John R. Bolton has left the Situation Room — and has left a series of gambles behind that President Trump must manage between now and Election Day.
John R. Bolton has left the Situation Room, and President Donald Trump is left at the table with a giant set of chips set on hot spots around the world.
In Trump's view, the clock is ticking: He needs some big victories between now and the election in November 2020. But he also wants to prove that his idiosyncratic approach to foreign policy — as a series of deals rather than a philosophy of how American hard and soft power is deployed — can produce results that have eluded Washington's foreign policy establishment for a decade or more.
Here's a look at six issues on the table.
Goal: Total, complete and verifiable denuclearisation, including an end to North Korea's intercontinental ballistic missile program.
Ask Trump about his negotiations with Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader, and he will tell you he is already winning: He was the first American president to meet a North Korean leader — three times now — and the first to step, briefly, into North Korean territory. He has gotten back the remains of American soldiers and won a pause, which has lasted nearly two years, in nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missile tests. It all led Trump to declare on Twitter, after his first meeting with Kim in Singapore, that North Korea was "no longer a Nuclear Threat."
The only problem is that the North's nuclear ability has increased since that meeting, by some estimates significantly. Intelligence estimates indicate that the North's stockpile of fuel has swelled, and so has its missile arsenal. Short-range missile tests have improved Kim's ability to strike US bases in South Korea and Japan with a new generation of weapons intended to avoid missile defences. And the North hasn't turned over a list of its weapons, missiles and facilities, which was supposed to be the first step.
Trump remains convinced that Kim will be impressed by the prospect of new hotels on the (heavily mined) beaches of North Korea's east coast. The whole country, he notes, is a great property, with easy access to China, Russia, South Korea and Japan. The only issue is whether he can persuade his new friend to give up the weapons that, in the North Korean leader's view, have kept him in office. That may mean settling with partial steps — starting with a nuclear freeze — on the way to a bigger deal that may or may not happen.
Prospects for a win: Next to none, unless Trump changes the goals. It is more likely he will agree to incremental reductions and call it a victory.
Goal: Prevent Iran from getting within reach of a nuclear weapon.
To the Trump administration, there is no more existential threat than Iran. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sees it as the source of virtually all trouble in the Middle East, and Trump kept insisting to a series of aides that the only way to get a good deal with Iran was to destroy the 2015 nuclear agreement, which he dismissed as "terrible" and a giveaway because it did not forever ban Iran from making nuclear fuel.
Bolton, who before joining the administration was an advocate of American-led regime change in Iran, was an enthusiast of the "maximum pressure" campaign. And indeed it has been more successful than most experts expected. Iran's oil revenues have plunged, its economy is shrinking and some of its elites are beginning to wonder whether it's time to acknowledge the inevitable, which is to negotiate with a president they can't stand.
All eyes are on the opening of the United Nations General Assembly in 10 days. Trump and even Pompeo have said they are ready to negotiate without preconditions, and could meet with President Hassan Rouhani of Iran.
"I do believe they would like to make a deal," Trump said on Wednesday. "If they do, that's great. If they don't, that's great, too."
He insisted the goal remained the same. "They never will have a nuclear weapon," he said. "If they are thinking about enrichment, they can forget about it."
The wild card here is Rouhani because he is unwilling to meet until sanctions are lifted, or so he says.
Prospects for a win: Not bad. The Iranians have a long history of changing their minds and negotiating when there are no other options. And unlike North Korea, they have no nuclear weapons, so they have less to give up.
Goal: Preside over a peace deal in order to withdraw American troops.
Every time Trump goes to Camp David, he sees pictures of Jimmy Carter, whose cabin-to-cabin diplomacy in 1978 brought peace between Israel and Egypt. Some aides think that inspired Trump to invite the Taliban — who gave haven to al-Qaida to plan the September 11, 2001, attacks — to the presidential retreat. Bolton's argument that this was a crazy idea precipitated this week's rupture.
But it's hardly over. The "peace deal" Trump is touting isn't the Camp David accords. It would call for a "reduction in violence" and the beginning of a dialogue about power sharing between the Taliban and the US-backed Afghan government of President Ashraf Ghani. Few think it will lead to true peace. But it may be enough to give Trump the chance to significantly reduce the number of US troops in Afghanistan.
Prospects for a win: Fairly high. The only people who want U.S. troops out more than Trump are the Taliban.
Goal: It's murky. The president constantly mixes his trade goals and his security concerns, often to the detriment of both.
Trump miscalculated when it came to challenging President Xi Jinping of China: He thought Xi would fold as tariffs took their toll. So far, Xi has not folded, and market jitters are a reflection of the fear that the world's two largest economies could tank simultaneously.
The bigger problem facing the Trump administration is that after nearly 32 months in office, it has no integrated China strategy.
Pompeo and many in the military establishment view Xi, the most powerful Chinese leader in decades, as determined to spread the country's influence through Africa, Latin America and, increasingly, Europe — and to use its technology, led by Huawei-produced networks, to exercise control. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and other members of the economics team are convinced that Xi, in the end, will take the best economic deal he can.
And Trump, forever seeking flexibility, gyrates between these two posts, sometimes declaring China's progress on 5G networks, artificial intelligence and quantum computing a national security threat, and at other times suggesting that supplying those efforts is up for negotiation.
Prospects for a win: Poor. Xi is playing a long game, and Trump is playing for November 2020.
Goal: Get the region to agree to the Kushner peace plan.
The president and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, have taken two years to study Middle East peace — "the deal of the century," Trump called it — and when they revealed the first part of the plan, it was all about getting wealthy Arab states, among others, to invest tens of billions of dollars in the Palestinian territories, as well as in Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon.
But key decision makers avoided the conference, and with Israel in the midst of its own campaign season, the political side of the plan won't be released until after the election — if then. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pre-empted the whole proposal this week with his pre-election promise to annex nearly a third of the occupied West Bank — reducing any future Palestinian state to an enclave encircled by Israel.
Prospects for a win: On life support. No evidence supports the idea that Kushner will succeed where others have failed.
Goal: It's completely unclear. Surrounded by advisers who argue for containment, Trump overlooks offenses and argues for reintegrating Russia.
Alone among his foreign policy advisers, Trump believes the key to dealing with Russia is reintegration, letting the country back into the Group of 7, forgiving (or ignoring) its annexation of Crimea and never mentioning its effort to influence the 2016 election, a charge he has dismissed as a "hoax."
Meanwhile, the Pentagon is gearing up for a fundamental shift in policy in which Russia and China are regarded as "revisionist" states that must be challenged. And the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and the National Security Agency say they are constantly creating plans to counter Russian malign influence in the 2020 election.
Trump argues "there is no reason for this," and says that with a little help to the Russian economy, President Vladimir Putin would be a lot easier to deal with. With Bolton gone, Trump may well try to negotiate an extension to the New START treaty, the last remaining arms control agreement between the United States and Russia.
But when it comes to lifting sanctions, Trump has run into a brick wall with his own party, whose leaders say they have no intention of reversing decades of hawkish views on containment.
Prospects for a win: Trump is not playing poker here — he's playing solitaire. The only possible victory is an arms control treaty extension.
Written by: David E. Sanger
Photographs by: Doug Mills
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES