John Bolton as scapegoat

President Trump must be frustrated. That, at least, is the most innocent explanation I can think of for the way he behaves.

Trump has plenty to be frustrated about. By now, if one believed candidate Trump, our border with Mexico should be secure, thanks to a big beautiful wall paid for by Mexico. It isn’t.

By now, the trade war with China should be won. After all, Trump assured us that trade wars are easy to win. This trade war hasn’t been.

By now, Trump imagined, North Korea should be in the process of dismantling its nukes. And Trump should be on his way to winning the Nobel Peace Prize. He isn’t

By now, Trump imagined, the mullahs in Iran should have caved to the economic pressure we’re applying. They should be negotiating a new nuclear deal with terms vastly more favorable to the U.S. than those in the Obama deal. They aren’t.

By now, the U.S. should be out of Afghanistan thanks to a deal with the Taliban. And while that terrorist group of Islamic fanatics might not be honoring the deal, they wouldn’t openly be spitting on it and mocking America. In reality, there is no deal, we’re still in Afghanistan, and the Taliban is spitting on us.

In the absence of the accomplishments Trump seeks, and in most cases promised, he is left to tout the high-flying American economy. Trump deserves some credit for our economic successes, but they are mostly the product of forces he doesn’t control. That’s why they are subject to reversal before the next election.

Trump can also tout the confirmation of conservative judges, including at least one to the Supreme Court. But this accomplishment is mostly due to having a Republican Senate, not to the brilliance of Trump.

Still, these accomplishments, coupled with a tax cut and the absence of major mistakes, are the stuff of a modestly successful presidency. They aren’t Reaganesque, but they’re not bad for three years of government work.

No reasonable person would expect Trump to have caused North Korea and Iran to disarm, or China to capitulate on trade. And given the resistance Trump faces from Democratic members of Congress and Democratic judges, coupled with the forces driving immigration from Central America, we should not expect Trump to have solved the immigration crisis.

But Trump isn’t interested in a modestly successful presidency. Even a Reaganesque presidency would be insufficient to satisfy him. He wants to achieve things no one reasonably could have expected of him, or anyone else. — things, as he put it in his acceptance speech at the GOP convention — that “only I” can accomplish

Having fallen short of this aspiration in so many areas, Trump needs scapegoats. This, I think, helps explain John Bolton’s departure, though it is not the only factor or even the most important one.

Yesterday, Trump seemed to blame Bolton for the failure to make headway on North Korean disarmament. He blasted Bolton for saying that, with regard to North Korean denuclearization, “we have very much in mind the Libya model from 2003, 2004.” Bolton wasn’t talking about toppling the government, he was talking about inspections. Bolton later explained: “One thing that Libya did that led us to overcome our skepticism was that they allowed American and British observers into all their nuclear-related sites.”

But Trump interpreted Bolton’s references to Libya as meaning that Bolton had in mind the overthrow, post-denuclearization, of the North Korean government, as occurred in Libya. And he blamed Bolton’s reference to Libya for the failure to make headway with Kim Jong Un in negotiations:

We were set back very badly when John Bolton talked about the Libyan model! And he made a mistake! And as soon as he mentioned that, the Libyan model – what a disaster! Take a look at what happened to Gaddafi with the Libyan model! And he’s using that, to make a deal, with North Korea? And I don’t blame Kim Jong Un for what he said after that, and he wanted nothing to do with John Bolton.

It’s absurd to suppose that Kim Jong Un would have agreed to denuclearization but for Bolton’s comment. Does Trump really believe that, prior to this comment, it had never occurred to the dictator that oppressive regimes with nuclear weapons tend to survive while oppressive regimes without them don’t?

The reality is that Kim was never going to disarm. Trump’s view that his mastery of making deals, coupled with the supposed desire of blood-thirsty tyrants to bring prosperity to their people, will cause North Korea and Iran to give up their nuclear aspirations is a fantasy.

Trump probably also sees Bolton as an obstacle to bringing Iran to the negotiating table. Iran, no doubt, hates Bolton. However, its willingness to negotiate with the U.S. isn’t a function of the identity of the national security adviser. It’s a function of the concessions Trump is willing to make on sanctions in advance of talks.

Trump may have expected Iran to rush to the negotiating table once the tough sanctions he imposed started to bite. That this didn’t happen isn’t due to John Bolton. It’s due to the fact that Iran’s rulers are tough and, like Kim Jong Un, are more desirous of being a nuclear power than of avoiding economic hardship for their population.

But Bolton makes a convenient scapegoat.

There’s a downside, though, to firing hardliners in the administration — the “bad cops” so to speak — because they have alienated our enemies. It suggests a lack of toughness in the administration. That’s probably why Trump took pains to deride Bolton’s image as “tough.”

There are reports that Trump is planning to ease sanctions on Iran in order to induce the regime to negotiate with him, a move the mullahs demand as a precondition to talks. That’s Trump’s prerogative. However, if he does this, his preemptive attack on John Bolton’s toughness won’t insulate him from charges of weakness and foolishness.

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