PRESIDENT TRUMP’S foreign policy apparatus gets another reboot this week, with his third national security adviser in 14 months starting Monday and his new secretary of state nominee debuting Thursday at a Senate confirmation hearing, poised to make way for a fresh CIA director, who will face tough Senate questioning about running a secret overseas prison where suspects were tortured as well as her role in destroying tapes of waterboarding.
Will Trump’s new team — hawkish national security bureaucrats schooled in the ways of Washington — make a material difference to how Trump approaches the world? Probably not.
On foreign policy, “I’m the only one that matters because when it comes to it, that’s what the policy is going to be,” Trump told Fox News last November. The blunt dismissal of expertise annoyed foreign-policy makers on both sides of the aisle, but Trump is not wrong that it’s the president’s view that prevails. President Barack Obama’s tortured, contradictory Syria policy-making is proof that leaders listen to a lot advice but don’t always take it. And Trump, of all people, has proved he governs from his gut.
The stakes couldn’t be higher if that gut takes the country astray. Trump has a ticking to-do list with his new team, decisions that must be made quickly and which will have massive repercussions for global security — from how to respond to an alleged chemical gas attack Saturday on Syrian civilians to the rift over how long to keep US troops fighting ISIS, from whether to yank the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal to how to prepare for success at unprecedented and risky nuclear talks with North Korea’s leader.
Condemning the suspected chemical attack in Syria on Twitter Sunday, Trump took aim at “President Putin, Russia and Iran” for “backing Animal Assad,” a reference to the Syrian president, who’s been fighting a war for seven years that UN observers and human rights groups estimate has claimed as many as a half-million lives. Trump said Monday that he’d decide within one to two days how to react.
On Syria, “the president seems to change his mind quite frequently, or at least is of two minds,” said Gary Samore of the Belfer Institute at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, former White House coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction under Obama. The wicked problem confounded Obama too.
“Trump’s desire to avoid military engagement in the Mideast is very strong, and in that sense, he shares a lot with Obama,” Samore said. “The trouble with the Middle East is it keeps reaching out and grabbing you and pulling you back in.”
In that respect, who’s sitting at Trump’s elbow making the strongest case does matter. That’s the powerful seat John Bolton takes this week as Trump’s foreign policy whisperer, having auditioned in strident Fox News commentaries and overcome perhaps the toughest hurdle: the president’s reported dislike of Bolton’s bushy mustache.
A former Bush administration State Department official who was a lightning rod for criticism over his perceived cherry-picking of intelligence to shape more belligerent policies to Iraq, Iran, and Cuba, Bolton failed to get Senate confirmation to be George W. Bush’s ambassador to the UN because of critical testimony from a former head of Bush’s National Intelligence Council and other witnesses, along with documents portraying a supposed pattern of selectively overhyping intelligence to fit his ideology.
Bolton’s new job doesn’t require Senate confirmation, but it’s unimaginably influential. Done right, the national security adviser prioritizes urgent and important national security concerns for the president and is an honest broker of intelligence reports and debate over what to do about them. It’s also too early to tell how the “big three” — Bolton, Secretary of State-designate Mike Pompeo, and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis — will get along, or who will have the most sway.
“John Bolton now has a constituency of one, which is Donald Trump,” said Aaron David Miller, who served in four State Departments and is a vice president at the Woodrow Wilson Center. “The stakes are much higher now. It’s not Fox News.”Indira A.R. Lakshmanan’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow her on Twitter @Indira_L.