‘All sticks, no carrots’: John Bolton arrives at the White House with a crisis brewing in Syria and no hint of what Trump will do

  • The US is contemplating retaliatory strikes in Syria after chemical-weapons attacks there this weekend.
  • That decision-making process is taking place with John Bolton in his new role of national security adviser.
  • Bolton is generally seen as hawkish, but how he relates to Trump and his staff remains to be seen.

John Bolton takes over as White House national security adviser on Monday, hours after chemical-weapons strikes on civilians in Syria again horrified the world.

The attacks brought reprobation upon Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, as well as on Iran and Russia, his two biggest backers. “It was atrocious. It was horrible,” Trump said Monday, adding that there’s “not much of a doubt” about who was responsible.

“We’ll be making that decision very quickly. Probably by the end of today,” Trump told reporters on Monday. But it remains unclear how the US will respond, and the outlook is further clouded by Bolton’s ascension to his new post.

“It’s going to be baptism by fire,” Johnathan Schanzer, senior vice president at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a think tank with close ties to the Trump administration, told The Wall Street Journal. “It will be interesting to see whether it’s the same John Bolton in the White House that we see on Fox News.”

Bolton, who was US ambassador to the UN during the George W. Bush administration and a foreign-policy pundit in the years since, is known for hawkish views, particularly on Iran. (After leaving government, he advocated on behalf of Iranian opposition group Mujahedeen Khalq, or MEK, which was once labeled a terrorist group by the US.)

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and John Bolton at the Pentagon in Washington, March 29, 2018.

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Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and John Bolton at the Pentagon in Washington, March 29, 2018.
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REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein

“As incidents in Syria and Iraq increasingly put American forces at risk, Washington should not get lost in deconfliction negotiations or modest changes in rules of engagement,” Bolton said in a June 2017 column. “Instead, the Trump administration should recraft the US-led coalition to ensure that America’s interests, rather than Russia’s or Iran’s, predominate once ISIS is defeated.”

On the eve of taking office, Bolton tried to distance himself from his punditry, saying on Fox News that while he had “never been shy” about his views, “what I have said in private now is behind me.”

Bolton has defined himself as an “Americanist” sworn to defend US interests and has said, in the context of stick-and-carrot diplomacy, “I don’t do carrots.”

A longtime adviser recently told The New York Times that Bolton – a noted critic of the UN – has said he sees diplomacy as effective in most cases. The adviser quoting Bolton as saying, “My belief is diplomatic crises, 99 and 44/100ths percent of them can be resolved with public diplomacy,” making a reference to an old soap commercial.

Stepping immediately into the current crisis in Syria

Stepping immediately into office amid the current crisis in Syria will not only test Bolton’s ability to advise Trump but also reveal how his management style – widely criticized as overbearing and hostile to disagreement – gels with a national security council staff that has seen considerable turnover since Trump took office, losing former chief Army Gen. H.R. McMaster and longtime spokesman Michael Anton in recent weeks.

Donald Trump.

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Donald Trump.
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Alex Wong/Getty Images

“How much influence the NSC staff has is largely a function of the relationship between them and the national-security adviser and the decision-making style of the president,” said Colin Kahl, who was deputy assistant to President Barack Obama and national security adviser to Vice President Joe Biden between 2014 and 2017.

“In this case, Bolton has signaled he intends to ‘clean house‘ at the NSC, suggesting he has little faith in the current group,” Kahl told Business Insider.

“Bolton is also notoriously harsh toward staff who don’t agree with his pre-existing beliefs, suggesting he is not terribly open-minded to being persuaded by his staff,” Kahl added.

Bolton’s reputed disdain for those who lack his knowledge and experience could create tension with Trump son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, who has assumed a broad foreign-policy portfolio – but it may also affect his relationship with Trump, who has at times evinced little interest in the exerting required of foreign-policy decision-making.

One of Bolton’s former aides told CNN that the new national security adviser was a “team player” would look to gain Trump’s trust rather than pursue his own goals.

“He is going to do what President Trump tells him to do. He’s going to implement the policies that President Trump wants implemented,” the aide said, adding that Bolton would provide well-considered policy options that the president had previously lacked.

Peter Feaver, who overlapped with Bolton as a Bush administration national-security official, told CNN that, contrary to most assessments, Bolton would not reflexively pursue hawkish policies to the exclusion of other approaches.

“That is unfair to him,” Feaver told CNN, adding that Bolton did exhibit an aversion to diplomacy in some cases.

“When you are dealing with what used to be called ‘pariah regimes,’ he will quickly eviscerate the the more optimistic policy proposals that presume on the other side’s willingness to accept win-win solutions,” Feaver said. “He will point out the flaws with those, which ends you up at the last-resort node of the decision tree. That is how he ends up being a hawk. He is not a use-force-first guy.”

Trump’s position on Syria, to the extent he has one, seems to be fluid. While he has pushed to leave the war-torn country in recent weeks, he responded to the latest chemical attack in Syria more aggressively, putting part of the blame on Russian President Vladimir Putin for backing Assad – a departure from his previous attitude toward Putin – and warning of a “Big price … to pay.”

‘Trump and Bolton are basically aligned’

Trump has been thus far been wary of the national security council staff, “seeing them as remnants of the ‘deep state,’ ‘Obama holdovers,’ and leakers,” Kahl told Business Insider. “He is more likely to listen to Bolton, however, because he and Bolton are more aligned in terms of their beliefs and style than was the case with McMaster.”

It remains to be seen what specific response Bolton advocates. His comments on Syria in the past have not precluded military action against the Assad regime, but he has stressed that such action should come as part of a broader strategy.

In 2013, when Obama threatened military strikes in response to a deadly chemical weapons attack in Syria, Bolton came out against such a move, saying “the notion of a limited strike … will not create a deterrent effect.”

He voiced a similar criticism in 2017, as the Trump administration prepared for strikes against the Syrian regime in response to another chemical-weapons attack, saying any military response needed to come as part of a strategy to counter Russian and Iran. (Trump reportedly rebuffed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu efforts to get him to reconsider pulling out of Syria and to act against Iran’s presence in the country.)

“On the use of force, Trump and Bolton are basically aligned,” Kahl said. “They believe it is important to unilaterally demonstrate US military power … to put our adversaries on notice but without getting too deeply involved on the ground.”

“Neither is a fan of diplomacy, multilateralism, international law, or nation-building,” he added. “So it is all sticks, no carrots.”