John Bolton is everything you don’t want in a national security adviser. He is as stubborn as a rhinoceros, as crafty as a snake, and as dangerous as a scorpion.
Bolton’s is an extreme black-and-white view of the world: if you aren’t an ally of the United States, you are an adversary who needs a boot on your neck in the form of U.S. military force or economic sanctions. The second- and third-order strategic consequences are no obstacle in Bolton’s mind. Why go through the humiliating spectacle of negotiations when you can simply bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities or take out the Kim regime by force?
Diplomacy, after all, is for wimps, spineless State Department bureaucrats, and appeasers. If the boss is insisting on diplomacy, then demand the moon, stars, and everything in between before offering a nickel of sanctions relief.
This is how John Bolton made his career: as the proverbial wrecking ball of arms control agreements—and indeed agreements of any kind. And he makes no excuses for it. Indeed, he takes prideful ownership of his views, seeing anyone who disagrees with him or who isn’t on his level as a weasel. Before Bolton joined the Trump administration as national security adviser, he was the short-lived ambassador to the United Nations and the undersecretary of state for arms control, where he attempted to get an intelligence analyst removed for disagreeing with his position on Cuba’s alleged biological weapons program.
All of this is why so many of us were worried and confused when President Trump asked Bolton to serve as his national security adviser last year. The two men could not have more fundamental disagreements on foreign policy. While both laugh at the U.N. and international organizations more broadly, they diverge paths on some of the weightiest issues on the docket. Bolton would rather blow up Iran than talk to its leaders, engagement Trump has said numerous times he is more than happy to consider (maybe as soon as next week’s U.N. General Assembly meeting).
On Venezuela, Trump seems to have soured on pushing Nicolás Maduro from power, even as Bolton refers to Caracas as part of the “troika of tyranny.” Bolton’s obsession with getting North Korea denuclearized in one fell swoop—an approach that came crashing down on Trump’s head during his second summit with Kim Jong-un in February—is far more likely to lead to an end of diplomacy than an end to Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program (an uphill climb if there ever was one).
Trump grew tired of Bolton the same way he grew tired of other staffers. Rex Tillerson, James Mattis, Steve Bannon, Reince Priebus, H.R. McMaster, and John Kelly were all liked by the president at one time, only to be fired or convinced to resign. Bolton, prickly as a porcupine in dealing with colleagues, had long been under Trump’s skin. NBC News reports that the two men had a shouting match behind closed doors the night before Bolton’s resignation.
Whatever finally pushed Bolton out the door, however, is far less relevant than where Trump goes from here. He will announce a new national security adviser next week, and the Washington parlor game is already swirling with names.
We don’t know who Bolton’s replacement will be, but we do know what he or she needs to do: dump most of the previous regime’s ideas in the garbage and start over with strategies that actually have a chance at success.
Trump needs an adviser who is willing to engage in a pragmatic negotiation and be prepared for uncomfortable but necessary bargaining. He needs someone who will help him end wars—like the 18-year-long quagmire in Afghanistan—that have gone on aimlessly and without purpose.
He needs someone who will hold those within the administration accountable when they refuse to execute policy once it is cleared by the inter-agency. And above all, he or she should prize restraint and think through all the options when the Beltway loudly urges immediate action.
All of this will be easier with Bolton off the team.
Daniel R. DePetris is a foreign policy analyst, a columnist at Reuters, and a frequent contributor to The American Conservative.