John Bolton’s firing ends Donald Trump’s hawkish phase
A few months ago Donald Trump hosted Leo Varadkar, Ireland’s prime minister, in the Oval Office. Gesturing to his mustachioed national security adviser, the US president said: “John, is Ireland one of those countries you want to invade?” The resulting laughter was apparently strained. John Bolton’s firing — or resignation, depending on whom you believe — removes the most hawkish voice from Mr Trump’s administration. It also paves the way for the president to open talks with the Iranians, which he has long wanted and Mr Bolton has fiercely resisted. It would not be a wild exaggeration to say that prospects for world peace rose markedly on Tuesday. “If it was up to John, we’d be in four wars now,” Mr Trump was fond of quipping to aides.
Mr Bolton’s removal leaves Mr Trump unencumbered to pursue his improbable deals without internal reproach. This would likely include a fresh effort at talks with Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s dictator, whom Mr Trump last met in June on the 38th parallel at Panmunjom. Tellingly, Mr Bolton was on a side trip to Ulaanbaatar, capital of Mongolia, and had not been informed. It also means Mr Trump can push ahead with his ill-disguised hopes of meeting Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s president, who is due to be in New York later this month at the annual UN General Assembly. The only check on that would be from the Iranian side. Again, tellingly, just two hours before Mr Trump announced his firing, Mr Bolton tweeted a warning about Iran. “Now that we’re two weeks from #UNGA, you can be sure Iran is working overtime on deception,” he wrote. Mr Bolton’s exit also sharply reduces the chances of Mr Trump being pushed to launch a war of choice to remove Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela’s strongman.
But it was Mr Bolton’s objections to Mr Trump’s plans to invite the Taliban to Camp David to sign an Afghanistan peace deal that apparently was the final straw. Last weekend Mr Trump announced on Twitter that he had pulled the plug on bizarre plans to hold a summit with the original hosts of al-Qaeda precisely 18 years after the September 11 attacks. Mr Bolton was strenuously opposed to a US president hosting people whom he saw as terrorists. “Ironically, the thing that ultimately got Bolton fired was arguably the best piece of advice he gave Trump,” said Thomas Wright, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
The chief beneficiary of Mr Bolton’s removal is Mike Pompeo, Mr Trump’s secretary of state. The two were apparently no longer on speaking terms. Mr Pompeo can be a hawk or a dove, or neither — depending on what Mr Trump wants. No other senior Trump official has come close to mastering Mr Pompeo’s ability to channel his boss’s desires. This might mean supporting one thing before breakfast and the opposite by lunchtime. “I argue with everyone except Pompeo,” Mr Trump said in an interview last year. Mr Pompeo’s job will be to make Mr Trump’s 2020 re-election prospects as rosy as possible by avoiding “endless wars”, and new ones. Mr Trump began his presidency surrounded by the so-called adults, such as Jim Mattis, the former defence secretary. Then he moved to the hawkish phase with Mr Bolton last year. From now on it is likely to be a “mini-me” administration. Mr Pompeo has no competition.
But Mr Trump’s removal of Mr Bolton also risks alienating the hawkish wing of the Republican party, which is gung-ho for action against Iran, North Korea and Venezuela. Republicans have been supportive of almost everything Mr Trump has done at home. Foreign policy is a different matter. Earlier this year Mr Trump pulled back from a threatened air strike against Iran. Mr Bolton had also recommended sending 120,000 US troops to the Gulf in preparation for a possible war. The Republican applause for Mr Trump’s strategy of “maximum pressure” was sustained. It quickly faded when Mr Trump called off the air strike.
Out of the White House, Mr Bolton could pose a threat to Mr Trump. His tweet on Tuesday contradicting the US president’s claim to have fired him — “I offered to resign last night and President Trump said, ‘Let’s talk about it tomorrow.’” — hints at what may be to come. The US media has been waiting in vain for Mr Mattis to spill the beans on Mr Trump’s decision-making processes. Mr Mattis has so far declined to criticise “a sitting president”. As a life-long ideologue, Mr Bolton has very different sensibilities than Mr Mattis. It would be ironic if Mr Trump’s departing uber-hawk proved to be the greatest turncoat.