On Tuesday, President Donald Trump’s national security advisor, John Bolton, either jumped or was pushed out of the White House. Trump tweeted that he “disagreed strongly with many of [Bolton’s] suggestions, as did others in the Administration…” One of those who confirmed this publicly was Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who most recently was said to have been on the opposing side to Bolton with regard to negotiations over Afghanistan.
Why Does it Matter?
In terms of the Middle East, Bolton’s departure may have consequences mainly for U.S. relations with Iran, since there is no visible disagreement within the administration over Israel and Palestine, the conflicts in Syria and Yemen, or much else in the region.
On Iran, both Pompeo and Bolton have adopted a hard line with respect to Tehran. However, where Bolton erred was in failing to offer Trump options after the United States withdrew from the nuclear treaty with Iran last year. The move isolated Washington internationally and Iran has displayed an ability to play on differences between the Europeans and Americans to widen its margin of maneuver. The United States’ withdrawal came without any fallback strategy, making a U.S. conflict with Iran more likely as the Islamic Republic has resumed parts of its nuclear program—most recently deciding to operate advanced centrifuges in violation of the treaty. Trump has made it clear he does not want a war with Iran.
Administration officials have even suggested the president might meet with Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani at the United Nations later this month. Now that Bolton is gone, resistance to such a meeting may wane, though one shouldn’t rule out the impact of Israeli discontent with this possibility. That said, Trump may yet be disappointed. It is unlikely that Rouhani will want to meet with the U.S. president without gaining some prior concession for doing so, given the resistance within Iran’s political hierarchy to such a meeting and Trump’s talent for turning summits into purposeless gabfests.
This situation could put the spotlight on Pompeo to design a more multifaceted approach to Iran. That would mean watering down the twelve conditions he imposed on the country in May last year, which were widely regarded as unrealistic. Much will also depend on who replaces Bolton and that person’s relationship with Pompeo. But with or without Bolton, the obstacles in the U.S.-Iran relationship are numerous enough that it would be naïve to assume that his departure alone would imply major progress if talks were to occur.
What Are the Implications for the Future?
Most importantly, it would underline that whoever replaces Bolton will need to act as a true coordinator of the national security apparatus, thereby providing Trump with the range of options he requires to make decisions. The president may not be interested in foreign policy, but he has complained on several occasions that he dislikes being boxed in by bad choices. Indeed, his disinterest represents an ideal opening for anyone who can formulate such options and fashion a bureaucratic consensus around them.
Trump has been incoherent on foreign policy, but certain strong tenets have drifted through the haze, such as his desire to avert war, especially in the Middle East. That is why the next national security advisor will have to take them seriously rather than assume that he or she can impose his or her preferences on an ignorant president. One benefit from Bolton’s exit, therefore, is that the national security advisor’s role may return to being what it was intended to be.