Public Domain by Age

What You See is What You Get

The last thing a normal president would want is an ideologue as a national security advisor. It’s a bureaucratic position, often filled by an academic or a retired military officer. Ideally, the NSA would have a detailed knowledge of world history, particularly since World War II, when the pieces took up new places on the chessboard in light of the outcome. There’s a requirement for a certain kind of personality as well. Not everybody can get the best out of so many really smart people, many of whom have strong opinions based on many years of experience.

The NSA is charged to distill the best ideas from within the National Security Council and other agencies as needed and give the POTUS the very best recommendations that can be generated by the government he heads. Not, if I may repeat myself, the personal opinion of the NSA. That’s what a normal president, Democrat or Republican, expects.

The United States has been lacking a normal president for almost three years. Back in 2016, on Morning Joe, Donald Trump was asked to name his foreign policy advisors. Quoth Candidate Trump:

I’m speaking with myself, number one, because I have a very good brain and I’ve said a lot of things. I know what I’m doing and I listen to a lot of people, I talk to a lot of people and at the appropriate time I’ll tell you who the people are. But my primary consultant is myself and I have a good instinct for this stuff.

If called upon to defend Mr. Trump’s remarks, I would offer that he made them at a time when he was in the entertainment business and not considered a serious candidate. He was not in a position to surround himself with foreign policy experts.

As Chief Executive of the U.S. government and Commander in Chief of its armed forces, he would not just get his phone calls returned. Many academics share my conviction that if the president or even the governor of your state were to ask you to take on a task, you should do it if at all possible, without regard to the political party branded on the executive’s butt. Most professors, if unable to serve, would produce a list of qualified persons on request.

Still, it’s necessary to call and ask. It’s not like the business world, where you post a job opening and take applications. Did Mr. Trump think Henry Kissinger or Brent Scowcroft or Colin Powell or Condoleezza Rice needed a job?

Over halfway through Mr. Trump’s first term, he is still living by the words he uttered to great hilarity among the chattering class in 2016. Who would sign on to be an advisor to somebody who announces he does not take advice?

Bill Clinton served eight years and had two NSAs.

George W. Bush served eight years and had two.

Barack Obama served eight years and had three. Mr. Trump has had as many as Mr. Obama and that’s not counting two “acting” NSAs after two years and change.

Rumor has it that Mr. Bolton was considered for a number of positions in the Trump administration, but did not make the cut on account of his mustache. Trump felt that Bolton did not look the part, and he wants his appointees to keep up the standards of the entertainment industry. That’s why he has so few women in high places. Too many of those qualified by experience have aged out of Mr. Trump’s zone of interest.

I am no fan of John Bolton, who is a war hawk of the first water. I cannot easily name a country in the Middle East other than Israel where Bolton would not pursue regime change if he had the power. When Bolton became NSA, he was in a position to slant the government’s opinion toward wars. Lots of them.

On the other hand, Bolton was aware of what the job was supposed to be and fully capable of doing it if he chose not to take advantage of Mr. Trump’s reputation for going with the last opinion he heard…as long as it did not conflict with his own.

Fortunately for the country, Mr. Bolton’s opinion conflicted with Mr. Trump’s on the matter of going to war with Iran, among other issues. That is bad enough, but when Bolton’s office began to leak the gory details, the predictable outcome was death by tweet.

The death by tweet has been common in Mr. Trump’s government, often followed by what is playing out now. Mr. Trump claims he fired the ex-official, who claims he quit. That disagreement over the fact of the matter then devolves into a Twitter war.

Mr. Bolton, however, has eased off that battlefield, declaring ominously:

I’ll have my say in due course.

Yosemite Sam can be just as loud as Trump and much more dangerous. The two of them deserve each other, but behind that ‘stache Bolton is both smarter and better educated….so we’ll see about that “very good brain.”

Enrolled Cherokee, 9th grade dropout, retired judge, associate professor emeritus, and (so far) cancer survivor. Memoir: Lighting the Fire (Miniver Press 2020)

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