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Bolton’s Gone. Is the Trumpian World Order About to Begin?

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It was only a matter of time. By all accounts, National Security Adviser John Bolton had long alienated many of the top power-brokers in the Trump White House. The flap over the Afghanistan peace agreement—with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo favoring a deal with the Taliban and Bolton opposing one—was just the final straw, leading to the latter’s abrupt dismissal on Monday night. But while personal antipathy—Bolton was widely reviled for his brash manner and self-serving ways—and discord over Afghanistan were the ultimate cause of Bolton’s ouster, it was a deeper rift over US foreign policy that doomed his tenure at the White House. However closely aligned they might have seemed on some issues, John Bolton and Donald Trump possess very different visions of America’s role in the world—and, with Bolton out of the picture, it is Trump’s worldview that will now prevail.

John Bolton, although considered an extremist by many for his staunch opposition to international agreements and fervent advocacy for the use of military force against perceived enemies, is nevertheless an unvarnished representative of the security-driven brand of politics that has dominated Republican policy-making since Ronald Reagan’s day. From this perspective, there still abides an “Evil Empire”—now under a Russian rather than a Soviet flag, but still governed by Moscow—and a constellation of anti-American states (Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Venezuela) that must be crushed, by any means necessary.

While serving as Trump’s security adviser and as director of the National Security Council (NSC), Bolton labored assiduously to promote these objectives. His first target was the nuclear deal with Iran, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Viewing the JCPOA as a boon to Iran’s clerical leadership, since it allowed that regime to remain in power—even if deprived of nuclear weapons—Bolton convinced Trump he could get a “better deal” by bringing Tehran to its knees through harsh economic sanctions. And when the Iranians failed to knuckle under but instead matched American taunts with provocations of their own—such as by shooting down an unarmed US drone over what they claimed was Iranian territory—Bolton advocated military action against Iran.

Bolton’s next target was the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty with Russia, a 1987 agreement that bans the possession of ground-launched missiles with a range of between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. This agreement, negotiated and signed by Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, was one of the last great achievements of Cold War détente but has come to be seen by Republican hard-liners as imposing a lamentable constraint on America’s ability to deploy missiles aimed at Russia’s and China’s critical military infrastructure. Bolton succeeded in winning Trump’s approval for a US withdrawal from the treaty, which became final in August.

Bolton’s traditional Republican views are also evident in his ongoing hostility toward Cuba and North Korea. For him and his conservative cohorts, the survival of those communist regimes represents unfinished business left over from the Cold War—and needs to be corrected as vigorously and expeditiously as possible. Hence the reversal of the Obama administration’s improved travel and economic ties with Cuba, and Bolton’s repeated threats to use force against North Korea if it continued its development of nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).

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