Analysis

Iran Overtures Are the Latest Setback for Bolton 

Trump’s hawkish national security advisor may be losing credibility fast as the president pushes diplomacy, observers say.

White House National Security Advisor John Bolton listens to U.S. President Donald Trump as he and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte talk to reporters in the Oval Office at the White House on July 18.
White House National Security Advisor John Bolton listens to U.S. President Donald Trump as he and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte talk to reporters in the Oval Office at the White House on July 18. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

With his arrival in New York and offer on Thursday to trade a more intrusive nuclear inspections regime for U.S. sanctions relief, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif took a dramatic new step in the public dance that has played out between Iran and the United States since the two countries almost went to war late last month.

Amid an escalating American trade embargo, attacks by Iran on oil tankers, and the shooting down of a U.S. drone by Tehran’s forces, U.S. President Donald Trump has made it loudly known that he would like to solve the dispute at the negotiating table, in what amounts to a rebuke of the hawkish advisors who conceived his aggressive policy toward Iran. Though no official talks appear to be underway—and Zarif’s offer is unlikely to be accepted—the foreign minister made it clear that Tehran is willing to compromise and even praised the president’s “prudence.”

Score another apparent loss for National Security Advisor John Bolton.

Almost 16 months into his tenure as national security advisor, Bolton is frequently finding himself on the losing side of policy debates, and that has led the veteran Washington operative to feel frustrated in his job as Trump’s top foreign-policy aide, according to three sources close to the White House who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the administration’s internal dynamics. It is also the latest evidence of Trump’s growing disillusionment.

“On key marquee issues, he’s not winning,” said Mark Groombridge, who worked as an aide to Bolton for more than a decade before breaking with him over his support for Trump.

This year, Bolton reportedly pushed for intervention in Venezuela, suggesting that embattled President Nicolás Maduro was about to depart, but Bolton proved wrong on that score. He also was seen as being a key player pushing for the transfer of U.S. military ships and equipment to the Middle East, a period of tension that culminated in the shootdown of a U.S. drone by Iranian forces. That resulted in Trump’s last-minute decision not to retaliate (the subject of Zarif’s praise for Trump Thursday)—a reversal that reportedly went against the advice of Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

At other key moments, Bolton has simply been nowhere to be seen. When Trump was meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un late last month, Bolton was in Mongolia for meetings with counterparts there. Instead, accompanying the president during his historic visit to the Demilitarized Zone was Fox News host Tucker Carlson—who recently described Bolton as a “bureaucratic tapeworm” and warned Trump that Bolton, who in the past has urged regime change both in North Korea and Iran, was part of the coterie that drove the United States into war with Iraq.

In March, Trump tweeted that he had “ordered the withdrawal” of additional sanctions on North Korea a day after the Treasury Department had penalized Chinese shipping companies for doing business with North Korea. But there were no additional sanctions in the pipeline, and Trump was in fact trying to undo the sanctions announced the previous day, for which Bolton had advocated and tweeted in support of.

Most recently, Trump reportedly authorized Sen. Rand Paul, the Kentucky Republican and cantankerous libertarian, to try a back-channel approach with Iran, according to Politico (though Trump denied he’d made Paul an emissary). Paul reportedly sought to meet Zarif while he was in New York, and while Zarif, speaking to reporters on Thursday, didn’t deny that he would meet with Paul, he also described the senator’s role as “overblown.”

If it happens, the Paul back-channel and Zarif’s presence in New York would represent the first concrete avenue for talks between the United States and Iran during a crisis that nearly resulted in a shooting war between the two countries. And that crisis shows no sign of abating. On Friday, Iran seized a British oil tanker, further escalating tensions between Tehran and the West.

One source described Bolton as “not thrilled with things” but added that in an administration that has been defined by turmoil and whipsawing policy moves, the key question is whether the move toward engagement represents “a permanent turn of the president’s foreign policy or not.”

“[Bolton is] a professional, and he understands that,” the source said.

But the differences between Bolton and Trump are not without consequence. When Bolton speaks, it is now unclear whether he is doing so on behalf of the president and whether Trump will tweet a rebuke of his advisor’s statements within hours of him having uttered them.

That has left Bolton with a major credibility problem in the eyes of U.S. allies, said Groombridge. In consultations with American partners, including his upcoming high-profile trip to South Korea and Japan, Bolton’s words probably won’t mean much and, as Groombridge puts it, “They’re more likely to trust Trump’s Twitter feed.”

Throughout his career, Bolton has advocated an aggressive approach to the use of American power, typically at the expense of diplomatic talks. In Tehran, Bolton is viewed with intense suspicion, as he has repeatedly and publicly advocated for the overthrow of the Islamic regime. Yet in relations with key American adversaries Iran and North Korea, Trump is heard either embracing talks or publicly floating proposals for negotiations.

Remarkably, the disconnect with Trump does not appear to have resulted in Bolton falling entirely out of favor with the president. Next week, Bolton is expected to embark on a trip to Japan and South Korea in an attempt to soothe relations between the two American allies, which have been engaged in a minor trade war just as Washington needs them to be on the same page in engineering a breakthrough in talks with North Korea and in confronting China.

But Trump and Bolton’s differences have been on public display for months, with Trump undermining his aide in interviews and even trying to undo policies championed by the national security advisor.

Speaking to reporters last month, Trump said he still had confidence in Bolton but also described him as one voice among many he consulted. Trump added that Bolton was one of his more hawkish advisors and said he had “other people that don’t take that posture.”

“I disagree very much with John Bolton,” Trump said. “The only one that matters is me.”

That disagreement was on vivid display last month, when Trump pulled back from a retaliatory strike on Iran’s military only after consulting far outside the typical U.S. national security decision-making process. One of the key voices urging Trump to avoid a wider shooting war with Iran was Carlson, the Fox News host, who uses his show as a megaphone directed at the White House.

Trump’s unorthodox brand of consultation reflects a key feature of life as the president’s national security advisor: Trump is going to keep his own counsel, said James Carafano, a vice president at the conservative Heritage Foundation. National security advisors may once have been gatekeepers to the president’s thinking on foreign and security policy, but in the Trump White House, that is simply no longer true.

“There is no consigliere that is telling Trump what to do,” Carafano said.

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

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