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Bolton’s Time
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Bolton’s Time

Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.

In August 2005 John Bolton was appointed U.S. Ambassador to the U. N. by then President George W. Bush. This was an interim appointment which Bolton received after his nomination ran into extensive controversy in the Republican controlled Senate. It became further clear after the Democrats regained control of the Senate in November 2006 that Bolton would never be confirmed, so he resigned shortly thereafter as his interim appointment was about to expire.

Since that time, Bolton has longed to return to Government at a high level. He finally achieved his goal in April when President Trump appointed him to succeed General McMaster as his National Security Adviser. Bolton has extensive legal experience as well as over 30 years of Government service largely in the national security field. Bolton is known to have a very strong personality, to be a difficult boss, and to have very outspoken, strongly ideological views on numerous foreign policy and security matters.

Much of Bolton’s style was always very appealing to President Trump; although he was reported to have a serious dislike for Bolton’s signature mustache. The decision that he made to bring Bolton into his innermost circle of decision-makers, however, contained a serious tactical risk for the President. He always has assumed that he will be able to prevail over all his staff without any serious pushback or resignations. The glamour and excitement of the job and the office, Trump must have assumed, would ultimately prevail over any substantive policy agreements which might evolve with Bolton.

Bolton, hardly a shrinking violet, has a known set beliefs on Russia, North Korea, the Middle East, and national security in general. His hard line posture will ultimately be tested by a President who repeatedly appears to respond and react on the fly even on national security matters—witness his instantaneous decision to meet with Kim Jong-un–although Trump is believed to begin from a hard line position as well.  

It is totally unpredictable to what extent Bolton will tolerate being in a role where decisions are being made which he must implement that violate many of his core beliefs. Bolton is a pragmatic politician but he is also an ideologue. There is no way to know how Bolton will respond if he ultimately must swallow conclusions reached by Trump in his conversations with Putin, for example, which Bolton believes to be fundamentally wrong or not in the country’s interest.

Presumably, Bolton engaged in this discussion with the President before Bolton accepted the position. Trump undoubtedly believed that no one would ever act on principles and walk away from the positon as National Security Advisor. Bolton, similarly, has a sufficiently large ego himself, that he assumed he would have the intellect to insure that the President would largely act in ways that were consistent with Bolton’s worldview.

As is apparent in Bolton’s comments following his return from his preparatory trip to Moscow in advance of the President’s meeting with Putin, the stage may well be set to see how Bolton will respond to Trump’s conversations in Helsinki. As this will follow right on the heels of the NATO meeting—which could be rather explosive—as well as Trump’s visit to the U.K., the nature of Bolton’s power and future could become much clearer after that entire trip.

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