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President Trump announced on September 18th that he would replace his former National Security Advisor John Bolton with Robert O’Brien, now his former Envoy for Hostage Affairs. Although the circumstances of Bolton’s departure are somewhat unclear, this came after apparent disagreements over the advice he gave Trump on several issues during his service.
As now expected by this President, Trump tweeted out on September 10th that he and others in his administration disagreed with Bolton’s counsel and so requested his resignation. Politico suggested in reporting that this eventuated due to the cancelled negotiations between the U.S. and the Taliban at Camp David, something Bolton fought against. Bolton, who was Trump’s longest-serving National Security Advisor to date, later claimed through a statement on Fox News that “let’s be clear, I resigned,” pushing back that he was forced out over this. Characteristically, Trump later tweeted that “He was holding me back” on significant foreign policy issues, indicating that Bolton had previously frustrated him before this event. Others, like the Ron Paul Institute for Peace and Prosperity, have also argued that Bolton’s presence in this administration has often been responsible for a breakdown of diplomacy. Case in point: no further progress has been made between North Korea and the U.S. since the failed second summit which Bolton attended.
Although the replacing of Bolton has been celebrated by those who criticised his “chickenhawk” foreign policy positions, the appointment of O’Brien by Trump seems to suggest Bolton’s ideas are still a reality in this administration. Like Bolton, O’Brien has some history of serving in government and has authored work which espouses American exceptionalism – the belief that America is exceptional and so has a special role to play in the world. In his book, “While America Slept: Restoring American Leadership to a World in Crisis,” O’Brien criticised Obama’s foreign policy arguing that he was a “do-nothing” president, giving America’s enemies what they wanted, like negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran, while “gutting” the military. Whilst that is complete nonsense, one could be forgiven for then thinking that O’Brien is essentially Bolton, without the moustache, as these ideas seem identical to Bolton’s philosophy. In other words, Trump traded one neoconservative advisor for another.
For those of us who hoped Trump’s agenda would be more dovish than hawkish, this is another disappointing appointment as this seems to be antithetical not only towards peace and diplomacy but to “making America great again.” Trump’s instinct that armed conflicts are terrible is correct, so it seems nonsensical as to why hiring someone with the same neoconservative mindset will help America’s diplomatic efforts or his presidency. Perhaps we should not be too surprised, however, as it was this president who appointed Bolton in the first place and now someone else who might be more loyal to him. In fact, the tweet where Trump said Bolton was “holding him back” seems to indicate he is much weaker on diplomacy than the mixed efforts of his predecessor. This indicates, yet again, an unwillingness to have some principles on important policies, something that the American public and Congress should hold him accountable to. Whatever his logic, while it is good that Bolton is gone, America would be much better off if Trump had advisors who encouraged him to end the aggressive policies of sanctions and the forever wars before things get much worse both internally and externally for the country. Mr President, a strong and good leader ought to do the principled thing and have people around him willing to do the same.