John Bolton’s hard line served President Trump’s strategy, until it didn’t

by WorldTribune Staff, September 11, 2019

Six weeks after hiring John Bolton as national security adviser in April 2018, President Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the Obama-era nuclear pact with Iran and has pummeled Teheran with sanctions in the time since.

Analysts say Bolton, a strong proponent of pulling out of the deal, had significant influence on Trump in his early tenure as national security adviser.

John Bolton. / Photo by Gage Skidmore / Creative Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0

But the hawkish Bolton had also pushed for regime change in Iran and Trump steadily moved away from Bolton’s hard-line stance.

The final straw leading to his removal from the post may have been Bolton’s reported opposition to Trump’s idea to invite the Taliban for talks at Camp David days before the anniversary of 9/11.

“The president wants people to disagree with him and have debate in front of him, but … he’s the one who sets the policies,” deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley told Fox News.

“Bolton’s neoconservative bent — favoring U.S. military intervention and regime change as go-to policy options — initially added heft to the administration’s pressure campaigns against Iran and North Korea. But it also soon clashed with Mr. Trump’s desires to withdraw U.S. forces from undesired conflict zones and to persuade foreign nations to take more responsibility for global security, even if it means pressuring allies to pay more for their own defense,” Guy Taylor wrote in a Sept. 10 analysis for The Washington Times.

Alexander Vershbow, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia and South Korea and a former NATO deputy secretary-general, said Bolton’s departure “may lead to a more realistic, step-by-step approach to North Korean denuclearization, where Bolton’s ‘all or nothing’ approach to easing sanctions has produced a deadlock despite three Trump-Kim summits.”

It was “only a matter of time,” before Trump let Bolton go, Vershbow added. “Still, the timing is ironic, coming after Trump’s termination of negotiations with the Taliban on which Bolton was right to be skeptical (maybe Trump didn’t like hearing ‘I told you so’).”

Trump’s dismissal of Bolton clears the stage for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Vice President Mike Pence “to wield more influence over a raft of foreign policy challenges confronting the White House,” Taylor wrote.

National security analysts believe that Bolton’s exit could open the way for renewed “working level” talks and a possible step-by-step approach with North Korea — “an approach the State Department was once seen to advocate only to be shut down by Mr. Bolton’s demand that Pyongyang accept an all-or-nothing deal,” Taylor wrote.

Pompeo’s “background as a tea-party-backed star in the House of Representatives has made him more adept at working personally with Mr. Trump, particularly when it comes to threading the policy needle implementing the president’s ‘America First’ foreign policy impulses,” Taylor added.

One of the first names mentioned as a permanent replacement for Bolton was Stephen E. Biegun, Pompeo’s envoy to talks with North Korea and a close political ally.

The fall of Bolton and rise of Pompeo comes as world leaders gather for the annual U.N. General Assembly in New York this month.

Asked on Sept. 10 whether there could be a precedent-shattering meeting between Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the U.N. gathering, Pompeo said simply, “Sure.”

“The president has made very clear he is prepared to meet [Iranian leaders] with no preconditions” in search of a better deal to curb Teheran, Pompeo said.

One Republican insider told The Associated Press that Bolton’s opposition to such a meeting was a precipitating factor in his dismissal.

Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican and member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters that Trump has long been clear that “he’s not for regime change.”

“He said that [on] North Korea, he’s actually said that [on] Iran, and you know, Bolton’s been very, very loud in his call for regime change around the world,” Paul said. “I think the problem is that it’s a naive point of view to believe that we can militarily topple regimes around the world and that they’ll be replaced with democracies.”

Rep. Jackie Speier, a California Democrat who serves on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, told CNN that Trump and Bolton were like “oil and water,” while the president’s “relationship with Secretary Pompeo is quite strong.”

Pompeo has apparently been spared the occasional dressing-down that former Trump aides say are a regular feature of working in the administration.

“I argue with everyone,” Trump told New York Magazine in a 2018 interview. “Except Pompeo. I don’t think I’ve had an argument with Pompeo.”

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