Days after President Trump twitter-fired John Bolton, the question on everybody’s lips is, what does Bolton’s departure mean for US foreign policy?
“I informed John Bolton last night that his services are no longer needed at the White House,” read a tweet, characteristically trump-esque in its style, on Tuesday, September 10. With the tweet, the president announced his decision to dismiss John Bolton, his notoriously hawkish, distinctly mustachioed senior security adviser, known for his unabashed and undiplomatic practice of diplomacy.
As ever, Trump’s tweet, meant for spectacle hit the jackpot in a matter of hours. Reporters and analysts fell over themselves to make sense of Bolton’s unceremonious dismissal by a president with whom he once shared numerous views on foreign policy, including the belief that “toughness” is all that is needed to end the world’s problems.
Trump had been clear about the reason for his decision: “I disagreed strongly with many of his suggestions, as did others in the Administration.”
“The rift between the president and his national security adviser owed as much to personality as to policy. The president never warmed to him, a dynamic that is often fatal in this White House,” the New York Times reported within hours of Bolton’s dismissal, giving the first insights into the abrupt end of Bolton’s tenure within the Trump administration. Then came the onslaught of commentaries and analyses with the clear aim of illuminating Bolton’s fall from grace with Trump.
As it happened, hours after Bolton’s exit from team Trump, the hawkish diplomat’s disagreement with Trump on questions such as North Korea and Afghanistan provided the perfect background for a sudden dismissal that seemed at once surprising and expected.
A contradictory relationship
“It was a marriage that was never going to last: Trump and Bolton rarely saw eye to eye on global hotspots. The national security adviser held far more hawkish views than the ‘America first’ president on matters like Iran, North Korea and Afghanistan,” the Associated Press analyzed.
While this answers “why” Trump may have finally decided to make use of his beloved “you are fired” line with Bolton, it does not answer the “why now” aspect of the interesting development in what once looked like a Trump-Bolton bromance, with “toughness” and “greatness” as the defining features of a “winning America” amid a resurgent China, a determined (to come back) Russia, a petulant North Korea, and an intransigeant Iran, among other challenges.
For all the reported fallouts and the storied disagreements between Trump and Bolton, few would have bet on Trump’s firing Bolton as dishonorably as he did. For one thing, Bolton’s “tough guy” reputation and his unwavering pro-Israel stance on Middle-East issues spoke to the heart of the most powerful bastions of the Republican establishment. More still, Trump is said to have genuinely believed that Bolton was an invaluable asset to his foreign policy.
“The president says having Bolton on his team improves his bargaining position and gives him a psychological advantage over foes like North Korea and Iran,” Axios reported last July.
Trump’s “Bolton doctrine,” the report went on, was rooted in the president’s strong belief that Bolton’s very presence in his administration was a stark reminder to other countries that every instance of refusal to fall in line with Washington came with the promise of “invasion” or air strikes or “tough” economic sanctions. Bolton, in a sense, was Trump’s safety jacket in the troubled and unpredictable waters of foreign policy.
So why fire him now? Because, answers the Guardian’s Julian Borger, “Trump wants to build a legacy,” whereas “Bolton breaks things.” An “inveterate hawk,” Borger continued, Bolton’s isolationist and aggressive methods accounted for Trump’s failure in landing the diplomatic breakthroughs he so desired with North Korea, Iran, and most recently the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Western Sahara and the Bolton Effect
What this flurry of post-dismissal analyses, think pieces, and in-depth reports all seemed to agree on is what has so far been referred to as the “Bolton effect.” The idea paints Bolton’s preference for chaos and havoc over intricate diplomacy or painstaking peace negotiations. “If it was up to him he’d take on the whole world at one time,” Trump said of Bolton in a June interview.
But while North Korea, Iran, and the Talibans are the dish du jour, and the most readily cited reasons for Trump’s disillusionment with Bolton, the Bolton effect went beyond the confines of those three foreign policy challenges. In the Western Sahara case, Bolton carried a considerable punching weight that has gone unmentioned, or perhaps neglected, in almost all the commentaries since his unceremonious dismissal.
The obvious reason, at least judging from the top dossiers currently on Trump’s security agenda, is that Western Sahara does not carry a similar weight as any of the three ostensible reasons in the offices of the White House or the Pentagon. While such an argument correctly reflects the mood in Washington, it misses something essential in the recent ramifications of the Bolton effect.
