The irony of John Bolton’s tenure as national security adviser, which ended Monday night and was confirmed by presidential tweet on Tuesday morning, is that upon the news of his initial appointment, most foreign-policy experts in Washington worried about the damage Mr. Bolton could do abroad. He was known for his hard-line views on North Korea, Iran and other issues, and several fretted about the wars this irascible firebrand might persuade an inexperienced president to start.
Yet Mr. Bolton’s legacy is not of destruction overseas, but dysfunction in Washington. To pursue his own policy agenda and serve an erratic president, in just 17 months Mr. Bolton effectively destroyed the National Security Council system, the intricate structure that governed American foreign policy since the end of World War II. Mr. Bolton’s most lasting legacy will be dismantling the structure that has kept American foreign policy from collapsing into chaos, and finally unshackling an irregular commander-in-chief.
Mr. Trump is not the first president to think he could manage the country’s foreign policy by himself. During World War II, Franklin Delano Roosevelt micromanaged the war effort from the Oval Office with just a handful of aides and through personal communications with counterparts like Winston Churchill. Roosevelt, who called himself a “juggler” who was “perfectly willing to mislead and tell untruths it if helps win the war,” liked to keep his options open and just about everyone else — military leaders, diplomats, Congress, even Vice President Harry Truman — in the dark.
Roosevelt’s juggling maddened those in Washington left out of the loop: The stakes were too high and the decisions too complex for any one person. In the years after his death, Congress, the military brass and some of Roosevelt’s successors created the National Security Council, and the national security adviser position, to get everyone in Washington talking together about the hardest issues. The result was not perfect order, but at least a regular order, a reliable framework for American foreign policy from one administration to another.
After his election in 2016, Mr. Trump took a tour of the White House and was reportedly “awed” at the size and scope of the issues that came to the president’s desk and the system that delivered them there. It is no surprise why: Mr. Trump had never served in the military or government of any kind. Managing it all got more daunting when his first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, resigned in disgrace, and the president did not get along with his eventual replacement, H.R. McMaster.
Although denied high-level positions early in the Trump administration, Mr. Bolton, who replaced General McMaster in April 2018, could have been a good fit for the job under an inexperienced president. Compared with Mr. Flyyn and General McMaster, Mr. Bolton is a seasoned Washington player, one who considers himself a “good bureaucrat.” Even if he never shared all Mr. Trump’s policy preferences, Mr. Bolton was well positioned to work the levers of government for him.
Instead, Mr. Bolton decided to break the interagency system that had served as the heart of American foreign policy for over seven decades. Driven by confidence in his own ideas about what government should do and how it should run, he had in mind something closer to Roosevelt’s juggling: The president in a room with the national security adviser and a few aides making decisions about most important issues in the world. To realize that plan, Mr. Bolton included fewer people in meetings, made council sessions far less regular, and raced to always be by Mr. Trump’s side. There was no longer a National Security Council, in effect, just a national security adviser.
Mr. Bolton broke government and then it broke him. As the national security adviser, he pushed for a hard line on North Korea, Iran, Venezuela and Afghanistan. But without a structure behind him, Mr. Bolton was increasingly alone trying sell positions that were a hard sell to Mr. Trump, who is much less an ideologue and much harder to pin down. Eventually, Mr. Trump split with Mr. Bolton and began consulting with outsiders like the Fox News personality Tucker Carlson. When Mr. Bolton fell out with the president, the ad hoc system collapsed right along with him, as reports over the messy decision-making on the proposed Afghanistan peace deal and talks demonstrate.
Mr. Bolton’s singular achievement was to dismantle a foreign-policymaking structure that had until then kept the president from running foreign policy by the seat of his pants. Mr. Bolton persuaded Mr. Trump he didn’t need the National Security Council to make decisions; it is no surprise that the president eventually felt confident deciding he did not need a national security adviser, either. Whether Mr. Trump names a replacement for Mr. Bolton does not matter: No one is going to convince the president he needs a system now, let alone the one that existed for 70 years.
Presidential juggling is back, and one does not need to compare Mr. Trump to Roosevelt in order to worry. Today, Washington is more dependent on the presidency, and the world is more dependent on Washington’s decisions, than it was in the 1930s and ’40s. At a moment of division at home and disarray abroad, the breaking of the federal government is the most consequential crisis of all.
John Gans (@johngansjr), the director of communications and research at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perry World House, is the author of “White House Warriors: How the National Security Council Transformed the American Way of War.”
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