Home/Daniel Larison/Bolton Isn’t Quitting

Bolton Isn’t Quitting

National Security Advisor John Bolton attends meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Oct. 23, 2018. (Office of the Russian President/public domain)

Tom Wright makes some good observations about Trump’s foreign policy here, but I think he underestimates Bolton’s determination to cling to power:

It’s hard to see how Bolton can stay. Trump has long known that Bolton wanted war more than he does. He sidelined him on North Korea and overruled him on Iran. For his part, Bolton has privately attacked Pompeo, long a Trump favorite, as falling captive to the State Department bureaucracy and has predicted that the North Korea policy will fail.

Bolton has given an unusually large number of interviews to reporters and has been rewarded with positive profiles lauding his influence and bureaucratic prowess. Those of us who predicted that he would cling to the post of national security adviser, as it would be the last job he’d ever get, may have been wrong. In fact, Bolton looks and sounds as if he is preparing to exit on his own terms. Better that than being sent on a never-ending tour of the world’s most obscure places. For Bolton, leaving because he’s too tough for Trump is the perfect way to save face. Otherwise, he may be remembered as the man who presided over one of the weakest national security teams in modern American history and someone whose myopic obsessions—like international treaties or communism in Venezuela—meant the United States lost precious time in preparing for the national security challenges of the future.

Bolton has been allowed to drive Iran policy to the brink of war, and I can’t believe that he would voluntarily leave the position he has when he still has a chance of getting the war with Iran that he has been seeking for years. It is true that Bolton was sent to Mongolia to keep him out of sight during the president’s visit with Kim at the DMZ, but where is the proof that Trump has abandoned the maximalist demands that Bolton has long insisted on? On Iran, Trump is still reciting hawkish talking points, sanctioning anything that moves, and occasionally making more deranged threats against the entire country. Unless Trump decides to get rid of Bolton, I don’t see why Bolton would want to leave. He gets to set policy on the issue he has obsessed over for decades, and he gets to pursue a policy of regime change in all but name. Bolton will probably be happy to let Pompeo have all the “credit” for North Korea policy, since there is none to be had, and he’ll keep stoking the Iran obsession that has already done so much harm to the Iranian people and brought the U.S. dangerously close to a war it has no reason to fight.

Banishing Bolton to Mongolia was briefly entertaining for those of us that can’t stand the National Security Advisor, but it doesn’t mean very much if administration policies aren’t changing. Since Bolton is the one running the policy “process,” it seems unlikely that there will be any real change as long as he is there. For whatever reason, Trump doesn’t seem willing to fire him. Maybe that’s because he doesn’t want to offend Sheldon Adelson, a known Bolton supporter and big Trump donor, or maybe it’s because he enjoys having Bolton as a lightning rod to take some of the criticism, or maybe it’s because their militaristic worldviews aren’t as dissimilar as many people assume. It doesn’t really matter why Trump won’t rid himself of Bolton. What matters is that Bolton is supposedly “humiliated” again and again by Trump actions or statements, and then Bolton gets back to promoting his own agenda no matter what the president does.

For that matter, Bolton’s absence from the DMZ meeting may have been exactly what he wanted. Graeme Wood suggested as much just the other day:

Carlson has inserted himself into the frame of this bizarre and impromptu diplomatic trip, and that is exactly where the Boltonites want him: forever associated with a handshake that will be recorded as a new low in the annals of presidential gullibility.

Many observers have assumed that Bolton won’t be able to stay in the administration at different points over the last several months. When Trump claimed that he didn’t want regime change in Iran, that was supposed to be a break with Bolton. The only hitch is that Bolton maintains this same fiction that they aren’t trying to bring down the Iranian government when they obviously are. The second summit with North Korea and the possibility of some initial agreement caused similar speculation that Bolton’s influence was waning, and then he managed to wreck the Hanoi summit by getting Trump to make demands that he and everyone else must have known were unacceptable to the North Koreans. Every time it seems that Bolton’s maximalism is giving way to something else, Bolton gets the last laugh.

Demolishing the architecture of arms control has been one of Bolton’s main ambitions throughout his career. He has already done quite a bit of damage, but I assume he will want to make sure that New START dies. Bolton likely will “be remembered as the man who presided over one of the weakest national security teams in modern American history and someone whose myopic obsessions—like international treaties or communism in Venezuela—meant the United States lost precious time in preparing for the national security challenges of the future,” but as long as he has the chance to pursue those obsessions and advance his agenda I don’t think he’s going to give it up. He is an abysmal National Security Advisor, a fanatic, and a menace to this country, and I would love it if he did resign, but I just don’t see it. I doubt that Bolton cares about “saving face” as much as he does inflicting as much damage as he can while he has the opportunity. The only thing that Bolton believes in quitting is a successful diplomatic agreement that advances U.S. interests. That is why it is necessary for the president to replace him, because I don’t see any other way that he is going to leave.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

leave a comment

Latest Articles