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Editorial: John Bolton’s appointment further weakens the ‘axis of adults’ around Trump

John Bolton testifies on Capitol Hill on April 11, 2005.
(Dennis Cook / Associated Press)

President Trump’s choice of John R. Bolton to be his third national security advisor gives Americans yet another reason, as if they did not have enough already, to be frightened. The aggressively opinionated and volatile former State and Justice Department official, known for his extremist ideology, seems spectacularly unsuited to play the role of presenting the president with a variety of foreign-policy options. More likely, he will advocate for his own hawkish views, and encourage Trump in some of his worst impulses.

Foreign-policy analysts can argue about whether Bolton should be labeled “neo-conservative” (a term that usually implies support for the use of force to promote democracy abroad) or an “America First” interventionist who supports using military power for the narrow purpose of securing this nation’s interests. What is undeniable is that Bolton is an enthusiast for the use of force with a suspicion of — maybe even contempt for — diplomacy.

This is the man who once said that “there is no United Nations; there is an international community that occasionally can be led by the only real power left in the world, and that’s the United States, when it suits our interests and when we can get others to go along.” Ironically, Bolton later served in the George W. Bush administration as the U.S. representative to the U.N. He did so as a recess appointee who had failed to win Senate confirmation.

This is not a job for a fanatic or a flamethrower.

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An unapologetic advocate for the disastrous war in Iraq (which Trump claims to have opposed), Bolton also argued in an op-ed column published in February that it would be “perfectly legitimate” for the United States to launch a pre-emptive strike on North Korea to destroy its nuclear weapons capability. More recently, he has suggested that Trump’s meeting with Kim Jong Un should “be a fairly brief session where Trump says: ‘Tell me you have begun total denuclearization, because we’re not going to have protracted negotiations. You can tell me right now or we’ll start thinking of something else.’ ”

In 2015, as the Obama administration and America’s European allies, along with Russia and China, were negotiating with Iran to place limits on its nuclear program, Bolton argued that a military attack (preferably by Israel) was the only solution. Like Trump, Bolton has denounced the Iran nuclear agreement and his appointment suggests that Trump may well abrogate the deal, a reckless step that would divide the U.S. from its European allies.

In choosing Bolton to replace Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, an erudite military officer whose briefings reportedly bored Trump, the president is continuing a purge that began with the clumsy firing of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the nomination of CIA Director Mike Pompeo, also a critic of the Iran nuclear agreement, to replace him. The so-called “axis of adults” in the administration that was thought to restrain Trump is collapsing. It has been reduced to White House Chief of Staff John Kelly (who also may not be long for the administration) and Secretary of Defense James Mattis.

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Like any president, Trump is entitled to surround himself with advisors with whom he is comfortable, though it’s unclear whether the president was drawn to Bolton primarily because of his views or because he has been a pugnacious presence on Fox News.

But precisely because Trump is a novice at foreign and defense policy and seemingly uninterested in educating himself on those subjects, it’s vital that his national security advisor be not only well informed but also even-tempered and willing to provide the president with competing perspectives. It’s not a job for a fanatic or a flamethrower. Ominously, the Bolton appointment suggests that Trump prefers the counsel of people who trade in swagger and hubris.

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