President Trump hopes he has seen the back of the Axis of Adults.
He has replaced two key members of his national security team, his secretary of state and his national security adviser, with seemingly more pliant advisers, Mike Pompeo in Foggy Bottom and John Bolton in the White House. These two men have not said a cross word about the president—at least not publicly—and they tend to fawn over him in their frequent media appearances, unlike their departed predecessors.
Call them the Axis of Loyalists. One year and some change into his presidency, Trump wants to be empowered and enabled, not managed and controlled—a look at his free-wheeling tweets of late confirms that. So his cashiering of Rex Tillerson and H.R. McMaster can be seen as the fulfillment of his preternatural need to have things his own way, no matter the advice of more seasoned players on the world stage.
But the president needs to be aware that his new team has their private agendas. With a hubristic Trump pushing his own ideas on the Iran nuclear deal, North Korea, Syria and trade, he may have only traded advisers he didn’t like and who fought his policies for a fresh round of infighting, one that may be more intense than before.
The key to understanding the new team is the relationship between Bolton and Pompeo. Most observers see the new secretary of state and national security adviser as two peas in a pod—hardliners who will implement Trump’s vision and combat the bureaucracy. Some say it is a war cabinet. But a closer look at their backgrounds, worldview and ambitions suggests that they may be destined for rivalry.
John Bolton’s outlook is encapsulated in two articles he wrote over the past six months. The first, written in the form of a memo to the president, appeared in National Review in August and was titled “How to Get Out of the Iran Nuclear Deal.” It was a direct response to Trump’s complaint that no one on his team was offering him a way to scrap the agreement. The second, “The Legal Case for Striking North Korea First.” appeared in The Wall Street Journal in February.
Bolton’s hawkish recommendations grabbed the headlines, but his logic was more revealing of his worldview. A lawyer by training, he focused only on the law and the legal case for acting but never on strategy. There was virtually nothing on foreign policy—what the United States should do after it leaves the nuclear deal or how to cope with the South Koreans after a unilateral assault on the North.
The articles laid bare the key to understanding how Bolton thinks. Trump’s new national security adviser sees the world through the prism of his battles with multilateralists and liberals in the field of international law. The early chapters of his memoir Surrender is Not an Option paints a picture of a smart man with a Manichean perspective who feels constantly under siege and is determined to beat his progressive enemies at their own game, first at Yale, where he was active in student politics, then in arguments over development assistance, and later at the United Nations.
Bolton’s first job in government was for the Reagan administration as general counsel, and then assistant administrator, at the Agency for International Development (USAID). By his own account, he began his battle with the United Nations bureaucracy and grew resentful at ally countries who deigned to criticize the U.S. position. “European diplomats took criticism “in stride,” he wrote, but “I never got used to it.” “I never understood,” he went on, “why the United States was expected to be a well bred doormat.”
In the George H.W. Bush administration, he became assistant secretary for international organizations, overseeing U.S. policy toward the entire U.N. system. In that post, he worked on preventing the Palestine Liberation Organization from joining the World Health Organization, and again butted heads with most of the rest of the world. Later, he would lead the charge to pull out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and oppose the International Criminal Court.
Bolton has some real accomplishments within the field of international organizations and multilateralism. In 1991, he played an important role in reversing the notorious “Zionism is Racism” resolution at the United Nations. He created the Proliferation Security Initiative, a program outside of formal multilateral structures that was highly effective at disrupting proliferation supply chains after 9/11. His bombastic nature certainly helped keep in check some of the worst impulses of multilateralists; this seems to be why successive GOP administrations kept choosing him for senior positions. In general, Republicans regard international law as unimportant if not irrelevant, but Bolton embraces any chance to eviscerate it by attacking legal details that would put most foreign policy professionals to sleep.
In her memoir, Condoleezza Rice explained why she did not want Bolton at the State Department while she was secretary but had no problem shipping him up to New York. She wrote, “I wasn’t sure that I could fully trust John to follow my lead at State, and I didn’t want a clash later on should John be, or appear to be, insubordinate. Nonetheless, it seemed to me that he’d be a fine ambassador to the United Nations, where his skepticism about the organization was an asset with conservatives and from my point of view, a corrective to the excessive multilateralism of our diplomats in New York.”
Bolton’s standard for judging other countries seems to be on where they stand on development aid, international organizations and international law and treaties. If they believe these tools should constrain the U.S. government’s freedom of action, he regards those governments as part of the problem, not just when it comes to these issues but in international politics more generally. Bolton is the mirror image of his enemy, the earnest, dedicated multilateralists in the academy or on the center-left who see the U.N., international law and global or regional institutions as useful.
