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"It's going to be hard to find a national security adviser who shares Trump's opinion that we should make lousy deals with bad actors."--Daniel W. Drezner, professor of international politics, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a contributing editor for The Washington Post.

Even on the rarest occasion when he is as right as he is wrong, as in the John Bolton affair, this president can make a fine mess.

In the administration of George W. Bush, Bolton was United Nations ambassador and widely feared as an overzealous hawk, too ready to wage war for strident general reasons without attention to underlying nuance.

You might say he was Tom Cotton with an even quicker trigger finger.

But when Trump brought Bolton into the White House as national security advisor--his third--there was some comfort taken even among those former critics.

Trump was juvenile and megalomaniacal and, as such, given to grand and naïve gestures like clumsy overtures to North Korea. Bolton, as an adviser disdainful of America's foes and ready to fight, would counterbalance Trump's rush to superficial televised heroics and bad deals born of personal ego, or so it was theorized.

Bolton might try to get us into a war, yes. But he'd also help keep us out of disastrous grandstanding concessions. That was believed to be the potential and delicate tradeoff.

You might say that Bolton's value was helping keep this White House safely dysfunctional, lacking the nerve at the top for war and averse from Bolton's influence to pliability and naiveté.

You might say that anything that helps render this White House safely dysfunctional is to be treasured.

And it seems to have worked out largely that way during Bolton's time.

Trump did not strike Iran, though Bolton wanted him to do that. Trump blinked, thankfully, because he is averse to what the complications of war might do to the televised perceptions of personal magnificence that he seeks for himself.

And then there was the Taliban fiasco. Trump wanted to make a deal so he could announce that he had succeeded where Barack Obama couldn't. He wanted to announce that he was bringing our troops home from the Afghanistan quagmire.

Bolton was saying "hell, no," telling Trump he'd be crazy to trust a deal with killers of thousands of Americans and that he could draw down our presence in Afghanistan without feting those criminals at Camp David on the eve of the 9/11 observance.

Yet Trump barreled ahead, until the last minute, that is, when he aborted the plan, probably because it was doomed but ostensibly because the Taliban had just killed another American.

So for all of Trump's self-exalting overtures to North Korea and now the Taliban, the fact is that--as a Bolton ally told The New York Times on news of Bolton's departure--no bad deal got signed while Bolton was in the White House.

That might be less attributable to Bolton's presence than to the fact that this president blows a lot of hot air. He talks tall while walking tiny.

Whatever works, I say. It's the best we can hope for from this president--that we avoid the worst things that could happen, thanks to indecisiveness, incompetence and internal confusion, both in Trump personally and in his administration institutionally.

Typically, Trump says he fired Bolton and Bolton says he offered to resign and slept on it and indeed resigned the next day. When it comes to Trump's word against that of the frightful warmonger, go with the frightful warmonger.

Or, in the case of Trump's word, with just about anybody else.

The new worry is what kind of mess Trump can make in a White House without a delicate balance. Bolton may have been the last naysayer, the last White House aide with a nose un-browned.

Anytime one of these vacancies arises in the defense or intelligence field, Our Boy Tom Cotton gets mentioned. He might be Bolton-Lite, as bellicose toward Iran but more willing generally to go along with the wild man at the top.

But, surely, Harvard Tom has more sense than to give a second's thought to a job that probably won't be mentioned to him. He has a good and safe gig in the Senate and a clear shot to re-election next year, when it's entirely possible the Democrats will take down Trump in spite of themselves.

I'm told Cotton really covets only two other jobs. One is defense secretary. The other is the office for which the Republicans will need a nominee post-Trump, whether that's gloriously soon or disastrously later.

Cotton seems to be tight-roping pretty effectively between being part of the Trump team but outside it--an independent contractor rather than an employee, helpful but not liable.

He wouldn't mess that up by going in-house, no matter how sweet that might be for Arkansas.


John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.

Editorial on 09/12/2019

Print Headline: JOHN BRUMMETT: The Bolton affair


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