The departure of National Security Advisor John Bolton from the Trump administration can hardly have come at a worse time. America’s enemies loathed and feared him, because he was clear-sighted, experienced, and tough.
While he headed the National Security Council (NSC), from April 2018 to September 2019, those who would visit harm on the United States or our allies and partners knew they faced an implacable foe.
President Donald Trump is likely to name a replacement for Bolton within coming days, but crises in multiple hotspots are not waiting.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who often clashed with Bolton, remains, but positions including Director and Deputy of National Intelligence (DNI) remain vacant.
Meanwhile, September 14 drone strikes against Saudi Arabia’s oil production at least temporarily took out around half of its usual 9.8 million bpd output.
Trump quickly spoke with Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman “to offer his support for Saudi Arabia’s self-defense.” But although Iran’s Houthi rebel proxies in Yemen claimed responsibility for the attack, there is doubt about whether it was them, or Iran’s Hashd-e Shaabi Shi’ite proxies in Iraq who actually launched the attack. Secretary Pompeo accused the Tehran regime of responsibility, but cast doubt on the Houthi claim, asserting on Twitter that “there was no evidence the strikes came from Yemen.”
Whether these attacks were launched by Iraqi Shi’ite militias or the Houthis, clearly the Iranian regime was behind them even as Hamas, Hizballah, the Taliban, and the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) Qods Force all coordinate to ratchet up tensions in other areas.
In a piece at The National Interest just days before the strikes in Saudi Arabia, Ilan Berman argued that Iran and its Lebanese terror militia, Hizballah, are attempting to “fundamentally alter the strategic equation facing decision makers in Jerusalem” by providing precision guidance technology for Hizballah’s estimated 150,000 missiles.
The Israeli response has been hundreds of strikes against IRGC/Qods Force and Hizballah bases, factories, and warehouses over the last couple of years — with the pace of such operations picking up in recent months.
Nor has North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un taken any meaningful steps toward “complete, irreversible, verifiable” elimination of his nuclear weapons arsenal, as Secretary Pompeo declared remains the U.S. position at a June 2019 press conference in Seoul, South Korea. Kim has abided by a pledge made at the June 2018 Singapore summit to refrain from testing nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles, but has continued testing to improve accuracy and maneuverability of short-range missiles — still a violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions, as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pointed out. Trump’s remark following Bolton’s departure that he understood Kim’s not wanting anything to do with him cannot have been unwelcome to Kim.
Then there is Afghanistan.
Seizing on a September 5 Taliban car-bomb attack in Kabul near the U.S. Embassy that killed a U.S. service member, Trump abruptly canceled a September 7 meeting with Taliban commanders that had been planned in secret for Camp David. National Security Advisor Bolton is strongly opposed to any dealings with the Taliban, much less what can only be termed “surrender talks” that might have culminated on U.S. soil, at Camp David, just days before 9/11. Speaking to reporters on September 9 at the White House, Trump declared about further talks with the Taliban “They’re dead. They’re dead. As far as I’m concerned, they’re dead.” And yet, Bolton is gone and Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. envoy for talks with the Taliban, remains. Not surprisingly, the Taliban reportedly still want to continue talks with the U.S. that have been going on in Doha, Qatar, since 2018 — without the participation of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani or any representatives of his government.
Finally, back to the Middle East, where the personal relationship between the U.S. President and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is closer than any before it.
Moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and support for Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, as well as reported forthcoming support for Israeli sovereignty over the Jordan Valley, all bode well for the future of the U.S.-Israeli relationship. And yet, there is concern at Bolton’s departure in Israel, says Caroline Glick, who notes Trump’s possible willingness to meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the U.N. General Assembly later in September and even to consider reducing Iran sanctions. She concludes on a positive note, though, acknowledging that, “Bolton’s departure is a loss for Israel, because he truly is a great friend of the Jewish state. But he leaves an administration that was pro-Israel when he arrived and remains pro-Israel in his absence.”
What is critical is that the Trump administration continue to understand these myriad challenges as well as John Bolton does and that a new National Security Advisor as hard-nosed and knowledgeable as he is quickly is appointed to carry on U.S. policies so ably advanced during his tenure.