Trump Makes the Right Call: Bolton Out

John Bolton (Gage Skidmore via Flickr)

By Paul R. Pillar

That President Trump will soon have his fourth national security adviser in less than three years reflects the lack of strategic sense underlying the president’s foreign and security policies. When policy is more a matter of applause lines and appealing to a domestic political base than of implementing a coherent view of America’s place in the world, then seeing whether the president and the job candidate share the same coherent view is not part of the hiring process. With none of Trump’s hires has there been anything like Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon meeting at the Pierre Hotel after the latter’s election victory in 1968, with the president-elect determining that he and the Harvard professor shared a realist way of thinking about how the world worked and America’s place in it.

Trump’s filling of the national security adviser’s position has been a scattershot response to diverse needs and impulses. Michael Flynn clearly was never properly vetted. H.R. McMaster had the attraction of wearing a general’s uniform without Flynn’s baggage. But Trump evidently did not anticipate how he would tire of McMaster’s dutiful reminding his boss of the way the world really works, even when that way does not fit into a slogan. John Bolton’s appointment seemed to many as the oddest of any of these three hires, given how this uber-hawk’s views appeared to clash with Trump’s campaign rhetoric about staying out of wars. But Bolton offered bureaucratic savvy and the opportunity to win points with hawkish parts of Trump’s Republican base.

The single biggest factor in getting Bolton the job was Sheldon Adelson, whose weighty political checkbook has won him much influence over Trump’s policies. The policies that by far have mattered most to Adelson are any that deal with Israel or are important to the right-wing government of Israel. Adelson and Bolton both have openly advocated bombing Iran, which is music to the ears of the ultra-hardline policy toward Iran favored by Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. It was this sort of stance by Bolton that made him Adelson’s favored candidate for the White House job.

It possibly is no coincidence that the firing of Bolton comes shortly after a sharp public falling-out between Adelson (along with his wife Miriam, a dual Israel-U.S. citizen) and Netanyahu. This altercation, which surfaced during an investigation of corruption allegations against Netanyahu and evidently has involved the prime minister becoming especially assertive in trying to direct the editorial practices of Israel Hayom, the free-distribution newspaper Adelson owns, is a marked and surprising departure from what had been a close political and financial partnership between the Adelsons and Netanyahu. Trump may believe that with this split, he still has his Israeli bases covered despite ousting Adelson’s man from the West Wing.

More fundamental to Trump’s calculations, however, was his realization that Bolton’s determination to wreck deals clashed with Trump’s desire to make deals. This has been the case on several fronts. It is true of North Korea, where Bolton’s wrecking career began as an undersecretary in the George W. Bush administration, when Bolton boasted of his role in killing the earlier Agreed Framework dealing with the North Korean nuclear program. Trump reportedly had already sidelined Bolton from a further major role in policy toward North Korea. He also partially sidelined him on policy toward Afghanistan, although Bolton may get the last word there in the sense that it now looks, according to the president, that a prospective agreement with the Taliban is dead.

The major foreign policy issue on which Bolton’s departure is likely to make the biggest difference is Iran. Bolton has always wanted war; Trump has increasingly indicated that he wants a deal. It had to be clear to the president that any effort to reach such a deal would be subject to sabotage efforts by Bolton every inch of the way. Iran is also an issue where current policy is manifestly failing, with the “maximum pressure” campaign resulting only in harder-line Iranian postures regarding nuclear matters, activity in the Middle East, and domestic Iranian politics. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been Bolton’s maximum pressure partner in all this, but Pompeo’s first priority is to stay in tune with the president. With Bolton gone, the president’s, and thus Pompeo’s, tune may change.

President Trump has done the right thing by firing John Bolton. In each of his positions in government, Bolton has made the world a more conflictual place and the United States a more isolated and despised country. This certainly has not made the country safer. One indication of how much Bolton’s policies have been at odds with U.S. national interests is that he still believes that the disastrous offensive war in Iraq was a good idea.

It is impossible, of course, to gauge just how much Bolton’s departure represents an improvement until a new national security adviser is announced. That appointment will be all the more important because of another part of Bolton’s legacy, which has been to destroy the policy-making procedures of the National Security Council and circumvent the national security bureaucracy in general, and to make policy-making a more irregular and closely held game of maneuvering to influence the president. A previous time when foreign policy was in large part run out of the national security adviser’s vest pocket was when Kissinger had the job, and to the extent it worked it was only because of the intellect and talents of the man wearing the vest. Kissinger himself recognized how shaky the arrangement was and, in his memoirs, recommended against any attempt to repeat it. What President Trump could use most right now is a national security adviser who will restore an orderly policymaking process in which policy options are carefully considered, from all angles and by everyone in the executive branch with relevant responsibilities. But given Trump’s own operating style, that is probably not going to happen.

Paul Pillar

Paul R. Pillar is Non-resident Senior Fellow at the Center for Security Studies of Georgetown University and an Associate Fellow of the Geneva Center for Security Policy. He retired in 2005 from a 28-year career in the U.S. intelligence community. His senior positions included National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia, Deputy Chief of the DCI Counterterrorist Center, and Executive Assistant to the Director of Central Intelligence. He is a Vietnam War veteran and a retired officer in the U.S. Army Reserve. Dr. Pillar's degrees are from Dartmouth College, Oxford University, and Princeton University. His books include Negotiating Peace (1983), Terrorism and U.S. Foreign Policy (2001), Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy (2011), and Why America Misunderstands the World (2016).



  1. JL,
    A bunch of Janny’s loyalists were canned this afternoon. So the big tumor and a bunch of little ones were carved out the day after!

  2. Unless Pompeo also goes soon Bolton will have won and Iran will get no benefits whatsoever from JCPOA. It is possible Bolton even engineered his own demise seeing that his work was largely done. Sticking around could have marked him as a looser if Trump enters a death spiral. Now Bolton is free to cut his own deals including a tell all book positioning him as an unblemished spokesman of American power.


    Iran is not going to be re-integrated into dollar-based economy anytime soon.

    Investments in Iran originating from US vassals in Europe or in Asia is not going to happen since US cannot be trusted to renege on them at her convenience.

    Ayatollah Khamenei as well as security-aware Iranians (be they in military or not) are now in a very strong political position; almost unassailable; that settlement with the United States and her vassals in Europe is impossible – that they remain enemies of the Shia Muslims as well as Iran, and there is no hope for any better future with them.

    US and her vassals, over the last 2 years, killed this rather forlorn hope among millions of Iranians who were well-disposed at least towards Europe, if not the United States. Americans helped Ayatollah Khamenei and men around him tremendously by destroying that Hope.

    No one in Iran can any longer oppose the policies of austerity, self-reliance, robust security posture, and external commitments on the basis of that Hope of better and productive relations with West.

    It is not to be.

    That is the strategic costs that the West has paid and they will reap its rewards in the years and decades to come.

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