Amid the routine chaos surrounding the Trump administration, one recent change in personnel, among many in recent weeks, stands out.
After months of rumour, always followed by denial, Donald Trump announced that John Bolton, once upon a time the American ambassador the United Nations, will shortly replace General H. R. McMaster as the president’s national security advisor.
For some, speculation about this appointment was bad enough. The announcement was something else. It triggered a reaction approaching hysteria, as a class of journalists, foreign policy workers, analysts and commentators spoke with one voice in condemnation.
Bolton was not simply a bad choice, many said; he was dangerous. By the end of his first day in office, the United States would be at war – likely with more than one nation. Before the end of his first week, tactical nuclear weapons would almost certainly have been employed. We, they predicted calmly, are all going to die.
Though these predictions have little factual basis, the aversion many feel to Bolton and what he represents is built on solid ground.
Bolton has a hard-won reputation as a hardliner. He won it in part through his government career and, more in evidence lately, through his writings in the press and his stint as a commentator on Fox News.
The latter is where Trump, an opponent of many of the policies Bolton pursued in government, likely encountered Bolton and decided he was the man to advise him on matters of national security.
To see Bolton on television was to see him in fiery form. Prodigious moustache bristling, Bolton roundly attacked America’s enemies and those politicians and officials whom he suspected of giving them succour.
This form was only supplemented by his writing, which includes some surprising pronouncements. Bolton wrote last month in The Wall Street Journal about the legal case for undertaking limited strikes on North Korea, for example.
Screenshots of Bolton’s more aggressive headlines have done the rounds on social media. All this has worried some.
But these worries are overstated. Bolton’s appointment is hardly the harbinger of doom it has been presented to be.
In practice, Bolton’s scope for doing what many fear he might is limited, and so, in reality, is his intention.
It must be noted that, as a mere advisor, he is beholden to the president’s will and whim. And Bolton will have a difficult enough job contending with that will, let alone directing it.
Trump is a difficult man to work with and a hard man to direct. He frequently disagreed with McMaster on matters of policy, and circumvented or undermined McMaster’s plans for action.
When McMaster stated that it was ‘incontrovertible’ that the Russian state had interfered in the American presidential election of 2016, Trump lambasted him on Twitter.
More substantially, Trump and his national security advisor fell out on Afghanistan. And though McMaster eventually got his way – and more American troops were sent to bolster the Afghan government – he failed to win Trump over entirely. The president gave in grudgingly, while making his immense frustration known.
There is no reason to think that Bolton will have an easier time of things.
But even if he succeeds in overcoming Trump’s ego and his will, a great change in the way the United States interacts with the wider world is unlikely. Bolton’s stated plans are not all that out of step with present policy.
Even if Bolton gets his way, there will not be war.
The Korean peninsula is unlikely to bear witness to new hostilities. The US will likely continue with its maximalist strategy – a plan of action which has involved pressuring North Korea extensively. But even limited military strikes, of the sort discussed by Bolton, are unlikely.
Trump’s announcement that he is open to meeting North Korea’s hereditary dictator, Kim Jong-un, means military action against the country is, for a time, unforeseeable. There will be no intervention while the possibility of striking a ‘great deal’ – of the kind which obsesses Trump – remains.
With Bolton advising the president, the United States will likely do more to counter Iranian influence in Syria and Yemen. It will have good reason to do so, as Iranian proxies such as the Houthi rebels in Yemen become more audacious and the regime of Bashar al-Assad, an Iranian client state, persists in its attempts to dominate the entirety of Syria.
But an aggressive reaction to this situation, if it comes, must not be attributed to Bolton’s influence alone. A response in kind was on the cards in any case.
In those areas where the president and Bolton agree, Bolton’s influence cannot be expected to be decisive. Trump was hardly sympathetic to the Iranian nuclear deal before Bolton arrived on the scene. If it is allowed to lapse, or is more actively repudiated, Trump will want to make it clear that it was on his initiative, not his advisor’s, that such an eventuality came to pass.
Trump likes headlines; he likes people talking about him. He may well be a little disappointed by how the media covers his choice of national security advisor. Overstating Bolton’s influence, and minimising the president’s, will be rife – certainly in the weeks after he takes the job, and possibly for as long as Bolton remains in government.
But observers ought to resist this urge and instead be calm in their observations. The sky will not fall in.
Though Bolton may have some success in intensifying US opposition to Iran, or seeming harder on North Korea, his influence will be limited – and anything he successfully prompts the president to do will fall within the realms of what was previously possible.
This may not be entirely reassuring. For many, Bolton is still unconscionable, something the idea of him beholden to Donald Trump hardly mitigates.
But reporting on and opposing both sensibly is better than predicting imminent death from the skies. That serves no one well, and fails to represent the fundamental ordinariness of what might seem an extreme appointment to an extraordinary administration.
This piece was originally published at The New Arab.