Bolton’s overarching goal is how to achieve tactical victories over his enemies in these fights. The harsh truth is that most of these battles are insignificant relative to the bigger geopolitical dramas unfolding in the world: how Europe will be organized after the Cold War, how to handle the rise of China, the struggle between Iran and Sunni Arab states in the Middle East—all questions that are alien to Bolton the lawyer.
Bolton’s position on Iran and North Korea reveal this obsession with law at the expense of strategy. In his op-ed on North Korea, he rested his entire case on a critique of a legal opinion on whether the British Empire should have destroyed a Canadian rebel steamboat named Carolina—perhaps of interest to an international legal scholar but hardly a sound strategic reason to launch a major war on the Korean Peninsula. He seems more determined to prove his legal theory—the United States can act unilaterally without the support of any other country or international law—than he is in thinking strategically about American interests and how best to pursue them. He has long believed himself to be in a lonely but righteous minority, besieged by the establishment, who now has a last chance to accomplish his life’s work.
If John Bolton is defined by his singular obsession with preserving America’s freedom of action, no matter the consequences, what defines Mike Pompeo?
In June 2016, then-congressman Pompeo and his colleague Jim Jordan published a 48-page addendum to the House Intelligence Committee’s official report on Benghazi after it found no wrongdoing on Hillary Clinton’s part. The Pompeo-Jordan addendum opened with a quote from the writer F. Scott Fitzgerald, “Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy.” It’s safe to say, Pompeo does not see himself as a tragic figure. Self sacrifice is not on his agenda. His defining trait is his political skill. Over the past eight years he has demonstrated the ability and willingness to do whatever it takes to succeed.
A Harvard graduate and former Army officer who then set up aerospace and oil equipment companies, Pompeo was elected to Congress from Kansas in 2010 as part of the Tea Party wave. His reputation in Congress was made on the Intelligence Committee, where he gained a reputation as a fierce partisan. Aside from Jordan, none of his Republican colleagues, including Clinton nemesis Trey Gowdy, signed on to his addendum. Pompeo backed Marco Rubio in the 2016 Republican primary but his ferociousness over Benghazi evidently caught Trump’s attention: The president reportedly chose Pompeo as CIA director over Michigan Rep. Mike Rogers, the former chair of the House Intelligence Committee, because he believed the Kansan was tougher on Clinton.
Pompeo entered the CIA at a point of unprecedented tension between the agency and the president. Trump believed the intelligence community was waging a war against him personally and denounced it on Twitter. There was a very real risk of a purge that could have decimated America’s intelligence capability for a generation. Distrust remains, but Pompeo appears to have succeeded in steadying the ship. He received good marks from within the building and even from some political opponents. Sen. Dianne Feinstein said, “the Mr. Pompeo I knew as a House member was very spontaneous and often with comments that I found difficult. He hasn’t been that way as CIA director, which is appreciated.”
European diplomats who have worked with Pompeo as CIA director describe him as very hardline on Iran but fully in command of his brief, highly intelligent and willing to engage constructively with other points of view.
Within a year, he convinced Trump to appoint him secretary of state, largely because he had developed a close personal relationship with the president when all other national security officials struggled to do so. This was no accident. Pompeo spent less time than many of his predecessors at Langley and more time working out of the Old Executive Office Building. He personally briefed the president each morning, developing a freewheeling rapport with Trump, instead of briefing him as McMaster did with disciplined and detailed presentations as if he were a normal president.
Pompeo’s confirmation was no sure thing. Rand Paul, the gadfly Kentucky senator, declared himself opposed early on—a position he would reverse just before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee vote. With Arizona Sen. John McCain likely to be absent due to illness, Pompeo started out needing Democrats to be confirmed. He reached out to his old political enemy Hillary Clinton, and to John Kerry, for advice. He struck a reasonable note in the hearings, promising a deliberate approach toward Iran and disavowing regime change in North Korea, something Bolton had championed. In the end, he was confirmed comfortably, by 57-42.
Pompeo’s ascent has been rapid and nothing short of astonishing. There have been casualties along the way—Clinton (over Benghazi), Rogers and Tillerson being the most prominent, but Sen. Tom Cotton may be the most interesting. In the fall, the press was abuzz with rumors of a Pompeo-Cotton double act, with the Arkansan replacing him at CIA. Cotton is close to Pompeo ideologically and made no secret of his desire to go to Langley. But Pompeo recommended Gina Haspel, his deputy, to replace him and Cotton remains in the Senate. No one knows for sure why Pompeo recommended Haspel, but one theory is that Cotton would have been a bureaucratic rival for Trump’s ear and as a potential successor.
