By Stephen Bryen 11 September 2019
It was very important for President Donald Trump to fire National Security Adviser John Bolton rather than let him resign. But that does not erase the risk to Trump in foreign policy and his initiatives with North Korea, the Taliban and Iran.
Trump now has to minimize his risk exposure. His best chance for a diplomatic victory is probably with North Korea.
Trump’s Presidency and his foreign policy is closely related to what transpired with Bolton. Had Bolton’s offer to resign – apparently considered on the night before be was fired – been submitted, Trump would have had to either accept it or reject it, but he then could not fire Bolton. So it is clear he put him off and fired him the next morning.
Trump needed to fire Bolton so he could say that Bolton and he didn’t agree on the main points of Trump’s foreign policy. And in truth, if they did not agree, why was Bolton still there?
When Trump sidelined Bolton to Mongolia while he met with Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, it was clear already that Bolton should quit. It is unprecedented for a President to send his national security adviser on a minor mission while the President carries out a significant national security responsibility.
It is quite true that North Koreans hate John Bolton. But they also dislike Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and for that matter the entire State Department. But Pompeo was not cast off, Bolton was. This tells us it wasn’t the North Koreans who mattered, it was the relationship between Trump and Bolton.
The three foreign policy issues that caused most of the divisiveness were: 1.) the negotiations with the Taliban; 2.) the negotiations with the North Koreans, and; 3.) the possibility of Trump meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the United Nations General Assembly later this month.
For better or worse, Trump believes he can make deals with the Taliban, Kim and Rouhani. Likewise, he saw Bolton as obstructing his efforts and undermining his policies.
Trump is trying to implement the most powerful argument he can make while seeking re-election: that he alone could end the Afghanistan war and limit US military engagement overseas. Until now he has largely been hogtied by circumstances and advisers. Most of all, Trump does not like being told what he cannot do.
One of the reasons Trump is so exercised over these matters is that he wants to be reelected the same way Eisenhower was first elected. In that election campaign, challenged to come up with a policy toward the Korean war by President Harry Truman, then-General Dwight D. Eisenhower responded in a speech on October 24, 1952 that, “If elected I shall go to Korea…”
Trump is also ready to go to North Korea if Kim gives him the right opportunity.
Only hours before Bolton was fired, the North Koreans did two things: they said they wanted to re-start the stalled negotiations with the United States, and they fired off a couple of missiles to show they were not weak or afraid of negotiating with Trump and the United States.
Underlying the North Korean shift in emphasis is a strong desire to find a rapprochement with the United States and an acceptable process toward denuclearization. According to private unofficial talks last week with the North Koreans (the source cannot be revealed), the North Koreans made it clear they feared instability in South Korea on one hand, and China on the other, and see the United States as a guarantor of stability in the regime. But to translate these North Korea geopolitical concerns into concrete form, the North Koreans have to find a way to elaborate the denuclearization process.
In the past, attempts at denuclearization have been tied to international parties and the IAEA specifically. But for the North Koreans, the IAEA is a non-starter because of past differences with IAEA findings and inspections. Similarly, internationalizing an essentially bilateral deal puts the North Koreans at a diplomatic, political and strategic disadvantage – especially if China or Russia are involved.
Moreover, there is no reason such an approach makes sense, just as it is senseless and diverging to engage the United Nations. Both North Korea and the United States ought to be able to establish mechanisms for technical dialogue needed to flesh out a general denuclearization undertaking.
On the US side, it would mean that DOD, CIA and Energy would be the technical negotiators (the Department of Energy is responsible for nuclear weapons development), as opposed to the State Department, which lacks the technical knowledge and is regarded by North Korea as an impediment.
On their side, the North Koreans would have to involve their military, intelligence and scientific establishment. This formula would probably appeal to both President Trump and Kim, although Secretary of State Pompeo could raise objections. Given Trump’s handling of Bolton, that impediment is not too great, particularly if Pompeo is otherwise engaged.
That “otherwise” engagement would be to try and find a way to restart the Taliban talks if the Taliban will agree to a mutual ceasefire (without which the negotiations will have failed) and to see how to structure the process of engaging the Iranians –what could be achieved and how?
This is an especially difficult and delicate situation because America’s critical allies – Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Israel – will be strongly on the lookout for any process that leaves them vulnerable to future Iranian nuclear weapons, and/or to Iran’s military-political operations across the crescent of Iraq, Lebanon and Syria (with a Saudi/UAE concern about Yemen thrown in).
The danger for Trump is to take on too much at a time when election politics are rising rapidly, and while some in the House of Representatives want to impeach him.
But Trump could fail in the execution of his program – especially foreign policy, where he has to avoid seeming weak, confused or overly indulgent to dictators. By the same token, bringing home troops from a losing 18-year-long war, where nothing has been accomplished other than the deaths of many American soldiers, is one of Trump’s primary goals.
One is reminded of the famous statement by the late Senator from Vermont, George Aiken speaking about the Vietnam War when he said: “Why don’t we declare victory and get out?” Translated to Afghanistan, Trump could execute a similar policy as an alternative to negotiations.
Trump also has to keep in mind that Bolton’s opposition to negotiating with the Taliban, Iran and Kim appeals strongly to Republican conservatives, and the broader electorate. How Trump will be able to manage that, and everything else, is the big question.
Based on the relative merits, President Trump would be smart to pursue a deal with Kim and set aside his Taliban and Iranian initiatives, which could easily backfire.