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What stands between John Bolton and blowing up the world?

News that John Bolton will be Donald Trump's third national security adviser in 13 months has caused much hand-wringi...

Posted: Mar 24, 2018 12:47 PM
Updated: Mar 24, 2018 12:47 PM

News that John Bolton will be Donald Trump's third national security adviser in 13 months has caused much hand-wringing, wailing and rending of garments among Washington's foreign policy elite. And with some justification: Add Trump's nominee for secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, and you have two ideological hawks who seem to prefer shooting first abroad and asking questions later.

Still, what makes these appointments somewhat confusing and odd is that when it comes to using military force, you have a risk-averse President and a similarly inclined secretary of defense, Gen. James Mattis.

How this interaction will play out on the looming challenges of North Korea and Iran is both unpredictable and possibly dangerous. And whether the irascible and tough-minded John Bolton will keep his new seat -- or is a bright, shiny but temporary fix in the mind and mood swings of a mercurial President -- remains to be seen.

Bombs away Bolton?

With the appointment of Bolton and the nomination of Pompeo, Trump has surrounded himself with the toughest and most risk-ready national security team in recent memory. On paper, these appointments go well beyond any we've seen in past Republican administrations.

Ronald Reagan, no dove, had his share of hard-line and hawkish conservatives, but all of them were capable of great flexibility and pragmatism. Bush 43 also surrounded himself with a group of pragmatic advisers (minus Dick Cheney, of course); and had it not been for been for 9/11, which brought out their worst instincts and eventually led the United States into a galactic blunder in Iraq, they might have remained that way.

Bolton, on the other hand, has never met a rogue state that he didn't want to bomb. This was true of the American invasion of Iraq, one of the most disastrous decisions in the history of US foreign policy and one that he continues to defend.

He has been a vocal and tireless champion of pre-emptive US military strikes against Iran and North Korea and advocated US military intervention in Syria's civil war. Like the President, he has shown nothing but disdain for diplomacy, because it requires compromises to be successful and is therefore anathema to Bolton's preternatural "my way or the highway" instincts and the winner-take-all Manichean world he lives in. There is nothing in his record to suggest that he will behave any differently.

Still, in life and in government, where you stand depends on where you sit. Bolton is a classic bomb-thrower. He has made a second career issuing bombastic threats from the safety of the sidelines of Fox News. We can only hope that the responsibility of making recommendations to the President on life and death decisions will sober him up -- and he has said his job is to present the President with a variety of options. But the past is often prologue and nobody should bet their mortgages on a transformed John Bolton.

Trump a moderate, really?

The other reality is that neither Bolton nor Pompeo is president. For all of Trump's bluster, aggressive instincts and impetuousness, when it comes to the use of force he seems wary of risk, if the stakes involve getting the United States into another costly war and require investing resources to win the peace after the war is over.

This impulse is evident in his limited retaliatory strike in April 2017 against a single Syrian airfield for the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons, his modest surge of troops to Afghanistan and his reluctance to strike Iran or the Assad regime in Syria.

Trump seems instinctually to have the businessman's nose for not throwing good money after bad, and in the name of his own America First doctrine, he appears to want to cut back on the role of Washington as the world's policeman or enforcer. It's possible he could fall under Bolton's spell. But there's hope that he'd be inclined to ask some pretty tough questions before launching a risky and costly military campaign.

Mattis to the rescue?

The other countervailing force is James Mattis.

Richard K. Betts, in "Soldiers, Statesmen, and Cold War Crises," his classic work on military and civilian decision-making on the use of force, concluded that, contrary to popular perceptions, military leaders were not more aggressive than their civilian masters in advocating the use of force; he also showed that military advice has been most influential when it has argued against military intervention. Let's hope Betts is right.

Despite his view that Iran is a mortal enemy of the United States, Mattis has opposed the use of force to kick Iranian forces out of Syria and urged Trump not to walk away from the Iran nuclear deal. On North Korea, he reportedly angered the President over his refusal to provide military options for pre-emptive attacks and has said that war between the United States and North Korea would have catastrophic consequences.

