President Trump’s choice of a new national security adviser has quickly become as polarizing as many of the other dramatic choices he’s made in the roller-coaster first stage of his Oval Office tenure, with conservative forces cheering the pick of the hawkish John Bolton as a muscular demonstration of U.S. support for Israel and those on the left warning of potential disaster.
Bolton, who will replace General H.R. McMaster in the latest round of Trump administration shakeups, is a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations known for his aggressive stances on geopolitics, including past open discussions of possible pre-emptive strikes against both Iran and North Korea.
Trump Administration policy has split the U.S. electorate, not to mention relationships abroad, with its handling of foreign affairs matters as various as intercontinental trade and climate agreements to U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish state and stated plans to move the embassy there from Tel Aviv.
From a policy perspective, Trump’s pick of Bolton fits in with his trajectory of moving his cabinet further to the right by virtue of bringing on people whose track record matches the rhetoric the president used on the campaign trail, says David Birdsell, dean and professor at the Marxe School of Public and International Affairs at Baruch College.
Those applauding Trump’s selection of Bolton, a veteran of posts at the Departments of State and Justice whose appointment could foreshadow a U.S. withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, include New York Representative Lee Zeldin, co-chairman of the House Republican Israel Caucus, who e-mailed a statement to the Forward.
Bolton, Zeldin said, “knows well that America must strengthen our relationships with our friends and treat our adversaries as our adversaries” — and pointedly added that “unlike the Obama administration, we will no longer be treating Israel like Iran and Iran like Israel.”
Morton Klein of the Zionist Organization of America, who personally led a campaign to oust McMaster as security advisor, called Bolton a personal friend and champion of Israel.
Klein called Trump’s selection of Bolton “spectacular” in a Friday interview with the Forward: “This will be a great appointment that will strengthen US-Israel relations, that will strengthen this administration’s interest in putting much more pressure on Iran to end its efforts to develop nuclear weapons [and to] eradicate the greatest scourge facing the world, and that is the scourge of radical Islamic terrorism.”
Klein dismissed critics who say Bolton has a dangerously itchy trigger finger when it comes to bypassing diplomacy in favor of martial force, saying they would do just as well — or badly — to have attached a warmonger label to those who fought to end slavery in the U.S. Civil War or advocated action against the Nazi regime in the 1930s and 1940s.
“This is not warmongering. This is understanding that if other diplomatic actions and sanctions don’t work, there will be no choice,” he said of Bolton. “This is a rational position of an American patriot who wants to protect America.”
Other observers were hardly as optimistic about the incoming national security advisor’s prospects for lowering the temperature on the international relations scene.
Bolton’s appointment will increase tensions in the region by tilting the United States heavily toward Saudi Arabia and away from Iran, forcing other countries to choose sides in that regional conflict, said Darrell West, vice president and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington, in an interview with the Forward.
That doesn’t bode well for peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians, he added: “The risk is that the resulting anger and dissension will spiral out of control and produce a situation even worse than the current status quo.”
Similarly, Dylan Williams, chief lobbyist for J Street, a group which advocates for “pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans,” told The Forward that Trump’s promotion of Bolton is dangerous: “It’s an utterly unqualified commander-in-chief getting rid of responsible adults and replacing them with extremists who validate his own dangerous belligerence.”
Under Bolton, Williams is particularly worried about the fate of the Iran deal, which he said has the backing of “the majority of Jewish Americans.”
Williams said he sees it as Bolton’s “express goal to unwind a lot of the diplomatic achievements and multilateral progress that has been made in recent administrations,” and warned that “an already embattled U.S. foreign service will face further isolation, neglect and even derision from a NSC run by John Bolton.”
Not everyone who supports a two-state solution stands opposed to Trump’s decision to bring Bolton in, however. Among those: Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, who said Bolton “will not sell out Israel.”
The president has obviously also shaken up U.S. diplomacy from the very top, canning Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (on Twitter, no less) in favor of CIA Director Mike Pompeo, who’s taken much a harder line on the Iran deal.
Trump “appears to be trying to create a chorus of voices that will echo his own,” Birdsell said in an interview with The Forward, and he’s doing it, perhaps unsurprisingly for a one-time reality-show star, with a preference for “the appointment of people who have made careers talking on television about the conservative principles they espouse.” (That would include not only replacing McMaster with Bolton, but moving Larry Kudlow into the economic advisor role previously held by Gary Cohn.)
Bolton’s rise, Birdsell noted, coincides with — or perhaps expedites — the already shaky situation of Jared Kushner, the Trump son-in-law initially tasked with playing a major role in brokering a Middle East peace.
“Plainly, those diplomatic solutions have paled, and his star has been setting for some time now. Whether there was ever a serious notion that Jared Kushner could pull off a diplomatic coup, [certainly] it is much, much more difficult to imagine — if it was ever imaginable in the first place — that he could make diplomatic progress while John Bolton is busy tearing up the landscape with both hands,” Birdsell said.
“We’ll see how that works out. But remember, we’re now of course talking about a very much diminished Kushner with no security clearance [or] access to privileged documents,” the professor added. “It’s just extraordinarily difficult to imagine how he could be an effective actor in an arena where he can’t even read secret briefing documents on what’s happening in the region.”
Trump’s new security advisor, presumably, would not have any such obstacles to obtaining information to be used in the pursuit of peace via negotiation — if that’s what he and the boss choose to pursue.
“Bolton is about getting what you want by pointing a gun and demanding it,” Birdsell said. “He’s not a diplomatic actor in this role. He’s tried on that suit. It didn’t fit too well.”