Overnight we’ve seen yet another departure from US President Donald Trump’s fantastically porous cabinet: national security adviser, war enthusiast and animated Mark Twain wax figure John Bolton has been fired… or quit (Trump has said he asked for Bolton’s resignation, while Bolton contends he offered the resignation himself). Whatever the case, we’re set for a fourth person to fill the national security adviser role in three years.
Of course the combination of the hawk Bolton and the isolationist Trump was always an odd fit.
Dr Gorana Grgic, lecturer at the department of government and international relations at the United States Studies Centre told Crikey that Bolton’s departure was no surprise.
“If you look at the definition of what a national security adviser is, it’s supposed to be someone who moderates a number of departments, an ‘honest broker’ who advises the president relatively impartially,” she said. “And that’s not what Bolton was doing. He was coming at the role with a very specific ideology, and one that clashed with Trump’s approach.
“Trump likes the optics of being the guy who could get in the room and make the deal no one else could. But it helped that he could point to someone like Bolton and say ‘well, look what will happen if you don’t yield’.”
“For a time it suited Trump to have Bolton there making threats, which meant Trump could be the good cop and Bolton would be the bad cop,” said Clinton Fernandes, professor of international and political studies at the University of New South Wales. “But I don’t think Bolton saw it that way, I think he really thought he could have a big influence on foreign policy.”
The fallout from news of Trump’s aborted plan to negotiate with the Taliban at Camp David appears to have been the final straw for that relationship.
Fernandes said that whatever the concerns about his style and rhetoric, Trump does have a serious strategy in foreign policy: “It’s actually one we teach at my university, the idea of ‘offshore balancing’; trying to withdraw from this vast occupied periphery and forming coalitions of allies in key regions, holding back and selectively intervening. It’s the strategy the US had between the end of the second world war and the invasion of Iraq.”
Neither Grgic nor Fernandes believe that Bolton’s departure would lead to a huge change in America’s approach to Iran. Indeed, for all Trump’s “fire and fury” and “get ready for missiles” rhetoric, he’s largely stuck to his pre-election isolationism.
“Trump has been the exact opposite of Teddy Roosevelt. You know, ‘talking softly and carrying a big stick’,” said Grgic. “His approach has been vice versa; he loves military symbolism and ramping up spending in that area, but he’s actually been very reluctant in conducting military action.”
Grgic pointed to the recent shooting-down of a drone over the Strait of Hormuz as an example.
“Bolton was very much agitating for a strong direct response, but Trump didn’t want that.”
Fernandes said the dissonance between rhetoric and action is part of Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign.
“It’s in Trump’s interest to keep the tensions with Iran high, to keep the threat of war ever present, so he can be a ‘war time’, tough-talking president. But he certainly doesn’t actually want a war.”
Grgic said that with Bolton gone, rumours were already circulating that Trump is soon to meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
She also noted a potentially worrying possibility, now that a public malcontent like Bolton is gone.
“The first few years were really Trump vs the GOP establishment. If you look at his first few national security advisers, people like H R McMaster were really establishment Republican figures and then you had Bolton, who really represented the neoconservatives in the party,” she said.
“Now he’s gone, we’re really likely to see how a cabinet of Trump loyalists behaves.”