March 26, 2018 / 6:32 AM / 8 months ago

Commentary: With Bolton, Trump shakes off generals’ restraints

In appointing John Bolton his new national security adviser, U.S. President Donald Trump could hardly have done more to alarm and antagonize his critics or please his political base.

John Bolton, pictured here visiting Trump Tower in New York, is Donald Trump's new national security adviser REUTERS/Mike Segar

The midterm elections in November might explain some of the political rationale for the move. But along with the firing last week of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in favor of CIA chief Mike Pompeo, it will also dramatically shift the decision-making dynamic around the president. Trump has clearly become frustrated with senior figures around him telling him what he cannot do – and is replacing them with those more likely to support him in following his instincts.

These appointments are hardly random. By bringing Bolton into the White House, Trump will gain an ally who has built a career on being almost as idiosyncratic and iconoclastic as him. The former George W. Bush-era ambassador to the United Nations shares Trump’s contempt for the Iran nuclear deal and multilateral diplomacy – and has argued forcefully for years that the United States should be much more willing to use military force against its foes.

This could mark a new phase for the administration. The same day that Trump tweeted out the removal of National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster also brought the resignation of Trump’s lead lawyer, John Dowd, who had disagreed with the president on how to respond to the special counsel investigation into Russia’s role in the U.S. presidential election.

Trump’s removal of H.R. McMaster and mounting speculation that Chief of Staff John Kelly is also on his way out may mark the end of the seven-month dominance of a trio of generals. Along with Secretary of Defense James Mattis, the three had been seen as the most powerful moderating influence on the president.

According to other reports, Trump is also considering abolishing the chief of staff role altogether to replace it with four competing positions – or even, by some accounts, asking why he can’t just do it himself. That would quite deliberately make the administration more unpredictable, shaping the news agenda just as prosecutor Robert Mueller’s Russia probe threatens to steal the headlines.

In some respects, McMaster, Tillerson and Kelly were hired to bring gravitas and credibility to a controversial new administration. Their replacements, however, may owe their positions much more to saying what Trump wants to hear – and be expected to fight for his patronage.

One of the stranger dynamics of the Trump presidency has been the divide between the views and messaging of senior officials and that of POTUS himself, particularly on Twitter. With Bolton, a loud voice on Fox News, Trump is bringing one of the commentators who reached him through his hefty cable TV habit into the West Wing itself. That doesn’t mean, however, that Trump will necessarily heed Bolton’s advice. While the national security adviser position enjoys prestige and access, its influence is heavily dependent on who occupies the Oval Office.

Trump is clearly much less of an ideologue than the unashamedly neoconservative Bolton. It’s probably too early – and over simplistic – to talk of the development of a “Trump doctrine.” But the broader principles by which the president wishes to run the rest of his first term are emerging. It’s an isolationist, protectionist platform within which he clearly craves the freedom to use all the levers of U.S. power and influence – including the military – as and when he wishes.

That’s been particularly obvious on trade, where Trump’s plans to impose tariffs on steel and aluminum imports raised the risk of a trade war with China and prompted the resignation of top economic adviser Gary Cohn earlier this month.

Unlike Bolton and the Bush administration, Trump has famously little appetite for troop-heavy regime change and “nation building.” But the two may find a shared enthusiasm for more limited pre-emptive strikes, covert action and a much more nakedly aggressive use of American economic, diplomatic and military power.

That may be where the true unpredictability comes in. It’s unlikely Bolton will try to dissuade the president from his planned meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un – Trump has committed himself too strongly to that via social media and other statements to pull back on it.

Still, if the meetings do not go as the president wishes – whatever that might mean – the likelihood would be that Bolton would be one of the strongest voices for a military response, just as he was with Iraq.

Washington believes it needs Beijing on board if it is to have any hope of persuading Pyongyang to listen to its demands. But if those talks fall apart later this year, it may be wider U.S.-China relations – already damaged by the trade war– that become yet another casualty.

National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster was fired by President Donald Trump on March 22, 2018. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

Relations with Vladimir Putin’s Russia are even harder to forecast. Neoconservatives like Bolton have always held the Russian leader in a mix of awe, admiration and Cold War-era suspicion. As with North Korea, there will clearly be those who believe a grand bargain can be struck.

Again, however, that’s not a foregone conclusion – any new dispute might now escalate much faster than with more cautious voices in the room.

The Trump presidency has unquestionably taken a turn for the hawkish. But even more importantly, it may become a more exaggerated and hot-headed version of itself. Fifteen years after the invasion of Iraq, that may set the stage for more drastic miscalculations to come.

About the Author

Peter Apps is Reuters global affairs columnist, writing on international affairs, globalization, conflict and other issues. He is founder and executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century; PS21, a non-national, non-partisan, non-ideological think tank in London, New York and Washington. Before that, he spent 12 years as a reporter for Reuters covering defense, political risk and emerging markets. Since 2016, he has been a member of the British Army Reserve and the UK Labour Party. @pete_apps

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.

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