Trump Has Clipped the Wings of Uber-Hawk John Bolton

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Where on earth is John Bolton?

When Bolton joined the Trump administration as national security adviser in April, it was widely expected that he would bring “fire and fury” to U.S. diplomacy. The combination of Bolton’s longtime hawkish views and his new control of the policymaking process would surely give a harder edge to the U.S. outlook on an array of issues.

Yet although Bolton’s preferences seem to have prevailed on Iran policy, he has been distinctly less influential on pretty much everything else. In particular, Trump is now pursuing a very soft-line policy toward North Korea, emphasizing the sort of credulous diplomacy against which Bolton fulminated in his previous lives as a George W. Bush administration official and a news-channel talking head. And although Bolton has long been a skeptic of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, Trump continues his pursuit of a partnership with the Kremlin. Likewise, Bolton has long argued for a strategy of sharper competition with China, but Trump’s policy continues to feature confrontation on trade combined with a weakening of U.S. alliances, economic engagement and diplomatic influence in the Asia-Pacific.

Bolton occupies what is normally the most powerful foreign policy position in the U.S. government other than the presidency itself. Yet he is struggling to make his voice heard. So why is this the case, and why is Bolton staying on?

The answer to the first question is fairly straightforward: The Trump-Bolton pairing was always destined to be an awkward match. Most of their interactions prior to Bolton’s appointment reportedly focused on Iran, where there was a meeting of the minds on the need to get out of the nuclear deal.

But there was far less convergence on other issues. The national security adviser who once wrote a memoir titled “Surrender is Not an Option,” and who lambasted liberals and conservatives alike for being insufficiently resolute in defending American interests, was never likely to be comfortable with a president who has shown a bizarre affinity for Vladimir Putin and is going all out for an ill-defined diplomatic deal with Kim Jong Un.

More broadly, although Bolton is an unrepentant hawk, he resides within the mainstream of the U.S. foreign policy community. Trump has been far outside of that mainstream since the moment he announced his candidacy, if not before.

In 2017, a strong-willed national security adviser might still have pulled the president in his direction. During his first year, Trump seemed to know he was overmatched by the job, and was often willing to heed the warnings of more experienced advisers — particularly if they voiced those warnings in unison.

In July 2017, for instance, the president reportedly fumed about re-certifying the Iran deal, but did so at the urging of his key national security aides. (He later changed his mind.) In August, Trump went against his own instincts, ordering a mini-surge of U.S. forces in Afghanistan after civilian and military officials alike warned about the consequences of failure or withdrawal.

But the president is now his own man. The Trump of 2018 believes he has gotten the hang of the job, and has made clear that he will overrule or fire advisers who try to “manage” him. Bolton, by virtue of his notoriously abrasive style, has also proven less effective at constructing the united fronts that Trump’s advisers sometimes used to stymie him early on. In particular, he reportedly has a testy relationship with Secretary of Defense James Mattis.

The president has thus become more powerful as the national security adviser has become less powerful. Indeed, Trump has even kept Bolton at arm’s length on the issues the national security adviser cares most about, marginalizing him in the run-up to the Singapore summit with Kim.

So why does Bolton keep at it? If another president were conciliating Kim and Putin, Bolton would undoubtedly be writing Op-Ed pieces charging that president with dereliction of duty or worse. Yet he appears to be settling in for the long haul — putting loyalists such as his deputy, Mira Ricardel, and chief of staff Fred Fleitz in key positions on the National Security Council staff — rather than looking for the exits. There are three likely reasons why.

The first is the mix of ambition and responsibility that drives nearly all national security officials, particularly those serving in this administration. As eagerly as Bolton courted Trump before being named national security adviser, he presumably understands this president could do catastrophic damage to America’s alliances and other pillars of its global power, and he presumably believes he has a responsibility to prevent or contain that damage.

At the same time, Bolton has always been an ambitious as he is brilliant (he considered running for president in 2012 and 2016), and now that he has reached the pinnacle of the foreign policy world, he is probably loath to relinquish his lofty perch.

The second reason is that Bolton may be playing the long game on issues such as North Korea and Russia. If Bolton believes that the North Korea negotiations will fall apart because Kim has no intention of giving up his nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, then indulging Trump in his diplomatic fantasy may actually open the door to a harsher policy down the road.

Not long before he joined the administration, Bolton essentially said as much, arguing that a U.S.-North Korea summit would actually “foreshorten the amount of time that we’re gonna waste in negotiations that will never produce the result we want.”

A similar calculation could be at work with respect to Russia. Presidential rhetoric aside, U.S. policy toward Russia is actually quite tough right now, and there is little prospect of the partnership Trump seeks because the two countries’ geopolitical interests are so divergent. Bolton may well believe that staying out of Trump’s way as the president courts Putin is simply the price of turning the diplomatic, economic, and military screws on Moscow — while waiting for this presidential gambit to fall apart, too.

The third reason is that Bolton may simply be willing to endure a lot to work for a president who is willing to ratchet up the confrontation with Iran.

It is hard to overstate how much of an Iran hawk Bolton is. He publicly called for seeking regime change in Tehran prior to the 40th anniversary of the Islamic revolution in 2019; he has repeatedly advocated military action, harsher sanctions, and other measures to coerce or topple the Iranian government. And with the Iranian government facing its most difficult internal situation since the Green Movement in 2009, the present probably looks like a once-in-a-blue-moon opportunity to intensify the pressure.

Call it a devil’s bargain, or call it a policy entrepreneur picking his spots, but the shared animus toward Iran provides a crucial residue of cohesion in the Trump-Bolton relationship.

Whether it provides much benefit for Americans is another question. As I have argued, there is a persuasive case for stronger efforts to resist Iranian influence in the Middle East. Yet so far the administration has mishandled the Iran file. It initially subcontracted Iran policy to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which proceeded by launching a counterproductive confrontation with Qatar and deepening a disastrous war in Yemen.

Trump then withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal in a manner that made Washington rather than Tehran seem to be the rogue actor thumbing its nose at the world. At present, U.S.-Iran tensions are creeping steadily upward, as the American government shows little ability to handle any crisis or confrontation skillfully.

Bolton may be right in thinking that Trump will give him the hard-line Iran policy he has always wanted. But based on the administration’s performance so far, it is hard to have much confidence that this will turn out well.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Hal Brands is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. His newest book is "American Grand Strategy in the Age of Trump." 

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