In the end, it might be the great irony of John Bolton’s short career as national security adviser that he got fired for doing the right thing.
The timing suggests that President Donald Trump was looking to scapegoat one of the White House figures who opposed the unbelievably tasteless and strategically absurd idea of inviting the Taliban to Camp David on the anniversary week of the 9/11 attacks. When the whole dumb scheme blew up in Trump’s face, someone had to go.
Bolton was a natural target. He has none of the unctuous charm of other White House sycophants. He has, remarkably, tried to hold to his own views on any number of national security issues, even if he had to grit his teeth and smile while his boss made excuses for North Korean weapons tests and Russian election interference. Still, he looked to be a winner after Trump jettisoned the Iran nuclear deal and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia, things Trump had promised to do anyway.
The dreaded Tweet of Death
But Bolton underestimated the president’s reticence to get embroiled in anything like a real confrontation with the Iranians, and he could never navigate around Trump’s obvious and abject fear of the Russians. It’s one thing to trash an arms control treaty that clears the way for more spending on nuclear weapons, it’s another entirely to actually call Vladimir Putin to account for his adventures against our friends and allies.
Former national security adviser John Bolton (Photo: Evan Vucci/ AP)
Bolton, of course, never publicly contradicted Trump, but he was clearly less than happy in a White House whose foreign policy was, on so many issues, inimical to his own instincts. And around Trump, merely hinting at principled opposition is a grave enough crime to merit the dreaded Tweet of Death. In this White House, one must never be the first comrade to stop clapping.
In a sense, Bolton never had a chance. As I predicted when Bolton was appointed in March 2018, the Trump White House is too chaotic and politically toxic for any one personality to survive or become too influential. In Bolton’s case, we might be grateful. He is a fountain of bad ideas in foreign policy who was kept out of senior Republican positions for years — by other Republicans.
A font of bad foreign policy ideas
It is impressive, in some respect, that Bolton lasted this long. Abrasive and opinionated, he was never Trump’s top choice for the job. The president has had two military officers in the position, both of whom were almost certainly more deferential as a matter of habit. (As we know, the president loves the word “sir.”)
Not ready for prime time: The Taliban hardly deserve Camp David talks with a president. What was Trump thinking?
Bolton is known in Washington as someone with formidable bureaucratic skills, and while those abilities might have served him well in a more normal administration, they were probably useless in the Trumpian snake pit.The secretaries of State and Defense can exercise their power and judgment at a remove from the White House and have the power of Senate confirmation behind them, but the national security adviser works in the White House, and the job is whatever the president wants it to be. After enough friction with Bolton, this president wanted it to be vacant.
The next national security adviser is likely to fare poorly as well. It should be clear at this point that there is no such thing as “policy” in this White House, and senior staff only survive so long as they do not cross the president, inflame his insecurities or talk about his children. Survival means soothing and praising the boss and trying to stay out of the blast radius when things go wrong.
Be glad Bolton wasn’t worse
It is likely that Bolton’s replacement will be a temporary hire — perhaps Office of Management and Budget Director/Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney can add one more nameplate to his desk — or even a dual-hatting of someone like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, much the way Richard Nixon did with Henry Kissinger. Of course, that will just move the crosshairs onto Pompeo’s back, but in this White House, the staff live one day at a time in an environment where “serving at the pleasure of the president” is taken literally.
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The next national security adviser will understand that he can enjoy his office as long as he enables, rather than advises, Trump on matters of national security. This could lead to a nightmare in itself, and it is sobering to think that we might one day wish for someone with Bolton’s force of personality in the West Wing.
Bolton’s critics feared he would hijack the Oval Office and lead the United States into another war in the Middle East. Trump has no appetite for such a conflict — at least for now — but Bolton certainly did enough damage in the meantime. We should not lament his departure, but we can be glad that his tenure wasn’t worse.
This is a small relief, at least until we meet Bolton’s successor.
Tom Nichols is a national security professor at the Naval War College, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors and author of “The Death of Expertise.” The views expressed here are solely his own. Follow him on Twitter: @RadioFreeTom
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