Of the questions surrounding the defenestration of John Bolton as President Donald Trump’s third national security adviser — Did he jump? Was he shoved? — the least interesting is the question of who will succeed him on the parapet.
It’s unlikely to matter much. Regardless of who has advised Trump on foreign affairs — generals and corporate tycoons, seasoned pros and amateurs — all have proved powerless before a zest for chaos that would have thwarted George Marshall.
Even when Trump has pursued worthy goals — trying to persuade North Korea’s dictator to give up his nuclear weapons, negotiating with the Taliban so American troops can leave Afghanistan — his mercurial, impatient, crisis-driven approach has often backfired, no matter who was advising him.
His naming of Bolton as national security adviser in March 2018 was itself an instance of Trumpian chaos. Trump wanted to pursue an end to hostilities in Korea and Afghanistan and proved wary of conflict in Iran and Venezuela. Yet he chose a proponent of belligerence who disdains diplomacy, supports allies-be-damned unilateralism and thinks bombing North Korea and Iran is the best way to neutralize their nuclear threat.
Bolton supported Trump’s worst instincts in leaving the deal that had constrained Iran’s nuclear program. Then the president balked at a planned airstrike in June to retaliate for Iran’s downing of an American drone. Trump has also expressed a willingness to meet with Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, a step that would be anathema to Bolton.
Trump has invested heavily in wooing Kim Jong Un, the autocratic North Korean leader, even stepping into North Korea with him from the Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas in the second of their two meetings.
Meanwhile, Bolton did his best to ensure America remained inflexible in demanding North Korea’s complete denuclearization, and even skipped the Trump-Kim DMZ meeting. No matter. North Korea’s nuclear activity has continued, and it recently launched short-range missiles, even as Trump continues to praise Kim.
In recent days, as talks between the administration and the Taliban over an American withdrawal from Afghanistan progressed, Bolton tried to keep Trump from agreeing to a peace deal.
The president appears to have been more annoyed than swayed by Bolton, though he did scuttle a plan to meet with the militants at Camp David, for reasons that remain unclear. Trump said the talks were now “dead.”
Unlike Bolton, whose abrasive personality prevented him from developing a close relationship with the president, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Bolton’s chief adversary in the administration, has shown a talent for pleasing Trump. Bolton and Pompeo rarely spoke to each other outside of formal meetings, a toxic situation for two leading advisers.
Yet Bolton’s departure seems unlikely to make the American national security apparatus any less dysfunctional, with many top positions vacant and allies confused about whom to deal with. Trump clearly likes things this way.
The White House may be in turmoil, alliances may be trembling and adversaries may be seeking advantage, but that all just amounts to more drama, more suspense, more television coverage — all of it with Donald Trump at the center.