Americans who believe diplomacy is the better way to deal with security threats than dropping bombs are probably applauding the departure of National Security Adviser John Bolton, President Donald Trump’s third failed try at finding a strategist he could get along with.
Bolton was among the most hawkish in a long line of national security and foreign affairs experts to exit the White House in Trump’s two and a half years in office. But even his reckless advice on tackling the world’s most volatile conflicts was at times better than the president’s most trusted source of intelligence – his gut.
Be prepared for unbridled kiss-up diplomacy with Russia and North Korea. Bolton, an enduring Cold Warrior, lost Trump to the ego-stroking strategies of Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un. Both autocrats recognized that flattery and photo ops with Trump earn them a pass on treaty violations, sanctions-busting and hacking into U.S. security and political databases.
One constant in the Trump administration’s helter-skelter foreign policy has been the president’s rejection of all national security agencies’ conclusions that the Kremlin interfered in the 2016 presidential election with the aim of boosting Trump’s election chances. The president’s capitulation to Putin during their July 2018 meeting in Helsinki flew in the face of Bolton’s steadfast animosity toward the Kremlin, likely the main issue on which Trump said he and Bolton “disagreed strongly.”
Bolton was also known to be vehemently opposed to U.S. negotiations with the Taliban to cut a peace deal – over the heads of the elected Afghan government – that would allow withdrawal of American troops from the 18-year-old war. That posture riled Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, an ardent Trump loyalist in the revolving door of foreign policy figures in the White House. Trump is known to value “creative tension” among his advisers, but the polarized views of Bolton and Pompeo on ending U.S. combat in Afghanistan in time for the 2020 presidential election reportedly pitted the two top foreign policy officials in their own bitter war.
Bolton has made a career of urging attacks rather than negotiations, embroiling U.S. forces in wars and crises around the world through multiple administrations. He pushed George W. Bush to invade Iraq to seize weapons of mass destruction that didn’t exist. He was an enthusiastic member of the chorus persuading Trump to pull the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal, blowing up the 2015 agreement endorsed by the world’s major powers that bridled Tehran’s pursuit of nuclear arms. Bolton advised Trump to threaten North Korea with a pre-emptive strike in 2017, back when Trump and Kim were trading provocative insults and threats of nuclear annihilation. The president ignored that advice and turned instead to his bromance with Little Rocketman. Trump also pushed back on Bolton’s proposal to send troops into Venezuela earlier this year to oust the Socialist regime of Nicolas Maduro.
It wasn’t Bolton’s bad advice that Trump rejected. The president who claims to be the world’s greatest dealmaker is convinced that his gut feeling is always the wiser course than heeding the knowledge and experience of veteran national security experts.
Bolton follows Russia-collaboration suspect Michael Flynn and Gen. H. R. McMaster out the door of the White House national security office. Trump fired his first Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, for airing contrary foreign policy views (and for being quoted calling the president a moron). Trump is on his fourth Defense Secretary with the recent appointment of Mark Esper. The Department of Homeland Security is on its third secretary since Trump took office. Veteran National Intelligence Directorate chief Dan Coates and his deputy, Sue Gordon, left their jobs last month. John Kelly, a retired Marine general, holds the distinction of having left two Cabinet-level posts in frustration over his inability to talk the president out of bad moves.
Trump said after firing Bolton that he would begin the search for a new National Security Adviser next week, though his thinking on the next aide is unknown. The pool of interested candidates is shallow, and of qualified ones bone-dry. Because Trump fears his recent choices for other top national security jobs are unlikely to get congressional confirmation, he has taken to appointing acting directors whose authority is limited in dealing with the mounting crises confronting the United States and its allies.
The crisis on the U.S. southern border is largely of Trump’s own making and it’s difficult to see how even the most informed gut could envision a national security boost in his confiscation of funds from the Pentagon to build his symbolic wall. About $90 million of that diversion forced the Navy to scratch construction of a U.S. Coast Guard pier and maintenance facility at Naval Base Bangor that is needed to moor and service the vessels that escort Trident nuclear submarines as they transit Hood Canal for deployment or sonar testing in Dabob Bay.
Bangor is home to 25% of the United States’ nuclear arsenal and known to be a key target of North Korea. Trump has shrugged off Kim’s eight U.N.-prohibited missile tests since July, igniting another major clash between Bolton and Pompeo. With Bolton’s departure, Pompeo’s reluctance to cross Trump leaves only the president’s gut for guidance.
Image: Flickr user Gage Skidmore