Anyone hoping that John Bolton getting fired by the Trump administration would end the confusion over American foreign policy is likely to be disappointed.
Bolton, the erstwhile national security adviser, was a rare constant in President Donald Trump’s foreign policy. He read the details. He opined. He threatened. He had some quite scary ideas, many of which were utterly contrary to that of his employer – something you would have thought could have come up in the original job interview.
But this is not Stephen Hadley replacing Condoleezza Rice during the George W. Bush era, which heralded a shift to consolidation of wars. Nor is it like the move from Tom Donilon to Susan Rice in the Barack Obama years, heralding a bid to reduce America’s global footprint.
Bolton advised, in the end, over confusion. And he leaves befuddlement in his wake. (Incidentally, Bush and Obama had a total of 5 national security advisers over 16 years, while Trump is looking for his fourth).
It was not hard to know where Bolton stood on Iran. He stood menacingly with a big stick. Yet Trump blanched at airstrikes in retaliation for an unmanned drone’s destruction, and seemed to be moving towards negotiation.
Still, there is no public let up in the US’ maximum-pressure campaign that has led to it accusing Iran of possible Iranian covert nuclear development and bids to pay off tanker captains. Tehran has been able to sit back and let what was the White House’s strategy combust.
Given Trump’s ability to swing wildly between topics, Iran surely must still fear a sudden flare-up. French bids to compensate Iran for sticking to parts of the nuclear deal have stalled. And if Trump seeks an ultimate deal – perhaps through a personal meeting – the consequences of that will surely elude him before November next year.
He tried a similar cold-then-hot embrace with North Korea, threatening fire and fury before suddenly rewarding Kim Jong Un with a face-to-face meeting just inside North Korea itself. Yet the strategy, as it was, has stalled.
Trump is hesitant to accept that North Korea’s missile tests are violations of UN resolutions, and holds out the hope that “beautiful letters” from Kim Jong Un mean there will be progress. But North Korea has learned the lesson of proliferation: time wins out. The longer you are a nuclear power, the less likely it is you will have to stop.
Venezuela seemed to be a bright spot of tiny unity within the administration, where Secretary Mike Pompeo, Bolton and Trump could hawkishly co-exist. But the opposition led by Juan Guaido has stalled, if not evaporated entirely. Venezuelans who trusted in the US to assist their bid to overthrow Nicolás Maduro – some of whom even fled the country in the hope of facilitating that – are now left to their own devices, with long-range US sanctions their only back up. The US does not appear to have a second move. In public, at least, the policy is in disarray.
With ISIS, the group is slowly resurging, as predicted in Iraq and Syria, while US troops are staying behind, despite the White House narrative being one of defeat and success. With Ukraine, there was a brief moment when US lethal military aid seemed possible, yet that too has slowed, if not died.
The administration’s high-stakes gamble to “fix” Afghanistan – a conflict Trump pledged to win barely 18 months ago – seemed to be the final straw. The optics of greeting the Taliban at Camp David around the 18th anniversary of the September 11 attacks – and after the death of 2,400 Americans in the nation’s longest and ongoing war – seemed purblind at best.
Trump courted the high-stakes meeting and then dropped it, perhaps because the choreography of the agreement signing – the most essential and delicate part of any deal – was poorly handled. But we are now left with likely the most-bloody war on the planet now escalating, with the deal for now “dead” according to the commander-in-chief, with elections looming, and with the US signalling it may want its troops out anyway, deal or no deal. There is no tangible policy.
The essential weakness comes down to how strategy is set by a push of a blue touchscreen button, or words bellowed over the din of Marine One. These are surely presidential debates, of one man alone with himself – disregarding, it seems, the apparatus that Franklin Roosevelt was forced to establish during the Second World War, as the decisions he had to make were too much for one man alone.
Months of peace deals are cancelled by a Twitter tirade. Iran is threatened with total war. It is utterly erratic. And the departure of Bolton, one of the most experienced – if at times insanely combative and troublingly prejudiced – foreign policy hands that Trump had just reminds us how scatter-brained the world’s only hyperpower’s approach to these deeply serious issues has become.