It is hard to see how the Trump Administration can conduct a purposeful and reasoned foreign policy with the chaos engulfing its essential institutions. The firing of National Security Advisor H.R McMaster and his replacement with neoconservative and former US ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, is yet another sign that the Trump White House prefers to live with institutional uncertainty and personnel instability. Coming after the March 12, 2018 sacking of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and his replacement with CIA Director Mike Pompeo, Trump’s nominee to the post, this latest shakeup further indicates that President Trump may have decided to upend all knowns in the American foreign policy establishment, long a bedrock of the international order against which the president rails almost daily.
While American policy regarding North Korea, China, and Europe may be set for upheaval–– considering Trump’s, Bolton’s, and Pompeo’s rhetoric and pronouncements––the duo’s takeover of the civilian organs of the administration’s foreign policy will most likely impact Middle East policy profoundly. The hope is that Secretary of Defense James Mattis, should he remain in office, can provide the counterbalancing argument that US foreign policy around the world, and especially in the Middle East, is best conducted with caution, reason, and an overarching care for American national security interests.
Most importantly, and given the salience of a neutral American policy toward the allies of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the task was and now remains to urge unity and help advance mediation efforts to resolve the nine-month-old GCC crisis. As Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates compete for claiming a decisive role in dismissing Tillerson, Trump is set soon to listen to the advice of Bolton and Pompeo as to how best to approach the crisis. If Secretary Mattis remains aloof and allows their unfettered influence on the president––beholden as he is to Jared Kushner, his son-in-law, advisor, and friend of Saudi Arabia and the UAE––Trump may quickly revert to his anti-Qatar position of the early days of the crisis. Such a reversal may lead to additional Gulf instability, deepen the GCC rift, and indeed allow for renewed talk of regime change in Doha by military means.
Bolton’s arguably most virulent and bombastic talk has been about Iran and the nuclear deal signed with the Islamic Republic in 2015. He is among the ardent opponents of any rapprochement with Iran, prefers to scrap the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and advocates increased sanctions on Iran. In his hardline approach, he will find willing supporters and advocates in Saudi Arabia’s and the UAE’s powerful men, Crown Princes Mohammed bin Salman and Mohammed bin Zayed. Despite his criticism of Iran’s actions and behavior in the region, Secretary Mattis defends the JCPOA and considers American withdrawal from it to be ill-advised and detrimental to overall security. His potential clash with Bolton and Pompeo––who also wants to do away with the nuclear deal––is thus assured. But given Trump’s position and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s influence on the US president, Mattis is likely—and unfortunately—to find his mission to save the JCPOA too difficult to accomplish.
Bolton has also shown an interest in deepening and widening American involvement in the Syrian quagmire, a position in agreement with his advocacy prior to and during the 2003 war on Iraq. But his calls on Syria may be too hard to decipher, given the confused American policy there. On the one hand, he advocates an anti-Assad policy and a strong American stance opposing the Syrian regime. He has also criticized Russian policy and behavior on the side of the regime, a stance consistent with his opposition to Russia in general. On the other hand, he is slated to serve a president who has refused to criticize Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian interference in American politics. This contradictory situation will confuse Bolton’s approach in the White House regarding a crisis that has just entered its eighth year, one that, so far, has not garnered any serious American attention or policy.
Finally, there is no hope that American policy toward the Palestinian-Israeli conflict will see any change from Trump’s ardent advocacy of Israel’s positions; in fact, it is likely that Bolton will advise further bias in favor of Israel. In that, he will be a kindred spirit to Kushner and Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s emissaries to the conflict, and to David Friedman, US ambassador to Israel. Bolton will not have any qualms about recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital or the transfer of the US embassy to the city, cutting off funding to UNRWA (in fact abolishing it) or the Palestinian Authority, or the full annexation of the occupied West Bank.