John Bolton is already a lame duck — and he knows it

The baffling decision by President TrumpDonald John TrumpSunday shows preview: Trump sells U.N. reorganizing and Kavanaugh allegations dominate Ex-Trump staffer out at CNN amid “false and defamatory accusations” Democrats opposed to Pelosi lack challenger to topple her MORE to select John Bolton as his next national security adviser is shaking the Washington foreign policy establishment on both sides of the aisle. Democrats are reacting furiously and Republicans are trying to remain calm, but there’s one person who already knows that he’s in trouble: John Bolton. 

The choice of Bolton makes no sense for Trump, on several levels. First, Trump ran as an anti-war candidate and just picked the most pro-war national security adviser he could find. Second, Trump ran against the Washington swamp, yet picked a classic Republican foreign policy Washington insider, as Bolton has essentially spent his entire career in D.C. And third, Trump prides himself on being a success, yet he’s picked someone who has been at the heart of the greatest foreign policy failures of the past two decades.

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John Bolton must know this, and he must be worried. The John Bolton we all thought we knew disappeared in front of our eyes when he was interviewed on FOX Thursday night after the announcement of his selection. Out was the bombast and in was the staffer-speak. Bolton waxed eloquent about process and about providing a variety of viewpoints to the president. This was a different John Bolton.

 

Expert in the classic D.C. maneuvering in order to get the job, Bolton must know that videotape is hard to completely erase. And he knows better than anyone else what he’s said and done both on video and in print — while it’s likely that Trump does not.

One of the more curious issues to think about regarding this choice is how Bolton, while being a neoconservative, didn’t become a never-Trumper during the 2016 presidential campaign like most of his cohort. Perhaps that’s because he was toying with becoming president himself, or because he was fundraising for his super PAC (now known to have been one of the first to hire Cambridge Analytica). How these items play out within the context of the Mueller investigation is anyone’s guess.

Which brings us to the heart of the matter. In a mere couple of months, President Trump will have to decide about what to do with North Korea and Iran. He’s already committed to meeting with North Korea’s leader, yet Bolton just weeks ago called for American bombing of that country. And Bolton was behind the termination of the last nuclear deal we had with North Korea — the Agreed Framework — in 2002. That decision directly led to our rudderless policy on North Korea for the past 15 plus years.

It’s hard to imagine the North Koreans agreeing to a deal, as Trump would want, with Bolton sitting across the table.

And on Iran, if Trump were to pull out of the Iran deal at Bolton’s behest — as many in Washington now thinks he will — then he’ll be unleashing Iran’s nuclear program from the constraints it’s currently under. This would be an ironic outcome, as it took the latter years of the Bush administration (when Bolton was gone) and much of the Obama administration to restrain that program through tough, punishing sanctions. These were a reversal from the Bolton years, when there was minimal financial pressure on Iran due to American unilateralism.

Yet the biggest dissonance that the Trump-Bolton partnership may bring is on the question of war versus peace, as symbolized by Iraq. I was a career foreign affairs officer at the State Department when Bolton was the undersecretary for arms control and international security. I remember how Bolton helped lead us straight into that disaster — one that Trump rightly pointed out during the Republican primaries was a complete mistake. 

Yet unlike Trump, after all the thousands dead, trillions spent, the unleashing of Iran across the Middle East and the destabilization of the Arab world, Bolton has never said such words, and still defends it as the right thing.

So John Bolton must know all this, and he must know that President Trump probably doesn’t know all the details yet. And he must be hoping that Trump won’t learn them any time soon, because if the past 14 months is prologue, Bolton must already know that time in this administration is not on his side. 

Joel Rubin is a former deputy assistant secretary of state and was a foreign affairs officer at the State Department from 2002 – 2005.