News that John Bolton will be Donald Trump’s third national security adviser in 13 months has caused much hand-wringing, wailing and rending of garments among Washington’s foreign policy elite. And with some justification: Add Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, and you have two ideological hawks who seem to prefer shooting first abroad and asking questions later.
Still, what makes these appointments somewhat confusing and odd is that when it comes to using military force, you have a risk-averse President and a similarly inclined secretary of defense, Gen. James Mattis.
How this interaction will play out on the looming challenges of North Korea and Iran is both unpredictable and possibly dangerous. And whether the irascible and tough-minded John Bolton will keep his new seat — or is a bright, shiny but temporary fix in the mind and mood swings of a mercurial President — remains to be seen.
Bombs away Bolton?
With the appointment of Bolton and the nomination of Pompeo, Trump has surrounded himself with the toughest and most risk-ready national security team in recent memory. On paper, these appointments go well beyond any we’ve seen in past Republican administrations.
Ronald Reagan, no dove, had his share of hard-line and hawkish conservatives, but all of them were capable of great flexibility and pragmatism. Bush 43 also surrounded himself with a group of pragmatic advisers (minus Dick Cheney, of course); and had it not been for been for 9/11, which brought out their worst instincts and eventually led the United States into a galactic blunder in Iraq, they might have remained that way.
Bolton, on the other hand, has never met a rogue state that he didn’t want to bomb. This was true of the American invasion of Iraq, one of the most disastrous decisions in the history of US foreign policy and one that he continues to defend.
He has been a vocal and tireless champion of pre-emptive US military strikes against Iran and North Korea and advocated US military intervention in Syria’s civil war. Like the President, he has shown nothing but disdain for diplomacy, because it requires compromises to be successful and is therefore anathema to Bolton’s preternatural “my way or the highway” instincts and the winner-take-all Manichean world he lives in. There is nothing in his record to suggest that he will behave any differently.
Still, in life and in government, where you stand depends on where you sit. Bolton is a classic bomb-thrower. He has made a second career issuing bombastic threats from the safety of the sidelines of Fox News. We can only hope that the responsibility of making recommendations to the President on life and death decisions will sober him up — and he has said his job is to present the President with a variety of options. But the past is often prologue and nobody should bet their mortgages on a transformed John Bolton.
Trump a moderate, really?
The other reality is that neither Bolton nor Pompeo is president. For all of Trump’s bluster, aggressive instincts and impetuousness, when it comes to the use of force he seems wary of risk, if the stakes involve getting the United States into another costly war and require investing resources to win the peace after the war is over.
This impulse is evident in his limited retaliatory strike in April 2017 against a single Syrian airfield for the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons, his modest surge of troops to Afghanistan and his reluctance to strike Iran or the Assad regime in Syria.
Trump seems instinctually to have the businessman’s nose for not throwing good money after bad, and in the name of his own America First doctrine, he appears to want to cut back on the role of Washington as the world’s policeman or enforcer. It’s possible he could fall under Bolton’s spell. But there’s hope that he’d be inclined to ask some pretty tough questions before launching a risky and costly military campaign.
Mattis to the rescue?
The other countervailing force is James Mattis.
Richard K. Betts, in “Soldiers, Statesmen, and Cold War Crises,” his classic work on military and civilian decision-making on the use of force, concluded that, contrary to popular perceptions, military leaders were not more aggressive than their civilian masters in advocating the use of force; he also showed that military advice has been most influential when it has argued against military intervention. Let’s hope Betts is right.
Despite his view that Iran is a mortal enemy of the United States, Mattis has opposed the use of force to kick Iranian forces out of Syria and urged Trump not to walk away from the Iran nuclear deal. On North Korea, he reportedly angered the President over his refusal to provide military options for pre-emptive attacks and has said that war between the United States and North Korea would have catastrophic consequences.
Mattis will play an even more central role in decisions on war and peace, and he may be the last man standing between Trump and military action against North Korea and Iran. The challenge for Mattis is that with the departure of McMaster and Tillerson, the bureaucratic deck will be stacked against him. We can only hope that Trump continues to heed the advice of his generals and that Mattis doesn’t quit.
Bright, shiny objects
Ronald Reagan went through six national security advisers, albeit in eight years. Trump is already on his third and has demonstrated his love of musical chairs. If he was reportedly turned off by Bolton’s mustache during job interviews, imagine that mustache showing up to brief him every day.
Bolton has a reputation for being irascible, inflexible and high-handed. He does not play well with others, and it may only be a matter of time before his shoot-from-the-lip style irritates the President or causes even more political headaches for the White House.
Every President has the legitimate right to change his advisers and pick ones he’s comfortable with. Trump has rolled the dice on this one — choosing hard-liners at a time when America’s greatest foreign policy challenges require not only toughness and resolve but wisdom, restraint, prudence and pragmatism, too.