March 23, 2018

Four Thoughts on John Bolton as National Security Advisor



As rumored last week, President Donald Trump has fired his National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and will replace him with former Bush administration official John Bolton. Here are four quick thoughts on Bolton’s appointment:

First, the interagency process is in for a wild ride with Bolton at the helm. Bolton did not make many friends during his time in the Bush administration due to the stridency of his views and unwillingness to compromise. Writing today at Politico, Michael Hirsh describes how even Bolton’s superiors had to maneuver around him:

During his tenure as George W. Bush’s undersecretary of state for arms control, and later as a recess-appointed U.N. ambassador, Bolton often enraged U.S. allies with his recalcitrance to the point where both Secretary of State Colin Powell and his successor, Condoleezza Rice, sought to get rid of him. At a meeting in London in November 2003, Powell’s counterpart, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, complained to the secretary of state that Bolton’s belligerence was making it impossible to reach allied agreement on Iran’s nuclear program. Powell turned to an aide and said, “Get a different view,” according to a government source at the time. Unbeknownst to Bolton, the aide then interviewed experts in Bolton’s own Nonproliferation Bureau. The issue was resolved only after Powell adopted softer language recommended by these experts on how and when Iran might be referred to the U.N. Security Council.

However, Matthew Waxman, who served in the Bush administration, writing today at Lawfare, highlights Bolton’s skills as a bureaucratic operator.  There have been reports in recent months that Secretary of Defense James Mattis had been slow walking requests for plans for a strike on North Korea made by McMaster. Bolton though, may prove to be a more capable bureaucratic adversary than an active-duty general with less experience managing the civilian bureaucracy. Moreover, with the State Department in shambles following Rex Tillerson’s tenure, and Mike Pompeo—whose views on Iran and North Korea align with Bolton’s—taking over at Foggy Bottom, Mattis will have fewer allies on whom he can rely to have his back.

Second, given Bolton’s views, and his bureaucratic skils, war with North Korea and/or Iran is more likely, but that does not mean it is imminent or inevitable. Bolton is an uberhawk. However, even though he will be in a position to influence the president and can make sure his views are heard over those of other top officials, there are constraints on his influence as well. Political scientist Elizabeth Saunders, who has done pioneering research on the role of presidents in foreign policy, and more recently on the role of advisors, has a short post on the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog explaining why.

Despite the importance of advisors to presidents who, like Trump, have little foreign policy experience, Saunders cites several reasons why Bolton may not be able to sell a new war. The most important, I think, is based on forthcoming experimental research in which Saunders found that hawkish advice to a Republican president does not necessarily resonate with the public because it is not considered surprising. If the advice of a leading advisor fails to resonate, it will make it harder to win public support for a new conflict—particularly if members of congress push back against the policy.

Third, while war in the short run still remains a distinct possibility, the bigger problem may be the way in which Trump and Bolton’s shared unilateralism and nationalism makes it more likely over the long run. As Saunders explains:

One set of views he shares with Trump is disdain for international institutions, alliances and norms — the often-invisible backbone of much of U.S. foreign policy for the past 70 years. His appointment is likely to lead to the further erosion of U.S. commitments in these areas.

And finally, fourth: after this appointment, anyone who thought Donald Trump was the “dove” in the 2016 election should have his or her pundit and/or analyst card revoked.