The most surprising criticisms of Donald Trump this week may well have come from John Bolton, the former U.N. ambassador who has been a stalwart Trump supporter. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Bolton took Trump to task for, essentially, not being as revolutionary in his approach to foreign policy as his campaign rhetoric would have suggested.
Bolton is particularly exercised with regard to Iran and North Korea. On Iran, he wrote: “The White House decided last week to continue President Obama’s waiver of significant economic sanctions against Iran. The news, coming hard on the heels of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s April 18 certification that Iran is complying with the 2015 Vienna nuclear agreement, was both revealing and distressing.” Regarding North Korea, he wrote: “Mr. Trump’s current policy differs little from that of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush or Mr. Obama, relying mistakenly on China to pressure Pyongyang. As before, Beijing is feigning pressure, but as yet there is no evidence it will be any tougher than is necessary to quiet America down.”
Bolton blames these developments on the same foreign policy “blob”—i.e., the Washington establishment—that President Obama derided. He asserted: “The State Department is Washington’s most sophisticated bureaucracy in capturing political appointees and acculturating them to accept existing policies, but the military and intelligence bureaus are no slackers. The policies they pursued on Jan. 19, the day before Mr. Trump’s inauguration, are the same they pursue on Jan. 21, and Jan. 22, and so on until their direction is changed. Pushing through that change is what presidential appointees are needed to do.”
What to make of Bolton’s analysis? He is right that the bureaucracy tends to remain rooted in the status quo, but he doesn’t mention the major reasons why Trump has not had more success in imposing his will on the Washington bureaucracy.
First, there is the fact that the White House has not filled most of the critical jobs throughout government. Of 559 critical posts requiring Senate confirmation, the administration has only nominated 54 and confirmed 36. That means 83 percent of these jobs—including most of the senior posts at the Departments of State and Defense—remain empty.
Second, even most of Trump’s appointees don’t actually agree with his “America First” foreign policy. Certainly, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster do not. They are mainstream, conventional conservatives who place a priority on maintaining alliances and acting prudently. Indeed, there simply aren’t many people who are remotely qualified for high government office who agree with Trump’s idiosyncratic worldview; as a result, appointments are either not being made or they are going to people who have a mindset that is more in sync with the career officials than with Trump’s campaign rhetoric.
Third, it’s hard to know what Trump actually believes, given how many issues on which he has flip-flopped. He went from saying NATO is obsolete to saying it’s still necessary (without, however, endorsing the Article V collective self-defense provision). He evolved from promising to label China a currency manipulator to fulsomely praising China’s president, from demanding Mexico pay for his border wall to quietly shelving that demand, from promising to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem to abandoning that pledge. The list of broken promises is long. Bolton may ascribe some or all of these reversals to the insidious functioning of the foreign policy establishment, but an even likelier explanation is that Trump did not give much thought to what he said on the campaign trail and is now revising his views once aides explain to him the actual details of policy.
When it comes to Iran, for example, it has long been obvious that unwinding the nuclear deal would be a lot harder than signing it. If the U.S. were to simply pull out, it would give Iran an excuse to restart its nuclear program without inflicting much economic damage, because the U.S. simply doesn’t do much trade with Iran. To make sanctions hurt, the U.S. would have to convince allies to go along—something that is unlikely unless the U.S. can point to actual violations committed by Iran. So far, there is no real evidence of Iranian nuclear cheating; Iranian work on missile technology and Iran’s continuing sponsorship of extremist groups across the region do not, regrettably, fall within the terms of the deal.
As for North Korea, It’s not clear what Bolton advocates as an alternative to the containment policy that the Trump administration inherited from its predecessors. It’s true that pressuring China is unlikely to produce results, but what else should the U.S. do? Launch a preemptive military strike on North Korea’s nuclear or missile complexes? The risks of such a rash act, which risk igniting Korean War II with a nuclear-armed state, are even greater than the risks of displaying “strategic patience.”
Bolton is right that Trump’s policies have been more conventional than expected, but he is wrong to ascribe this development to insidious foreign policy elites. President Trump is simply being forced to acknowledge the complex realities that he refused to grapple with on the campaign trail.