Elephants in the Room

Give John Bolton a Chance

If you squint at Trump’s new national security advisor, you might see some silver linings.

John Bolton talks with Ban Ki-moon at the South Korean Foreign Ministry in Seoul on July 20, 2004. (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)
John Bolton talks with Ban Ki-moon at the South Korean Foreign Ministry in Seoul on July 20, 2004. (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

What is the most optimistic take one can offer on President Donald Trump’s decision to replace H.R. McMaster with John Bolton, a former official in George W. Bush’s State Department?

That is the task I assigned to myself, and it is a daunting one. The prevailing reaction I have seen has been sharply negative, both in the private messages I have been receiving and the public commentary dominating the media coverage.

The conventional view is that this move:

  • Intensifies the chaos within the White House by bringing in a famously sharp-elbowed bureaucratic warrior who is unlikely to get along with his counterparts (or perhaps even his boss);
  • Underscores Trump’s difficulty in recruiting and retaining top talent;
  • Confirms a recent trend of replacing mainstream figures who were trusted and respected abroad with ideologues who are better known for staking out extreme positions on cable TV (i.e., Gary Cohn giving way to Larry Kudlow);
  • Tilts the administration in a sharply hawkish direction, raising the specter of multiple armed conflicts in the Middle East (Iran), Asia (North Korea and possibly China), and Europe (Russia).

The conventional view is not crazy, and I would not bet against it. Still, as a congenital contrarian, I am left wondering if the conventional view is not missing any silver linings. I squinted and found a few. Not enough to break out the champagne but perhaps enough to delay heading for the bomb shelter. You be the judge:

Trump tried to fire McMaster in a less humiliating way than he did Rex Tillerson and Reince Priebus. This time, Trump followed the customary procedure of a private notice followed by paired, gracious statements by the firer and the firee. The treatment of McMaster over the past year was still fairly shabby overall, but the endgame could have been worse. I recognize this is like commenting on the quality of the popcorn at the Ford’s Theatre concession stand in April 1865 but perhaps worth mentioning anyway.

McMaster’s effectiveness was compromised and vanishing quickly regardless — the status quo was not an National Security Council that was firing on all cylinders but one that was sputtering and perhaps heading toward a full breakdown. On balance and grading on the Trump curve, McMaster was pretty effective as national security advisor. He restored morale on the NSC staff, no mean feat given the dire situation when he took over. His greatest accomplishment — shepherding a serious review of the Afghanistan conflict that ended up with the right answer despite the president’s strong predilection to choose the wrong answer — is even more impressive in hindsight, given how mercurial the president has been. His team produced a solid National Security Strategy in record time, one that together with the new National Defense Strategy might have produced more order on the margins. And he helped avert other mistakes, such as blowing up the Iran nuclear deal without a plan for replacing it. But in recent weeks, the death watch around McMaster had become suffocating and the once-hidden interagency struggles too prominent. McMaster had lost the confidence of his boss and his counterparts and, as a result, would not be able to do his job adequately if he stayed much longer in office.

Bolton is not incompetent, and his first name is not general. Every administration has individuals who are promoted above their competence, but Trump’s team has had more than its fair share. In the first few months, the preoccupying problem in the Trump administration was how to navigate the decision-making process with a gang that could not shoot straight. Even most of Bolton’s critics concede that he was effective in navigating the bureaucracy. Perhaps more importantly, he is a civilian. Trump has been too quick to reach for the “man on horseback” to ride to the rescue to fix a personnel problem. Many of those choices — McMaster, John Kelly, and above all, James Mattis — have been good ones that I have supported. But with each new reductio ad militaris, Trump was politicizing the military and complicating the bedrock principle of civilian control. Bolton is very much in the pattern of a civilian determined to assert civilian control over the military. This augurs for a great deal more civil-military friction in the coming months — not unlike what was experienced in the Barack Obama, Bush, and Bill Clinton administrations. So we should not kid ourselves that a “man in civvies” is an unmitigated blessing as a replacement for a “man on horseback.” But it is a step back toward what might be called “regular order” in civil-military relations rather than “abnormal order.”

Bolton does not want to destroy the U.S.-led international order. Bolton is on the hawkish end of mainstream views. One can find more hawkish voices far from the corridors of power but probably not within them. However, unlike the Steve Bannon wing of the Trump coalition, Bolton does not want to destroy the system created by U.S. leaders in the wake of World War II and then reinvigorated in the wake of the Cold War. The Bannon wing had an apocalyptic view that was exponentially more dangerous — something closer to hawkishness on heroin, rather than hawkishness on steroids.

Bolton’s hawkishness on North Korea is a strategic concern in the long run but could be a tactical advantage in the short run. As every critic has noted, Bolton has famously advocated for preventive war against North Korea. Clearly, making him national security advisor increases the risks of war on the peninsula. But in the short run, it probably neutralizes the near-term threat raised by Trump’s surprise announcement that he would concede to North Korea’s long-cherished desire for a face-to-face sit-down with a U.S. president without having to give up anything in return. Bolton’s greatest strength is as a ferocious arms control negotiator, and this balances Trump’s great weakness in this same area. If there is a diplomatic solution to North Korea’s nuclear problem — a big “if” — then it is more likely to be found with Bolton’s bad cop paired with Trump’s good cop. Of course, if there is no such diplomatic solution to be found, this team is likely to discover that fact sooner than other possible pairings. That is a sobering thought.

Bolton corrects even more markedly for Trump’s unnerving posture of appeasement toward Putin. Bolton’s hawkishness extends to Russia, further consolidating the position within the Trump administration of those who recognize that Putin has been exploiting America’s domestic political paralysis and setting back U.S. interests across multiple geopolitical arenas. From Putin’s perspective, Bolton is probably not seen as another “useful idiot” who can be toyed with. Hopefully, Bolton can help Trump get onside his own team to create a more effective and responsible Russia policy than the one Trump has hitherto advanced.

Bolton did not have to shave his mustache. Trump famously approached personnel recruitment with an insistence that applicants “look the part.” Whether Trump could ever really afford to indulge the prejudice of “lookism,” I don’t think he can afford to now. Hopefully, this is a harbinger that Trump will focus on more important criteria as he continues to build out the team.

Reviewing the list, I can imagine critics saying the proposed silver linings are hard to see for all the clouds. Even though I was trying to be as optimistic as possible, here’s hoping, for America’s sake, that I am still needlessly pessimistic.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.

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