The Implication of Bolton’s Departure
Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.
There were many people who respected and admired National Security Adviser John Bolton. At the same time there were many politicians and policy makers who detested both his ideas as well as his style. What was always known about Bolton was that he had very distinct views about global issues and had no problem expressing those opinions.
Bolton was a geopolitical hawk and believed that the United States ought to use its political power to create regime change wherever it could. When Donald Trump hired him to be his third national security adviser—after previously passing him over twice before—the President ought to have known precisely what he was getting in John Bolton; everyone else in Washington and in the national security field certainly did.
The departure of John Bolton was only partially about policy differences. The problem was Bolton could not influence the President’s approach on foreign policy decision-making. While Bolton cared what the President’s views were, Bolton saw his job to advise the President as to what he believed was the best policy for the U.S. to pursue. The President could accept his advice or not, but Bolton would not become another Trump sycophant. Bolton had friends and many enemies but spoke his mind. This was something that the President could no longer tolerate.
President Trump believes that in all realms of policy making but especially in international relations, he knows best. Trump needs no intelligence briefings, no historical context, no briefing books. President Trump is his own best adviser, follows own instincts, and is never wrong. The President relies on his own personal assessment world leaders and no one can violate his own counsel. No one can survive in this White House environment if he/she does not accept this approach to decision-making. What Trump disliked about Bolton, was he did not believe any of that, and insisted on expressing his own beliefs. So, after two years and almost nine months in office, President Trump is seeking his fourth national security adviser.
The Trump Administration has been fortunate so far that the United States has not faced a major geopolitical crisis. At any moment all the President’s luck might disintegrate. If a major national security crisis were to confront President Trump, there is no sense that Trump has the vaguest idea how to assemble the vast range of inputs that would be required to reach a proper emergency decision. The potential for a disaster is enormous.
While Trump can make all sorts of mistakes in domestic policy and change his mind as often as he likes, this does not work in foreign policy. One needs only to recall that the U.S. almost launched an attack against Iran; troops were almost unilaterally withdrawn from Syria; America almost attacked Venezuela; and Trump was almost ready to attack North Korea. Other ventures of the Trump Administration include playing tariff “chicken” with China; almost blowing up the NATO alliance; became indignant because Denmark did not want to sell him Greenland—is if global politics was like playing Monopoly; and playing “footsie” with an assortment of authoritarian rulers including Hungary, Poland, Brazil, and Russia.
Presumably, no one in Trump’s real estate empire survived telling Trump not to try to create an empire in Atlantic City which eventually went bankrupt. Policymaking involves so many more uncontrollable variables, yet the President does not understand this, nor does he want to accept the inputs required for effective decision-making.
Senior Government staff people accept total anonymity when they work in the highest echelons of Government. They do not seek credit, but the best ones feel that that they at least ought to be heard. When a President is so caught up in his own ego that he cannot tolerate differences in opinion, then the decision-making process is totally broken, and the country is in grave danger.
A point could well come where President Trump’s bluff will be called not by a staffer but by a sovereign state. As with children, you cannot get away with idle threats world of global diplomacy; eventually you will get caught.