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March 28, 2018

What John Bolton Brings to the Table

He has the right skillset to flourish in the job, but he must be given the opportunity to succeed.

President Donald Trump’s announcement last week that John Bolton will replace H.R. McMaster on April 9 as national security advisor set off a firestorm of reaction in political circles and news rooms all around the country. Bolton, currently a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a former United States ambassador to the United Nations, is considered by many foreign policy experts to be a war hawk. That in and of itself is an interesting angle regarding his appointment.

His record for advocating military action, including op-eds calling for armed conflict with Iran and North Korea, has many domestic and foreign policy experts on edge. However, is Bolton as much a threat as his critics portray?

It is arguably true that Bolton is, as one publication put it, “personally belligerent and professionally bellicose.” To many politicians and bureaucrats, he is a polarizing figure. Conservative and leftist press outlets, from The American Conservative to The New York Times, have decried Trump’s selection of Bolton. Heck, even George Will and Jimmy Carter agree that the selection of Bolton is dangerous for the republic.

However, the one thing that Will and Carter, as well as many of the other pundits, are missing in their analysis is that Bolton is a pragmatic nationalist who represents a conventional body of opinion in American foreign policy dating back more than half a century. While it is easy for critics to depict Bolton as a militarist, they are missing his deft preparation before he even takes the job.

According to Axios, the respected online publication run by veteran political reporters Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen, Bolton is “trying to build internal credibility with a more studied, lower-decibel approach.”

A source familiar with Bolton’s thinking was quoted in the article stating that the former ambassador sees his role as national security advisor as an enforcer. The source stated that Bolton will focus on “making sure the president knows what the cost-benefit analysis of the various options is going on — and then, coming out [and] making sure that the decision is enforced.”

That thought process is right out of the playbook of a man who is often considered the most effective national security advisor in modern times, Brent Scowcroft. Bolton is an ardent admirer of Scowcroft, especially the way the former Air Force general was able to streamline the inter-agency process of making recommendations to the president.

Bolton is an intelligent man who understands that the world is a complicated and treacherous place and he believes that the United States must be prepared for all contingencies. Anyone who thinks that Bolton will be able to run roughshod over President Trump hasn’t been paying attention the last 15 months. Trump has made multiple, positive foreign policy decisions since becoming the commander in chief and there is no reason to believe that the decision to hire Bolton will change this dynamic.

It will be interesting to see how Bolton’s relationship with Trump evolves over time. He has the right skillset to flourish in the job, but he must be given the opportunity to succeed. His practicality is what this White House needs and it will be a welcome change from his predecessor’s tenure.

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