MANY were justifiably puzzled when Donald Trump named John Bolton national security adviser. Mr Trump entered office as an outsider who sneered at Washington; Mr Bolton has spent his career ping-ponging between Republican administrations and conservative think-tanks. Mr Trump is sceptical of overseas entanglements; Mr Bolton believes in force projection. They shared a disdain for Barack Obama’s Iran deal, though for different reasons—Mr Trump wants to erase his predecessor’s legacy; Mr Bolton never trusted Iran. Mr Bolton supported NATO and mistrusted Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin; Mr Trump held opposite views on both.
A rocky marriage, which lasted 17 months, has now ended. On September 10th, Mr Trump sacked Mr Bolton in his usual unceremonious fashion—by tweet. “I informed John Bolton last night that his services are no longer needed at the White House,” said the president, adding, “I disagreed strongly with many of his suggestions, as did others in the administration.” Mr Bolton and the White House spent the ensuing hours disputing the terms of his resignation. Mr Bolton says he offered it freely; Mr Trump’s press secretary says Mr Trump demanded it. Whatever the truth, his departure was sudden—he was scheduled to brief the White House that afternoon—and indicative more of Mr Trump’s erratic managerial style than a substantive policy shift from his administration.
Mr Bolton was appointed to the job in April 2018, succeeding H.R. McMaster, a cerebral general whom Mr Trump derided as a boxy-suited “beer salesman”. Mr Bolton, by contrast, was a hardened ideologue and political bruiser, having served the federal bureaucracy during the previous three Republican administrations. His unapologetic scorn for multilateralism, the United Nations and international accords, and his obsession with rogue states, typified a muscular and pugnacious strand of conservative foreign-policy thinking.
Predictably, that appears to be precisely what put him on a collision course with Mr Trump, who had joked that Mr Bolton was “going to get us into a war”. On North Korea, Mr Bolton was sceptical of the president’s charm offensive towards the country’s dictator, Kim Jong Un. In May Mr Bolton complained that a pair of short-range missile launches by North Korea violated UN Security Council resolutions. Shortly afterwards, Mr Trump insisted that the “small weapons” had “disturbed some of my people…but not me”, batting away his adviser’s concerns. One month later the president stepped into North Korean territory for his third meeting with Mr Kim, while Mr Bolton was pointedly dispatched to Mongolia.
Mr Bolton had more luck steering American policy on Iran, tightening sanctions and intensifying a campaign of “maximum pressure”. In June it was Mr Bolton, rather than the president, who announced the dispatch of an aircraft-carrier strike group and bombers to the Middle East, in response to concerns over Iran-backed attacks on American forces in the region. But soon after Iran shot down an American drone, Mr Trump called off airstrikes that Mr Bolton had supported.
In the end, it was Afghanistan that brought matters to a head. Mr Trump, exasperated with the war, was close to signing an agreement with the Taliban that would have begun the process of American withdrawal. He devised a plan to invite the Taliban and Afghanistan’s president to Camp David, the presidential retreat, the weekend before September 11th. Though Mr Trump reversed course after a Taliban suicide-bombing killed 12 people, including an American soldier, he lost patience with Mr Bolton’s dogged opposition.
As well as his bellicose views, Mr Bolton was also criticised for his overbearing style. He was known for keeping dissenting views from the president and reducing the number of high-level policy meetings. He has few allies, and wears out his welcome. A member of Mr Obama’s national-security team called him “national-security furniture with a moustache, a really loud couch no one wanted.” George W. Bush, whom Mr Bolton served as ambassador to the United Nations, said near the end of his administration that he did not “consider Bolton credible”.
Mr Bolton departs as Mr Trump’s hunger for a legacy-defining international deal grows more apparent. Notwithstanding the scotched Taliban talks, Mr Trump is still playing footsie with Mr Kim and has recently expressed a willingness to meet Iran’s foreign minister. If the administration has any sceptical voices left, they have been awfully quiet, and Mr Bolton’s head on a spike will keep them quieter still. That leaves America in a dangerous place—with a mercurial president who has long given a higher priority to personal interests than national ones, eager to strike a historic accord to cement his legacy, and apparently prizing pliancy above honesty in his staff.
For now, Charles Kupperman, long an adviser to Mr Bolton, is acting national security adviser. Mr Trump said he would make a permanent appointment to the post next week. That would make his fourth—a single-term record. The only one for whom he seemed to harbour genuinely warm feelings was Mike Flynn, who will be sentenced in December for lying to federal investigators. Mr Trump publicly derided both Mr McMaster and Mr Bolton. Whomever he chooses next needs either the hide of a rhinoceros or, more likely, an ability to flatter and keep below the parapet.
But America has probably not heard the last of Mr Bolton, who is unlikely to replicate the dignified silences of Mr McMaster or James Mattis, an ousted defence secretary. Two years after leaving the second Bush administration, he cast a withering judgment on its decision to engage in limited diplomacy with North Korea. “Nothing can erase the ineffable sadness of an American presidency, like this one, in total intellectual collapse”. Little did he then know how much further things could go.