John Bolton will officially become President Trump’s third national security adviser on April 9. And after that, the risk of the United States getting into another devastating war — or two — will rise substantially.
Vipin Narang, an MIT political scientist, estimated in a tweet that Bolton’s appointment raised the risk of war with North Korea by four times. Michael Horowitz, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, responded by saying he had revised his estimation upward by a factor of five.
Nor is Bolton alone in his hawkishness. Trump’s pick for his new secretary of state, CIA Director Mike Pompeo, is a vocal opponent of the nuclear deal with Iran who has called for strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities. More recently, he’s mused about regime change in North Korea.
“I am hopeful we will find a way to separate that regime from this system,” Pompeo said in a 2017 interview. “The North Korean people, I’m sure are lovely people and would love to see him [Kim Jong Un] go.”
Equally important are the people Bolton and Pompeo are replacing. The outgoing national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, is relatively hawkish on Korea but a staunch voice for preserving the Iran deal. Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is a relative dove on both issues; he also believed in keeping the Iran deal in place and has repeatedly and publicly reached out to North Korea to try to come to a diplomatic solution to the nuclear crisis.
It’s not clear whether Trump wants war with North Korea or Iran. But he appears to be systematically replacing the top advisers who have put the breaks on his more hawkish impulses — the so-called “adults in the room” — and replacing them with people who are likely to push for military solutions. Jeremy Bash, a former chief of staff at both the CIA and the Defense Department, said on MSNBC Friday morning that Trump is “assembling a war cabinet” — and it’s hard to argue with him.
“The ‘axis of adults’ era is officially over,” says Derek Chollet, senior adviser for security and defense policy at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
Instead, it’s possible we’re entering the era of Trump unbound — with all of the instability that entails.
Why Trump’s hawkish team is so dangerous
The early theory of the Trump administration was that the “axis of adults,” as Chollet puts it, could keep Trump from launching a war, tearing up US alliances, or any other rash and dangerous decision. Officials like McMaster, Tillerson, and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, the thinking went, would corral the inexperienced and inattentive president and essentially ensure that traditional American foreign policy remained in place.
This theory didn’t work out very well in practice. Examples include Trump deciding to move the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, which experts say has already made it harder for the US to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal; the withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement; decertifying Iranian compliance with the nuclear deal; and imposing dangerous tariffs on steel and aluminum imports because he was angry about bad press coverage.
Accounts from inside the White House suggest Trump despised the notion that he needed to be managed by “adults” and to ignore his own feelings in favor of his advisers’ opinions. Trump always hated the Iran deal, the Paris agreement, and all the rest — and deeply resented being told what to do. “Aides say the quickest way to get Trump to do something is to tell him he can’t,” as Axios’s Mike Allen puts it.
That’s not to say the so-called adults were entirely ineffectual. They reportedly played a role in convincing Trump to stay in the Iran deal rather than tearing it up entirely — which he seems to want to do. They prevented him from fatally undermining NATO and managed to quietly take some steps, like sending US troops to Poland, to challenge Russia. Rather, it’s that the adults were merely a haphazard and ineffectual barrier against Trump’s instincts — which, contrary to some popular myths, have always been quite hawkish.
That, in many ways, is the critical point here. After a little over a year, Trump is now more confident in his own judgments and political impulses. The current Cabinet shake-up reflects Trump’s desire to eliminate the people who saw their jobs as restraining him, replacing them with those more likely to enable him.
“A dozen people close to Mr. Trump or the White House, including current and former aides and longtime friends, described him as newly emboldened to say what he really feels and to ignore the cautions of those around him,” the New York Times’s Maggie Haberman reports. “That self-confidence has led to a series of surprising comments and actions that have pushed the Trump presidency in an ever more tumultuous direction.”
This doesn’t mean that Trump is intentionally laying the groundwork for two new wars. Trump’s feelings on war with North Korea and Iran are, like on so many issues, extremely hard to pin down. He’s threatened to hit North Korea with “fire and fury like the world has never seen,” but also accepted an offer to meet with Kim Jong Un face to face. He wants to tear up the Iran deal but has proposed an unspecified “better deal” — not war — as the alternative.
Rather, it’s that the kind of people Trump feels more comfortable with — the ones who he feels reflect his instincts and approach to the job most closely — are people on the extremely hawkish far right. And the more power these people have, meaning direct access to the president and control over the national security bureaucracy, the more likely they are to be able to push their ideas.
With Trump, a lot of things hinge on turning his vague feelings — North Korea can’t be allowed to threaten the United States, the Iran deal is a disaster — into concrete and actionable policies. Officials who Trump thinks speak for him are more likely to convince that their policy ideas represent an authentic articulation of the president’s vision.
What’s more, Bolton and Pompeo are savvy bureaucratic operators. There were similarly radical figures in the early Trump administration, like National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and senior strategist Steve Bannon. But the two men were relatively unskilled at bureaucratic infighting.
Take the executive order banning citizens of several Muslim countries from entering the US: Bannon’s failure to understand law and the bureaucracy turned the rollout of this “Muslim ban” into a catastrophe that’s still tied up in court. They were no match for people like Mattis, who has somehow managed to exercise a restraining influence on the president and remain in his good graces.
Matthew Waxman, a Bush administration official who worked with Bolton during his years at the State Department, experienced this firsthand.
“He’s a masterful bureaucratic tactician,” Waxman wrote in a Friday piece for Lawfare. “Rather than just adding a Fox-newsy ideologue who shifts the balance of the administration team’s view further toward the president’s most hawkish outlook, Trump has added someone who can actually help him make that outlook into reality.”
Bolton and Pompeo, unlike Flynn and Bannon, are demonstrably good at this game — and Bolton, at least, is more hawkish than his predecessors. Mattis is running low on allies, with Tillerson and National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn out. And Trump himself seems to feel emboldened to do ... well, whatever it is that he wants to do.
Bolton will take office soon. Pompeo will as well, if he makes it through his Senate confirmation process, which seems likely. Trump has reshuffled his Cabinet before, and will probably do so again. But pay close attention to what these two men do in their new jobs. Every day those two are in their jobs, the risk of a major war will remain far above what we’re used to — and, frankly, what we should be comfortable with.