By sacking former national security adviser John Bolton, President Donald Trump has put himself in a better position to keep the campaign promises that distinguished him from the other Republicans who ran against him in 2016 and perhaps pull off another come-from-behind win next year.
Finally, an example of regime change that could actually make our country safer. But while firing Bolton is prerequisite for pursuing a true “America First” foreign policy, it is not sufficient by itself. Trump needs reinforcements if he is to fulfill his pledges to end the wars in Syria and, especially, Afghanistan. The next national security adviser cannot be a Bolton bureaucratic rival who largely holds the same view as the mustachioed militarist or even a Bolton mini-me.
Trump cannot govern the way he wants to by recruiting from the George W. Bush and John McCain B Teams. While his options are limited—realism and restraint has considerable academic support, but less Beltway experience and fewer credentialed Republicans—the alternative is to surrender the advantages that put him in the Oval Office in the first place over the objections of the mainstream media, outraged Democrats, and even some of his own party’s establishment.
So far there has been a disconnect between Trump’s rhetoric and the Trump record. He has allowed underlings to essentially override him on Afghanistan and Syria. He scrapped the Iran nuclear deal without a viable alternative and vetoed a bipartisan resolution rebuking U.S. participation in the unconscionable Saudi war on Yemen. He has escalated many of the ongoing presidential wars that lack constitutionally required congressional authorization.
At the same time, Trump has periodically called for bringing the troops home, only to face internal opposition bordering on insubordination. From North Korea to even Iran, he has made clear that he wants to go down in history as The Art of the Deal negotiator-in-chief rather than the architect of the Iraq war 2.0. He has yet to lead the country into another costly preventive war, unlike the dynasties in both parties he defeated.
The president must be prepared for what lies ahead. The neoconservatives and their fellow travelers—if there is any doubt that Bolton was one of the former, he is surely among the latter—are going to train their fire on him to a degree unseen since Never Trump’s salad days. The liberal media is going to rehabilitate Bolton, turning the onetime “devil incarnate” into a mix of Metternich, Talleyrand and George Kennan as the defenestrated defense hawk turns against his former employer and insists he kept Trump from signing bad deals.
Neocons will try to bait Trump into more forever war futility by saying he wants to make deals with America’s enemies and comparing him to Barack Obama. But Obama added to the list of no-win wars our brave troops were bogged down in, producing a total fiasco in Libya has Hillary Clinton cackled her approval. Trump so far has not. By ending those wars instead, he will be a step ahead of Joe Biden and will prevent Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders from taking the foreign policy issue away from him in 2020.
What has listening to his vanquished Republican rivals gotten Trump? No border wall, no broader immigration reform, no infrastructure bill, no Obamacare repeal or replacement, no credit for cutting taxes. They collaborated successfully on judges and jobs, which should be enough to turn out the conservative base, but Trump has less to sell to the working-class swing voters who changed Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan from blue to red. Those Americans are tired of seeing their children sent to die in nation-building exercises overseas as their own communities crumble around them at home.
Many of these domestic policy initiatives are out of Trump’s reach as long as Democrats control at least one chamber of Congress. Yet he can still deliver on foreign policy, if he means what he says. Otherwise he can let B-Team Bushies once again get Republicans tossed out of the White House, this time only after a single term. Trump can chart a difference course or heed the advice of those who know only how to lose elections and wars.
The choice is his to make, not John Bolton’s. And he’s running out of time.
W. James Antle III is the editor of The American Conservative.