Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

John Bolton Shows the Dangers of a Weak President

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Jonathan Bernstein writes in Bloomberg:

Just how weak a president has Donald Trump become? For an illustration, see a terrific Washington Post article on the foreign-policy decision-making process since John Bolton became Trump’s national security adviser. Or, rather, the absence of anything resembling a process.

As Heather Hurlburt pointed out when Bolton took the job, he’s ill-suited for it. Bolton is a policy advocate, not the honest broker that the position calls for. That’s a particular problem for Trump. Because the president is inexperienced in national-security matters, he doesn’t know whether Bolton is speaking for the experts on a policy question or just advocating for his own preferences. Because Trump knows little about the executive branch, Bolton can use his bureaucratic skills to advance his own agenda — including impeding Trump’s plan to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria.

This isn’t to say that Bolton’s policies are necessarily wrong; that’s for others to judge. But it creates a real problem for the presidency when top advisers are looking out for their own interests and not the president’s.

On this point, Ronald Reagan’s administration is instructive. By all accounts, Reagan was more informed about policy than Trump is. He was also a pragmatic politician, capable of compromising or even backing down entirely when it was in his interests. Reagan’s weakness, however, was that he could be curiously passive at times, and (like many presidents) too easily swayed by anecdotes. That meant he needed high-level staffers who could serve as honest brokers. His first-term chief of staff, James Baker, allowed him to make good decisions. Baker’s replacement, Donald Regan, failed to do so. Partly as a result, Reagan’s presidency had almost completely collapsed by the time Regan was fired amid the Iran-Contra scandal.

When a weak president — or, as with Reagan, a president with significant flaws — doesn’t have a James Baker around, the administration can turn into a free-for-all, with White House staffers and executive-branch personnel pursuing their own preferences, protecting their turf, and generally disrupting the policy process. That seems to be what happened to George W. Bush in the run-up to the Iraq War; whatever his own views, he was ill-served by everyone, from Vice President Dick Cheney on down, who failed to present him with honest options and instead used bureaucratic skills to lock in the choices they wanted. Similarly, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama both suffered from foreign-policy inexperience, especially early in their presidencies, and made mistakes as a result.

For Trump, the problem is worse. Even if he wanted to replace Bolton, there’s only a tiny pool of people who are both qualified for the job and willing to work in this White House. Which is yet another consequence of presidential weakness: He can’t persuade many people to work for him. And if Trump is getting rolled in an area where presidents have unusually strong authority — in their capacity as commanders-in-chief — imagine how he’s faring in other policy areas. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

7 March 2019 at 9:56 am

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