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Johnny, we hardly knew ye: What to make of John Bolton’s exit from Trump’s White House

2019-09-10

It is rare these days when President Trump does something that all Americans, regardless of political persuasion, can celebrate. Cashiering John Bolton as national security adviser qualifies as an exception. For a moment, let us ignore the dysfunction enveloping the White House and permeating the entire administration. Before the next idiotic presidential tweet leaves us agape, let’s pause and treat ourselves to a bottle of bubbly. Bolton is gone: The Lord be praised.

As the president likes to say whenever heaving overboard some schmuck who has fallen out of favor: “We wish you well, John!”

Yet as Bolton clears out his desk, let us remind ourselves as to why we have cause to celebrate: Bolton is a genuinely dangerous and arguably unhinged bully. Americans should be grateful that Trump is running him out of town (and doubtless back to Fox News) before he managed to instigate another needless war to go with the ones already underway.

His foul-looking mustache aside, this is Bolton’s most prominent quality: He is a warmonger, albeit of the chicken hawk variety, having managed to avoid military service when his own opportunity to fight for his country presented itself. His departure from office without having goaded Trump into attacking Iran must rank as a major personal disappointment.

Yet an obvious question presents itself: Who will now replace Bolton to become Trump’s national security adviser number four? Who out there in the universe of policy wonks is willing to debase themselves — for that’s what working for Trump entails — in hopes of momentarily claiming a place in the inner circle of power? Who will prostrate themselves before press and public to make the case that our Emperor is indeed splendidly clothed, notwithstanding the abundant evidence revealing that he is both naked and a fool? Who will cheerfully scrape and bow before our Emperor, knowing all the while that in a month or two, or a year at most, they too will be cast aside? Who will forfeit honor and reputation to follow Michael Flynn, H.R. McMaster and now Bolton off the end of the gangplank?

At this point, the pool of even minimally qualified candidates willing to volunteer for the post cannot be large. It may well be in the low single digits.

So here’s a suggestion to our president: Why bother? Why not just trust your gut and go it alone?

Recall the motivation for creating the office of national security adviser in the first place. It is to provide whoever happens to be president with a seasoned hand to coordinate the entire national security apparatus, thereby ensuring that decision papers reaching the Oval Office are sound, sensible and prudent.

Once the president decides, it’s the national security adviser who takes the lead in ensuring that his wishes translate into sane and effective actions that are sound, sensible, prudent and also effective. If it all goes right, outcomes will correlate with intentions and the interests of the United States will be served.

But terms like sound, sensible and prudent in no way describe this president’s preferred MO. Trump is a loose cannon. He prizes spontaneity. He makes things up as he goes along. He is to the art of statecraft what Robin Williams was to the art of comedy, expect that Williams had a sense of humor and Trump has none. He is, to put it mildly, unconstrained by reality.

Knowing that he is the smartest guy ever to serve as president, Trump doesn’t need — and rarely listens to — the advice of others.

Did Thomas Jefferson require a national security adviser? Did Lincoln? No, they did not. Then why does Trump?

Now one might note that America’s role in the world is differs from what it was back when Jefferson and Lincoln served as president. But to appreciate those differences would require an awareness of history that Trump does not possess. This too ranks among the qualities that contribute to his uniqueness.

Besides, saving money from the national security adviser’s salary will enable Trump to build another 18 inches of his border wall. He’ll like that.

Bacevich is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.