In another long-anticipated, and yet still surprising move, U.S. President Donald Trump has fired National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and announced that he will be replaced by John Bolton, a former ambassador and hard-line analyst. The move reflects the president’s growing level of comfort in the job, and the belief that he no longer needs advisers who challenge his views. The Bolton appointment is one more step toward an unfettered Trump presidency, and one that rightfully worries many outside the administration.
McMaster was an awkward fit in the Trump White House. He replaced Michael Flynn, one of Trump’s most trusted national security advisers, after he was forced to step down for lying to investigators about contacts with Russia during the presidential transition. There have long been reports of Trump’s displeasure with McMaster, a three-star general, who is best known for his thesis — subsequently turned into a book — that the U.S. military was derelict in its duty by not challenging the civilian leadership during the Vietnam War. The president was unhappy with McMaster’s style and personality: The national security adviser was said to be prone to lectures, gruff and condescending, and did not give Trump options that the president wanted.
Rumors of McMaster’s departure had been floated for months and consistently denied by the White House. All the while, however, conversations were taking place about his replacement. The last straw for Trump was reportedly the leak that he had ignored advice to not congratulate Russian President Vladimir Putin in a phone call after his re-election last week.
It would be hard to find a figure more different from McMaster than Bolton. McMaster is a thoughtful, deliberative scholar, who often counseled caution and restraint in the face of crises. Bolton is an incendiary commentator who has never shied away from conflict — personal or in his policy recommendations. During the George W. Bush administration, Bolton served as undersecretary of state for arms control and he relished in blocking those agreements. In one case, the British foreign secretary asked then U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell to remove Bolton from international negotiations because he was so disruptive.
Bolton was also accused of threatening to fire analysts who disagreed with his conclusions, as well as insubordination, spying on his superiors and leaking documents. When nominated by Bush to serve as ambassador to the United Nations — about which Bolton said “if it lost 10 stories, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference” — not even Republicans would support him. He failed to muster a majority and thus had only a “recess appointment,” which allowed him to serve only a limited amount of time (until the next session of Congress).
From his perch at Fox News, Bolton won Trump over with his rejection of global deals that restrain the United States and his denunciations of the Iran nuclear agreement and talks with North Korea. Yet, if Bolton’s views on many issues align with those of the president, they are not in perfect sync. Bolton is an unyielding opponent of Russia who called Moscow’s interference in the 2016 election an “act of war,” said Putin is lying to Trump when he denies it and he has backed strong sanctions against Russia in response. This divergence will not be easy to paper over, and recall that McMaster’s acknowledgement of Russian election meddling earned him a public rebuke by Trump and was one of the developments that drove the president to replace him.
While the views of the president and his top advisers should be in alignment, the national security adviser has a special role. The national security adviser is supposed to be an honest broker who provides the president with objective analysis of national security threats and options. He (or she) should run the interagency process without putting a thumb on the scale. But not only is Bolton a forceful advocate of his positions, but he has a history of attacking those who disagree with him. His style is likely to discourage dissenting views and restrict not just options but analysis as well. That is precisely the approach that led to the Iraq War — which Bolton continues to support to this day.
Bolton’s full-throated defense of a United States unfettered by international restraints is music to Trump’s ears. They are both nationalists who view international law and institutions as ways to tie their country down. One of Bolton’s most recent articles made “the legal case for striking North Korea first.” That no doubt delighted the president, even as he prepares to meet Kim Jong Un in an unprecedented summit — a meeting for which Bolton will lead the U.S. preparations. Japan, like other nations, needs to prepare for a U.S. president that is not only unfettered but encouraged to act on his darkest impulses.
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