Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton.
(photo credit: REUTERS/JOSHUA ROBERTS)
John Bolton has returned.
Among many circles on the Right in the US, there was celebration as he was announced as the new national security adviser to replace H.R McMaster.
The former ambassador to the United Nations is part of the shakeup at the White House that includes replacing secretary of state Rex Tillerson with CIA Director Mike Pompeo.
The departure of Tillerson and McMaster has been rumored for months and Bolton’s appointment to some high-level position has been in the cards for more than a year among members of President Donald Trump’s circle. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise.
However, it is being greeted with the usual analysis that Bolton is a “hawkish warmonger.” The Guardian calls him a “foreign policy radical who backs war with Iran and North Korea.” According to CNN, he has promised Trump he won’t start any wars.
Bolton and Pompeo will round out an understaffed team in Washington. Over the last year, the administration has not selected ambassadors for many key allies in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, Egypt and Jordan.
They arrive just after the US fumbled on restraining Turkey’s offensive in Afrin. And it now appears the US has dropped charges against many of the Turkish security personnel who fought with protesters in Washington last year while accompanying President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on a visit.
For all the talk of hawkishness, the US has been a pushover.
Bolton has suggested bold policy proposals in the past. In 2015, he suggested creating a “Sunni state” in Iraq. He wants tougher action on Iran, regarding which the US administration has already paid lip service.
But the problem Bolton and Pompeo will face is that they are not masters of their domain. The Trump administration is always in chaos. Whether it is the Russia “collusion” investigation or the new scandal involving a porn star, the Trump White House is more like a reality TV show than a functioning policy initiative generator.
At the heart of any attempt to bring stability were McMaster and Chief of Staff John Kelly. There are constant rumors that Kelly might leave.
The largest hurdle for Bolton is that he is perceived as an enemy of much of the establishment in Washington. This includes foreign policy and intelligence circles that some in media have called a kind of “deep state.”
Bolton even referenced this internal opposition to Trump in a discussion with Fox News’ Lou Dobbs in December when he mentioned that there was a kind of “mini coup d’etat” in Washington.
Pompeo and Bolton have an ally in Kelly, who has sought to give the administration a rudder. Last year, a series of distractions departed from the White House, including Sebastian Gorka, Anthony Scaramucci, Hope Hicks, Omarosa Manigault-Newman, Steve Bannon and Rob Porter. The question is whether Kelly will remain amid the 2018 turnover.
Bolton and Pompeo seek to bring some kind of consistency to US foreign policy. They seem to agree on the threat of Iran and also the threat of Islamist extremism. Both of them have criticized Turkey’s actions in the past.
In 2016, Bolton said that Turkey was “moving away from the West” and from NATO. Bolton also warned in 2017 about Qatar’s “tilt toward Iran” and he has suggested the Muslim Brotherhood should be labeled a terrorist organization.
All of this talk is interesting, but if Bolton and the new team can’t bring some kind of consistency to US policy amid the chaos at home, it will just be talk. Any major initiatives they push will also risk being undone by a subsequent administration that will see them as tainted by association with Trump.