Pax Bolton - II
by Michael Brenner on 09 Aug 2020 1 Comment


The mind-set of John Bolton, and the actions abroad associated with it, are the distillation of this evolution. So, why was he forced out – despite positive personal chemistry with Trump and basic agreement on a chauvinistic foreign policy? Two peculiarities of Trump’s persona provide the answer. First, there was his rogue attitude toward open-ended persecution of our campaigns in Syria and Afghanistan. Drawing back from our “endless, expensive wars” was a feature of his 2016 run for the White House. Outright reversal (as opposed to the 3-year delay in implementation) could cost him votes in 2020.


The issue never had been a matter of strategic conviction. If Hillary had taken the dovish position, he likely would have countered with a hawkish stance. The ‘let’s get out’ option appealed to Trump the niggardly businessman. Gains and losses registered in $ signs are never far from his mind. They color his attitude toward nearly every bilateral relationship, be it ‘cheating’ China, European contributions to NATO, South Korea’s ‘free ride’ on US forces defending then, how much we pay each soldier in the Afghan National Army, or the trade balance with Russia. Our Middle East deployments have been very costly, the tangible benefits invisible, and progress in places like Afghanistan still elusive after 18 years. Bad business.  


A second Trumpian trait is the attraction he feels for strong, successful men. Himself a clinical malignant narcissist, the man exhibits other pathological features. One is an authoritarian personality. He likes to bully, to hurt, to dominate. He also respects others like himself. Yet, unlike the clinical ideal type, he does not defer before superiors; indeed, he recognizes no superiors. However, dealing with them as equals enhances his own sense of self-esteem. His out-sized ego is fissured by insecurities. Deep in his psyche is a dim awareness that he is a phony, a cheat, a coward. So, he is susceptible to the celebrity syndrome. People who are celebrated for their prowess can ease those vulnerabilities – by demonstrating respect for him. 


Hence, the attraction of Putin, of Kim Jong-un, of Netanyahu, of the Saudi leaders, even Erdogan whose madness he tolerates. Xi initially exercised some of the same appeal; now dormant, it could be rekindled because Xi is Xi – master of the rival superpower. All of these persons are more savvy, more self-aware, and surely more intelligent than Trump. They know how to play his complex personality.[2] It is less a matter of ‘using’ Trump (Netanyahu, MBS aside) than it is a desire to inflect his attitude and behavior so as to avoid catastrophe provoked by the fecklessness of the deranged man in the Oval Office. They (and Merkel, too) treat him as one would somebody who is wearing a belt of nitroglycerine.


Trump’s erraticism, his compulsions and fixations, is what generated the friction with Bolton. Much of Bolton’s energy went into desperate campaigns to prevent Trump from taking ‘mis-steps.’ They all involved doing things that erred in the direction of softness. Heading the list were: repeated pronouncements of a desire to withdraw from Syria; repeated pronouncements that it was time to pull down the curtain on our Afghan misadventure; the meeting with Kim Jong-un and any indication of readiness to loosen sanctions and political isolation; meeting with Putin, silence about Russian interference in American domestic affairs or alleged human rights abuses; anything that smacked of concessions to China on commerce or human rights; restraint in backing coup attempts in Venezuela – among others. 


On the most critical matters, i.e. Russia and North Korea, Bolton had the full collaboration of every other member of the administration’s national security team. When they failed to rein in a headstrong Trump, they undercut his initiatives and managed to sabotage their implementation. Their outstanding achievement was their success in voiding the terms of the Singapore Declaration reached with Kim Jong-un. Trump was too quixotic, distracted, and ambivalent about the substance to press ahead regardless – even though he had a vague awareness of being manipulated, it quickly was swept away by the next brainstorm.  


What role did the generals play? The Pentagon attitude irritated both Trump and Bolton. In terms of American military engagements abroad and the use of force (re. Iran, North Korea, Venezuela), their objective was to “flatten the curve.” That translated into: staying the course in Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen; doing nothing that might jeopardize their network of bases. The status quo served their purposes well. No acknowledgement of mission failure, lots of activity that justified inflated budgets and big promotions, unmatched training opportunities and scrimmages, minimal to non-existing casualties, participation of all four services, and a de facto veto on any new, risky operations. So, while they shared the global perspective of Bolton and the others, they were far more cautious and prudent.[3]  


Bolton’s preference, of course, was a bull-headed, damn-the-torpedoes assault on every all front. His answer to the Korean nuclear issue was a preventive strike on all their nuclear facilities combined with a massive bombing of their artillery and tank concentrations so as to keep South Korean casualties down to an acceptable level. “Acceptable to whom?’ was not a question he asked. In Afghanistan, he advocated escalation; the country could not be left to the Taliban with the danger of a 9/11 repeat. (Why would some terrorist group need Afghanistan when there were 40 other places where an attack could be organized? Neither Bolton nor his colleagues posed the question).