Bolton’s winding career as a senior US official and then a UN diplomat would be incomplete without his Western Sahara episode. By Bolton’s own admission, he is one of the two American diplomats with extra-diplomatic attachment to Western Sahara. This was plainly laid out in his presentation last December of the US’ new Africa Strategy.
Even as the “strategy” was supposed to be about what the US plans to do to “contain” China’s and Russia’s growing influence in Africa, Bolton made sure to put Western Sahara at the center of any US’s “Africa strategy” under his watch as senior security adviser. He said he was “frustrated” with the twenty-seven years of “ineffective” cease-fire without referendum. He went on, in the Q&A session, to puncture almost all his answers with suggestions of how committed he is to referendum and “self-determination for the Sahrawi people.”
A visible impact
But the most visible impact of the Bolton effect came when the UN Security Council broke with its tradition of renewing the UN peacekeeping mission by one year. Bolton pressured for a six-month renewal, arguing that “intense pressure” on all conflicting parties would yield faster results.
Bolton views MINURSO, the UN’s Western Sahara peacekeeping mission, as “wasteful” and “ineffective,” and the entity could expect no friendly winds as long as Bolton dictated much of the US security directives.
“Since Bolton’s appointment, in March, there has been a flurry of activity regarding the Western Sahara conflict at the UN and in the State Department,” the New Yorker reported late last December. The article quoted Bolton as saying, “There are two Americans who really focus a lot on the Western Sahara: one’s Jim Baker, the other’s me. I think there should be intense pressure on everybody involved to see if they can’t work it out.”
This, other interviewees told the New Yorker reporter, amounted to Western Sahara’s dose of the “Bolton Effect.” The underlying message was clear: Bolton was the brain behind the US’ shift on MINURSO, and his policy of maximum pressure on conflicting parties came with the radical promise that things would quickly, perceptibly evolve on the Western Sahara front.
In Bolton’s recognizably cold pragmatism in Western Sahara, Morocco stood as the obvious culprit for all the bad in the enduring conflict.
“Morocco is in possession of almost all of the Western Sahara, happy to keep it that way, and expecting that de facto control will morph into de jure control over time,” Bolton said in a 2007 piece, particularly fuming at the failure of the Baker Plan for Western Sahara, a resolution to which he had contributed in 2003 while serving alongside James Baker, then the UN personal envoy for Western Sahara.
While pro-Polisario outlets applauded Bolton’s appointment in March of last year, Rabat was on the edge, knowing that Bolton’s sympathy was for the opposing camp. For a large swath of Moroccan analysts and policy makers, Bolton’s very presence in the upper echelons of the US security machinery was a source of uncertainty, even anxiety. Bolton hung over Rabat ferocious and constantly threatening, like a Damocles sword.
And so, while Iran, Afghanistan, and North Korea were the primary reasons for Bolton’s impromptu departure, Morocco finds itself an incidental beneficiary of a move—Bolton’s sacking—which, while it had apparently nothing to do with Western Sahara, could vastly impact the direction of the upcoming MINURSO discussions in October.
Bolton and the Polisario
Of the latest developments in Western Sahara, the most notable was arguably the revelation of Washington’s preference for Morocco’s autonomy proposal over the Polisario Front’s insistent statehood aspirations, in flagrant defiance of Bolton’s determination to push through a referendum on self-determination.
In a recent report that caused jitters in the pro-Polisario camp, the Wall Street Journal, considering the merits and limits of the Bolton effect in Western Sahara in the past months, spoke of the frustration to come for self-determination enthusiasts pinning all their hopes on Bolton’s sympathy for their cause.
“Independence activists in Western Sahara were elated, seeing in Mr. Bolton a potential savior. Moroccan officials worry he is too sympathetic to those hoping to create Africa’s newest country,” noted the article. It continued, citing Hmad Hommad, a pro-Polisario activist in laayoune: “We’re depending on him, we appreciate what he is doing for the people of Western Sahara, and we will be good friends of the U.S.”
And then, turning to a pragmatism that now comes across as a bout of foreign policy prophecy, the article concluded: “But those hoping to raise their flag over an independent Western Sahara are likely to be disappointed by the Trump administration.” But with Bolton gone, the separatist front has not merely lost a supporter; it has lost one of its most vocal, passionate champions with the relevant connections in the right places.