both key players in the Trump administration, who will be featured in their own episodes.

Nonfiction media relies on credentials and the veneer of expertise to convey authority on the subjects it covers. The substance of what those credentialed people say and do is often a secondary concern. If a so-called expert is habitually wrong, or dishonest, that’s usually forgiven in favor of whatever proximity to power they can provide. This might not be a problem for a journalist willing to challenge them. But A Starting Point does not purport to be journalism.

Since its launch last year, the organization’s mission has been to demystify policy issues for the public by asking powerful people to explain them. The implications are disquieting for a topic as vast and fraught as American incursions in the Middle East. In addition to its glaring lack of actual Middle Eastern people on the publicized list of interviewees, Hurd and Evans’s project is poised to feature at least two subjects, in Bolton and Pompeo, who regularly tell a false story about the region and its people.

Bolton’s hawkishness is underpinned by his personal history of stoking anti-Muslim conspiracy theories and championing lies to push the U.S. into war in Iraq. Pompeo’s foreign-policy analyses are riddled with bad-faith politicking. He’s currently on a media blitz criticizing Biden for withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, a move that he’s long supported. If A Starting Point stays true to form, these men, who lie with every other breath and have played key roles in destabilizing much of the Middle East, will be presented as expert analysts of the region and its people rather than violent and often lawless antagonists against them.

This is especially notable in light of Biden’s withdrawal this month of troops from Afghanistan after 20 years of U.S. occupation. As the Taliban retake power with staggering speed, the futility of the American nation-building project there, such as it was, begs the kind of perspective and honesty that these men have proven themselves incapable of.

The legitimatization of Bolton and Pompeo is also notable because the anti-Trump fervor that gripped so many liberals and progressives was said to be concentrated in institutions like the media, including Hollywood. Yet here is a media platform for some of Trump’s worst abettors, provided by the liberal star of one of the most lucrative movie franchises in the world. It looks like a theme, from Sean Spicer’s run on Dancing With the Stars to Corey Lewandowski’s as a CNN analyst, to the eventually rescinded (amid backlash) invites to Kirstjen Nielsen and Steve Bannon by festivals at The Atlantic and The New Yorker, respectively. Media entities find Trump loyalists irresistible.

American fecklessness in the Middle East is not partisan — nor are Bolton and Pompeo dramatically less fit to weigh in on this subject than many Democratic officials. But it has become much harder to reconcile the hand-wringing of many conservative commentators, who anticipated conservatism becoming a scarlet letter, with what has actually been happening. Republicans, ranging from the most resolute Trump loyalists to skeptics like Hurd, are doing fine. The latter is even helping some of the former ease their transition into a life of professional expertise, away from an administration that he felt, despite his broad support for its agenda, was so destructive.

Power can cause any stench to dissipate. And as long as this is how stories about the Middle East get produced, it’s no surprise that American foreign policy in the region is what it is.

John Bolton and Mike Pompeo Explain the Middle East