Will John Bolton be the downfall of Donald Trump? Is what is now in the news but a prelude to a greater story?
It all depends whether you want to accept the official story of why Trump dismissed his BIG MOUTH national security advisor, President Ousts Bolton Amid Rifts on Foreign Policy, (NYT, 9/11) and the proffered circumstances.
Could it be, as was alleged just over 100 years ago in the Russian Imperial Court, that Rasputin was more in control than the royal family, and in fact “Rasputin was acting as a puppet master over them”? Or is the story here that Donald Trump, supposedly such a great businessman, has just found this out, and does not want it tarnishing his brand?
Shock and Awe
John Bolton is a man with a history and many opinions. With him it is my way or the highway, which at first sight makes him a highly suitable member of Trump’s iconoclastic team.
Bolton is prepared to say, and act upon, what many of Trump’s base actually think about this country or that. These are often people who feel they have been marginalised, whose views are too politically incorrect to be heard. By putting Bolton so close to himself, Trump signalled to his supporters that they were the masters now, however much of an illusion that actually was.
Appointing this loud mouthed warmonger may also have been based on the need to distract attention from what the “real policy” makers in the shadows were doing. He succeeded in continually giving the press a proverbial bone to gnaw on, a colourful distraction from a range of rants and failed policy positions, especially relating to North Korea, Venezuela, Ukraine, Iran and Afghanistan.
Bolton might be described as a sinister counterpart to British music hall entertainer George Formby, whose cheeky grin and comic persona made everyone think his songs were just a bit naughty, rather than the dark shade of blue they really were, when the words were taken on their own; Or a more recent figure, Imelda Marcos, whose extravagance and hoarding of privilege enabled her husband to present his regime as a show rather than a crime
Bolton would have never made a good lecturer in conflict resolution or cross-cultural negotiations. But that was never the intention. He has served his purpose, the front man who makes what goes on behind seem reasonable by comparison.
Now we are led to believe that Trump understands that Bolton has become a liability. Maybe Trump actually found out that all Bolton wanted was war, and it annoyed him. Or did he know this all along, as his advisers and vetters doubtless did?
Your Problem, My Solution
Every US president wants to be remembered as a dealmaker and a peacemaker, regardless of what they actually do. Ronald Reagan presented himself as the tough guy who would stand up to the Soviets, in contrast to Jimmy “limp dick” Carter, but changed his tune radically by meeting Gorbachev and reversing his previous comments about the Evil Empire.
John Bolton not only said what many Trump supporters think, he took the credit for it. By implication, his views were also those of Trump himself, or he wouldn’t be part of the Administration. But if Bolton strayed too far from the official line Trump could always insulate himself from negative effects by saying that Bolton was an underling who was misbehaving, not a spokesperson Trump himself had appointed.
Trump is standing for re-election, despite dire polling numbers, much worse than those Lyndon Johnson was getting before he withdrew his own re-election bid. Having won against the odds in 2016 by appealing to a particular base, he knows that his best bet is to keep the same marginalised constituency onside, rather than try and appeal to previous opponents or don’t-knows, and whose opposition has only hardened since he took office.
Trump’s tenure has been plagued by witch hunts and lame attempts to start impeachment proceedings. These continue because they make the press and help the Democrats deflect blame for their own incompetence. But Trump’s response has been to take everyone on with an extraordinary string of allegations and smears, which are not designed to win over people who might agree with some of the views of those he attacks.
So if Trump is going to remain in office he will have to claim all the credit for the most outrageous acts of his Administration. It once suited him to be seen as more reasonable than John Bolton, and it wasn’t difficult. Now he can’t afford to do so, if he is going to lead people who feel put upon to the Promised Land where con triumphs over merit.
Trump has to have the biggest and loudest mouth of all, because that is all many of his voters are allowed to have. No one listens to their reasoning, their priorities or their problems. Consequently their only option is to make as much noise as possible, and accuse everyone who doesn’t like it of being corrupt – exactly what Trump himself will have to embody as a candidate.
Trump has failed to Drain the Swamp or make American Great Again. Rather than making his lost constituency a found one, he has done what anyone who has seen his history should have expected – made sure that he, his buddies and a small minority of Americans have got richer, by any means possible, and are now laughing all the way to the bank.
If he wanted to turn statesman now, he couldn’t. The result of the flip flops and inconsistencies in US policy is that almost all countries know it’s foolish to trust the word of Washington. Trump will never be able to make any more big deals, unless they involve selling more weapons to Saudi princes to bomb civilians in Yemen.
It does not matter who he appoints to fill Bolton’s shoes. That person’s credibility will be suspect from the onset, because of all those who have come before. They will also be overshadowed by their boss, who needs exactly the opposite vector: the tough Commander-in-Chief being undermined by his pussy adviser, rather than the statesman being undermined by his hawkish loose cannon.
There is a need to address foreign policy with an open mind. This has not happened in recent years. Practically anyone who accepted any National Security position would be putting his head on the block. Their future career would be tainted by the legacy of the Trump Administration—and how the world became so destabilised on his watch, because he is Trump.
