Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2019.07.24

Is John Bolton our last hope?

the japan times on July 8, 2019
U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton is on the same page as Japan when it comes to North Korea, but his hawkish Iran stance is cause for concern.

It was crystal clear that U.S. President Donald Trump wasn't governing even before British Ambassador to Washington Kim Darroch recently described him in leaked diplomatic cables as "radiating insecurity" and the U.S. administration as diplomatically "clumsy and inept."

A Middle East expert in Washington who's a friend of mine echoed him when she said U.S. President Donald Trump "sees virtue in surprise and unpredictability and seems to have a casual response to the threat assessments and options papers presented by the bureaucracy.

"He trusts his instincts about managing relationships with adversaries, and enjoys the chaos created as he alternately threatens and tries to engage foreign leaders." She is probably right.

By the way, the British Foreign Office deserves praise for its statement on the leaked diplomatic cables that "The British public would expect our ambassadors to provide ministers with an honest, unvarnished assessment of the politics in their country." I wonder what Japan's Foreign Ministry would say when faced with a similar situation.

Going back to the U.S. president again, instead of governing he has been campaigning 24/7 since June 2015. After following his judgments and activities during the Osaka Group of 20 summit and his historic visit to the Demilitarized Zone on the Korean Peninsula, I am more than ever convinced of this American tragedy.

The ultimate question I have now is what the people on the Trump administration's national security team -- if there is one -- are doing these days. Even if the president is campaigning 24/7, his staffers are supposed to be governing or at least to help him to govern the nation, aren't they?

Recent reports regarding the Trump administration's decision-making process on North Korea reminded me of the dynamics, or the lack thereof, of how Trump's closest aides are struggling to convince the campaigning president to do the right things for the country, for himself or probably for both. Here is my take on this subject. I hope I am wrong. 1. The president is consistent.

Despite all the criticism, whether right or wrong (although mostly right), about Trump's governance, the president is very much consistent in that he always gives priority to campaigning over governing. That's why he has been so successful politically. U.K. ambassadors or Washington pundits fail to understand this.

Trump is the most powerful populist of the day. He knows that surprise and unpredictability create charisma and that charisma wins votes for political power. What he does is just a performance and it doesn't have to be diplomacy. He is neither casual nor instinctive. He just believes in his populist instant judgments.

2. His national security team is divided.

Trump's Cabinet secretaries and aides in the White House seem to be always divided. This is not because they are incompetent but because the president wants them to be divided. He enjoys encouraging chaos so that he can pick his favorite policy ideas that best conform to his campaigning goals.

In that sense, he trusts none of his aides or advisers, with the exception of his son-in-law Jared Kushner and his daughter Ivanka Trump. The president has made the couple his eyes and ears because he neither wants to read long classified documents nor to listen to endless top-secret briefings. The couple must be doing that for him.

3. Bolton is governing, not campaigning.

U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton has clear policy visions, mostly hawkish, and wants to govern by implementing his policy. His problem seems to be more structural than personal. His authority as national security advisor is powerful but limited. In the case of North Korea, it worked during the second U.S.-North Korea summit in Hanoi.

When Trump was scheduled to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Vietnam, Bolton seems to have been successful in convincing -- probably with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo -- him that he should walk out of the negotiation room unless Kim agreed to the so-called big deal based on the Libyan nuclear agreement of 2004.

4. Pompeo is neither governing nor campaigning.

In contrast, Pompeo seems to be neither governing nor campaigning. He was involved in the negotiations with the North Koreans long before he became the U.S. secretary of state, including the preceding secret bilateral contacts in his capacity as director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Although very conservative and often hawkish, Pompeo doesn't seem to have specific policy visions, which Bolton has. Pompeo sounds more politically opportunistic in dealing with Trump's agenda. He always tries to act to help Trump do whatever he wants to do for his re-election campaign.

5. Which is Trump's priority -- Iran or North Korea?

The United States has two urgent nuclear weapons-related issues: North Korea and Iran. The biggest difference between the two is that unlike North Korea, Iran has no nuclear warheads. When you have two urgent issues to solve, the rule of the game is that you can only do one at a time.

Trump may give priority to Iran. If so, Pompeo will most likely try to be softer on North Korea, as The New York Times reported, by accepting the idea of "freezing" North Korean nuclear weapons "as a first step" without getting a North Korean commitment regarding the subsequent second and third steps.

6. Is Bolton Japan's last hope?

Was Bolton's absence at the Trump-Kim meeting in the DMZ merely coincidental? Or was it a sign that he won't be involved in the decision-making on North Korea? Will he continue to be active in the Iran nuclear issue? What is most noteworthy is that the views of Tokyo and Bolton are almost unanimous on North Korea, but not on Iran.

If so, is Bolton Japan's last hope? The answer is yes and no. Yes on North Korea in that Bolton seems to be adamant in making no concessions without denuclearization. No, however, on Iran as he is so tough on Tehran that it may lead to an Iranian miscalculation that could destabilize the entire Gulf.