Most presidents initially stock their administrations with cronies and ideological purists. Then, after suffering inevitable setbacks, they usher them out in favor of less ideological and more competent professionals. President Trump is doing it in reverse. He is jettisoning anyone who could serve as a brake on his extremist tendencies, and replacing them with fire-breathing TV personalities.
National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn resigned in protest over Trump’s tariffs on steel and aluminum; now Trump is adding tariffs on China as well. Cohn is being replaced by former CNBC anchor Lawrence Kudlow. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was fired, in no small part, because he disagreed with the president’s desire to destroy the Iran nuclear deal. He is being replaced by CIA Director Mike Pompeo, who twisted his own agency’s findings to claim that Russian interference had no impact on the 2016 election. Now Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, one of the military’s brightest strategic thinkers, is out as national security adviser. He is being replaced by John Bolton, a Fox TV talking head who is likely to reinforce, rather than rein in, Trump’s worst instincts.
Admittedly, there was only so much that even McMaster could do. Despite a briefing paper warning Trump “DO NOT CONGRATULATE” Russian leader Vladimir Putin on his rigged election, the president did just that. And despite McMaster’s admission that evidence of Russian election interference was “incontrovertible,” Trump still appears to doubt it. But McMaster did help convince Trump, against his initial instincts, to endorse NATO’s Article 5 mutual-defense provision, to maintain the Iran nuclear deal and to avoid turning over the Afghanistan mission to Erik Prince’s mercenaries.
Trump obviously nursed a grudge that McMaster didn’t let him be as unilateralist as he wants to be, even while McMaster was criticized by old friends for becoming too much of an enabler for Trump. It will probably be years until we learn how much nuttiness McMaster stopped before it saw the light of day.
Enter Bolton, who has a well-earned reputation as a wild man. His antipathy toward international treaties and organizations is legendary, and goes well beyond that of ordinary conservatives. He couldn’t win confirmation as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during the George W. Bush administration — even from a Republican-controlled Senate. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee heard copious testimony that, as undersecretary of state, Bolton browbeat intelligence analysts into cooking up evidence that Cuba had a biological warfare program and that Iraq was developing weapons of mass destruction. A senior State Department official and fellow Republican testified that Bolton was a “bully” who was “a quintessential kiss-up, kick-down kind of guy.” When he finally went to the U.N. with a recess appointment, Bolton became notorious for making enemies and not influencing other countries.
The job of the national security adviser is to coordinate all of the defense and foreign-policy agencies and to get them to work smoothly together. This requires the kind of interpersonal skills that Bolton singularly lacks. The national security system is chaotic enough under Trump; look for it to get worse without McMaster’s attempts to impose some discipline.
What Bolton lacks in management skills, he more than makes up for with his ideological extremism. A month ago he wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal making the case for a first strike against North Korea: “Pre-emption opponents argue that action is not justified because Pyongyang does not constitute an ‘imminent threat.’ They are wrong.” At least with Bolton on the job, there is less chance of Trump selling out South Korea in one-sided deal with Kim Jong Un. But the chances of failed talks leading the administration to launch a “bloody-nose” strike have gone way up — and such a strike, in turn, could easily escalate into an all-out war against a nuclear-armed state.
North Korea isn’t the only country Bolton is eager to fight. He has long been agitating airstrikes against Iran. In January, he wrote another op-ed for the Journal advocating that Trump tear up the nuclear deal without even attempting to renegotiate it: “No fix will remedy the diplomatic Waterloo Mr. Obama negotiated,” he wrote.
Yet it is not clear how, in the absence of an international agreement, the United States can rein in Iran’s nuclear program without risking a war. The imposition of unilateral U.S. sanctions will not apply significant pressure on Tehran, and, as Bolton conceded, there is little chance the Europeans, Russians or Chinese will impose harsher sanctions of their own. That raises the real risk that, before long, the United States could become embroiled in a two-front war against both Iran and North Korea.
The only sanity-check remaining in the administration appears to be Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. He has done heroic labor in the administration’s first year. But can even Mattis restrain Trump now that the president is surrounding himself with fellow zealots?