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Everyone in D.C. believes they know better than Trump: They Are Wrong
In a fiery diatribe, former National Security Adviser John Bolton released a scathing editorial against US President Donald J. Trump in a June 17, 2020 article published in the Wall Street Journal.
Bolton lambasted the president for not listening to his advice. He is not a happy man over how his tenure unfolded. The first-person tone of the editorial was one where you could feel the steam coming out of the man’s ears. How dare he did not listen to me!
John’s ire against Trump, like so many of those of the Washington D.C. elites, is not uncommon. Everyone in D.C. believes they know better than US President Donald J. Trump about anything and everything, except how to “Get to Yes”. Theirs is a culture that values a perpetual status quo more than anything else. The thing is⏤that is exactly what the American People elected Trump to tear down.
Donald J. Trump, the outsider president sent by the people to the White House in 2016, is a man who fits nowhere in the landscape of the Washington D.C. establishment. A pragmatic businessman, Trump has irked the “town of many knives” from the moment he won the nomination.
Where the people of the castle keep of the Beltway are accustomed to presidents who come and go practicing the fine art of kicking the can down the road while they tend to their minutiae, Trump turned their rice bowls upside down. He took up residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and insisted on moving the ball forward; often, having to bulldoze his way through acrimonious resistance.
That resistance has been universal. The names coming from all sides of the political aisle have one thing in common, they are all D.C. insiders. Brennan, Clapper, Comey, Mattis and now Bolton. These are all people that made careers out of carefully curating the details of policy, diplomacy and bureaucracy that are the bread and butter currency of the Nation’s Capital.
Trump on the other hand, as even Bolton points out in his editorial, is a man who sees all of D.C.’s precious husbanding of policy positions, that become unwavering lists carved into stone, as a house of cards that can be dismantled and rearranged into whatever shape necessary to achieve new and substantively different national agendas.
The Trump White house is looking to make deals that create the space for the parties to stop being stuck in endless games of agreements that get cheated on, and move forward into space where new bilateral progress can be created.
It has been a long time since US presidents have been that bold. Forging new paths against the wishes of the Beltway was the legacy of presidents like Nixon who ended the Vietnam War, Carter who altered the rules of dealing with the Middle East, and Reagan who made it his mission to end the Cold War.
Kicking the can down the road by other presidents who were unable to overturn the “considered opinion” of the D.C. establishment apparatus has been the norm since. Quite frankly, it has given the staffers the mistaken impression that they are in charge. They are not.
That is why we have elections that deliberately cause turmoil and upheaval. It is how the United States constantly evolves and why it is today, approaching 244 years old, the oldest enduring government on this planet. The 2016 election was the first time in a quarter century America put someone in the Oval Office with a mandate to disrupt the Establishment.
Bolton’s angst at working for the President is very personal. Trump brought a workplace culture that did not look like anything he was used to into the White House. Trump brought an openly deliberative ethos; one designed to let him observe the complex disagreements among his staff so he could observe and assess the balance of things. It is very much a CEO’s approach. Very much not the formally constrained work of think tanks and agencies.
As Bolton stated in his piece, “Trade matters were handled from day one in a completely chaotic way. Trump’s favorite way to proceed was to get small armies of people together, either in the Oval Office or the Roosevelt Room, to argue out these complex, controversial issues. Over and over again, the same issues. Without resolution, or even worse, one outcome one day and a contrary outcome a few days later. The whole thing made my head hurt.”
Heads up John. The elephant dance was for the benefit of the boss, not the elephants. Chaotic due diligence is diligence. It does uncover the fickle nature of policy and strategy far faster than years and years of papers that go nowhere. It was feeding into a complex option-adjusted analyzer inside Trump’s brain running iteration after iteration while people deliberated, as you said, “over and over”. It was happening in a real room instead of inside a digital computer. Your head hurt because, you were a subroutine, not the main program.
I always believed this was how this would end the day Bolton was appointed to his post. The two men’s approach to global stability are about as opposite as it gets. Trump is an outcome negotiator. His policy mindset looks to find the next feasible steppingstone. Bolton is a positional negotiator. His mindset looks to ensure that every stone is turned. The two personality types fight with each other even when they are on the same side incessantly.
It is important to remember that Trump brought Bolton in because he wanted someone who might better navigate the dissonance among his advisers. Bolton knew that was his mission. But like Mattis, Bolton’s deep-seated belief sets made him unable to follow the boss’ lead, it became the outsider vs. the insiders.
As Bolton himself put it, his obsession during negotiations became worrying about what Trump would say. Regarding a meeting between the US and China in November 2018, Bolton’s editorial opines, “Trump saw this as the meeting of his dreams, with the two big guys getting together, leaving the Europeans aside, cutting the big deal. …What could go wrong? … He was very worried about how much Trump would give away once untethered.“
The bottom line is that Bolton, like his other Establishment colleagues wanted to control Trump instead of trust in his abilities to create maneuvering room for them to open new opportunities that the United States could exploit constructively. They do not get the bigger picture. It’s an artifact of being stuck in their boxes.
In my opinion, it disadvantages the United States in policy, strategy, and negotiations. Establishment D.C. cherishes set piece engagements. Our adversaries know this, and they practice asymmetric strategies taking advantage of D.C.’s constrained mindset and culture as calculable and exploitable weaknesses.
Trump on the other hand has figured out both domestically and internationally, that tearing pages out of the playbook places the asymmetric advantage in the hands of the US side to ask for concessions that would not be possible conventionally.
Bolton’s distaste for this sadly caused him to vindictively attempt to weaponize the Democrats, who are fellow members in good standing of the larger D.C. Establishment clan, against Trump with this paragraph in his editorial.
“These and innumerable other similar conversations with Trump formed a pattern of fundamentally unacceptable behavior that eroded the very legitimacy of the presidency. Had Democratic impeachment advocates not been so obsessed with their Ukraine blitzkrieg in 2019, had they taken the time to inquire more systematically about Trump’s behavior across his entire foreign policy, the impeachment outcome might well have been different.”
I think this type of sour grapes is misguided. I think Trump needs to move on to continue to search for, and fill his ranks with, people who are not afraid to think outside the box, make the best case they can, and not be offended when the boss takes it all in and decides the right way for America is another way.
More than ever, America needs to create new, and initially uncomfortable, strategic maneuvering room, just as our adversaries are doing. For the national interest, that is the only mission objective that matters.
Dennis Santiago is an author and commentator on national policy and global stability issues. His subject matter expertise was developed during the Cold War as a strategic warfare systems analyst, missile defense architect, and arms control analyst. He is the author of the US Imperfect Defense Theory of Strategic Missile Defense. Dennis has worked on conventional warfare, nuclear warfare, and asymmetric warfare. His expertise includes combat aircraft, ordnance, electronic warfare, command and control, campaign design, and game theory.