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Three thoughts about the meaning of John Bolton

It's all on the foreign policy hawks now.

Democracy Post editor Christian Caryl says President Trump's new national security adviser is more capable than other officials. That's the problem. (Video: Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts did not have a positive initial reaction to the news that President Trump would name John Bolton to replace H.R. McMaster as national security adviser.

One of the advantages of having a couple of days to mull over the news is to read the takes of other, really smart people on Bolton’s new job.

Now that I have digested the news, I have three thoughts:

1) Bolton will be the most powerful national security adviser Trump has had. There are conflicting accounts of how Bolton will run the National Security Council. The Washington Post’s Greg Jaffe reports that Bolton sees himself more in the Henry Kissinger imperialist mode of running the NSC. On the other hand, Axios’s Jonathan Swan suggests that Bolton will play a more restrained honest broker role: “Bolton has always admired the way Brent Scowcroft handled the interagency process during the Bush 41 Administration.”

As I’ll suggest below, this is a distinction without a difference. What really matters is that Bolton will have tremendous power over Trump’s foreign policy for three reasons. First, Trump does not know a lot about foreign policy. He’s a year into the job, and he hasn’t budged an inch down the learning curve. As Elizabeth Saunders has noted, unprepared presidents automatically give greater latitude to their subordinates.

Second, Bolton knows far more about the policymaking process than either Michael T. Flynn or McMaster. As someone who possesses genuine foreign affairs experience and has a reputation for being a bureaucratic street fighter, Bolton will be a better bureaucratic player than either of his predecessors.

Third, by the standards of the traditional NSC-State rivalry, the State Department is severely weakened. Foggy Bottom is hemorrhaging senior staff and in leadership limbo until Mike Pompeo is confirmed. Unless Bolton burns to the ground the staff he inherits (an admitted possibility) he has a serious home-field advantage.

2) It’s all on the hawks now. The idea that Bolton will act as an honest broker implies that there will be divergent points of view within the national security team. The White House turnover of the past month has homogenized its foreign policy perspectives, however. Gary Cohn is gone, and his replacement is a non-factor on foreign policy questions. Mike Pompeo is much more of a hawk than Rex Tillerson. Bolton is way more hawkish than McMaster. Jim Mattis is the most dovish member of this foreign policy team, and this is a guy who was sidelined by the Obama administration for being too hawkish on Iran.

For foreign policy hawks, this will be the best of times and the worst of times. It will be the best of times because they are running the entire foreign policy show now. There is no bureaucratic constraint, no countervailing faction, no informed president to block their moves. They have no more impediments. For decades, they have fantasized about the right ways to take out Iran, defang North Korea and checkmate China. Trump has given them the keys to the kingdom.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that none of these problems is easy. If the hawks worsen the situation, they will have no one to blame but themselves. Of course, they will blame their predecessors anyway, but you get my meaning.

3) Maybe, just maybe, Trump has found a way to signal resolve. To put it bluntly, Trump has developed a reputation for being a man of hollow words and feeble actions. This month, he blustered a ton about applying steel and aluminum tariffs widely, and then backed down and exempted an awful lot of countries with no evidence of any real concessions on their part. This past Friday, Trump threatened to veto the omnibus spending bill and shut down the government and then did no such thing. No one should take anything this White House says at face value.

If Trump’s words don’t matter, that’s a problem for his foreign policy. How can he communicate resolve on the global stage? One way is to hire new people with known brands, and the one thing Bolton has is a brand. It’s a somewhat toxic brand that renders him Senate-unconfirmable. It’s possible that he’ll run into security clearance issues. But while he’s around, he sends a clearer signal than Trump’s chicken-hawk rhetoric. As Matt Fay notes, “After this appointment, anyone who thought Donald Trump was the ‘dove’ in the 2016 election should have his or her pundit and/or analyst card revoked.”

I am under no illusions that Trump intended to do this as a way of signaling resolve. He does not possess that forethought. But that does not mean the signal hasn’t been sent. I am pessimistic that this will lead to better coercive bargaining in the near future. But at least we will all see whether this is true. Because — remember — it’s all on the hawks now.

I fear that my initial reaction will be proved correct. But I hope that I am wrong.