For the most unpredictable President of the United States, Mr Donald Trump, the dismissal of his National Security Advisor, the third in as many years, Ambassador John Bolton was ironically a most predictable event. Few of Mr Trump’s actions have drawn the kind of cross-party cheer on both sides of the current great American dichotomy as one has. Somehow Mr Trump may been able to turn yet another bizarre incident of administrative chaos within the White House into one that might even gain him some political mileage in the difficult times ahead.
How did this come about? Right from the start, Mr Trump’s assessment of Ambassador Bolton was not made from any deep knowledge of the latter’s mindset. Mr Trump liked Mr Bolton’s right-wing views. Initially he even mooted the idea of appointing Mr Bolton as Secretary of State. But Mr Trump liked his aides to be dapper. He was reportedly put off by Mr Bolton’s walrus moustache which to the President seemed unkempt. But eventually his appreciation of Mr Bolton’s power of articulation won over his distaste for that drooping mass of facial hair and Mr Bolton was landed the National Security Advisor’s position.
The seventeen -month old partnership was not a happy one from the beginning. The task of a National Security Advisor is basically to chair the Security Council, collate and analyse the take-aways, and based on these, offer the President advice. Strong thought-leaders like Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski, who have held the position have gone further. Not only have they offered advice, but have shaped the President’s reaction to them, and thereafter helped implement the policy outcome. Mr Bolton was not an intellect of that ilk, but he was not also a man without ideas. Some of these were set out in a book he published in 2007 whose title not only summarises the contents, but also underscores his own agenda; It was “Surrender is Not an Option.” He does not see the US as any other nation-state like the 192 other members of the United Nations. To him the equivalence of the US with any other State is a myth in a myth, but also one that impedes the attainment of America’s destiny. He totally agreed with Mr Trump that it was time to make America “Great again”. He totally disagreed with the President on how.
To Ambassador Bolton Mr Trump’s predilections for triumphant deal-making was leading him to politically cavort with America’s enemies. Mr Trump sought to achieve his end by the application of maximum pressure-economic, political and psychological. Ambassador Bolton’s method was to use as tools naked hard power as despatch of troops, military action and change of unfriendly regimes. Three recent issues that have come to fore bring out the differences in sharp relief.
On North Korea, Mr Bolton thought the chumminess between Mr Trump and Mr Kim Jong- un will bring little reward for the US. There was no way the North Koreans will compromise on their basic aim of building a sturdy nuclear deterrence prior to serious negotiations. Indeed, North Korea’s continued short-range missile testing was straining US relations with allies such as Japan and South Korea. While all this may indeed be true, these ran counter to Mr Trump’s public postures. On Iran, Mr Bolton was aghast at the possibilities of a Trump-Rouhani meeting that the President has been hinting at. The Ambassador’s clear preference was for nothing less than a regime change. The Iranian leadership, whose intense dislike for Mr Bolton is no secret, and most if not all of whom sport beards, warned the President of the dangerous advice being tendered by the ‘moustache’.
The final straw on the proverbial camel’s back was the issue with the Talebans in Afghanistan. Painstakingly Mr Trump’s negotiator, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad had nearly finalized a peace agreement that was to be clinched in a secret meeting at Camp David between Mr Trump , the Talebans and the Afghan government last weekend. The President would have seen it as an important feather in his cap , and perhaps rightly so . But Mr Bolton opposed it fiercely. Then a bombing in Kabul, allegedly carried out by a section of the Taliban, that among others killed an American soldier forced Mr Trump’s hand in cancelling it. Mr Trump could not have been happy at this outcome. To make it worse he reportedly suspected Mr Bolton of leaking to the press that the cancellation was a win for the Advisor’s point of view. An incandescent President then sacked his advisor with a tweet. If at all the cancellation was a victory for Ambassador Bolton, it was surely a Pyrrhic one.
The search for a successor is on, once again, for the fourth time in three years, in this Administration. A favourite is said to be Mr Brian Hook, a confidante of Secretary of State Mr Mike Pompeo, which Mr Bolton was not, and currently a Special Representative for Iran. Also in the run may be the current envoy to Germany, Ambassador Richard Grenell. Both have views that do not differ from the President’s own. Again, ironically, Mr Trump had once suggested a different set of opinion, may indeed be more worthwhile, but with either of them Mr Trump will not be getting it.
The important point his, Mr Bolton may be gone, but not the ideas that he had brought with him. Nor is he likely to become passive observer of events just because he has been twittered out of the White House. In his book cited earlier he had stated, somewhat ominously for those who disagree with him: “For myself, in or out of government, I have no intention of leaving the firing line”. These reflect the thinking of red-neck America that Mr Trump might have helped unleash. These views may indeed, if they resonate with Mr Trump’s base which is not unlikely, heavily influence policies in any possible Trump 2 following the elections. These may be the ideas that may take the form of an uncontrollable Frankenstein dominating America’s thought and action for some years ahead. So the removal of Ambassador John Bolton from the scene right now might not spell the end of an epoch.
Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury is Principal Research Fellow at ISAS, National University of Singapore, former Foreign Advisor and President of Cosmos Foundation Bangladesh