President Donald Trump had just said he did not want to go to war with Iran. Yet there was National Security Adviser John Bolton on Wednesday, ratcheting up his campaign against Iran during a trip to the United Arab Emirates.
It seemed to be a classic case of cognitive dissonance — or perhaps a tug of war — over what could culminate in a real war in the tinderbox that is the Middle East.
Trump’s third national security adviser (not counting an interim appointment), Bolton has in many ways put himself on public display in a way his predecessors did not, apparently unafraid to contradict the president on overseas trips and on Sunday news shows. In fact, Bolton’s face is so ubiquitous that he is known by his bushy moustache.
But foreign-policy experts who have worked in previous administrations — for presidents of both parties — question whether Bolton is trying to undermine the president he is supposed to serve.
Toeing a hawkish line on Iran, at times in concert with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Bolton seems to all but court the possibility of conflict. A recent New Yorker profile noted that he had a framed copy of Trump’s executive order pulling the U.S. out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal hanging in his office — one to which the door is always closed.
He’s been advocating bombing Iran for years, and is a vocal supporter of the Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK), a fringe group that the State Department considered a Foreign Terrorist organization until 2012 and that Iran and Iraq still do. Eight months before he became national security adviser, Bolton wrote a five-part plan to get Iran under control, including the delivery of bunker-busting bombs.
This month, the U.S. sent a carrier strike group and bombers to the Persian Gulf, citing undisclosed reports of a heightened threat from Iranian-backed proxies in Iraq. The move has raised concerns that a minor incident could spiral into a larger conflict with Iran.
The president has reportedly tried to get his national security adviser to cool it on the war talk. On Monday, Trump asked Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to facilitate a summit between the United States and Iran, according to Japanese broadcaster FNN. (The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman responded by saying the country currently sees “no prospect of negotiations with America.”)
But it’s not just Iran. Bolton has contradicted the president on whether ISIS has been defeated and whether recent North Korean missile tests violated U.N. resolutions. Bolton is also far more of a hardliner on North Korea (supporting sanctions the president ultimately withheld) and on what U.S. policy should be in Venezuela.
Is this, well, normal?
Few people have the kind of experience Richard Clarke has. He has served in various capacities — including on the National Security Council — in the administrations of four presidents, from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush. He told ThinkProgress that what is unfolding between Trump and Bolton is “certainly not normal,” beginning with how Bolton goes about doing his job.
For starters, Clarke said, Bolton is something of a lone operator, eschewing a critical system of advice and input that helped guide his predecessors.
“Most national security advisers in the last 30 years have tried to use the interagency structure and system…I gather that Bolton doesn’t value that process,” said Clarke.
There are three levels on the National Security Council: the committee of the principles, chaired by the national security adviser; the deputies’ committee, chaired by the deputy national security adviser and can be attended by undersecretaries from various departments, including State, Treasury and Defense; and a range of other working groups chaired by senior NSC staff. Issues are supposed to be run through every level, discussed, and sifted before decisions are made.
“Bolton doesn’t seem to do that,” said Clarke. That choice, he added, is “potentially dangerous.”
“It represents a sort of hubris, a sort of arrogance, a sort of, ‘I already know the answer, I’ve already done the analysis, I don’t need to go through the process, I don’t need to hear what the agencies have to contribute to this,’” said Clarke. Experts, he said, would protect Bolton from being blindsided.
Impatience is a hallmark of the Trump presidency, and Bolton is no exception. The thing to keep in mind is that he serves a president who, Clarke said, has been “frustrated on a range of issues because …things were going slowly.”
“Bolton is very good at yelling at bureaucrats…pushing people, threatening them…Whether or not he really means it is hard to know,” said Clarke.
In addition to a national security adviser’s relationship with the president, the relationships of others also play an important role in how things work (or don’t).
