The biggest problem with writing about U.S. foreign policy in 2019 is that there is no such thing as a slow news day. I miss the lulls of, say, March 2015, when I could opine deep thoughts about why James Tiberius Kirk was an overrated captain of the USS Enterprise, and there was no urgent crisis forcing my writing hand into action.
That is not how life works in 2019. I had set up all my column ideas for this week already. I hope to get to a few of them in the coming days. The problem, of course, is that President Trump disrupts the news cycle on an almost hourly basis. Some of these disruptions, like Sharpiegate, are diverting and symbolic. Some, like Trump firing national security adviser John Bolton, are more substantive shocks.
My point is, this is not a column I really want to write, but it’s the column you need to read.
So what does Bolton’s departure mean for U.S. foreign policy and national security? A few thoughts:
1) The national security process should improve marginally. It is easy to be skeptical of this assertion. Georgetown University professor and Monkey Cage editor Elizabeth Saunders might well be the sharpest analyst out there on U.S. foreign policy, and her immediate reaction was to shrug her shoulders: “There wasn’t a process yesterday, there probably won’t be one tomorrow.”
Still, John Gans is correct when he observed in the New York Times that “Mr. Bolton’s legacy is not of destruction overseas, but dysfunction in Washington. To pursue his own policy agenda and serve an erratic president, in just 17 months Mr. Bolton effectively destroyed the National Security Council system.” Almost every profile of Bolton while he was national security adviser confirms this point. The more Bolton got on Trump’s nerves, the worse the process got, as the president had to circumvent his own national security adviser.
The question is whether Bolton’s successor will resuscitate the old National Security Council structure or continue to embrace the chaos. If the former, there is some reason to believe it will function marginally better than Bolton’s diktats. Trump trusts Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, and has a confirmed defense secretary in Mark T. Esper. With Bolton out of the way, there might actually be some comity among Trump’s national security team. One has to expect it to function a little better than it has for the past 18 months.
2) It’s the waning of the hawks and the triumph of the sycophants. Several commentators were gleeful about the axing of Bolton:
It cannot be denied that Trump was less hawkish than Bolton. As BuzzFeed’s Hayes Brown and Miriam Elder noted, Trump “has proven willfully resistant to the sort of warmongering that Bolton has come, over the years, to encapsulate.” Still, saying Trump is less hawkish than Bolton is like saying Trump is less hawkish than Genghis Khan — it is a factually correct statement that is devoid of useful information. 99.9 percent of Americans are less hawkish than Bolton.
Trump has not started any new wars but he is pretty far from a dove. He ramped up bombing and deployments in almost every theater of military operation. His maximum pressure campaigns have raised the risk of conflict in Iran, Venezuela and North Korea. Oh, and he hired John Bolton in the first place.
To be fair, I don’t think Trump wants to start a new war, but it’s also true that his lack of strategic acumen raises the odds that he’ll stumble into a conflict accidentally.
The difference between Bolton and Pompeo is not that Bolton is more hawkish. It is that Pompeo is far better at being a sycophant. This is a man who won’t fire one of his assistant secretaries of state because he doesn’t have the stones to ask the president for his approval. It is not a coincidence that Pompeo and Mnuchin were at the White House podium today. Over the long run, the survivors in the Trump administration are always the bootlickers.
Bolton’s departure will not necessarily make the administration any less hawkish, it will simply be more at the mercy of Trump’s whims and prejudices.
3) The end of signaling and the beginning of some bad bargains. As I noted when Bolton was hired, “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 … while he’s around, he sends a clearer signal than Trump’s chicken-hawk rhetoric.”
With Bolton gone, Trump has eliminated a voice independent from his, so signaling is right out. With 2020 on the horizon and few foreign policy accomplishments to his name, Trump seems far more interested in cutting deals rather than sustained statecraft. The problem, as noted in this space last week, is that Trump is such a bad negotiator that the only deals on offer are likely to be bad ones. As one GOP Hill aide told Politico’s Nahal Toosi, “It’s going to be hard to find a national security adviser who shares Trump’s opinion that we should make lousy deals with bad actors.”
In the end, U.S. foreign policy remains at the mercy of Donald Trump. Getting rid of Bolton improves the policy process a bit. The outcomes, however, are likely to be just as bad as they have always been.