John Bolton had to go – because he wanted to cancel President Donald Trump’s worldwide reality show.
For a time the now ex-national security adviser, who first caught Trump’s eye with his tough talk on Fox News, was useful to the President – sharing his desire to shake up the globe.
But like everyone else in Trump’s dysfunctional foreign policy team, Bolton wore out his welcome, standing in the way of his boss’ impetuous instincts and seeking a share of the spotlight.
Only in the bizarre Trump orbit could the exit of a national security adviser seen as an ideologue and aggressive hawk also be perceived in some ways as the removal of a stabilizing force. But he did have a view of American interests and the use of US power that while hardline was predictable and logical and positioned within the historic boundaries of US diplomacy.
With him gone, Trump may have more leeway to indulge his more dovish instincts, which rarely match big talk with action. And US diplomacy is likely to reflect its principal author even more closely. It will be more impulsive, less strategic and more geared to creating iconic moments, like the President’s stroll into North Korea with Kim Jong Un.
Democratic Rep. John Garamendi welcomed Bolton’s departure given his “radical” instincts but warned of instability to come.
“This President has a mind of his own, often we wonder what is exactly in that mind … chaos rules the day,” Garamendi, a member of the House Armed Services Committee told CNN’s Brooke Baldwin.
Trump badly needs a foreign policy win
Like everything in Trump’s foreign policy, there is a political explanation for the latest storm that rocked the White House.
Trump’s first term, while succeeding in traumatizing US allies and causing global disruption, is largely bereft of the big wins the great dealmaker promised back in 2016.
North Korea, despite Trump’s embrace, is not denuclearizing. Iran is moving closer to building a nuclear bomb after Trump pulled out of an international nuclear deal. China is rising fast and Russia is resurgent after interfering in US elections.
That’s a problem as Trump contemplates a lackluster record and goes in search of iconic achievements – and longed for baubles, such as a Nobel Peace Prize – ahead of the 2020 election.
The President is in perilous political territory – dipping to 39% approval in a new CNN/SSRS poll. Only 36% of those asked said he deserved reelection. So victories, preferably bringing favorable media coverage are imperative – and soon.
Trump’s team, given a lack of leverage or expertise, may struggle to manufacture big foreign policy breakthroughs. But eye catching summits will do just as well for a White House that cuts even Trump’s routine meetings with foreign leaders into campaign highlight reels designed to frame him as a statesman.
“This likely signals that Trump is desperate to run a string of deals, however cosmetic, prior to the 2020 election on Afghanistan, Iran, and North Korea and sees Bolton as a roadblock,” said Colin Kahl, a former Obama administration aide affiliated with the Foreign Policy for America advocacy group.
While Bolton, who even his many enemies will admit is a man of principle and a master of the Washington game, knows how to blow things up – such as the Iran nuclear deal – he was increasingly in the way of the President’s photo-op diplomacy.
Most recently, Bolton objected to Trump’s idea to bring Taliban terrorists to Camp David close to the anniversary of 9/11 in search of a deal to bring troops home.
And, according to CNN sources, he told Trump so to his face, contradicting a gut call by a President who demands obedience in a way that was always likely to cut his tenure short.
A win for North Korea
Bolton’s skepticism of Trump’s infatuation with North Korea’s Kim was also no secret. When Trump pulled off his scheme to visit his pen pal on the DMZ in June, Bolton took himself off to Mongolia. He contradicted the President by saying that the North’s short-range missile tests contravened UN resolutions. Pyongyang responded by calling him a “human defect.”
And Trump’s adoption of his hardline position on denuclearization seems to have been at least partly behind the collapse of the Hanoi summit earlier in the year.
In fact, Bolton’s departure represents a victory for North Korea, which had been trying for months through its official media to drive a wedge between him and Trump. Now, coincidentally, the rogue nation says it’s ready to talk again to the US.
Bolton was also a bump on a log for Trump when it came to Russia. While the President spent the recent G7 summit making Russian President Vladimir Putin’s case for getting back in the club, Bolton never let go of his smoldering Cold War suspicions.
Trump also appears to blame Bolton, an unreconstructed hawk, for bringing him to the brink of war with Iran after the shooting down of a US drone over the Gulf of Oman.
With him gone, Trump will have greater leeway to pursue his reported hopes of organizing what would be a stunning meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the United Nations General Assembly later this month.
Bolton is unlikely to go quietly given his flair for public relations and long list of media contacts. He seems unlikely to emulate the dutiful but pregnant silence on Trump by former Defense Secretary James Mattis as he promotes his book.
As Bolton looks back on his 19 months in the White House, he can claim several victories for his hardline school of foreign policy. The Trump administration banned an International Criminal Court prosecutor from visiting the US. The United States also withdrew from the UN Human Rights Council. And under his watch the US pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal.
And the ex-national security adviser might have succeeded in one of his final acts of killing of a deal with the Taliban that critics see as a fig leaf to cover a US surrender.
But Bolton’s strong backing for what looked a lot like a coup attempt in Venezuela by opposition leader Juan Guaido did not work and made the Trump administration look foolish.
Ultimately, Bolton’s departure is revealing for all the insights it offers into life inside Trump’s White House.
Its timing on the eve of 9/11 anniversary commemorations was also appropriate. Bolton was just about the last remnant of the neoconservative foreign policy establishment that grabbed power after the world’s worst terror attack.
Much of Trump’s antipathy to foreign entanglements – like the Iraq invasion and America’s longest war that he is trying to end – springs from policies put in place by Bolton and his cohorts.
The current President seems to have no organized doctrine – other than his “America First” mantra that is mostly an offshoot of his campaign trail rhetoric rooted in a belief that the rest of the world is perpetually ripping America off.
Happy that Bolton is gone
Bolton’s personality clash with Trump also offers a glimpse into how this administration works.
He became the latest key foreign policy official to cross an invisible red line for Trump – seeming to have an agenda and power base that is distinct from the President’s own.
White House sources told CNN on Tuesday they believed that Bolton was leaking to the press about Trump’s now canceled plans to host the Taliban at Camp David.
Shortly after Trump fired Bolton – by tweet – two of his former antagonists, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, could barely hide their smiles.
The two men also showed they had learned the lessons of how to work for Trump that Bolton apparently never absorbed – namely appeasing his wildest instincts and showing no disloyalty.
“We work very closely with the President of the United States,” said Pompeo, who is not that ideologically different than Bolton but is poles apart on handling Trump.
“I don’t think any leader around the world should make any assumption that because some one of us departs, that President Trump’s foreign policy will change in a material way,” he said.
Pompeo’s comment reflected reality, that the rest of the world – US allies and Trump subordinates, especially – have learned over two-and-a-half tumultuous years. America’s foreign policy does not follow precedent, doctrine or any predictable course.
It’s what Trump says it is at any given moment. And people who work for him can either live with that or get out.