Former President George H.W. Bush had a very close relationship with his secretary of state, James Baker. The two had a direct line to each other that often cut National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft (seen as the consummate model of the honest broker) from key conversations, said Clarke. In the Clinton administration, the secretaries of defense and state did not have that kind of access to the Oval Office.
“President Trump, by most accounts, picked John Bolton because he liked the sound of him on TV, and he wanted that guy working for him.”
“They’d have to arrange a meeting through the national security adviser, so Sandy Berger or Tony Lake — they were like the traffic cop, or the filter,” said Clarke. Similarly, he said, George W. Bush’s vice president, Dick Cheney, in the administration’s first term restricted the president’s access to Condoleezza Rice, who served as his national security adviser and then as his secretary of state.
But in many administrations, a national security adviser is the last person to speak to the president before he finalizes a decision — and has the ability to either present slanted information or to be an honest broker and present a full range of options.
“I don’t know if John Bolton is doing that or not,” said Clarke. He added that he doubts Bolton would actually want to bomb Iran or North Korea despite what he said before taking office.
Nevertheless, Clarke said, “There’s no doubt that John [Bolton] would pull triggers sooner than most people. I think that’s a fair statement.”
Bringing ‘extreme ideas’ to the job
Ned Price, who served in the CIA from 2006 to 2017 and was a NSC spokesman in the Obama administration, told ThinkProgress that the most effective national security adviser plays “a singular role, and that’s the role of honest broker — someone who can convene the cabinet-level representatives of the administration…literally put them around the table and force a consensus on policy and then present that path to the president.”
Price, who is now director of policy and communications at National Security Action, a progressive non-profit focusing on American global leadership, said simply: “Bolton is different.”
“He is exceptional in that he has not chosen to play that role. He doesn’t even pretend to play that role — the role he appears to play is that of forceful ideologue.” While other national security advisers have also had a point of view, Bolton, he said, stands out.
“He’s someone who comes to the job with stringent and extreme ideas of his own. And it seems has essentially dissolved the procedural mechanisms in favor of allowing his preferred route — in this case, escalation with Iran, to win the day,” said Price.
Former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, who stepped down in April 2018, would hold meetings with heads of multiple, agencies, said Price, and present what he learned to Trump. The president reportedly was not too keen to hear what he had to say, chafing at the retired general’s “serious” style.
Bolton isn’t like that. One former Republican White House official described him as having “nearly zero capacity for small alk,” and not “the greatest social graces, to ease conversations, because he has strong views.”
In Bolton, Trump has an ally. And that counts for a lot.
Price worked with Susan Rice, who was national security adviser under former President Barack Obama. Rice was “very much on the same wavelength as the president, and usually had a good sense of where the president would be on any given issue,” Price said. “And if she needed to speak to him, she could make the 25-second walk from her office to the Oval Office.” This proximity is also key for Bolton.
Michael Singh, director for Middle East affairs at the NSC during the George W. Bush administration, said the national security adviser also tends to be a bridge between the Oval Office and the rest of the executive branch.
Asked whether he saw Bolton creating a coherent, unified policy, Singh declined to speculate, but said, “I can tell you that often times the way things look on the outside is different from how they look on the inside.”
He added that tensions among agencies is “a natural feature of our system.”
Just how well things are working remains to be seen.
“Either we have to wait for the historical record, or those who were part of the process may have something to say about it,” said Singh, who is now managing director at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a conservative think tank focusing on Near East countries.
Presidents pick the people that they want — and sometimes, that takes a while.
In the earliest days of his presidency, Trump surrounded himself with retired generals (as other presidents have done), but it seems that did not work for him and, one by one, they were gone: McMaster stepped down in 13 months ago; James Mattis resigned as secretary of defense in December; and John Kelly, the White House chief of staff, followed suit in January. (Another former general, Michael Flynn, was forced to resign in scandal after less than a month as national security adviser).
“I don’t know that I trust the press on the question of these relations between Bolton and Trump… How often does the press trust anything that Donald Trump says?”
