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Playing Russian roulette with foreign policy

Trump shows a desire to go solo with dismal results

Trudy Rubin
Trudy Rubin

During the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump was asked whom he talked with consistently about foreign affairs. “My primary consultant is myself,” he said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”

“I’m speaking with myself, number one, because I have a very good brain. ...”

That’s the real story behind Trump’s dumping of John Bolton, his third national security adviser in less than 3 years. The president had long since ceased heeding Bolton’s advice. He does not want to be contradicted or cajoled by advisers.

The president clearly conflates making foreign policy with running a family real estate business. He wants to go one-on-one with the tough guys who run China, North Korea, Iran, or Russia. He still believes he can bludgeon or flatter them into making great deals on his terms. But all he has to show is a string of failed efforts.

Bolton’s exit should flash a red light on the dangers of a foreign policy based on presidential whim and ego (see the bizarre saga of the canceled Afghan peace talks). This country has been lucky so far that no major foreign crisis has erupted on Trump’s watch. But that luck may not last until 2020, and definitely wouldn’t for 5 more years.

Consider the turnover on Trump’s national security team: On the 18th anniversary of 9/11, as he deals with an unstable world, there is only an acting secretary of defense, preceded by another acting secretary. Before that came the very competent James Mattis, who resigned in frustration with Trump.

The Department of Homeland Security also is operating with an acting head, after the previous secretary resigned under Trump pressure. The post of director of national intelligence remains unfilled, even as Trump makes clear his disdain for U.S. intelligence agencies. (He recently rejected the idea that the United States should spy on adversaries such as North Korea or Russia.) And he has soured on listening to advice from his generals, whom he once praised in public.

Last man standing

So who is making national security policy? The only major player still standing is Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has turned himself into a Trump mouthpiece (and may leave to run for a U.S. Senate seat in Kansas). However, the State Department was totally trashed by Trump’s first secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, on whose failed watch many of the best and brightest diplomats retired.

Which brings us to Bolton, and his significance. The abrasive former diplomat was a strange choice for Trump, far more hawkish and far more eager for regime change in North Korea and Iran than his boss. However, he courted Trump as a commentator on Fox News, which may have gotten him his job.

But his major foreign-policy legacy may be his diminishment of the National Security Council, or NSC, an agency designed to bring together top officials from across government who are involved in security policy, in order to put together options for the president.

“The NSC was created so the president didn’t have to run foreign policy by the seat of his pants,” says John Gans, author of “White House Warriors: How the National Security Council Transformed the American Way of War.” With Bolton’s help “Trump has gotten rid of that system,” says Gans, who is director of communications and research at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perry World House.

Bolton told the New Yorker this spring that his preferred NSC model was that run by George H.W. Bush’s national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, who regularly conferred with Secretary of State James Baker and Bush. But all three of those men had deep foreign-policy experience, and still used the NSC process to work out policy details.

Instead, we have a president impatient with details, uninterested in process, and confident that he can browbeat and cajole adversaries to bow to his demands. Trump biographer Gwenda Blair described Trump’s negotiating style in foreign policy as “bludgeoning and love-bombing.” Yet so far that style has consistently failed to deliver results.

With North Korea, Trump’s switch from “fire and fury” to a very public lovefest with Kim Jong Un has made no progress toward denuclearization in Pyongyang. With China, a unilateral trade war – conducted solo, without coordination with allies – also has failed so far to deliver, despite his meetings with Xi Jinping. Nor is Trump’s current policy of maximum pressure on Iran likely to change Tehran’s policies, despite his call for a meeting with President Hassan Rouhani.

In each case, Trump seems to have no vetted set of acceptable compromises if adversaries won’t meet his maximum demands. That would require the administration to undertake serious diplomacy, backed up by a strong team of advisers. Without such diplomacy the president is more likely to concede too much for a deal (with an eye to 2020 elections) or to fail.

“The U.S. government has a number of highly experienced, deeply talented people, but Trump has said he can do it better alone. That is the bet he has placed,” Gans says.

That is a bet with very bad odds.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may write to her at: Philadelphia Inquirer, P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101, or by email at

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