I did not welcome John Bolton’s appointment as national security adviser. But now that he has been fired (or has resigned), I am more ambivalent about his departure than I had expected. In some ways he has been as bad as I feared, but in other ways he has been an important check on an impetuous president. If his replacement is a yes-man (or woman), the result could actually be worse.
When Bolton’s appointment was announced in March 2018, I described him in The Post as a “wild man” with legendary “antipathy toward international treaties and organizations,” a lack of “the kind of interpersonal skills” that a national security adviser needs “to coordinate all of the defense and foreign-policy agencies,” and a worrisome predilection for preemptive wars against Iran and North Korea.
I was right to worry that the foreign policy process would become more “chaotic” under Bolton. He disdained attempts by his predecessor, H.R. McMaster, to consult with other agencies. Bolton froze other officials out of the process in the hope that he alone could shape President Trump’s decision-making. A long profile in the Atlantic noted: “If the NSC under McMaster was a consultative body, under Bolton it has become the opposite.”
How ironic, then, that Bolton — who began his tenure by excluding bureaucratic rivals — wound up being excluded himself from decision-making about Afghan peace negotiations. His skepticism of a deal was said to have “irritated” Trump. But here’s the thing: Much as I disagree with Bolton on many issues, he was right to be wary of a deal that would have led to U.S. troop withdrawal in return for empty promises of good behavior from the Taliban. Even Trump now seems to recognize that — having, at least temporarily, abandoned negotiations because the Taliban would not stop its attacks.
Bolton was also right to be skeptical about peace talks with North Korea. Unlike Trump, he never fell in love with North Korean tyrant Kim Jong Un. Bolton played an important role at the Hanoi summit in February in persuading Trump not to take a very bad deal after Kim offered to close down only one of his many nuclear facilities in exchange for a lifting of U.S. sanctions. Bolton has also been correct to note that North Korea’s short-range missile tests violated United Nations sanctions. Trump, by contrast, has recklessly given Kim permission to continue developing short-range missiles that place U.S. troops and U.S. allies in South Korea and Japan in harm’s way.
Bolton played a more destabilizing and dangerous role when it came to Iran. McMaster, along with former defense secretary Jim Mattis and former secretary of state Rex Tillerson, had urged Trump to maintain the Iran nuclear accord because the Iranians were abiding by its terms. But within a month of Bolton’s ascension, Trump announced that the United States was exiting the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (as the accord is known). This was followed by unilateral sanctions on Iran.
Trump seemed to expect that U.S. pressure would cause Iran to come back to the table to negotiate an even more restrictive agreement. But instead of giving in, Iran has struck back. It has been accused of attacking shipping in the Persian Gulf (a charge it denies), and it has not reined in its militant proxies in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon or Yemen. Most ominous of all, Iran is now stepping up uranium enrichment in violation of the accord’s limits.
Bolton led Trump into a strategic dead end with no obvious way out save a resurrection of the nuclear accord or a war with Iran. The latter option loomed menacingly close in June after Iran shot down a U.S. drone. Trump ordered air strikes on Iran before changing his mind. The president’s decision not to strike back was a repudiation of Bolton, who had, as usual, advocated the most bellicose course of action. A senior official quoted Trump telling associates, “If it was up to John, we’d be in four wars now.” Having recoiled from military action, Trump has now expressed willingness to talk with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and even to extend financing to Iran — policy options that are anathema to the hawkish Bolton.
Nor did Bolton’s advice produce the quick and easy win that Trump unreasonably expected in Venezuela. Trump went all-in to support a military coup against Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro. After the uprising fizzled out, The Post reported on June 19 that Trump was “losing both patience and interest in Venezuela.” Now Trump has lost patience and interest with the national security adviser he blamed for the failure in Venezuela — and Iran.
Bolton made many mistakes — just as his critics had expected — but he is not the real reason that U.S. foreign policy has been so erratic and unsuccessful over the past 17 months. If Trump wants to find the real culprit for his failed foreign policy, he should look in the mirror. Not even a president with far more acumen than Trump could possibly formulate and execute a successful foreign policy amid such incessant staff turnover — and such abrupt shifts of direction.