The Drums Get Louder: The Alarming Shift on Trump's National Security Team - by John Hodges
Since President Trump took office over a year ago, his West Wing has been defined by unprecedented turnover and instability at important positions. Already, the White House has seen the departure of a Chief of Staff, three communication directors, three cabinet secretaries, and a handful of senior advisors. While many of these departures are little more than examples of the way Trump’s volatility spreads to those around him, the recent exits of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster stand out for their potentially dire real-world consequences.
During his rocky tenure as Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson often seemed either uncomfortable or unprepared for his role as the nation’s top diplomat. He frequently and publicly clashed with the president, and under his watch, many of the most important positions in the foreign service remained unfilled as morale in the State Department steadily declined. Yet, for all his drawbacks, Tillerson remained committed to diplomacy and avoiding a conflict with North Korea or Iran. When some in the administration floated the idea of a limited “bloody nose” strike earlier this year, Tillerson stood with Secretary of Defense James Mattis in strong opposition. Tillerson has also been an important roadblock to Trump’s inclination to withdraw from the Iran nuclear agreement. Tillerson’s nominated successor, CIA Director Mike Pompeo, would bring a more aggressive viewpoint to the office. Pompeo has been one of the strongest advocates in the administration for withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal apart, threatening to tear apart a carefully negotiated international agreement. In regards to North Korea, Pompeo is not the most hawkish member of the administration but has at times expressed views that are much more aggressive than Tillerson’s. Last summer in a talk at The Aspen Institute, Pompeo suggested that the United States was actively seeking ways to “separate” Kim Jong-Un from his regime, and he has been less optimistic about diplomatic solutions than Mr. Tillerson. While it remains to be seen if he would actually take different approaches than Tillerson, Pompeo’s rhetoric suggests a more hawkish stance in America’s next chief diplomat.
More alarming than changes at the State Department is the replacement of National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster with John Bolton. McMaster was, by all accounts, one of the most hawkish members of the president’s national security team. But, if hawkishness is an indispensable feature of this administration, his long record of service in the Middle East and his prolific study of the errors made in Vietnam gave him a breadth of military and strategic expertise. His successor, John Bolton, takes McMaster’s hawkishness to a new level, and with a track record that gives cause for concern. Bolton served as Under Secretary of State for Arms Control in the Bush administration and was a leading advocate for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Even in the Bush White House, Bolton stood out for his hawkishness, and to this day insists that he has no regrets about the decision to invade and topple Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Bolton’s aggressive views extend far beyond Iraq. In February of this year, he published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal arguing for a preemptive strike against North Korea, despite the high likelihood that such an attack would spiral into a massive and destructive war on the Korean Peninsula. A few years before that, when tensions with Iran over its nuclear program were at a high point, Bolton wrote in The New York Times, again arguing for a preemptive military strike. Throughout his career, Bolton has consistently sounded the drums of war, even in cases where few saw the strategic merits of military action. His views have been so extreme that he did not have the votes to be confirmed as Ambassador to the United Nations in 2005 when Congress was controlled by his own party. In a White House defined both by its volatility and its interventionist rhetoric, Bolton represents a potentially dangerous, destabilizing presence.
As these alarming changes to Trump’s national security team take place, Congress has a duty to do everything in its power to protect the country from backing into another military debacle. Mr. Bolton’s appointment as National Security Advisor does not require Senate confirmation, but Mr. Pompeo must clear that hurdle before he can become Secretary of State. Given his recent statements on Iran and North Korea, senators must press him on whether he supports preemptive military action in either country, and should be thorough and diligent in their confirmation process. Furthermore, as the Trump administration calls for increased military spending while cutting funding for the State Department, members of Congress should move to protect our diplomats around the world and bolster their efforts to build peace through negotiation rather than conflict. As Trump’s national security team seemingly drifts towards more extreme interventionism, every American should be concerned that a famously persuadable president is surrounding himself with noted advocates of war and confrontation.
NPR: “Bolton Brings Hawkish Perspective To North Korea, Iran Strategy”
CNN: “Trump advisers clash over 'bloody nose' strike on North Korea”
Politico: “Trump prepares to wound Iran deal — and then save it”
The Atlantic: “The New Secretary of State Is a North Korea Hawk”
“Bombs away: John Bolton's most hawkish views on Iran, Iraq and North Korea”
New York Times: “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran”
Wall Street Journal: “The Legal Case for Striking North Korea First”
Washington Examiner: “John Bolton: No regrets about toppling Saddam”