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Bolton’s principles clashed with too many Trump policies

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When President Trump named John Bolton as his third national security adviser in 15 months, I predicted that John would survive for a year at most. Having known him for decades, I knew that whatever one might think of his views, Bolton is a man of principle, who would always stand up for what he believes. He was certain to clash with a president who governs by whim and tweet, who trusts his “gut” more than he does his closest advisers and strongest supporters.  

I was wrong about how long Bolton would keep his job; he lasted just over four months longer than I predicted. 

That Bolton did not make it through the end of Trump’s term should surprise no one. Bolton long has been a hard-liner on Iran, North Korea, Russia, China and the Taliban, while consistently voicing his support for Israel. His views regarding the Jewish state matched Trump’s own; so, too, did his policy preferences regarding China. 

His negative attitude toward international agreements likewise meshed with that of the president, and he was a strong supporter of Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), better known as the Iran nuclear deal. He also supported the president’s initial hard line vis-a-vis North Korea. He too could have come up with the moniker “Little Rocket Man” to describe Kim Jong Un.

On the other hand, Bolton must have swallowed hard, very hard, as he watched the president repeatedly blandish Kremlin strongman Vladimir Putin. When Trump changed his tune regarding the North Korean leader, canceled joint exercises with Seoul’s forces and agreed to meet with Kim, Bolton likewise could not have been very happy. That Trump since has had nothing but kind words regarding Kim no doubt added to Bolton’s unease. So, too, did Trump’s impetuous effort to meet with Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, which thus far has come to naught because Rouhani has refused the president’s offer unless he first lifts America’s sanctions on Iran.

Afghanistan proved to be the final straw, however, both for the president and, therefore, for John Bolton. Bolton is reported to have bitterly opposed the president’s decision to invite the Taliban to a Camp David meeting with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in order to finalize a pending agreement that Ambassador Zal Khalilzad painstakingly negotiated for many months. No doubt Bolton disliked the terms of that agreement too, since it appeared to offer the Taliban a concrete outcome — the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan — in exchange for promises that the radical group was unlikely to keep. 

Bolton’s opposition to the invitation to Camp David was the final straw for the president, especially when he had to withdraw that invitation. In doing so, he seemed to vindicate Bolton’s judgment over his own. For Donald Trump, to be wrong about anything is intolerable. Bolton had to go. 

Bolton’s departure is certainly welcome news for many leaders. Those who long have believed in the efficacy of international agreements and alliances — NATO, for example — will hope that his replacement, like the departed and sorely missed Jim Mattis, will recognize their value.  

But the club of authoritarians will be especially delighted. Putin, Kim, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and their ilk already may be popping the champagne corks at news of Bolton’s firing. 

There is no way of knowing whom Trump will choose to replace John. The talking heads already are speculating regarding his replacement, and are sure to bandy about a host of names. The Bolton saga demonstrates yet again that the president is neither a hard-liner nor an accommodationist but, rather, judges everything in terms of what he perceives to be the impact of anything he might do on his public image and his prospects for re-election. 

The president’s criteria, therefore, will tend to be, first, a sense that the person he chooses will slavishly adhere to whatever the presidential gut decides, and, second, if at all possible, someone who will look like George C. Scott playing Patton

Not everyone will have a Pattonesque appearance. But there certainly will be no shortage of those who will put up with anything as long as they can list “national security adviser” on their professional resumes.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.

Tags Donald Trump John Bolton Kim Jong Un National Security Adviser Taliban peace talks US foreign policy Vladimir Putin
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