Pompeo’s story is a plotline that would not be out of place in the drama House of Cards, where the ruthless House chief whip maneuvers himself into the vice president slot and ultimately the presidency. At 54 years old, Pompeo is widely rumored to harbor ambitions of becoming president himself. And, therein may lie the key to understanding how he will perform as secretary of state. For Bolton, this is his last and best chance to achieve his ideological goal of demonstrating that the United States is free of legal and institutional constraints. For Pompeo it is a means to a bright political future. He doesn’t see his term in Foggy Bottom as a chapter in the tumultuous times of Trump but as a chapter in the story of his own ascent. And, for that, the chapter must end in success, not in tragic “heroic” failure.
The real divide in the Trump administration is not between hawks and doves. By any reasonable standard, all of Trump’s officials are hawks. Defense Secretary James Mattis was forced out by President Barack Obama, who felt he was too tough on Iran. U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley, another supposed voice of caution, has staked out hawkish positions on everything from Iran to Russia.
The new divide is between litigators and planners. The litigators, led by Trump and deputized to Bolton, see national security policy as a way of settling scores with enemies, foreign and domestic, and closing the file. They will torpedo multilateral deals, pull out of international commitments and demonstrate American power before moving on to the next target.
The planners insist that the administration must have a plan for the day after the score settling. They know American foreign policy is a marathon, not a sprint. They are thinking about the U.S. position in Asia after a preventive strike, the future of the Iranian nuclear program after abandoning the JCPOA, and the health of alliances after trade wars. They worry that the litigators will get the United States into a whole lot of trouble with no way out—so they urge caution.
Mattis is the most prominent and skilled planner and strategist. He is the one asking tough questions about what happens after a preventive strike against North Korea, or if the United States gets embroiled in a conflict with Russia in Syria, or if the United States pulls out of the Iran nuclear deal. After losing his sometime allies in McMaster and Tillerson, Mattis seems more isolated than ever, but we still do not know where Pompeo comes down—is he a litigator or a planner?
Pompeo has a longer time horizon than Bolton. He needs his term as secretary of state to be a success and recognized as such. He can’t afford his own version of the Iraq war, whether it is against Iran or North Korea. So he now has a consequential choice to make: Does he align with Mattis, believing that this sage warrior will be vindicated over the medium and long term? Or does he jump aboard the Trump-Bolton train of disruption?
If Pompeo decides to align with Bolton, he may be able to revolutionize American foreign policy and marginalize Mattis. But the question is: Why would he? What would a foreign policy of disruption actually accomplish? How could American leadership be sustained in such a world? And, perhaps most saliently, what would be the consequences be for Pompeo’s future?
Pompeo and Bolton are also natural bureaucratic enemies. Pompeo’s political interests are wrapped up in ensuring the State Department is relevant and influential. He has promised to revitalize it after the decline of the Tillerson era. Bolton hates the State Department bureaucracy. In his memoirs, he approvingly quotes Barry Goldwater saying that it would be a good idea to fire the first six of the State Department’s seven floors.
Bolton is also interesting in placing his people at State and Defense, ensuring that they dance to the tune he sets at the National Security Council. Mark Groombridge, who advised Bolton at the State Department and United Nations, was quoted in the Washington Post as saying that Bolton would adopt a “micro-granular” approach to the bureaucracy. “His style,” Groombridge said, “will be to run an imperial NSC where the State and Defense departments are there to implement White House policy.” The fact that a Bolton adviser felt free to go on the record saying this at a time when Pompeo was going through the confirmation process was striking—a slight the incoming secretary surely noticed.
Bolton’s choice of Mira Ricardel as his deputy was also a statement of intent of bureaucratic war. As the transition official responsible for national security, Ricardel feuded with Mattis over Pentagon appointments, including for herself. A senior White House official told Josh Rogin of the Washington Post, “There are so many ways the NSC traditionally exerts control over DOD that they haven’t in this administration for a variety of reasons. Mira is going to get the [Pentagon] under control. This is a huge battle looming.”
Bolton’s imperialist designs on Defense and State may have the effect of encouraging closer cooperation between Mattis and Pompeo. Such an alliance could be formidable. Though Mattis is widely revered and respected, even his allies acknowledge he is not a politician. Unlike the hapless Tillerson, Pompeo brings that to the table and offers Mattis a new means of influencing the president. From Pompeo’s perspective, an alliance could elevate his standing and allow him to transcend partisan politics for the first time in his career. As far as we can tell, Pompeo sees the foreign policy environment as a collection of threats, rather than possessing an overarching vision of America’s role in the world. Mattis can help him advance a broader strategy of bolstering the U.S.-led international order that has served American interests for more than 70 years. Sources close to the secretary of defense have said he admires Pompeo and sees him as an effective and canny operator. By contrast, when asked if he could work with Bolton, Mattis replied, “Last time I checked, he’s an American and I can work with an American. OK?”
