With a crisis in Venezuela, growing tensions with Iran, a deteriorating relationship with North Korea and trade strains with China, Donald J. Trump is presiding over a White House that is at war with itself over America’s increasingly aggressive international posture.
On one side is the President himself, promiscuous with threats when American interests are in jeopardy, but chaste when it comes to actual international engagement and stationing American troops abroad. On the other is John R. Bolton, Mr. Trump’s national security adviser, who is on the side of projecting American power in trouble spots from the Middle East to the Korean Peninsula to Latin America.
“We have come to expect presidents to choose subordinates who are like-minded in a general sense,” said Andrew J. Bacevich Jr., a prominent Boston University historian of American foreign and military policy. “That rule simply doesn’t apply to President Trump. There’s no explanation for this except for the fact that there is no consistency in Trump’s own views.’’
The post of national security adviser is a relatively new one on the American political scene, its longevity about the Psalm 90 allotment of three score and 10 years. Even the most prominent and most vocal among the 26 figures who have held that position — Henry A. Kissinger (1969-1975), Zbigniew Brzezinski (1977-1981) and Condoleezza Rice (2001-2005) — have hewed closely to their presidents’ ideologies, inclinations and impulses.
All of them, that is, except Mr. Bolton, who seems often to look, in the disparaging 1821 phrase employed by Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, “abroad in search of monsters to destroy.”
In an era when the American capital is full of surprises, this search for monsters beyond the country’s boundaries is one of the most startling departures from form, especially as the crises dreaded by the opponents of Mr. Trump have begun to close in.
“At the beginning, people thought Bolton was reflecting Trump’s views, but he’s been an intervener for a long time and he’s threatening to do that in Venezuela, North Korea and Iran,’’ said Donald W. McNemar, a specialist in international relations who teaches at Bentley University in Waltham, Mass. “It’s too much even for Trump.”
This is one situation where the President is the agent of caution. Mr. Trump affirmed that last week, saying, ‘’I actually temper John.’’
Mr. Trump, for example, is committed to reducing the overseas deployment of American troops, but Mr. Bolton seems committed to “regime change,” not only in Venezuela but also, more dangerously, in Iran. In recent days, the U.S., with an eye to developments in Iran, has decided to deploy a Patriot antimissile battery, B-52 bombers and an aircraft carrier to the Middle East.
In Asia, where North Korea last week fired short-range ballistic missiles, Mr. Bolton, who considers Kim Jong-un undisciplined, unreliable and perhaps unhinged, has called for pre-emptive war against that otherwise isolated country. A year ago, in an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, he described Pyongyang’s nuclear-tipped threats “imminent,” adding, ‘’It is perfectly legitimate for the United States to respond to the current ‘necessity’ posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons by striking first.’’ Mr. Trump instead twice met with Mr. Kim and has modulated his rhetoric.
It was particularly significant that the announcement of the movement of the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group and a bomber task force to the Middle East was made by Mr. Bolton rather than by the Pentagon or by the President himself.
The national security adviser’s role in the deployment was noted, not with approval, by the website of the American Conservative magazine, founded by, among others, Patrick J. Buchanan, a one-time top aide to Richard M. Nixon who has run twice for the GOP presidential nomination and has been an ardent defender of Mr. Trump:
‘’The fact that Bolton chose to repurpose routine deployments of U.S. military forces into the Middle East as an emergency response to an unspecified threat from Iran is in and of itself a curiosity. Bolton is an adviser to the president, a non-statutory (i.e., not confirmed by the Senate) member of the White House staff who is not in the military chain of command and lacks any command authority.’’
Mr. Bolton is a long-time opponent of the Obama administration’s efforts to win a multinational pact with Iran to limit that country’s nuclear efforts. On his White House wall sits a framed copy of Mr. Trump’s order nullifying the American participation in the agreement.
Even so, diplomatic and military analysts are surprised at how often Mr. Bolton’s stated positions diverge from Mr. Trump’s.
“It may simply be a mistake to look for some kind of correlation between the President’s views, which are basically random, and his advisers who actually have views,’’ said Prof. Bacevich. ‘’Bolton has viewpoints. They may be reprehensible, but he has them.’’
Every American government, to be sure, experiences tension between the White House and other agencies — sometimes the Pentagon, sometimes the State Department, sometimes the Central Intelligence Agency.
“This is an unusual situation, but at a certain point there’s nothing unusual in this administration,” said Victoria Clarke, assistant secretary of defence in the George W. Bush administration. “Everything about this crowd is unusual — and now that’s the norm.’’