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Bolton out: Why his relationship with President Trump chilled

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Whether it was by firing or resignation, national security adviser John Bolton’s departure from President Donald Trump’s White House had seemed inevitable for a while.

What spelled his doom, former officials and national security analysts say, was not his strong views on foreign-policy issues. The president found that appealing. Rather, it was Mr. Bolton’s take-charge approach to issues that annoyed a president who may appreciate hearing different viewpoints but does not like being pushed in directions his gut tells him he doesn’t want to go. Moreover, the president does not tolerate any suggestion that anyone but him is in charge.

“It’s not that the president doesn’t like hearing from people with different points of view, he does,” says James Carafano at the Heritage Foundation. “It’s really about the relationship with the president, and how he feels the process is going.”

What happens after Mr. Bolton’s departure? Some with knowledge of the president’s preferences expect to see more high-profile diplomatic initiatives, such as another North Korean summit or revived diplomacy with the Taliban. Some even speculate that Mr. Trump could push for the ultimate showstopper, a meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the United Nations later this month.

The idea of a team of rivals serving the president best by offering an array of passionately held and clashing views for the chief executive to ponder has been around since at least Abraham Lincoln.

And for the last 17 months of Donald Trump’s presidency, the White House has depicted the president as relishing the strong and often conflicting positions within his national security team – and above all between Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and the famously self-assertive and acerbic national security adviser, John Bolton.

That portrayal took a hit Tuesday when Mr. Trump abruptly announced through a tweet that he was firing Mr. Bolton, with whom he said he had often “strongly disagreed.” Mr. Bolton said he had resigned.

The president went on to hint at the widely known reality that Mr. Bolton had increasingly found himself the White House odd man out – both in personality and in viewpoint on issues from Iran to North Korea and Afghanistan.

“I disagreed strongly with many of his suggestions,” Mr. Trump tweeted, “as did others in the Administration.”

Whether it was by firing or resignation, Mr. Bolton’s departure had seemed inevitable for a while.

Yet what spelled the doom of Mr. Trump’s third national security adviser in less than three years was not so much his strong views on key foreign-policy issues, former officials and national security analysts say. Rather, it was his take-charge approach to issues, among them Iran and Venezuela, that annoyed a president who may appreciate hearing different viewpoints but does not like being pushed in directions his gut tells him he doesn’t want to go.

Moreover, the president does not tolerate any suggestion, particularly to the press or the public generally, that anyone but him is in charge.

Trump likes a multiplicity of advisers presenting a variety of approaches, but he is very averse to situations where his advisers are ganging up on him and leading him to a certain line of thinking – that he does not like,” says Peter Feaver, a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. “It’s one thing if the president hasn’t decided what to do, but it’s quite another if the president has decided to go left, and his adviser is there saying, ‘No no no, you’ve got to go right.’”

Qualities that attracted

Indeed Professor Feaver, who directed national security strategy planning during President George W. Bush’s second term, says it was some of Mr. Bolton’s same qualities that originally drew Mr. Trump’s interest – above all his frequent smart, attack-dog commentaries on foreign policy, usually on Fox News – that ended up souring the relationship between the two.

“At the very same time [in 2017] that the president’s advisers were advising him to stay in the JCPOA,” the six-nation nuclear agreement with Iran, “there was John Bolton on TV saying very effectively and compellingly to the president’s ears that what the president wanted to do – which was to get out of the JCPOA – was the right thing to do,” Professor Feaver says.

But before long it would be precisely that public assertiveness that would begin irritating Mr. Trump. In particular, he was put off by Mr. Bolton’s early interaction with the press that suggested he was running the Iran and Venezuela policies.

When Mr. Bolton’s entourage suggested over the weekend to some media contacts that it was Mr. Bolton who had prevailed in squelching a surprise Camp David meeting with the Taliban to sign a peace deal ending the U.S. war in Afghanistan, it was seen by some as the last straw. And that despite the president having indeed agreed with his national security adviser by nixing the high-profile meeting.

From left, national security adviser John Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and President Donald Trump, in the Oval Office, Feb. 7, 2019. Former officials and analysts say Mr. Bolton’s take-charge approach to issues annoyed the president.

By this spring, relations between the president and his national security adviser had chilled considerably, as Mr. Bolton seemed increasingly dissonant with the president’s preference for big deals and showy diplomacy, such as his three unprecedented meetings with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.

Indeed, at the same time in late June that Mr. Trump was crossing the border between the two Koreas to meet Mr. Kim for the third time, Mr. Bolton was in Mongolia – dispatched there by a president who wanted an adviser who had called for regime change in North Korea nowhere in sight.

“I temper John”

And then there was Iran. Mr. Trump was fine with Mr. Pompeo’s “maximum pressure” campaign largely reliant on increasingly tough sanctions to get Tehran to the negotiating table. But he was less comfortable with Mr. Bolton’s push for a more belligerent approach to the Iranian regime.

When Mr. Trump at the last minute called off a military strike on Iran in retaliation for the shoot-down in June of a U.S. drone, some White House and State Department officials quipped privately that Mr. Bolton had brought the president to within 10 minutes of a war he didn’t want.

“I temper John, which is pretty amazing,” Mr. Trump mused last spring.

For some analysts with close contacts with the Trump White House, Mr. Bolton’s departure is a clear sign that the president had concluded the administration’s foreign-policy decision-making process wasn’t working anymore.

“It’s not that the president doesn’t like hearing from people with different points of view, he does,” says James Carafano, director of foreign-policy studies at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. “It’s really about the relationship with the president, and how he feels the process is going – and clearly the president had decided the decision-making process had bogged down.”

Mr. Carafano notes that the president turned to Mr. Bolton at another point in his presidency when he felt the process had slowed and was tempering his instincts for bold diplomatic action. “The president wanted to move to a faster execution of foreign policy than he was getting” with former national security adviser H.R. McMaster, he says, “and he got that more aggressive execution with Bolton and Pompeo coming in.”

But with the sharp differences that were dividing the national security team – including between Mr. Bolton and Mr. Pompeo – the process was once again slowing beyond the president’s tolerance, says Mr. Carafano, who has close links to the White House.

Who’s next?

The question now shifts to whom Mr. Trump will name to replace Mr. Bolton – and what signals he will send by the choice he makes.

With Mr. Bolton out of the way, some with close knowledge of Mr. Trump’s foreign-policy preferences say they expect to see more of the showman’s high-profile diplomatic initiatives, including such possibilities as another summit with North Korea’s Mr. Kim and revived diplomacy with the Taliban to get an Afghanistan peace deal before next year’s election.

Some even speculate that Mr. Trump could push for the ultimate showstopper, a meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the United Nations General Assembly session in New York later this month.

What no one expects to see is another national security adviser with the brash personality and big public presence of John Bolton.

“If I had to guess I’d say it would be someone who is aligned with Mike Pompeo, because right now Pompeo has the most influential voice with the president on national security issues,” says Duke’s Dr. Feaver. Indeed, one name being tossed around as a potential candidate for the job is Brian Hook, Secretary Pompeo’s senior policy adviser on Iran.

“And this time around the president may go for someone with a lower public profile who can make the trains run on time,” he adds, “and cut down on the drama.”



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