Why John Bolton could not square the Trump circle
On the incompatible insanities of the president and his outgoing national security adviser
When President Trump chose John Bolton to be his national security adviser, my first reaction was: Of course he did. Bolton was exactly what Trump promised: not a prudential retreat from interventionism to focus on building American strength, but a nakedly assertive American nationalism that expected all other nations to recognize who was the boss.
Now Bolton is gone, and that is also exactly what Trump promised: to fire people who are not performing to his satisfaction. Trump "disagreed strongly with many of his suggestions" and so he asked for his resignation.
I don't actually doubt that that was the case. Bolton's suggestions, over the course of his career, have usually involved the unilateral application of American firepower with blithe disregard for the costs, while Trump, though little concerned with the human consequences of his actions, seems to have a gut-level awareness that starting another shooting war would not serve his electoral interests. Moreover, Trump flatters himself with the belief that he is a great dealmaker, while Bolton believes that no deal is always better than a bad deal and that pretty much all deals are bad deals. Neither of them could get from the other what they most wanted.
The proximate cause of Bolton's departure was reportedly the proposed meeting with the Taliban in Camp David. The meeting was called by Trump in the first place so he could overhype and take credit for negotiations that had been ongoing in secret without his involvement, then it was quickly scuttled, likely in part at Bolton's instigation. This farcical sequence has left Trump the unpleasant choices of returning to the table with his tail between his legs, walking away from the war with no deal at all, or staying in Afghanistan indefinitely to no purpose.
Which is a fair description of the poor options available to Trump across the board. Trump's opposites around the world by now have his number and know the weakness of his position, both politically at home and on the ground abroad. Trump would badly like a deal with North Korea, but Pyongyang has offered him little if anything of value. Why would they? Pressure may well bring Iran to the table again, as it did in Obama's second term, but at the table we'll be negotiating, and if Trump really wants a deal he'll likely wind up giving away about as much as Obama did, rendering the bluster of the last three years a complete waste. The trade war with China is going badly for all concerned, but Trump's accountability moment is coming a lot sooner than Xi Jinping's is.
A new national security adviser cannot help with these problems. The national security adviser's job is to manage the foreign policy process, coordinating among the various departments and organizing the flow of information to the president so that he can make sensible choices from among alternatives. John Bolton did not do that job; he was an advocate for his own views first and foremost, as he has always been. But it's not clear that anyone can do that job for Trump, since the president doesn't want to choose between soberly-presented alternatives, but to preside over a victory parade. Victory is not in the cards, so the main question is whether we'll get the parade with or without a face-saving deal to celebrate.
Meanwhile, Bolton's own dispensation, while currently out of favor, will not be as easily banished from American life. If America's position deteriorates further during a Biden or Warren administration, there will be no shortage of highly credentialed talking heads ready to claim that if only we'd been tougher, more uncompromising, less squeamish, if we'd unleashed the full might of our arsenal of democracy, then we'd surely have won by now. And there will definitely be a candidate ready to run under that banner.
Our best hope for avoiding that eventuality might well be for Trump to walk away from a few of America's aging battlefields in a huff, take our marbles and go home with nothing, while he still has 90 percent popularity with his own party. That, at least, is something he can do all on his own.
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