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September 20, 2019

Understanding Bolton’s sacking


September 20, 2019

The unceremonious firing of (now former) US national security adviser (NSA), John Bolton, after being in the position since March 2018 was in line with a pattern of high-profile policy announcements by US President Trump. Bolton, the third principal to hold the coveted slot of NSA during the current presidential term, is the latest addition to the growing list of casualties whom Trump tweeted out of office.

Someone known for his hawkish views on US foreign policy that found traction with the rightwing Republican party leaders, John Bolton impressed Trump thanks to the positions he took on various issues during his appearances on Fox TV. The US president considered Bolton as someone who shared his worldview, and inducted him into the top White House position that fell vacant after the dismissal of H R McMaster.

Before going ahead, it is important to understand the context of Bolton’s induction into the Trump team in March 2018. Given the kind of views he held, Bolton was considered an appropriate choice who could advance President Trump’s vision of making ‘America great again’. His principal task lay in dismantling the multilateral arrangements the US became a party to particularly during the Obama administration. Bolton displayed a disdain for the global alliances, which, in his and his boss’ views, tied Washington’s hands and inflicted economic and diplomatic costs on it.

The Trump administration’s decision to walk out of Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty with Russia and Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPA), famously known as the Iran nuclear deal, could be traced back to the massive influence wielded by Bolton in the Trump White House. He advocated an Iran policy that was premised on the application of ‘maximum’ pressure coupled with stringent sanctions and even an attack on Iran, something that pleased anti-Iran elements of all hues and colours.

Bolton shaped Trump’s worldview on the foreign policy challenges facing the US. He exercised influence on his boss by freeing him of his dependence on the foreign policy bureaucracy and sharing his skepticism of globalism and multilateralism. Termed as a hardcore ‘Americanist’, Bolton employed a cold-eyed view of national interests at the cost of human rights and democracy, an agenda that every US administration has peddled to justify its global interventions.

As evidenced by history, every first-term incumbent president has an eye on the second term and a concern for his legacy. Hence, the subsequent policies of such an administration are shaped by these principal imperatives and anyone feared to be interfering with this agenda may run the risk of finding himself out of favour with his boss.

In a powerful executive presidency like the US where ministers and other senior officials are handpicked by the president, their continuous stay in office depends upon the pleasure of their boss. They, therefore, play a subordinate role by assisting the president in implementing his vision. It calls for a combination of political wisdom, expediency and professional competence on the part of the senior officials to stay in the good books of their boss.

During his stay in office all these years, President Trump has demonstrated an unconventional style of leadership. Coming from a business background and known for deal-making, he has relied on his instincts in negotiating state affairs, and brought his business experience to inform the complex foreign policy undertakings.

Trump is looking to appeal to the American electorate for the second term based on his ‘achievements’ in the areas of economy and foreign policy. Given the fact that he is already into the last year of his presidency, he has neither patience nor time to expend on ‘diplomatic niceties’.

Somewhere down the line, NSA John Bolton crossed the red line, making President Trump question his selection. Three major foreign policy areas can clearly be identified that manifested divergent and often cross-purpose positions held by Trump and his former NSA.

For long, the persistent crisis in the Korean peninsula has presented a decades-old challenge to successive American administrations. Trump is the first US leader in recent history who has gone out of way to diplomatically engage North Korea’s Kim Jong-un at the highest level. Both leaders have attended a couple of summits besides holding an extraordinary meeting in the demilitarized zone.

Trump has also taken a lenient view of Pyongyang developing short-range missiles that can endanger the interests of allies, Japan and South Korea, and place the American forces in harm’s way. Despite significant peace overtures extended by the US, no tangible nuclear disarmament commitment has been secured from North Korea.

Iran is a second foremost and potentially dangerous foreign policy challenge for the Trump administration. After dismantling the nuclear treaty, Washington has clamped sanctions on Tehran, further aggravating the situation. Following Iran’s shooting of a US drone, Trump momentarily thought of ordering strikes against the Islamic Republic before he changed his mind. Nudged by French President Macron, Trump has shown willingness to meet his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani, in an attempt to conclude a new nuclear deal. He is also ready to announce some financial incentives for this purpose.

The third foreign policy challenge for the administration is to withdraw forces from Afghanistan and wind up the longest running war in the American history. During the campaign trail, Trump severely targeted the Obama administration for missing on drawdown commitments, and announced to bring back the US forces upon his election. The fact that the US directly engaged with the Taliban and overlooked the objections raised by the Ghani government highlights the urgency of the task. Though the peace deal was declared dead by Trump days before his scheduled meeting with the Taliban and Afghan leadership at Camp David, his administration has invested its political and diplomatic capital to ensure that some kind of negotiated settlement is reached, creating space for the conclusion of the Afghan project.

North Korea, Iran and Afghanistan constitute the foreign policy pivot for President Trump. His success or failure in meeting the objectives in these areas will determine his legacy as well as the chances for a second term in the White House. His administration’s recent policies towards these sore points represent a renewed emphasis on diplomacy and renunciation of conflict.

On each of these fronts, John Bolton held opinions that were not only hawkish but also ran contrary to those of the president. Trump is said to have joked in the meetings that if he had allowed his NSA to dictate policy, the US would have been engaged in three/four wars at the moment. To top it all, his hard line has been known to all and sundry. This explains why Trump cornered him during his last parley with the North Korean leader in the demilitarized zone.

For a president who is keen on building his legacy and clinching diplomatic breakthroughs, a bellicose and conservative policy hawk like Bolton was hurting the cause. In Trump's world, he was considered a misfit and had to be stripped of his role in the White House.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @Amanat222

The writer, a Chevening scholar, studied International Journalism at the University of Sussex.