Mattis will play an even more central role in decisions on war and peace, and he may be the last man standing between Trump and military action against North Korea and Iran. The challenge for Mattis is that with the departure of McMaster and Tillerson, the bureaucratic deck will be stacked against him. We can only hope that Trump continues to heed the advice of his generals and that Mattis doesn't quit.

Bright, shiny objects

Ronald Reagan went through six national security advisers, albeit in eight years. Trump is already on his third and has demonstrated his love of musical chairs. If he was reportedly turned off by Bolton's mustache during job interviews, imagine that mustache showing up to brief him every day.

Bolton has a reputation for being irascible, inflexible and high-handed. He does not play well with others, and it may only be a matter of time before his shoot-from-the-lip style irritates the President or causes even more political headaches for the White House.

Every President has the legitimate right to change his advisers and pick ones he's comfortable with. Trump has rolled the dice on this one -- choosing hard-liners at a time when America's greatest foreign policy challenges require not only toughness and resolve but wisdom, restraint, prudence and pragmatism, too.

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 517138

Reported Deaths: 10306
CountyCasesDeaths
Harrison35086559
DeSoto33512432
Hinds32826644
Jackson24938392
Rankin22621405
Lee16564245
Madison14986283
Jones14195248
Forrest13865260
Lauderdale12343323
Lowndes11401193
Lamar10715140
Pearl River9762244
Lafayette8898143
Hancock7854132
Washington7562169
Oktibbeha7246138
Monroe7106179
Pontotoc7071110
Warren6915179
Panola6815136
Neshoba6762210
Marshall6751142
Bolivar6484151
Union647099
Alcorn5969108
Pike5953157
Lincoln5550136
George511380
Prentiss511086
Tippah498483
Itawamba4916107
Scott479599
Tate4790118
Adams4789125
Leflore4765144
Copiah458995
Simpson4587117
Yazoo458692
Wayne444372
Covington435895
Sunflower4338106
Marion4313112
Coahoma4263111
Leake414491
Newton396482
Tishomingo390294
Grenada3799109
Stone366466
Attala342290
Jasper341667
Chickasaw320867
Winston319092
Clay314378
Clarke302095
Calhoun289550
Holmes273789
Smith271452
Yalobusha246547
Tallahatchie233153
Greene225549
Walthall222266
Lawrence221142
Perry214656
Amite210657
Webster207248
Noxubee188943
Montgomery182857
Carroll176341
Jefferson Davis175043
Tunica164139
Benton153539
Kemper145641
Choctaw138027
Claiborne134939
Humphreys132639
Franklin127130
Quitman107928
Wilkinson106539
Jefferson97334
Sharkey65321
Issaquena1957
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Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 849409

Reported Deaths: 16199
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson1165042004
Mobile744951384
Madison53605739
Shelby38474373
Baldwin38236590
Tuscaloosa36225644
Montgomery34599784
Lee25712264
Calhoun22652520
Morgan22569411
Etowah20084521
Marshall18878318
Houston17806426
St. Clair16987359
Limestone16220222
Cullman16183306
Elmore15967295
Lauderdale15126308
Talladega14275302
DeKalb13099271
Walker12202380
Blount10803193
Autauga10566157
Jackson10237196
Coffee9447192
Colbert9396210
Dale9052192
Tallapoosa7291202
Russell711965
Chilton7101171
Covington6985197
Escambia6972146
Franklin6379108
Chambers5815142
Marion5451132
Dallas5307210
Pike5135109
Clarke485986
Lawrence4857130
Winston4804111
Geneva4658137
Bibb436795
Barbour370880
Butler3446101
Marengo342593
Monroe338666
Randolph338567
Pickens335590
Fayette332785
Henry321566
Cherokee321264
Hale320289
Crenshaw262278
Washington256952
Cleburne255460
Lamar253755
Clay253169
Macon246667
Conecuh193962
Coosa186248
Lowndes178468
Wilcox178338
Bullock152845
Perry141940
Sumter139841
Greene130845
Choctaw94928
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