Bolton has some severe disadvantages in accomplishing his objectives, too. There are very few people he can bring on board to help him. He instinctively distrusts career officers. He is not known to have a deep bench of followers among Republicans, and many of those who would work for him signed one of the Never Trump letters and are therefore barred from serving in the administration (even if they did recant later). A few weeks ago, it was widely believed that Bolton would ask the president to relax the ban, but Trump’s reported blowup at the appointment of Haley adviser Jon Lerner, who criticized him during the campaign, as Vice President Mike Pence’s national security adviser makes that very unlikely.
If personnel is policy, Pompeo is ahead, and Bolton is in trouble. Pompeo has already reached out to respected members of the Republican foreign policy establishment, such as Paula Dobriansky, who has been named as his number three. He has also asked some career Foreign Service officers who left under Tillerson to return. Pompeo also has other potential allies in his corner. White House Chief of Staff John Kelly is a controversial figure because of his views on immigration, but on national security issues he is close to Mattis and will resist a litigator’s approach that ignores the strategic consequences of policy choices. If she’s confirmed as CIA director, Gina Haspel is likely to be wary of Bolton’s history of feuding with, and retaliating against, intelligence analysts who disagreed with him.
In theory, Bolton does have one ace in the hole: the president. Bolton has said that he sees his role as bending the bureaucracy to Trump’s will—he is the one who will execute the president’s policy. And the two, with their shared distrust of international institutions, would seem to be ideologically sympatico. Trump clearly likes Bolton’s tough talk, but below the surface there are real differences. Trump is genuinely worried that Bolton is too keen to start wars, instead of just threatening them; he reportedly extracted a promise from Bolton on this prior to his appointment. Bolton has been a lifelong opponent of diplomacy with North Korea, believing regime change is the only policy likely to work. Trump seems determined to try to give his talks with Kim Jong Un a chance. He has used language—such as taking Kim’s support for denuclearization at face value—that it Bolton would never countenance.
Russia policy could also spell trouble for Bolton. Trump has felt browbeaten by his advisers into being tough on Moscow, and he declared he wants to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin. If Bolton is true to his word about implementing Trump’s vision, it will be his job to seek a partnership with the Kremlin strongman. But Bolton, like Pompeo, Mattis and the foreign policy establishment more generally, sees Russian behavior as the problem and favors a policy of pushing back. If Bolton is tough on Russia, he will run the same risk as Tillerson and McMaster: Trump will feel managed and controlled, and then he’ll lash out.
It is highly likely that Bolton does not actually want to implement Trump’s agenda unconditionally. If his track record is any indicator of future behavior, he will try to weaponize his proximity to the president to advance his own policies. There is little reason to think he will be more successful at this than anyone else, even if Trump does admire his nationalistic rhetoric. His powers of persuasion are untested. He will see the president every day and will have ample opportunity to make his case, but even Bolton’s supporters say he is not a great people person and argues his point incessantly. Trump could tire of him before long.
Pompeo, by contrast, has proven he can communicate with Trump. And, in his first trip as secretary of state, he has already shown himself to be an adept bureaucratic warrior. His recent visit to Israel and Riyadh suggested he was taking the Middle East file back from Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner. He also delivered a tough message to Saudi Arabia to lift the blockade on Qatar. In this, he was almost certain doing Trump’s bidding. The president has recently complained that Saudi Arabia is not paying its fair share and resents that Riyadh turned down his request for $4 billion for operations in Syria.
The greatest risk of a Trump administration has always been that the president’s unique ideological and cognitive features would make him susceptible to triggering or worsening a national security crisis—this is why Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker warned that the president risked sparking “World War III.” Trump’s decision to withdraw from the JCPOA and his forthcoming summit with Kim Jong Un raise the risks considerably. In the Middle East, the United States may soon find itself having to decide whether or not to strike Iran. In Northeast Asia, Trump could unilaterally decide to withdraw American troops from the peninsula.
In 2017, the establishment’s way of mitigating the Trump risk was the Axis of Adults. It had some success, the full extent of may not be known for some years when unvarnished truth about what the president considered doing. But it was not an unqualified success, and Trump grew tired and resentful of his handlers.
Now that Axis has been dissolved. It was full of heroes—men, who like Cinncinnatus, took high office out of a sense of duty and self-sacrifice. Only one is left: Mattis.
But maybe more heroes are not what America needs right now. Just because heroes sacrifice their own self-interest to serve the greater good does not mean they are effective—just ask Rex Tillerson. Maybe a skilled political operator acting out of his own self-interest is better equipped to steer President Trump away from catastrophe. The question with Mike Pompeo, though, is not whether he would give up his future to do what is right. It is whether his political future is best served by doing the right thing.