WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump has rewritten the United States’ foreign policy playbook with his willingness to meet anyone and go anywhere to get a deal.
With his hawkish national security adviser John Bolton gone, Trump has removed one of the last dissenting voices on his impulses and instincts.
So far, Trump has become the first president to set foot in North Korea and to meet its leader and has sought to forge close ties to Russia’s president.
Bolton’s exit could remove a barrier to a meeting at the United Nations with Iran’s president later this month, or to talks with members of the insurgent Afghan Taliban movement.
“From the outset, Trump has had two voices whispering in his ears: the one counseling diplomacy and the other recommending belligerence,” said Rob Malley, who was an adviser to former President Barack Obama and now heads the International Crisis Group in Washington.
“With Bolton gone, the second voice undeniably has lost its loudest proponent. That could create new opportunities for diplomacy on Iran, Afghanistan, North Korea and Venezuela,” he added.
The formalities and discipline of diplomacy were a tough fit for Trump from the start. He ran for office as a Republican but has few apparent ties to the party’s traditionally conservative philosophy on foreign-policy matters.
He often cites his flexibility as a way to reassure people that some of his more unconventional and controversial proposals are subject to change.
Trump has said he shuns the need for consensus, hailing opposing views among his top advisers as an asset. As one of the last independent foreign policy voices in the administration, Bolton conveyed an unapologetic, ultra-hawkish but experienced view that frequently contradicted Trump’s boisterous but anti-militaristic approach to foreign policy matters.
Bolton joined the administration in April 2018, a point at which some of the administration’s more moderate figures were already gone. With Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a fellow hawk, Trump’s foreign policy was expected to take a dramatic turn.
But Trump has opted for dialogue over conflict. For instance, he shelved plans, supported by Bolton, for a retaliatory strike after Iran shot down a US drone in June.
Asked about his differences with his then-national security adviser on Iran, Trump told reporters: “I temper John – which is pretty amazing.”
Iran’s government spokesman, Ali Rabiei, applauded Bolton’s departure in a post on Twitter.
“Months ago, John Bolton had promised that Iran would not be there in 3 months; we are still standing & he is gone. With the ousting of its biggest proponent of war & economic terrorism, the White House will have fewer obstacles to understanding the realities of Iran,” Rabiei wrote.
Pompeo said Tuesday at the White House that Trump would be willing to meet with the Iranian president. “The president has made very clear he is prepared to meet with no preconditions,” he said.
Trump has engaged in trade battles around the world, but opted to maintain a measured response on protests in Hong Kong so not to disrupt his trade talks with China, even as Republican lawmakers offered public support for the demonstrators.
Despite pressure from Bolton and others, including many Republicans in Congress, Trump continues to tread softly on the question of sanctions against Turkey after Ankara’s recent decision to buy a Russian air-defense system, a move that prompted Washington to withhold sales of Lockheed Martin Corp.’s advanced F-35 stealth jet fighters to the country.
Bolton’s outspoken advocacy for tougher action against Venezuela and Cuba was a source of great tension within the administration. Trump has become increasingly frustrated that his gamble on regime change in Caracas through economic pressure isn’t paying off.
Trump has drawn criticism for rushing into international negotiations without careful preparation. While Bolton’s departure opens the door to talks negotiations with Iran, it could worry key US allies in the Middle East, including Persian Gulf nations and Israel, who believed that the Obama-era of greater accommodation with Iran was over, said Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute.
“The bottom line is it means uncertainty,” Pletka said of Bolton’s exit. “Uncertainty in foreign policy, just like in economics, is not a good thing.”
With Bolton’s departure, the Trump administration also is losing one of its more experienced policy makers. Bolton’s deputy will fill the job until Trump appoints a new full-time adviser.
The vacancy at the National Security Council, which Bolton headed, occurs as Trump is trying to find someone to lead the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which has been vacant since Dan Coats resigned in July.
Similarly, the Department of Homeland Security has had an acting director since the resignation of Kirstjen Nielsen in April.
At the Defense Department, Secretary Mark Esper started work in his post after his Senate confirmation in July, months after the resignation of former Secretary Jim Mattis over differences with Trump.
Pompeo, a key Trump ally, has been in place since 2018, and before that was director of the Central Intelligence Agency. However, he has been mentioned as a possible candidate for the Senate from Kansas, and key lawmakers were unable to predict whether Bolton’s departure would have an effect on his calculations.
“I would guess on the Pompeo side of the equation is that his role in the administration, or his influence, becomes more important,” said Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS). “If you’re looking for stability you wouldn’t want, in this case, another cabinet member to depart.”
Bolton and Pompeo were expected to repair a long-dormant inter-agency process of decision-making and policy formulation within the executive branch that was plagued by a lack of coordination.
But the process has continued to lead to diverging public statements between the White House and agencies, such as when Trump said talks with the Taliban were dead after Pompeo said he hoped they resume.
Bolton opposed the administration’s opening to the Taliban.