The hawkish national security advisor’s firing reveals the president’s hesitancy to initiate major conflicts. Liam Glen writes on the limits of Trump’s erratic foreign policy.
This week, John Bolton joined the list of Trump officials fired by tweet. The former National Security Advisor served the president for a year and a half, but it was not a match made to last.
Maybe his insubordination helped do him in. Maybe his lack of sycophancy irked the president. His mustache certainly did not endear him to anyone. Above all, however, the men found themselves in an unavoidable ideological conflict.
It is hard to have ideological differences with a president who seems to lack an ideology, especially when it comes to foreign policy. Trump is someone who can take whatever positions seem right at the time. As a candidate, he denounced the Iraq War as a “tremendous disservice to humanity.” Yet, his strategy for defeating ISIS was to “bomb the shit out of them.”
Bolton, however, was a step too far. The former Bush administration official is an unwavering advocate for America’s right to hold global hegemony and crush anyone standing in its way. In Trump’s words, he is someone who wants to “take on the whole world at one time.”
When he came on board as natural security adviser, it was assumed that he could influence the president to his line of thinking. But that mission has ended in adjunct failure. While Trump is a notoriously unpredictable president, Bolton’s removal is yet another sign that war is the line that he will not cross lightly.
A War-Shy Hawk
No one could call the current president pro-peace. He has little concern for human rights, disarmament, or multilateralism. He has no problem with US involvement in armed conflicts like the Saudi war in Yemen.
Fears that he might put American boots on the ground in a new war, however, have always been false alarms.
His 2017 bombing of Shayrat Airfield in Syria was not followed by substantial action. His rhetoric of “fire and fury” in North Korea dissolved in favor of a peace summit. He reportedly lost interest in the Venezuelan crisis when his assumption that it would be an easy win was proven wrong.
In the last example in particular, Trump initially sided with Bolton’s aggressive policies, but he lost patience when the situation stopped going his way. The same no seems to be happening with Iran, where fears of war have since fizzled out.
Trump likes simple, dramatic solutions to problems. War – or, at least, aggressive interventions that could escalate into war – seems to fit that criteria. Trump reportedly shocked his aides when he suggested an invasion of Venezuela in 2018, before the current political crisis reached its peak.
President Trump is also obsessed with the idea of toughness. As he boasted on Twitter, “my views on Venezuela, and especially Cuba, were far stronger than those of John Bolton.” But if strength is equivalent to belligerence, this statement defies nearly all journalistic reports of the administration, which portrayed Bolton as the administration’s foreign policy hardliner.
It is true that reports can be wrong, but the president’s recent tweets defy even his past statements on Bolton. In their relationship, Trump has previously claimed to be “the one that tempers him.” The day after the firing, he derided Bolton as “Mr. Tough Guy, you know, you had to go into Iraq.”
The president’s machismo makes aggressive action seem attractive to him. The reality of war, however, is complicated. It is full of defeats and setbacks. Even when it succeeds, it leads to a drawn-out occupation and transition.
Trump is astute enough to realize this. Each time that he has had the opportunity to turn his strong views and rhetoric into action by leading the country down another warpath, he has sided against it.
A Limit to the Madness
Trump is less enthusiastic about war than John Bolton, but under normal circumstances, that would not mean much. It is impossible to know what would be happening now if Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush, or Ted Cruz was president, but there is no particular reason to think they would be more belligerent than the current administration. Any reasonable person is weary of war.
But Trump’s refusal to escalate any international conflict to the point of war, despite multiple opportunities, is significant. Many would say that he is not a reasonable person. The fear that he might bring the country into a pointless armed conflict has dominated his opponents’ minds for years.
From Syria, to North Korea, to Venezuela, to Iran, however, none of those predictions have come into fruition. Despite aggressive rhetoric, Trump has repeatedly erred on the side of caution.
This is not to say that it is impossible that another war will start under his watch. Global affairs are unpredictable. But as erratic as the president’s behavior might seem, he does have his limits.