“Let me just say from the outset that I don’t consider Bolton credible.” Those aren’t the words of one of my former Obama administration colleagues, who are thinking much worse. That’s none other than George W. Bush, as reported by the New York Times’ Peter Baker. The president was responding to the assertion made by his former UN Ambassador John Bolton – the one put in the job with a recess appointment because he was never going to get through Senate confirmation – that the Bush administration had drifted too far from its muscular ways.
Just let that sink in.
John Bolton is a long-standing member of the Washington swamp. He’s been a senior official in multiple Republican administrations, a private sector lawyer and think tanker, political mover and shaker, author of books and scores of articles, and prominent speaker and pundit. Bolton’s appointment as national security advisor has detonated like a neutron bomb among foreign policy wonks. Thinking back over the past 20 years – heck, let’s say 60 – I am hard pressed to think of any foreign policy official who has caused such angst before they even started the job.
There’s much to say about Bolton’s foreign policy views, most of which I disagree with profoundly. We’ve met a few times, most substantively 11 years ago during a long interview he agreed to do for a book I coauthored. Back then we didn’t see much of the Fox News flamethrower that Donald Trump has come to admire; Bolton struck me as bookish if often wrongheaded. He proudly displayed a picture of himself examining the famous hanging chads during the 2000 Florida recount. He talked a lot about Edmund Burke.
So this isn’t going to end well.
Bolton is known for many things, but being a team player is not one of them. Just ask any former Bush 43 official (outside of Dick Cheney’s office). His tenure in Colin Powell’s State Department was so turbulent that Powell quietly worked against his promotion to UN ambassador. Bolton tangled with the intelligence community, pushing claims on Iraq’s alleged WMD and trying to end the careers of junior officials who disagreed with him. Once in New York, he regularly butted heads with Condoleezza Rice and her team, especially on issues like Iran and North Korea. Hence Bush 43’s back-of-the-hand dismissal of Bolton lacking credibility.
The interagency process is not going to get any better. To the extent there has been such a process in this administration, it has been rife with dysfunction, but it’s about to get more so. This will be a huge challenge for Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and the Pentagon. The harmony in civil-military relations is about to end.
Up to now the Pentagon has been the dominant force in the Trump administration, squashing bad ideas, reassuring allies, and generally projecting stability and continuity in the midst of Trump’s chaos. Mattis kept things civil with Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, but the former 4-star general didn’t have much time for the 3-star who evidently didn’t have much juice with the president.
With Bolton Mattis will be facing something entirely different: an experienced bureaucratic knife-fighter who plays dirty and has a lot of ideas about how the military should be used. Bolton won’t show the Pentagon the same deference it has enjoyed for the past 14 months, so expect a lot of requests from him for military options on all matter of things.
Moreover, while Bolton has a lot of Washington bureaucratic experience, he’s never had a job where he has dealt much with military or intelligence operations, and he speaks glibly about the use of force. That won’t go over well in the Pentagon. There will be a lot of pushback, and we’ll be hearing about how he is not in the chain of command. So this will be a true test of Trump’s instinct to defer to military leaders versus Bolton’s desire to push them to do things they don’t want to do.
Which leads to another danger with Bolton – it’s not clear that he and Trump actually agree on policy, especially when it comes to using force. Sure, Trump likes the Fox News character Bolton who talks a big game and sticks it to foreigners and weak-kneed experts. But Trump sounds like Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., when he talks about the Iraq War that Bolton championed and has never repented for, and Trump has shown no appetite to ratchet up against Iran in Syria. Trump can’t say anything bad about Putin and Russia, while Bolton is a hard-liner. This is a recipe for even more stray voltage and policy confusion.
My guess is that the Trump-Bolton relationship, like pretty much all of Trump’s relationships save for the flunkies and the dudes in the club grill room, will sour. If Trump thought McMaster was long-winded and pedantic, wait until he spends some time with a guy who likes to name-drop Edmund Burke. And Bolton will get a load of bad press, which Trump might enjoy for awhile because it stirs things up, but will quickly grow tired, especially when he’s flagged for pushing unpopular policies – like unnecessary war.
For reasons of both process and policy, Bolton’s tenure in the White House will not turn out any better than that of his two predecessors – for him, or for the country. In fact, it will almost certainly end up worse.