Event Summary: Bolton’s Book: Trump Administration’s Foreign Policymaking
On Wednesday, August 12, 2020, the SETA Foundation at Washington, DC hosted a virtual panel of experts to discuss ‘Bolton’s Book: Trump Administration’s Foreign Policymaking.’ The discussion featured Mike Doran, Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute, and Trita Parsi, Executive Vice President at the Quincy Institute. The panel was moderated by Kadir Ustun, Executive Director at SETA DC.
At the outset of the discussion, Doran described Bolton as an odd fit for the position of national security advisor. He said that there are traditionally two models for the position: the Kissinger model, where the adviser acts as the president’s mini-me, and the Scowcroft model, where the adviser acts as the master of the process and an honest broker. Bolton did not fit into either of these categories as he injected his opinions into policy and was not seen by Trump as his duplicate. Bolton assumed that his personal view of the world is that of Trump’s and attempted to turn Trump’s instincts into policy, but Doran insists that Bolton’s views would never work. He noted that Bolton’s book is a perfect example of why Trump feels as though he cannot trust anyone in the White House. The former national security adviser was clear about his preferences and how he went about achieving them, and his freelancing was part and parcel of the way that Trump has structured the White House, with advisers underneath him jockeying for power and influence. Doran makes it clear that despite inconsistencies in Trump’s day-to-day expression of desire, he presents a clear line of thinking that is consistent with a powerful string of the American public. This was evident in his desire to get Pastor Brunson out of Turkey, after which he quickly returned to praising Turkey as an ally. He closed by saying that foreign policy experts make two key mistakes when characterizing the president: they assume that Trump is not an intellectual and that his policies are based on his whims.
Parsi highlighted the fact that the “axis of adults” Bolton describes saw Trump as a challenge and viewed themselves responsible for making sure the president did not disrupt the status quo too much. But Bolton saw Trump as an opportunity. Trump does not understand foreign policy and made vague promises during the campaign, lacking the attention span to see things through, therefore giving advisers tremendous leeway. Bolton sought to manipulate an inexperienced president by using the chaos within the White House to push for his own personal agenda that would not gain any traction in a normal, functioning administration. He explained that when Trump visited France for the G7 meeting, Macron hoped to broker a small deal to kickstart diplomacy on Iran. This infuriated Bolton, causing him to draft up a letter of resignation. Parsi believes that this would have been a major issue in any other administration, but the American public has become so “scandal fatigued” over the past three years that it did not amount to much. He then described Bolton’s unhealthy and dangerous obsession with Iran, which he mentions 753 times in his book. While in the White House, Bolton and the administration were focusing on the single challenge of Iran, not an existential threat, at the expense of real threats like a pandemic and climate change. Additionally, Trump argues that he cannot trust those within his administration. If Trump is an avid proponent of stopping endless wars, why would he bring someone like Bolton into the administration, a man who has an affinity for conflict, and then complain that he cannot trust him?