John Bolton is out as President Trump’s national security adviser. The president tweeted Tuesday morning that “I informed John Bolton last night that his services are no longer needed at the White House. I disagreed strongly with many of his suggestions, as did others in the Administration, and therefore I asked John for his resignation, which was given to me this morning.” Bolton had a different take on what happened, claiming that he had offered his resignation Monday night on his own initiative and decided to go ahead with his resignation on Tuesday morning.
In any case, the parting of the ways has been a long time coming. Bolton is an unabashed hawk, willing to beat the drums of war to bring about regime change. President Trump, who has long criticized the Iraq war championed by Bolton, prefers using strong economic pressure as a weapon to move adversaries towards making meaningful concessions in negotiations. Differences between President Trump and Bolton steadily increased during Bolton’s roughly 18-month tenure. The president has been willing to negotiate with Iran and North Korea over their nuclear programs, for example, while maintaining tough economic sanctions to exert “maximum” pressure without having to go to war. Bolton was more inclined to risk military confrontation to achieve his own more far-reaching objective of regime change. The president has focused on a favorable outcome in trade negotiations with China, using tariffs as his stick, while Bolton reportedly would have been willing to use military pressure to bring China into line.
The national security adviser’s job is in the title – to advise the president in making foreign policy decisions with national security implications. He or she presents information and options, and coordinates with impacted government departments. The national security adviser neither implements — nor is the public face of — the president’s foreign policy. That is the job of the Secretary of State, something Bolton may have forgotten at times as he crossed paths with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on multiple issues. Ultimately, Bolton lost the confidence of President Trump and had to go.
Back in April 2018, shortly after Bolton assumed his post, the South China Morning Post noted that “while Bolton is seen as a military hawk,” President Trump “is believed to oppose the idea of hostilities with another nation. Those opposing views would tend to set the stage for a potentially contentious relationship between Bolton and Trump on certain US foreign policy and security matters.” The prediction came to pass. President Trump sent a signal of his concern last May when he said that Bolton wanted to get him “into a war,” according to the Washington Post, referring to the efforts to oust Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro.
On another occasion, as Bolton was making belligerent statements about escalating military pressure on Iran, President Trump said, “I actually temper John.” Earlier this summer, President Trump said during a Meet the Press interview that “John Bolton is absolutely a hawk. If it was up to him he’d take on the whole world at one time, okay?” At that time, however, the president downplayed Bolton’s hawkishness “because I want both sides.” Now the president no longer wants to hear Bolton’s side, at least as presented by Bolton himself.
The contentious relationship finally resulted in Tuesday’s complete rupture. The last straw may have been differences over President Trump’s decision to invite the Taliban to Camp David to conclude a peace agreement leading to the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. One official was quoted as saying that Afghanistan “broke open the bottom of the bag.” Bolton disagreed with President Trump’s initiative to open peace talks with the Taliban, let alone to invite them to Camp David. Secretary Pompeo supported the president’s decision. The invitation was ultimately withdrawn because of the Taliban’s suicide attack last week that took the life of an American serviceman, and President Trump declared the talks with the Taliban to be “dead.” But as the president has shown in the past, he will reverse himself and renew negotiations if he feels the time is right. Secretary Pompeo held the door open for just such a possibility of resumed talks. With Bolton expressing his firm opposition to any talks with the Taliban under any circumstances, his fate was sealed. No doubt after enough complaints by Secretary Pompeo, President Trump decided it was time for Bolton to go.
Whatever criticism Bolton might deserve for his aggressiveness, he is right about the Taliban. The president could have begun to withdraw troops in stages without engaging with the Taliban and agreeing to any fixed timetable acceptable to the Taliban. Any “assurances” the Taliban offered that they would cut ties with outside terrorist organizations such as al Qaida were complete lies. They hold a pen with which to sign a phony agreement in one hand while killing innocent civilians and American soldiers with the other.
Sirajuddin Haqqani is the deputy leader under the Taliban supreme commander, Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada, and is closely associated with al Qaida. According to the UN ISIL (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and Taliban Monitoring Team, quoted in a blog post by a former strategic adviser to the commander of International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan,
There is no evidence that the Taliban have broken or will in future break their intrinsic relationship with the Haqqani Network and Al-Qaida. Recent reporting would suggest that these connections are actually stronger than at any time in the past 18 years. Calculations over withdrawal from Afghanistan should take account of the risk of undermining prospects for a durable peace by empowering and emboldening these groups.
On the one hand, Bolton’s preference for accomplishing regime change through military force arguably could have mired the U.S. in more open-ended wars with dangerous unintended consequences. At the same time, Bolton was not wrong to be skeptical about papering over fundamental differences with our arch enemies in agreements that they have no intention to honor.
The president, naturally, has every right to dismiss the messenger conveying such skepticism, but the message itself should not be disregarded.