Can Bolton Actually Deliver an America First National Security Policy?

In his first week as National Security Advisor, John Bolton has walked into the first of what will be countless crises over the course of his tenure: whether to strike Syria in retaliation for Assad’s latest chemical weapons attacks on his own citizens? But it will likely be several weeks or even months before we find out if he can fully execute the president’s foreign policy vision, a feat that eluded his predecessors. His ability to achieve this monumental task will largely depend on two factors: people and process. These factors — whether he can build a foreign policy team to execute his vision and whether he can bend the bureaucratic process to his desired outcomes — will, perhaps more than anything else he does in the job, determine if we stay or leave in Syria and Afghanistan, launch broad cyber attacks, or render useless the international institutions the Trump administration has already begun to undermine.

Over the course of his 15 months in office, President Trump has delivered on many of his top campaign promises — environmental policy, taxes, immigration, deregulation, trade, and “religious freedom.” Yet in the foreign policy realm, despite some of the substantial early damage he has inflicted — on trade policy, to some of our alliances, with his nuclear brinksmanship — he has fallen short of the most extreme promises he made on the campaign trail. The basic international order remains, for now, intact: we have not waged preventive war against nuclear powers, our military has not engaged in the war crimes he promised on the campaign trail, his first National Security Strategy was shockingly mainstream. In diagnosing why things haven’t been as bad as they could have been, most commentators have pointed to the so-called “committee to save America,” comprising the “adults” in Trump’s national security cabinet – ex-National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and at times, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly — who have often intervened to prevent the president from taking the more extreme actions he would prefer, deny him aggressive options, or smooth over international relations in the wake of his more regrettable international actions. With two of these four men gone and a third in a precarious situation, things are about to change.

In contrast to his successful approach to deregulation, Trump’s foreign policy has been characterized by inconsistency and missed opportunities. Most of Trump’s foreign policy cabinet officials were relatively mainstream picks who did not share his America First vision. They received high praise from many of the GOP foreign policy experts who otherwise stridently denounced President Trump’s foreign policy proposals. His senior leaders are mostly supported by a pickup team of midlevel officials — a motley crew of retired military officers, policy hardliners, political hacks, and unproven outsiders — most of whom had not worked together before. Secretary Mattis is supported by a generally competent team and McMaster made some good hires, but the administration lacks the first rate regional specialists and strategists that fill most administrations. Dozens of key posts remain unfilled, and it’s unclear whether the vacancies signal the administration’s intent to starve parts of the government or its dysfunction. A poorly managed, denigrated, and demoralized civil service fulfills the basic functions of government and not much more. And a haphazard policy process has produced a confusing swirl of policy decisions, each seemingly made by the president or his top officials only to be promptly contradicted by the other.

Into this chaos steps John Bolton, and by early accounts, one of his top priorities is building his new team. As one of the most important advisors on the president’s personnel decisions and, by virtue of his position, a de facto dean of the Republican party’s foreign policy establishment, he will have substantial latitude to shape the intellectual capital of the administration’s foreign policy thinking. At first blush, John Bolton appears well-qualified to fill this role, given his 30-plus years of national security experience, across multiple parts of government and at one of Washington’s top think tanks. Yet by most accounts, Bolton has never developed a strong cadre of protégés. He is a prolific writer but rarely coauthors. His appointment was met by silence or at best, tepid praise from his former foreign policy colleagues, who cited his mastery of bureaucratic process and decisiveness but hardly lauded his strategic vision. He will also have limited access to top flight national security talent. The scores of top GOP national security veterans who signed “Never Trump” letters effectively disqualified themselves from service in this administration. Those who have attempted reconciliation have thus far been blackballed from administration posts. A highly dysfunctional Presidential Personnel Office, which recruits and vets presidential appointees, has further slowed the administration’s appointments. Further, Bolton’s reputation as a bully, willing to disparage, threaten and even throw objects at those with whom he disagrees will likely make it difficult for him to field and lead a capable team of first-rate professionals.

The Bolton network will likely instead be characterized by hardline views and mediocrity. It’s possible that he could bring along some of his more respected foreign policy colleagues at the American Enterprise Institute — displacing some of the dominant influence that the generally more conservative Heritage Foundation has had on this administration — but for reasons cited above, it’s unlikely that he will be able to successfully reconcile with the GOP foreign policy mainstream. The political appointees he brings in will likely include more hardliners, ambitious but inexperienced wonks who are willing to make personal compromises in exchange for career opportunities, and pundits with strong views but no practical governing experience. Further purges of the NSC career staff are likely until Bolton feels he has successfully rid the place of the kinds of career bureaucrats he has previously derided as the High Minded, True Believers, Weak-Kneed, and Mattress Mice. The pejorative “Obama Holdover” may well be a compliment by comparison. Beyond the NSC, his influence will be felt in his work with Secretary of State nominee Mike Pompeo to staff the State Department. In addition to ensuring Pompeo is surrounded by similar hardliners and filling ambassadorships that have been empty for far too long, a big question will be what the two men decide to do with the offices at State that Tillerson and Trump have neglected. Will they fill offices like the Bureaus of Populations, Refugees, and Migration (PRM) and Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL) with people like Bolton, eager to remake these rebel provinces into offices aligned with their worldview or will they continue the current policy of strategic starvation? Either way, look for the Trump foreign policy team to be remade in Bolton’s likeness, for he knows that personnel is policy, and with only a skeleton team in place, there is a lot of room to make policy.

