Bolton Was Awful; His Successor Could Be Worse

by Michael C. Dorf

What should a reasonable person think about the departure of John Bolton as National Security Adviser? In just about any other administration, it would be very welcome news. Bolton is a Strangelovian hawk who learned nothing from the US misadventure in Iraq that he and others of his ilk promoted. Trump reportedly fired him (or was at least happy to see him go) for the right reason: Bolton was a source of resistance to one of Trump's few sensible impulses--his preference for diplomacy over force in foreign affairs.

And yet . . . Bolton probably provided a useful check on Trump's not-at-all-sensible foreign-policy impulses: his emphasis on showmanship over substance; his elevation of personal relations with foreign leaders over details; his embrace of authoritarians at the expense of liberal democratic values and human rights; and his desperation to "make a deal" so that he can claim victory even when the deal at hand is a bad one or at best a worse version of the prior status quo that Trump impetuously undermined.

And yet . . . Trump's instincts are also bad in the other direction. Even before he hired Bolton to replace H.R. McMaster (who in turn replaced the ill-fated Michael Flynn), Trump disastrously pursued two Boltonian policies--withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accord and the Iran Nuclear Deal. Although Trump eventually seemed to learn the GOP talking points on what was supposedly wrong with the nuclear deal (it didn't last forever and it didn't cover other topics, such as Iranian support for regional bad actors), it was pretty obvious all along that Trump's real reason for withdrawing from the Iran deal ("worst deal ever") was the fact that President Obama entered it. As with Trump's mere tweak to NAFTA (if it is ever enacted), so with his apparent willingness to make a new deal with Iran that looks a whole lot like the old deal, Trump at most wants to rebrand rather than truly remake US foreign relations.

That's vain and stupid, of course, but insofar as the old deals were better than unilateralism and confrontation, while it would have been better had Trump simply stuck with the old deals, given his purported abandonment of those deals, his willingness to re-enter the old ones and claim them as some great new Trumpian accomplishment is better than nothing. Accordingly, one might think that getting rid of Bolton was a net positive after all--insofar as Bolton was preventing Trump from re-engaging with Iran.

I am also inclined to think that Bolton's departure is a net positive for another reason. One need not be a unilateralist hawk like Bolton to recognize the risks of Trump's get-a-deal-at-any-cost-and-claim-victory approach. One imagines that McMaster (who was one of the few fully sensible and highly qualified people in the administration) would have been worried that Trump was giving away too much to the Taliban without any real assurances of what would happen post-withdrawal. So had McMaster rather than Bolton been the National Security Adviser, Trump would still have gotten some pushback on the near-deal with the Taliban.

To be clear, I'm not saying that Bolton and others were necessarily right to oppose the proposed agreement with the Taliban. Maybe it would have been a peace-in-our-time farce or led in short order to a Saigon-style evacuation of American personnel and their desperate supporters as Kabul fell to the Taliban. But maybe not. My point is simply that a well-run administration would include voices warning of those dangers. Trump's is not a well-run administration in general, but it's good that someone issued that warning. Still, if it hadn't been Bolton, the warning would have reached Trump from the likes of McMaster.

Similarly, McMaster would have (and surely did) worry about the risks of Trump's bromance with Kim Jong-un. So insofar as Bolton's positive utility was his serving as a brake on Trump the Capitulator, he was not indispensable. He replaced a highly respected National Security Adviser in McMaster and can be more than satisfactorily replaced by just about any remotely mainstream National Security Adviser, whether that person is a conventional conservative, a military man or woman, or even another neocon.

Yet before we celebrate Bolton's departure, it's worth keeping in mind Trump's capacity to surprise. Maybe he'll select Ted Nugent, Kanye West, or Jared Kushner as his National Security Adviser. This is an administration in which Rick Perry, Betsy Devos, and Ben Carson are among the most qualified cabinet members, and the National Security Adviser need not be confirmed by the Senate, thus avoiding another potential check. It is thus entirely possible that the next National Security Adviser will be grossly unqualified and a sycophant who simply reinforces Trump's worst instincts in every direction.

I could not have imagined a much worse choice for National Security Adviser than John Bolton, but then, until it happened, I couldn't imagine Trump as president. Failure is always an option.