This week John Bolton assumes the job of national security adviser. Given that a key function of that position is to ensure that the bureaucracy provides the relevant options and most accurate information to the president before major national security decisions, it is hard to think of anyone more ill-suited to that duty. Bolton's method of policy formation has been to try to bully any part of the bureaucracy that does not subscribe to his personal agenda, and to try to bully away any part of the truth that does not serve his objectives. Bolton’s objectives are characterized by never meeting a war or prospective war he didn’t like. He still avows that the Iraq War—with all the costs and chaos it has caused, from thousands of American deaths to the birth of the group that we now know as ISIS—was a good idea. That someone with this perspective has been entrusted with the job Bolton now has is a glaring example of how there often is no accountability in Washington for gross policy malpractice.
Appointments as national security adviser are not subject to Senate confirmation. If they were, it would be appropriate for the Senate to react as it did the last time Bolton came before that body as a nominee for a job that does require confirmation. In 2005 the Senate turned down his nomination to be ambassador to the United Nations. The Senate review brought to light some of the uglier aspects of Bolton’s conduct in his previous job as an undersecretary of state. President George W. Bush gave him a recess appointment to the U.N. job, but fortunately that meant there was a time limit to the destruction Bolton could wreak in that position.
The Senate is about to have an opportunity to weigh in on another highly important foreign policy position, that of secretary of state, for which President Trump has nominated Mike Pompeo. Senators ought to consider that nomination in tandem with the appointment of Bolton as national security adviser, even though the Senate formally has a role with only one of those appointments and not with the other. Senators should consider the two as a package deal. They should not vote to confirm Pompeo if they are uncomfortable with either part of the package.
The main reason to approach the Pompeo nomination this way is that the nation currently has a president who, sad to say, needs restraint. He will need restraint all the more during the coming months as troubles of his own making increase the chance that he will lash out in destructive ways . The copious commentary during the fifteen months of the Trump presidency about having “adults in the room” to restrain the worst urges of an inexperienced and impulsive president speaks to an important truth. Whether adult supervision of this sort succeeds or fails depends on the collective impact of all of the president’s senior subordinates. To the extent any one subordinate is especially influential in this regard on foreign policy, it probably is the national security adviser who is best positioned either to accentuate or to restrain Trump’s impulses. Having Bolton in that job makes the restraining ability of the secretary of state all the more important.
But both Pompeo and Bolton are more likely to accentuate Trump’s impulses than to restrain them. Bolton got his job because the sort of things he says on Fox are more what Donald Trump likes to hear than the briefings that H.R. McMaster gave him, which evidently were too long for Trump’s taste or for his short attention span. Pompeo’s winning of favor with Trump, during what reportedly has been lots of face time with him at the White House during the past year, has a similar dynamic. Pompeo did not rise so quickly from being a relatively junior congressman functioning as a partisan attack dog to where he is now, on the verge of occupying Thomas Jefferson’s chair, by telling Trump what he needs to hear rather than what he wants to hear.
Senators hold up confirmation of nominees, and sometimes vote against them, for all kinds of reasons unrelated to the resumé of the nominee. It would be proper for them to vote against a nominee for secretary of state partly because of who the national security adviser is, given that both of them are in service to an unstable president.
There are other reasons to consider Pompeo and Bolton in tandem. In several respects they are two hazardous peas in a pod. On North Korea, Bolton’s bellicose posture is matched by Pompeo’s statements about seeking ways to "separate" Kim Jong Un from his nuclear weapons , suggesting a priority to regime change over keeping a volatile situation on the Korean peninsula from blowing up. Both Pompeo and Bolton, along with Trump, have sworn eternal hostility to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the multilateral agreement that closed all possible paths to an Iranian nuclear weapon. Neither man bothers to explain how destruction of the agreement, which would free Iran to produce as much fissile material as it wants and would end the intrusive international inspections of the Iranian program, could possibly be in the interests of the United States or of nuclear nonproliferation.