Nothing about Donald Trump’s contentious Tuesday tweet-firing of National Security Advisor John Bolton was hugely surprising. Bolton, a prickle of a man notorious for his whiskery affect and grenade-lobbing neoconservatism, had long seen his influence fading in the White House, particularly after the latest rift opened between him and Trump insiders over the now-dead Afghanistan peace talks with the Taliban. He also seemed to want war with Iran the way some six-year-olds crave ice cream: now, later, and in endless amounts in between.
Bolton was hated across the political spectrum, so his unceremonious canning gave rare cause for universal celebration. Slate national security expert Fred Kaplan, who had responded to Bolton’s hiring by declaring that “It’s time to panic now,” beamed on Tuesday: “Trump makes a smart decision, for once.” “John Bolton has been one of the leading proponents of making the world a more dangerous place,” Democratic Representative Ilhan Omar tweeted. “Good riddance.” Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, the self-branded conservative war skeptic, commended Trump “for this necessary action. The President has great instincts on foreign policy and ending our endless wars. He should be served by those who share those views.” Paul immediately organized a call with reporters Tuesday “applauding” Bolton’s removal, shortly after telling another journalist that the firing meant “the chances of war worldwide go greatly down.” (Cue the next round of “Donald the Dove” takes, led by the Financial Times: “John Bolton’s firing ends Donald Trump’s hawkish phase.”)
Yes, Bolton tried to engineer a coup in Venezuela, and it blew up all over the administration. He tried to turn Trump against North Korea and was stymied by Kim Jong Un’s entreaties of Trump. He argued for scuttling the Iran nuclear deal, but Trump refused to give him a war and bungled the subsequent diplomatic wrangling. So isn’t this a victory for Americans in general, and skeptics of military action in particular? Can something that brings together Omar, Paul, and Tucker Carlson be bad?
The federal government is better without Bolton in much the same way you’re better off not smoking at a gas pump. But it’s dangerous to assume that governance by Trumpian diktat is much less war-prone and destructive without Bolton.
Contrary to the testimony of Rand Paul and Maureen Dowd, Trump is not a peacenik. If there’s a tidy binary distinction between Bolton and Trump, it isn’t between hawks and doves, but chickenhawks and chickenshits. Neoconservative chickenhawking was a taut, narrative-driven, overconfident belligerence aimed at creating a U.S.-led world order; Trumpian chickenshittery is incoherent, cowardly belligerence, calculated, if at all, to glorify the Don. The latter is every bit as hazardous to global security as the old Republican hawkishness: Both start by blowing up the global order and multilateral agreements, but Trumpism manifests as tough talk with absolutely no credibility, proffered by an easily distractible simpleton who backs down from every fight he’s ever instigated. Trump and his cabinet spent early summer making a case for open war with Iran; in mid-June, he approved an air strike before tweeting that he had decided against it, claiming it was due to projected civilian casualties. In May 2018, angered by the “hostility” of North Korean media statements, he canceled a planned summit with Kim Jong Un, a decision he rescinded the following day following a pleasant personal letter to Trump from the North Koreans.
Trump has threatened war with Russia, sanctions on Germany, and tariffs on Europe. He’s started a trade war with China; stopped sharing data on U.S. casualties and deployments and drone strike deaths overseas; and blamed his generals for the rare occasions when he’s sent special operations forces into danger. His understanding of American military might extends to complaining that new aircraft-carrier launching systems aren’t steam-operated anymore, as well as insisting (quite wrongly) that the stealthy F-35 is literally invisible to American enemies. Foreign states and militant groups by now thoroughly understand the president’s intellectual limitations and emotional needs; all it takes is one of these groups, in a highly tweetable crisis, to push Trump and his rhetoric into a place where he can’t back down from them.
In this atmosphere, who exactly replaces Bolton on the National Security Council? Trump in many respects got the national security advisor he wanted in 2017 in retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, a loon whose dirty tricks helped whip the Trump base and achieve little else, other than his own federal prosecution. His successor, H.R. McMaster, tried to normalize the Trump administration and failed miserably. After that, Bolton was probably the closest thing Trump could get to an establishmentarian at the National Security Council, one who at least knew how to contact the learned scholars and experts that his agenda ignored.
The next person will probably be a Trump stalwart, but which foreign policy experts still in his camp are cunning yet foolish enough to think they can do something with the position? The best-case scenario is another Mike Pompeo, a doctrinaire crusading conservative with a light resume and a very brown nose who has quietly expanded his State Department portfolio beyond its normal scope. But the names bandied about so far in Beltway divinations include retired Army Colonel Douglas Macgregor, a military intervention skeptic who last June took to Carlson’s prime time Fox News show to inveigh against the demographic replacement of whites in California—a poignant reminder that the next national security advisor could be a dove on Tehran and a hawk on the Texas border.
So be grateful John Bolton is gone, but no less afraid of the madman at the wheel.