What type of national security advisor is John Bolton likely to be?

Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Oxon Hill, Maryland, U.S. February 24, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts - RC1843BD8B50
Editor's note:

The real question about John Bolton, writes Michael O’Hanlon, is not so much what he thinks or how he will seek to influence the president, but rather how his advice will factor into a broader policy discussion in this administration. This piece originally appeared in The Hill.

In the few days since he was announced as incoming national security advisor, John Bolton has been widely analyzed and discussed. I know him moderately well and share most of the emerging conventional wisdom on the nature of his views and of his style as a bureaucratic operator.

He is very hard-line—think of Dick Cheney times two. He is very disciplined and savvy—again, think Cheney. He is a critic, and a skeptic, of the so-called establishment, and with that worldview goes a certain reserved, even laconic, personality; in my experiences with him, he is generally polite and pleasant, but not effusive or outgoing.

He will probably seek to build a strong relationship with President Trump and keep his cards close to his chest on many matters, rather than worry too much any more about trying to win arguments on Fox News.

On specific issues like Iran, North Korea and Russia, a lot already has been said about his views. In fairness to Bolton, while I often disagree with his positions, I do not find him reckless or cavalier.

So for me, the real question is not so much what Bolton thinks or how he will seek to influence the president, but rather how his advice will factor into a broader policy discussion in this administration.

He enters a senior team with several strong personalities, including United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and incoming presumed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, so he will hardly be guaranteed the preeminent role in advising the president.

To imagine the likely possibilities, it may be useful to create a simple taxonomy of how past national security advisors have wound up influencing the presidents they work for.

National security “coordinator”

Many national security advisors never wind up as close confidants of the commander in chief. Rather, they help make the trains run on time, ensuring that presidents hear various well-developed views in policy debates and decisions, then following up to ensure good implementation of those decisions.

All successful national security advisors have to do a good deal of this but, for some, it winds up being most of their legacy—not necessarily a bad thing.

As examples of this kind of national security advisor, at risk of oversimplification, I would suggest President Obama’s first two national security advisors (Gen. Jim Jones, Tom Donilon) and most of President Reagan’s (Richard Allen, William Clark, Robert McFarlane, John Poindexter, Frank Carlucci, Colin Powell).

In retrospect, this may someday wind up being the most accurate categorization of H.R. McMaster as well—less because of what he could have done, if allowed, and more because of the nature of what President Trump wanted him to do and allowed him to do.

Quiet soulmate

Some national security advisors have a role that combines advisor, coordinator, close friend and long-standing personal and political partner. In this model, the national security advisor plays the role of ultra-senior staffer to a president.

Often, they are not remembered for distinctive views of their own within the administration—perhaps because they have such frequent and good rapport with their bosses that any disagreements happen in private and stay there.

Susan Rice and Condoleezza Rice come to mind as good examples of this type of NSA; Sandy Berger, in President Clinton’s second term, may have played this kind of role as well.

Such advisors can still play a major role going beyond coordination, such as Susan Rice’s role as point person on China policy during President Obama’s second term. But for this kind of national security advisor, such Cabinet-like roles tend to be fairly limited and discrete.

Occasional disrupter

Another category of national security advisor often may play the kind of background role typical of the first two types discussed above. But when a big issue or crisis arises in the terms of their presidents, they may push for a fundamental re-evaluation of existing policy and lean forward in their willingness to force a change—or, at least, a big debate.

The style with which they do this can depend a great deal on their own personalities: Zbigniew Brzezinski was quite assertive, vocal and public in his hawkishness toward the Soviet Union during President Carter’s term in office, for example, whereas Stephen Hadley catalyzed a debate on Iraq policy that ultimately but fairly quietly led to the “surge” policy there.

Larger-than-life figure

Here, of course, I am thinking of Henry Kissinger, who ultimately was both national security advisor and secretary of State. Sometimes, in fact, it almost seemed like he was co-president with Richard Nixon. On the positive side, the opening to China took place on his watch; other issues, like Vietnam and Cambodia, were handled in a more controversial way.

My own personal favorite for national security advisor is probably Brent Scowcroft, counselor to President Ford and then of course President George H.W. Bush, who combined elements of the first three models (though certainly not the last) in ways that confound my attempts to categorize him anywhere on this spectrum.

I don’t know what kind of advisor Bolton will be. Given his views, I hope for the first model, but of course it primarily will be up to President Trump to decide. The second, the “quiet soulmate,” might be the most insidious and risky.

But, fortunately, Trump is on good terms with other top foreign policy officials on his team that would make this outcome seem relatively unlikely. Pretty soon, we should begin to find out.