Hold tight to the alliance with the Kurds but ignore Turkish sustenance of al-Qaeda/al-Nusra in Idlib. Place priority on getting rid of Assad – an Iranian asset – by any means necessary. (Example: destroy his entire air force in retaliation for the false flag Douma chemical attack). Play hardball with Baghdad to make sure that we could treat it as a protectorate and expel Iran. As to the latter, intensify pressure and keep the military card on the table. Venezuela: a more active role for U.S. personnel in plans for a violent coup against Maduro.  


The generals dragged their feet or blocked outright the war options. At the same time, they hamstrung Trump’s episodic moves on leaving Afghanistan and Syria. Inertia won out.  


The break-up between Trump and Bolton took place in early September. It had been brewing for some time. Bolton was already on the very brink of resigning in August in protest over a contemplated meeting between Trump and Iranian foreign Minister Zarif sponsored by Macron at the time of the G-7 summit. He also was aggrieved by Trump’s backing away from planned airstrikes against Iran in response to their shooting down of an American drone. To his mind, this perceived American weakness jeopardized achieving the goal of eliminating totally the prospect of Iran’s acquiring a nuclear capability – a security imperative - via regime change.  


What was the final straw? Perhaps, the peace deal with the Taliban which Bolton fiercely opposed – punctuated by the fiasco of the planned celebration at Camp David. A prelude to the Nobel Peace Prize Trump craved in his imagined status competition with Obama. Nobody but Trump wanted it. In fact, the White House heavies so feared a Taliban physical attack on the President that they insisted on redundant metal detectors and chemical detectors. Pence would be held in Washington given the possibility that the Afghan savages might throttle the ‘O’ with their bare hands.[4]


The ignominious collapse of the talks seems to have increased Trump’s growing animus toward Bolton. It had been carefully stoked by the new Chief of Staff Nick Mulvaney who was intent on expanding his power. Mike Pompeo, who read Trump’s humors skillfully, and who oversaw the Taliban opening, lent his heft to the negative side of the scale. Kushner, too, wept no tears at his departure. In the end, it was the convoluted workings of the Trump psyche that led to Bolton’s tanking. For Trump, firing people is one of life’s most gratifying experiences. Everyone close to him gets fired sooner or later – usually sooner.   


What difference did it make for American foreign policy? Not much.  




2] The psychology of Trump’s relationship to Putin is the exact opposite of Obama’s. It is the former’s personality weaknesses that has led him to approach the Russian leader with cordial respect – even as he follows an unqualified hardline on all substantive matters. Obama, by contrast, never could abide Putin, and became progressively antagonistic toward the man, because of his own deeply entrenched sense of innate superiority. In Putin, he met someone who was at least as smart, far more astute politically, and exuded a cool confidence that was Obama’s personal trademark. The man could even sing Blueberry Hill in English.  


3] The Pentagon’s reserve about further military engagements co-exists with its base building mania. The dedication to maintaining the vast archipelago of nearly a thousand outposts in every part of the world remains intact. Indeed, additions are on the drawing board. Washington recently squeezed the now former President of Argentina, Mauricio Macri, to circumvent his country’s constitution in allowing the US military to set up shop in Patagonia. (It abuts the Straits of Magellan, that maritime choke-point for cruise ships plying the waters between the Malvinas and Easter Island). The lack of any plausible strategic justification seemed beside the point. Once commitment is made to the principle of establishing strategic dominance in every region, no specific purpose seems to be required. (There is no truth to cynical reports that, since most of these bases are endowed with the amenity of a officers’ golf course, the brass harbor an ambition to circumnavigate the globe by drive, chip and putt without ever stepping off Pentagon real estate).  


4] Bolton’s narrative is a rich lode of anecdotes – about persons, about modes, about interactions among the high-and-mighty. They include examples of astonishing ignorance. It serves at once as shield and weapon. Shield against having to confront harsh realities that could require critical review of prevailing thinking for which they are totally unprepared. Consider something as basic, and significant, as the ‘moderate’ opposition in Syria being composed overwhelmingly of al-Qaeda/al-Nusra and similar terrorist groups who surely would take power were Assad to fall. This might be categorized as ‘studied ignorance’ – but ignorance can also be a weapon insofar as it keeps the public, Congress and the punditocracy distracted from the counterproductive nature of American actions in the region.   


Another example: Russia. Throughout Bolton’s discourse, there are notations of statements conveying the conviction that Russia today is continuing the Soviet Union’s hybrid war against the West. Hence, it should be treated as an implacable foe. This is fatuous nonsense – despite it being a bipartisan article of faith - and totally disconnected from reality.  


A version of this commentary appeared on CONSORTIUM NEWS website some weeks ago.


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