PATRICK LAWRENCE: Now That Washington’s Most Dangerous Man is Sacked

PATRICK LAWRENCE: Now That Washington’s Most Dangerous Man is Sacked

This week provides chances to monitor resets in Trump’s foreign policy after John Bolton’s destructive tenure.

The most dangerous man in Washington has been sacked. John Bolton’s suitably humiliating departure from the Trump White House last week leaves the president free to name yet another national security adviser — his fourth since taking office less than three years ago. Will the schizophrenia plaguing President Donald Trump’s foreign policies now dissipate? Will Trump finally be able to pursue his objectives on the foreign side without the stonewalling and sabotage that have so far foiled him? These are the questions.

There are as yet no easy answers. The first indication of the White House’s post–Bolton direction will come when Trump names a new national security adviser this week.

John Bolton: Interventionist hyper-hawk. (Flickr/Gage Skidmore)

Bolton, an interventionist hyper-hawk who still considers the 2003 Iraq invasion wise, was the administration’s No. 1 spoiler as Trump sought to pursue negotiation over military confrontation and to withdraw from conflicts — Syria, Afghanistan — that amount to pointless wars of adventure. It is tempting to conclude that Bolton’s wonderfully nasty removal from the administration opens the way to a fundamental shift in Trump’s foreign policy.

But it is important to temper expectations at this early moment. Bolton was the most irrational impediment to Trump’s foreign policy aspirations, but hardly did he act alone. Other hawks still hover in the White House; Trump himself is mercurial to put the point kindly; there remains formidable resistance to Trump’s course in the national security apparatus, in the policymaking bureaucracies and on Capitol Hill. As the Dealmaker likes to say, “We’ll see what happens.”  

 Near-Term Opportunities

Having banished Bolton, Trump’s near-term opportunities are two. He may now be able to resume denuclearization talks with Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s leader. Trump said Thursday — two days after firing Bolton — that he is open to another summit with Kim. It would be their fourth, counting their impromptu stroll in June at the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas.  

More immediately, Trump will have a chance to meet Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s president, at the UN General Assembly session this week. This is to be watched closely. Trump hinted at the Group of 7 session in Biarritz, France, last month that the Western allies could offer Iran an emergency line of credit to be secured by the nation’s crude production.

It is not yet clear how the weekend attacks on Saudi oil installations will influence Trump’s thinking on Iran. No evidence of Iran’s responsibility has yet been produced, although Rouhani’s earlier statement — if Iran cannot export oil through the Gulf, no one will — suggests the Islamic Republic has a motive. But the timing of the attacks, a few days prior to the General Assembly, suggests equally they may have been intended precisely to block a Trump–Rouhani encounter this week.

A provocation of this kind would be in keeping with other such incidents — for example, the attacks on tankers in the Gulf just prior to Japanese Premier Shinzo Abe’s frustrated effort  in June to mediate between Washington and Tehran in June. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s instant rush to blame Iran  for the weekend attacks on Saudi oil facilities adds to this suspicion.

Bolton wreaked havoc in both the Korean and Iranian cases. He, along with Pompeo, subverted Trump’s second summit with Kim, held in Hanoi earlier this year. In May, the man who has rarely met an adversary he does not want to bomb sent a carrier group and missile batteries to patrol in the Persian Gulf, retarding by months Trump’s effort to bring Tehran to the negotiating table.

Trump hinted at a significant shift in direction when he ripped into Bolton a day after firing him. At issue was policy, not personality, the president reiterated several times. This is a significant distinction. “John is somebody that I actually got along with very well,” Trump said. “He made some very big mistakes.” 

Bolton’s positions on Iran and North Korea figure prominently among these mistakes. So do his highly confrontational approach to Russia and his call for coups in Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua. It was Bolton (with Pompeo and Sen. Marco Rubio this time) who directed a flimsy attempt to depose Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro earlier this year. Trump first made public his dissatisfaction with Bolton when the Venezuela operation turned into an embarrassing fiasco.

UN headquarters. (Flickr/Julien Chatelain)

Risk of Undue Optimism

If Trump has just rid himself of a powerful pole of resistance within his administration, he, too, runs the danger of undue optimism as to his prospects for changing course on the foreign policy side. There is an emerging consensus in Washington that the Korean crisis can be resolved only at the negotiating table. It is generally recognized, outside Bolton’s Strangelovian circles, that a war with Iran is simply not winnable. These factors are in the president’s favor.

But other policy questions face Trump with the same problems that have trailed him since he campaigned in 2016 with promises to rein in some — by no means all — of America’s excesses abroad. These are the issues that most directly involve the interests of the Pentagon and the national security apparatus — issues involving established commitments on the ground.   

Syria is a case in point. There was immediate resistance last December, when Trump abruptly ordered the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syrian soil. The troop count was low, at 2,000, but this was nonetheless taken as a direct challenge to the prerogative the armed forces have long (and unconstitutionally) claimed for themselves. As is now plain, Trump’s executive order was stonewalled — a maneuver in which Bolton had a direct hand.

The main prize, were Trump to win one, would be a more constructive relationship with Russia. Trump has been surprisingly and admirably persistent on this question since his campaigning days, but it is difficult to imagine that Bolton’s departure will do much, if anything, to clear the president’s way. The Pentagon, the NATO bureaucracy, the defense industries, the intelligence agencies, Capitol Hill’s Russophobes: The constituencies heavily invested in highly adversarial relations with Moscow remain too formidable to allow for much optimism. The unknown here is an emerging current of opinion in Washington that the U.S. should make amends with Russia to counter its strategic partnership with China.

While Trump is expected to name Bolton’s successor in a matter of days, no one in Washington appears to be doing much handicapping. It is difficult even to suggest a shortlist among the many names mentioned. These include several Bolton heirs, Pompeo acolytes, and a collection of neoconservatives. There seems to be no candidate in line with Trump’s “unorthodox instincts,” as The New York Times put it last week. Two questions arise.

One, to what extent will Trump choose his next national security adviser and to what extent will someone be imposed upon him, subtly or otherwise? In this connection, it is not at all clear how much choice the president had when he named Bolton to the job in April 2018 — or, for that matter, Bolton’s predecessor, H.R. McMaster. The last thing the White House needs now is another voice loyal to strategies and policies Trump is determined to supersede. 

Two, assuming Trump makes his own selection, will his next adviser be able to draw the administration together such that the swamp of contradictions Bolton made of its foreign policies — which may be unprecedented in modern American history — can be cleaned up? This is the task to be addressed.  

A running theme in the liberal press last week had it that it does not matter who Trump names to succeed Bolton. But these are the same media that cast Bolton as a heroic voice of restraint.