One of the few things that drew a sigh of relief about U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration was that he had a national security team of restrained, temperate minds. Men who offered counterbalance to the President’s spontaneous and often rash reactions. Men like Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster.
In the space of a fortnight, they’re both gone. The hardliner Mike Pompeo replaced Mr. Tillerson. More ominous is the onset of the confrontational John Bolton to take over from Mr. McMaster.
The superhawk has landed and, as one article put it, god help us all.
Mr. Bolton has advocated a pre-emptive strike against North Korea and has railed against the idea of diplomacy with the hermit kingdom. He has been a proponent of war with Iran and wants the nuclear deal with that country, having labelled it “a diplomatic Waterloo,” scrapped. He was an architect of the 2003 invasion of Iraq and still believes it was a good idea. On a more sensible note, he favours a more defiant approach to Russia.
Like Mr. Trump himself, Mr. Bolton is a disrupter. He will play to the President’s hot-blooded destabilizing instincts. In the George W. Bush administration, he was a Dick Cheney fanboy. Others like Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell soured on him, as they determined he bordered on being out of control. Senator Rand Paul, a fellow Republican, has described Mr. Bolton as “hell-bent on repeating every foreign policy mistake the U.S. has made in the last 15 years.”
On foreign policy Mr. Trump’s instincts fluctuate. He has no deep grasp of issues or history. He owns more golf courses than books. His positions often depend on who is the last person to fill his ear. To date, Mr. Trump, who has condemned the decision to invade Iraq as a disaster, hasn’t come across as a war enthusiast. But with hawks now in the top two foreign policy positions, this could all change. There is no buffer.
The changes are distressing news for the Canadian government. Ottawa officials had carved out good relations with both Mr. McMaster and Mr. Tillerson.
The changes come as part of a broader shake-up which sees inflexible, ideological forces asserting control of the White House agenda. Thursday also saw the departure of Mr. Trump’s top legal adviser John Dowd. He wasn’t taking a sufficiently tough stance, in the President’s view, to the Mueller inquiry into Russian election meddling. In comes the more aggressive legal mind, Joseph E. diGenova, who has put forward the view that the FBI and Justice Department framed Mr. Trump.
If this and the change of security advisers wasn’t enough for one day, the President launched his trade war with China, imposing tariffs on as much as US$60-billion worth of Chinese goods. The White House has labelled China “an economic enemy” alleging it has cost the country thousands of jobs.
Recently Mr. Trump stated he would soon have the cabinet he wants. The turnover has been unprecedented. He now has his third national security adviser in the space of 14 months. His chief economic adviser, Gary Cohn, another moderate that Ottawa liked, also left recently, replaced by ideologue Larry Kudlow.
It’s been rumoured that chief of staff John Kelly could go soon as well. Defence Secretary James Mattis, a voice of moderation, remains on the team. But he and Mr. Kelly are no fans of John Bolton.
The neocon on steroids, as the 69-year-old Bolton has been called, is a scathing critic of the United Nations. He was in line for a big appointment when Mr. Trump first came to power. But he had antagonized so many in the foreign policy establishment that Mr. Trump was advised to back off. But the more the President saw of Mr. Bolton on Fox News delivering his ribald, black-and-white assessments, the more he liked him.
Some Republicans are in his corner. “Selecting John Bolton as national security adviser is good news for America’s allies and bad news for America’s enemies,” said Senator Lindsey Graham.
Democratic Congressman Don Beyer’s reaction was more representative. “Even for this administration, this is a monumental step backward. Trump desperately needs tempered and measured voices around him, Bolton is neither of those things. His appointment carries grave national security implications.”
Indeed, it does. If you were worried before about what this President might do, be alarmed now.