In a lunchtime tweet storm Tuesday, President Donald Trump announced he’d fired his national security advisor, John Bolton. It’s about time. The president stated that he “disagreed strongly with many of [Bolton’s] suggestions, as did others in the Administration.”
Bolton had pushed again and again toward the foolish wars that Trump campaigned against. This was bad policy and bad politics. As Will Ruger pointed out, if Trump had followed Bolton’s advice, he’d have endangered not only his reelection, but also America.
The president should appoint a new national security advisor who shares his instincts: to get out of quagmires, to seek deals that can reduce tensions with our rivals, and to get our allies to take their own defense seriously. A national security advisor with the same aims will provide the president real choices at decision points. Trump’s previous national security advisors H.R. McMaster and Bolton had done the opposite, seeking to box him in. As Morton Blackwell quipped, personnel is policy.
It’ll be a tough job to fill. It’s hard to see the current acting national security advisor, Charles Kupperman, staying. Bolton had emphasized his closeness with Kupperman when he added the latter to his team in January. If Bolton is no good for Trump, his consigliere won’t be better.
So who steps in? One contender worth watching is retired Army colonel Douglas Macgregor. Macgregor, who won a Bronze Star with a V device for actions during the Army’s largest post-World War II tank battle, was on Tucker Carlson’s show just last night praising the president’s instincts on Afghanistan.
“The president’s right,” Macgregor said. “He was right in July of 2017, he was right in 2018, he’s right today. We need to get out. We need to get out tomorrow. We need to cut off the funding. We need to withdraw our forces. […] There is nothing in Afghanistan worth the life of a single American soldier. [Trump] understands that, he’s right, he needs to overrule these people and get out.”
Macgregor or not, the new NSA must grasp that there are people who need overruling—that too many inside the Beltway see American force as a quick fix for the world’s problems. Then, what’s an agenda for a new national security team that can work with the president’s instincts?
First off, the new national security advisor must follow through on the president’s State of the Union warning that “great nations don’t fight endless wars.” We’re in one in Afghanistan and getting into one in Syria.
The new NSA might look at restarting the talks with the Taliban. However, we don’t need the Taliban’s permission to leave Afghanistan, or to pop back in to hammer them if they again allow their territory to be used to plot terror against America. As Macgregor told Carlson, “We can come back whenever we want to and devastate them.” Deal or no deal, exit should be the plan.
The same goes in eastern Syria. The mission against the Islamic State has succeeded. Mission creep has begun as American troops are being assigned to all sorts of other activities, such as patrolling the Turkish-Syrian border and keeping Iranian militias out of the border town of Tanf. While noble, these tasks are not closely tied to America’s safety. If we didn’t have troops there already, we wouldn’t send troops in just to do those things. It’s time to come home.
On North Korea, the new national security advisor should steer back toward negotiation. After the Hanoi summit—which fell apart at Bolton’s prodding—Pyongyang and Washington have been moving away from 2018’s summitry and back toward 2017’s confrontation. With a national security advisor who shares his vision, the president won’t need to rely as much on personal diplomacy to make things happen.
A new staff can make working-level diplomacy great again. These lower-level contacts can make future summits more productive and build resilience into the diplomatic gains that have happened on Trump’s watch. Lower-level staff can test new ideas and probe the other side’s red lines, and thus help their bosses articulate what a deal might look like. If they’re not wedded to the Beltway establishment’s fantasy of North Korea giving up its nuclear weapons and are willing to work in the world as it is, they might find space for a true reset on the Korean Peninsula.
On Iran, it’s time to pivot from maximum pressure to maximum diplomacy. The risk of war remains high. Mysterious explosions keep afflicting Iran-affiliated militias in Iraq and Syria, and although the United States does not appear to be involved, the militias might not wait much longer before they hit us anyway.
Iran has sent some signals of openness to diplomacy, but they’ll need to be handled with care. Unlike many of those who had been shaping Iran policy, the president seems to understand that the point of pressure is to get a deal, not to rub the other guy’s face in the mud forever.
The new national security advisor will need to find a way to entice Iran to the table without humiliating them. That’s a big job. So is building trust between two countries that hate each other—and that will be a prerequisite to any major deal. The first move is thus to reduce tension, not to bet everything on one big summit.
A new NSA can support the president’s goal of more equitable NATO burden-sharing, too. As Trump pointed out in a tweet a few weeks ago, NATO’s own statistics show European states refuse to meet the minimum spending targets to which they’ve agreed. In a war, this means Americans will have to do more of the fighting and more of the dying.
True, our allies have boosted their investment in recent years, but they’re still well below the targets. Even so, many in the foreign policy community are hesitant to put the screws to NATO states. Only a consistent policy initiated by the president and articulated and enforced by the national security advisor can make real pressure happen. And only then do we get a more secure Europe that’s less dependent on U.S. handholding.
There are many other challenges to which the new national security advisor must attend, but knocking these out would be a good start. However, if Trump instead appoints another Bolton-style ultra-hawk or another McMaster-like establishment figure, he’ll find himself once again boxed in by his own team. That would be a tragic error.