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Farewell, John Bolton

The firing (or, he insists, the resignation) of John Bolton as national security special assistant is being treated by some observers as a great loss for coherence and professionalism in the conduct of US foreign policy. Josh Rogin at the Washington Post, for example, writes on September 11: “Republicans on Capitol Hill lost a key interlocutor and a key ally inside the White House. Many fear Trump will replace Bolton with someone who will feed Trump’s own desire to drastically pull back on U.S. commitments and alliances abroad. Even Democrats acknowledge Bolton was somebody who they knew and trusted to — at the very least — push back against Trump’s worst instincts or false beliefs.”

In short, we are invited to treat Bolton’s departure as another in a long line of “adults in the room” who are gone, leaving Trump to make policy by gut instinct. (“Trump unplugged,” as one former diplomatic put it.) You would think we had lost a voice for peace, human rights, and international cooperation! Let’s get real: Bolton’s departure is a welcome event. His hawkish impulses, if allowed to proceed uncheck, quite possibly would have led to war with Iran, no talks with the Taliban in Afghanistan, continued “maximum pressure” on North Korea and Venezuela, and further sanctions against Cuba and Nicaragua. Yes, Bolton was an “adult” when it came to sanctions on Russia, support for NATO, and Trump’s glad-handing of dictators. But on balance, Bolton was as much a menace to real national and international security as his boss.

Various foreign-policy professionals are being quoted as concluding that with Bolton gone, Trump will have the field to himself, with only Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and friends to restrain him. That is indeed worrisome, since Pompeo has been just as militant as Bolton on Venezuela, North Korea, and Iran. The main difference between the two is Pompeo’s loyalty—his willingness to bite his tongue and go along with whatever Trump says or does. US foreign policy will be no less incoherent and erratic in a Bolton-less world. But at least with Bolton gone, we have one less voice for war in Washington.

More articles by:

Mel Gurtov is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University, Editor-in-Chief of Asian Perspective, an international affairs quarterly and blogs at In the Human Interest.

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