[Hal Brands] Four big risks from Bolton’s National Security Council purge

By Bloomberg
  • Published : Apr 16, 2018 - 17:43
  • Updated : Apr 16, 2018 - 17:43

Give John Bolton credit for one thing: He knows how to make an entrance. During his first week on the job, the new national security adviser has initiated a purge of the National Security Council staff, pushing several top aides to resign, with more departures likely on the way. This internal shakeup is fully within Bolton’s prerogatives, and it is surely intended to get a notoriously discordant administration singing from the same sheet of music. In reality, however, it may just exacerbate the challenges that the administration faces in executing a competent foreign policy.

The officials who make up the top ranks of the NSC staff -- as distinct from the agency and department heads that make up the president’s cabinet -- are often little-known outside of the Washington policy community. Yet because they help helm the interagency process by which decisions are made and implemented, they play a critical role in shaping the nation’s statecraft. And Bolton has moved expeditiously to clear out the highest-ranking NSC staffers below him.

Tom Bossert, the president’s homeland security adviser, resigned Tuesday. Shortly thereafter, it was announced that Ricky Waddell and Nadia Schadlow, two key deputies to former national security adviser H.R. McMaster, would follow. Michael Anton, an NSC spokesman and longtime Trump supporter, was also guided toward the exit. It seems likely that more resignations or reassignments are still to come, as Bolton has made no secret of his desire to push out individuals associated with McMaster -- or, even worse, with the Obama administration.

There is nothing inherently wrong or unusual about this. In the US government, top appointed officials deserve to have staff they trust. As Bolton is a famously sharp-elbowed bureaucratic operator, it is hardly surprising that he is moving rapidly to clear away the detritus of the McMaster era. He has surely calculated that bringing in a cohesive team of loyalists is the only way to make the administration more responsive to his and the president’s direction, and to clean up what has been a remarkably messy and contentious policy process.

Yet it is nonetheless hard to imagine any team led by such a mercurial and undisciplined president achieving a high level of cohesion and performance over time. And even leaving Trump’s shortcomings aside, Bolton’s gambit carries four potentially serious complications.

First, Bolton is taking the NSC staff back to square one at a time when many administrations are finally hitting their stride. Even for the most talented and professional White Houses, it can take up to a year to limber up the policymaking muscles -- to establish effective decision-making procedures, to get key officials comfortable with one another, to get the hang of crisis response. The Trump team, of course, has never been in danger of setting the new gold standard for discipline. But by switching out most of the top leadership of the NSC at a time when the State Department, CIA, and National Economic Council are undergoing leadership transitions of their own, Bolton is ensuring that this administration will essentially be starting the process over again.

Second, and contrary to Bolton’s intention, this reset may reduce rather than enhance the quality of US policy, at least in the near term. The loss of institutional memory, the disruption of existing routines, the inevitable confusion and slip-ups that occur when new officials move into extremely demanding jobs, all mean that the possibility of unforced errors and rookie mistakes will probably increase, at least for a time. The second year of Trump’s presidency, in other words, may resemble the awkward first year of a more normal presidency. That’s not good in any circumstances. It’s even more worrying given that this team will have to make critical decisions on the Iran nuclear deal, the proposed summit with North Korea, responding to chemical attacks in Syria, and other issues within weeks or even days.

Third, as Bolton puts his stamp on the policy process, internal conflict is sure to increase. So far, Trump’s foreign policy has been fairly decentralized. He has delegated significant authority to cabinet-level departments and agencies. Powerful advisers such as Secretary of Defense James Mattis have arguably been just as influential as the president in shaping policy on issues from the counter-Islamic State group campaign to the war in Afghanistan.

Yet Trump is clearly tired of deferring to his advisers. And Bolton’s shakeup, as well as his famously combative personality, indicate that he is now seeking to restore a White House-dominant process in which the president’s staff works more aggressively to shape the agenda and impose discipline on the bureaucracy. This is a recipe for tension with strong-willed advisers -- particularly Mattis -- who are used to having a lot of leeway. It could even set off internal blowups and turf wars that would make the disordered first 15 months of Trump’s presidency look tame by comparison.

Finally, Bolton’s approach may exacerbate the staffing challenges the administration already faces. Trump never had a deep bench of foreign policy advisers, because so many of the Republican first-teamers took themselves out of the game by openly opposing him in 2016. Finding suitable people to fill some of the most important positions in government will thus be quite a task -- one that Bolton is now making all the harder for himself.

This purge sends the unmistakable message that anyone who joins the administration now should expect to be fired when Bolton leaves the White House, just as those who followed McMaster into the NSC are being pushed out today. And since it is hard to imagine any national security adviser -- particularly one as abrasive as Bolton -- lasting more than a year or so with this president, it is equally hard to imagine the remaining Republican talent rushing to sign up for a stint of unknown duration in an administration where the only certainty is chaos.

Bolton is, no doubt, trying to make the administration the “fine-tuned machine” that Trump once bragged out. But he may end up causing more breakdowns instead.

Hal Brands
Hal Brands is the Henry A. Kissinger Distinguished Professor at the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. -- Ed.