James Steinberg, who was deputy national security adviser under Clinton, said Trump was looking for someone who understood the role as that of a staffer rather than a driver of policy. (The national security adviser’s position is that of a high-level staffer, as it is neither a cabinet position nor dependent on Senate confirmation).
“Trump wanted somebody who understood that they worked for him, someone who didn’t see themselves as a peer,” said Steinberg, now a professor or international affairs and law at Syracuse University. And that’s what he got in Bolton.
Yet the national security adviser is someone who “complements the president perfectly…someone the president is comfortable with, someone the president trusts,” Steinberg said.
For example, Clinton, Steinberg said, allowed Berger, who he had known for 30 years, to be “blunt and direct.”
Bolton, he said, is “there for other purposes”: helping Trump “deal with the conservative forces within his party” and with his “America First” agenda. heir mutual disdain for international institutions makes them a good match.
Knowing the answer before asking the question
Bolton is “the antithesis” of what a national security adviser should be, said I.M. Destler, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy and co-author of In the Shadow of the Oval Office, a book on the role of national security advisers.
“He’s one of these people who knows the answer before he gets to the question. He’s very opinionated… He’s very skeptical of any kind of alliance and cooperation, arms control, etc., [and] sees international relations as a zero-sum game,” said Destler.
“At the same time, he’s a very skilled bureaucrat. He knows how the system works and how to influence it, so in my opinion, he’s dangerous,” he added.
A man with such target-fixation could be the wrong one for the job, especially when his views, as Destler put it, are “outside the mainstream national security establishment, and there’s no evidence that he wants to be more constrained than he needs to be.”
Bolton, who is an interventionist, observed Destler, has had to “step aside” on North Korea, supporting the president’s diplomatic efforts. It remains to be seen if he will do the same on Iran.
Not everyone believes that Bolton actually is as powerful as he may appear.
One former Republican White House senior official who also served on the NSCl, said he is skeptical that there is any daylight between Trump and Bolton.
“I don’t know that I trust the press on the question of these relations between Bolton and Trump… How often does the press trust anything that Donald Trump says?” asked the source, who did not wish to be named.
He described Bolton as “a consummate professional,” and said stories suggesting that he is manipulating the president are ridiculous.”
“The Trump methodology is not particularly opaque — he likes to present an unclear picture to his adversaries in order to get them to negotiate in terms favorable to himself. It’s useful to him to have the pit bull John Bolton next to him on a leash while he’s talking,” said the source.
Buck stops with the president
All the former officials who spoke to ThinkProgress agree on this: At the end of the day, it won’t matter whether or not Bolton is trying to spin Trump unless the president goes along with him.
And in selecting Bolton, Trump knew exactly what he was getting.
“President Trump, by most accounts, picked John Bolton because he liked the sound of him on TV, and he wanted that guy working for him,” said Price, the former NSC spokesman. “The problem, however, is that John Bolton has extreme world views and has filled the ranks of the National Security Council with people who share those views. [Secretary of State] Mike Pompeo is the same way.”
“The president is ultimately in charge…and chances are, they are going to want a national security adviser and an interagency process that suits their needs and the way that they want things to be run,” said Singh.
The former Republican White House official who declined to be named said he had worked with Bolton and found that “many, many times [Bolton] lost out in the debate, but he knows how the game is played, and he knows that the president makes the call in the end.”
Like Bolton, the president prefers to set policies without running them through the traditional processes. And that could explain the random paths he often takes.
“He does not have a clue how the machinery works,” said Clarke of Trump. “He doesn’t have a clue about how diplomacy works, about how national security works. He knows the end-state that he wants to get to, but he has no idea of how to get from where you are to where you want to be.”
Steinberg is convinced that Trump “doesn’t listen to anybody all…It really doesn’t make much difference who the national security adviser is.”
“I don’t worry about Bolton at all — I worry about the president,” he added. “Bolton’s not our problem. Trump’s our problem.”