Amid the pitched debates over Bolton’s ascendancy, his supporters and detractors seem to agree on one thing: Bolton is a bureaucratic master. A lawyer by training, he is by most accounts committed to rigorous process, cobbling together bureaucratic and diplomatic solutions to complex problems, and driving toward clear decisions. Yet the picture that emerges from his memoir, third party accounts of his government service, and his cable TV appearances is not exactly one of a dispassionate arbiter of competing viewpoints seeking to present the president with a balanced set of options. His style is dogged. He contests every point, he demands citations and questions the underlying factual basis for any arguments he disagrees with. In one account of his time in government, he allegedly threatened an intelligence briefer with termination for not presenting a case consistent with his policy positions. He has argued that President Obama politicized the U.S. Intelligence Community, and he has questioned, without access to the underlying reporting, the Intelligence Community’s assessment that Russia was responsible for the 2016 hacks on the Democratic National Committee. With this track record, it’s not hard to imagine Bolton running a rigorous process but also spinning the inputs — the intelligence reports, the policy analysis, the diplomatic and military options presented — so that the process produces his preferred outcomes.

Of course, much depends on how the other senior officials in the NSC process play the game, but it’s not hard to speculate how some recent decisions might have gone under Bolton. Consider the recent debate over continued U.S. military presence in Syria. According to news accounts, the president was presented with multiple options for leaving troops in place but only a one-page account of the downsides of pulling out, his preferred option. A National Security Advisor steadfastly dedicated to providing his boss with his preferred course of action would have structured the options differently. One can imagine Bolton pushing the Pentagon and policy development process to produce a wider range of options, questioning the underlying assumptions, and ultimately countering the Pentagon’s attempt to force the president’s hand on troop deployments. McMaster, both as a relative neophyte in the Washington interagency process and as an active-duty three-star general junior to Mattis, a former four-star general, could not run that kind of process. Similarly, news reports suggest that the Pentagon is producing non-viable options for military action against North Korea in an attempt to stall while diplomatic efforts play out. Bolton’s forceful personality and command of process could well get the Pentagon to cough up more aggressive options.

In other areas, such as the president’s drone policy, the Trump administration has reportedly retained some of the elevated standards associated with Obama’s policies but, streamlined bureaucratic process surrounding drone strikes. The president, who spoke of “taking out” the families of terrorists while on the campaign trail, has reportedly questioned more recently why operators don’t target terrorists while they’re with their families. For his part, Bolton has previously spoken approvingly of Obama’s use of drones but blasted as “defeatist” his 2013 reforms intended to make the program more discriminate, precise, and transparent. With a clear steer from his boss for a different approach, one could imagine him dismantling the codified standards and policy process guiding the Administration’s drone policies, both as part of his history of insisting that counterterrorism be viewed almost exclusively through a war lens and as a direct confrontation of some of the more restrictive international law and norms considerations that shaped Obama’s counterterrorism framework.

But ultimately, our first indication of how Bolton will shape the foreign policy decision-making process in the months to come may emerge from this week’s Syria crisis. President Trump’s tweets this morning notwithstanding, his statement’s earlier this week that “major decisions” on Syria were due in the next 24-48 hours and his highly publicized meeting with his national security team, coupled with reports that there are multiple military options, that the United States is coordinating with France, and that military actions would be paired with diplomatic actions, perhaps targeting Russia, suggest a more robust and deliberate process. But the contours of the final policy will tell us how Bolton might move the system toward his preferred outcomes. Will the United States lean on multilateral institutions, such as the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) or will it rely on a patchwork of bilateral partnerships, as Bolton has long preferred? (Bolton maligned and personally threatened the OPCW chief in the run-up to the Iraq war and successfully organized his removal.) Will military strikes be limited in scope, as they were last year, or a more aggressive set of actions indicating a ratcheting up of pressure against Iranian influence in Syria and the region, as Bolton has advocated?

Trump’s new foreign policy starts this week and time will tell if Bolton can deliver a hardline and America First national security policy that has so far eluded him.

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images 

About the Author(s)

Luke Hartig

Fellow - International Security Program at New America, Executive Director of National Journal's Network Science Initiative, Former Senior Director for Counterterrorism at the National Security Council, Former Deputy Director for Counterterrorism Operations in the Office of the Secretary of Defense Follow him on Twitter (@LukeHartig).