Former National Security Adviser John Bolton’s recent departure from the Trump Administration removed the most formidable internal check on the President’s inconsistent and transactional security instincts. Well-known for his abrasive style and trademark mustache, Bolton’s hawkish advocacy for an interventionist foreign policy contrasted with President Trump’s “America First” worldview. Yet, for all of his neo-conservative leanings, those who claim Bolton’s exit from the government lowers the risk of war are mistaken. As President Trump’s national security team loses the most ardent supporter of traditional deterrence, U.S. adversaries will seek to test the President’s resolve and probe the limits of his isolationist tendencies. In response, the administration should follow Bolton’s outgoing advice to maintain maximum pressure campaigns against Iran and North Korea, and resist the temptation to declare premature victory in Afghanistan.
Inconsistency Invites Provocation
Bolton’s departure highlights a White House beset by personnel shakeups and internal conflicts. The president says he solicits opposing viewpoints, yet he has pushed out administration officials who provide contrarian views. In less than three years, his national security team has seen four national security advisors, two secretaries of state, three secretaries of defense, and three secretaries of homeland security. It is difficult to maintain a consistent foreign policy with an ever-changing cast of characters seated at the table.
President Trump sees international security as a transactional arena composed of leaders who want peace and diplomatic photo-ops just as much as he does. The reality is far different. Many world leaders have no interest in peace; others gain political legitimacy by maintaining hostile relations with the United States and only alter behavior when confronted with formidable deterrence.
As authoritarians around the world celebrate Bolton’s exit, Americans should be skeptical. The expectations that his absence signals a less aggressive U.S. foreign policy invite dangerous miscalculations. The U.S. should provide certainty to allies and adversaries alike by pursuing the following policy guidelines.
The expectations that his absence signals a less aggressive U.S. foreign policy invite dangerous miscalculations
Maintain Maximum Pressure Against Iran and North Korea
The maximum pressure campaigns directed toward Iran and North Korea are predicated on the concept that the United States should deal with adversaries from a position of strength, not weakness. Until leaders in Tehran and Pyongyang change their malignant behavior and adhere to peaceful international norms, the Trump Administration should keep sanctions in place. To change course now would undercut the administration’s own objectives, signal weakness, and invite provocation.
Maximum pressure is working. The Iranian economy is in freefall and the mullahs are desperate. President Hassan Rouhani applauded the removal of “the creature,” John Bolton, yet Iran’s weak fundamentals remain the same. The International Monetary Fund predicts that the Iranian economy will contract by six percent this year alone and Iran’s antagonistic foreign policy actions risk alienating neutral states. Iranian attempts to disrupt commercial shipping in the Straits of Hormuz and instigate military conflict in the region have backfired. At the recent meeting of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, leaders from Germany, France, and the United Kingdom joined the United States. for the first time to endorse a renegotiation of the 2015 Iran Nuclear Deal. The Trump Administration withdrew from the deal because of the belief that the agreement did not go far enough in restraining Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Furthermore, the deal restricted the U.S. ability to contain other destabilizing activities emanating from Iran, including cyber threats, counter-maritime threats, ballistic missile threats, and support for terrorism. The best way to pursue long-term peace is to weather this storm of provocations, maintain sanctions, and force the Iranians back to the negotiating table on terms of our choosing.
On the North Korean front, maximum pressure adds backbone to Presidents Trump’s diplomatic overtures and acts as a hedge against North Korean deception. The diplomatic history of nuclear negotiations with North Korea has been characterized by lies and deceit. Previous U.S. administrations made concessions to North Korea, only to be rewarded with betrayals and broken promises. President Trump believes he can charm the North Koreans into denuclearization, yet Bolton knows otherwise. When asked to give his opinion of the regime in Pyongyang, Bolton once mused, “How do you know when the North Korean regime is lying? Answer: when their lips are moving.”
Bolton provided the White House with a dose of reality that is now missing from the administration. North Korean officials, aware of Bolton’s outspoken views about their lack of integrity, have called him “human scum” and praised the departure of “that nasty troublemaker.” North Korea feigns madness to suggest that they are not bound by the normal laws of deterrence. Bolton saw through this façade whereby weakening sanctions would damage negotiations, not advance them.
Face Reality in Afghanistan
The Trump Administration was right to cancel the so-called “peace negotiations” with the Taliban in September. After nine months of talks in Doha, Qatar, between U.S. and Taliban negotiators, officials released a proposed framework that would have jeopardized Afghan security gains, diminished U.S. counterterrorism capabilities, and doomed 18 years of U.S. involvement to failure. The Taliban have no interest in peace; their public declarations say as much. As a recent Taliban press release entitled Occupation and Ceasefire!! insists, “…the aim of this Jihad is the end of occupation and the establishment of an Islamic government. Our national and religious obligation shall continue unabated until we attain these clear-cut objectives.” Precipitous U.S. withdrawal would surely bring about the violent overthrow of the elected Afghan government, a renewed safe haven for international terrorism, and reimposition of authoritarian rule most adversely affecting the rights of women and minorities.
President Trump’s intention to remove all U.S. troops from Afghanistan prior to the 2020 election should be permanently shelved. John Bolton understood that the withdrawal of coalition forces from Afghanistan would undermine peace, not encourage it. That is why he argued forcefully against the terms of the settlement, and unequivocally opposed the President’s absurd idea to host Taliban officials at Camp David. One may rightly critique U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, (see Greg Walsh’s article in IAR) but decisions should be based upon national security objectives, not political interests.
Given the fundamental policy differences between Bolton and President Trump, it is remarkable that the relationship lasted as long as it did. The national security advisor serves as a personal aide to the President. A healthy relationship between the President and national security advisor is fundamental to a functional policymaking process. “He has strong views on things, but that’s okay. I actually temper John, which is pretty amazing,” the President once joked. However, the policy differences eventually became too much to bear, and now Bolton no longer works at the White House. Robert O’Brien, President Trump’s choice to succeed Bolton, is a competent man with a lengthy foreign policy résumé. Though he lacks Bolton’s gravitas, he too believes in the merits of maximum pressure toward Iran and North Korea, coupled with a realistic outlook on Afghanistan. As the President risks undermining his own policies to score short-term victories, he deserves subordinates who will tell him “No”. John Bolton was that man. Let us hope that Robert O’Brien is too.
Jonathan Coleman is an M.A. candidate at The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs with a concentration in transnational security and countering organized crimes. He holds a B.A. in History from the University of California at Santa Barbara. His professional experience includes five years as a law enforcement officer.