A number of observers have reported that National Security Advisor John Bolton was sidelined by the White House in the run up and aftermath of President Donald Trump’s historic summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Some have gone further, arguing there is tension between Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and predicting that Bolton won’t last much longer in the White House. It’s likely not so simple.
While this analysis may turn out to be accurate, it seems to miss the forest for the trees. Bolton, who is famous for his belligerence, was publicly skeptical about North Korea’s trustworthiness just before joining the White House and continues to be so. Indeed, he said in March that you know the North Korean regime is lying because “their lips are moving.” He said the summit will be unproductive if it results in Kim simply promising to “have talks about this and talks about that.”
Given the perceived weakness and lack of concrete promises from North Korea in the document signed by Trump and Kim in Singapore, it is understandable that the president’s critics and fair observers alike see the results as a diminishment of Bolton’s influence in the White House. To them, Trump made major concessions without receiving any new commitments from a regime notorious for dishonesty and breaking deals.
But there is another explanation. Setting aside the fact that no one outside the president’s inner circle knows exactly what was said in the talks with Kim, Bolton’s mere presence in the White House and at the negotiating table suggests a calculated effort on Trump’s part to signal his seriousness and the starkness of the choice he is presenting Kim.
The administration’s strategy is fairly straightforward and might best be summed up by the movie-trailer-like video Trump showed Kim during the summit. Mostly mocked by the media as simplistic and silly, the video presents Kim with a stark choice: prosperity and historic accolades or destruction.
Bolton’s addition to the team — especially in the run up to the summit with Kim — can be seen as Trump foreshadowing the consequences of Kim’s failing to make the right choice. Indeed, what most analysts have either missed, ignored, or downplayed in their discussion of Bolton’s alleged fall and Pompeo’s elevation is the fact that if Kim tries to play Trump, or simply fails to make a deal, the president is likely to turn to Bolton for a more aggressive solution.
Kim and his cadre of acolytes are familiar with Bolton’s open calls for regime change and his support for preemptive war. Trump and his team surely knew this, and likely calculated that any approach to negotiations with North Korea without a credible threat of force — if diplomacy fails — was a recipe for North Korean intransigence. Bringing Bolton on board gave the administration that credible threat by showing Kim that if peace fails, it is Bolton’s whispers that will grow louder in the president’s ear.
The summit almost didn’t happen. Just weeks before the planned date, Bolton inelegantly said the American approach to denuclearizing North Korea should be similar to the “Libya model,” reminding the world that Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi gave up his nuclear program only to be abandoned and killed, a precedent that is surely one of the biggest stains on President Obama’s legacy. The lesson of Libya—that dealing with the United States to truly denuclearize leaves you vulnerable to regime change—surely weighs on Kim.
Instead of seeing the results of the Trump-Kim summit as an elevation of Pompeo and a rebuke of Bolton, however, it might be more helpful to see it as part of a calculated strategy by the Trump administration. While talks are ongoing and seemingly — at least to the administration — in good faith, Pompeo and diplomacy will take the driver’s seat. If diplomacy fails, however, Bolton and his brand of toughness may become official policy. If that possibility is not also weighing on Kim, it should.
Indeed, in downplaying Bolton’s comments regarding Libya, Trump said “if you look at that model with Gaddafi, that was a total decimation …. We went in there to beat him. Now, that model would take place if we don’t make a deal, most likely.”
Bottom line is: The world should be rooting for Trump to succeed in negotiations with Kim. If he doesn’t get a deal, the alternative could be much, much worse. Costly in both cash and lives.
Jason Cannata is a public affairs professional with a master’s degree in international studies from the Josef Korbel School at University of Denver.
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