Trump is guilty of many things, but the greatest of all is being himself. The White House and the likes of Pompeo want to present the ousting of Bolton as humdrum and nothing out of the ordinary, as to be expected. However, there is too much of a pattern to both Bolton’s appointment and dismissal for this to wash, like that of the man who gets divorced too many times.
It is not as if Trump got a “pig in the poke” when he first brought Bolton on board. Trump knew that he wanted war with Iran, and supported tearing up nuclear deals and sanctions in the interim.
Trump actively sought a situation where he and his expendable adviser acted as if they were two madmen willing to outdo one another, and blow the world to kingdom come in the process.
Bolton knew what his part was. This is why he has cultivated a reversed image, like an even more notorious National Security Adviser, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. And now Bolton may even publish a book of his plight under the Trump administration.
Kissinger still maintains that he was always trying to restrain Nixon, a madman, rather than being corrupted by him as everyone else around him was. By this, he tries to claim credit for Nixon’s achievements, as the product of “sensible” influence, such as his, whilst implying his crimes were Nixon’s alone, good cop vs. bad cop.
This is exactly what Trump was trying to do to Bolton, so Bolton responded by presenting himself as the sensible part of the partnership. As we are dealing with Trump, this worked. The New York Times has even been moved to declare that “Mr. Bolton spent much of his tenure trying to restrain the president form making what he considered as unwise agreements (deals) with America’s enemies.”
Ultimately this is what has led to Bolton’s downfall – Trump can be as bad as him to pander to his audience, but still claim to be sensible, in his own estimation, because he is doing what Bolton did. Next we will be hearing that Trump wants to nuke his new friends in North Korea, but this must somehow be a gesture of peace and reconciliation on the Korean peninsula, because others want to negotiate the US position away, just as Trump himself has done.
John Bolton has been sacrificed for the very reason he was appointed. But who can be an effective National Security Policy Advisor in these circumstances? Policy is being dictated by Trump’s attempts to appeal to a base which does not have to be responsible for the consequences, and therefore has no need to listen to advice.
Knowing who has been in policy positions before is an indication of what the President does not want at this time. The likes of Jim Mattis, Rex Tillerson, HR McMaster etc. Those with abilities will tell Trump and his team what they do not want to hear, and then, out of the job, have the audacity to proclaim publicly “I hate to tell you so but I told you so!” Those with no ability will be cowed into taking direction from Trump, which will be whatever he thinks makes him look good on a given campaign stop.
Obviously the US’s overseas partners need to be aware that an election is coming, and that this will colour what prospective presidents promise. But they have bigger problems of their own, which tend to go without sufficient US attention during election periods, unless the US candidates can make capital out of them for their own reasons, with a domestic audience.
Trump now says the US is “locked and loaded” to take on Iran over the Saudi Arabia oil fire. Iran being a longstanding perceived enemy, this may not be surprising. But the comment, which Trump claims is based on “intelligence” about who was behind the oil facility attack, tells us what is now likely to happen in the Middle East in particular, and also other parts of the world American voters have heard of.
John Bolton wanted to start wars all over the place because he identified certain countries and groups as “America’s enemies”. Trump is dispensing with the formality of working out whom, in the ever-complex Middle Eastern political world, is an enemy and who is not. With Israeli elections coming up it no longer matters who is the advisor and who is “friend or foe”, as the starting short has been fired.
Certain words, like “Iran” and “Muslim”, have existing bad connotations. Now no one is going to explain what certain countries are guilty of, what makes them America’s enemies. Bad word = retaliation, regardless of the issue, regardless of the cause, regardless of the evidence.
We will see fewer proxy interventions. Arming some combatant or other will not solve problems because each has a cause to fight for, which the US would be tacitly approving or condemning by the pattern of its arms sales. The US will threaten and act in its own name, and then ask other NATO countries to join in and pay more of the bill—and spill more of the blood. Then each conflict will be about the US being good, not the US supporting this or the other position or outcome.
Existing operations will no longer be based around fancy ideas like peace, reconstruction or R2P. If peaceful politicians happen to have a bad word associated with them, they will be removed in favour of warmongers who don’t have that word affixed to their names.
In Afghanistan the Taliban will be presented as unstoppable, although they were stopped before, while civilian governments will be called “Muslim”. In Iraq a witch hunt of “Saddamists” will be the solution to a non-existent problem, with anyone who opposes this being branded as “terrorist”.
Bolton has gone because Trump can no longer cope with anyone being worse than him. He made this rod for his own back, and now has to stand on the stump with it sticking out to show he deserves to be re-elected.
Now Bolton has shown him that war can be presented as peace to those who want to hear it, he doesn’t want anyone else getting the “credit” – particularly while Democrats try and present reasoned positions, and appeal to a Middle America which doesn’t want Trump, but isn’t listening to them either.
Henry Kamens, columnist, expert on Central Asia and Caucasus, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.