July 23, 2019 | 71° F

ABDELFATAH: Pompeo, Bolton indicate direction of U.S. foreign policy

Opinions Column: Global Perspectives


Over the past two weeks, there have been important shakeups in President Donald J. Trump's administration’s national security team. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will be replaced by former Congressman and CIA Director Mike Pompeo and Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, the national security advisor, was replaced by John Bolton, who is expected to begin on April 9. The changes to these two key positions likely reflects important changes in the direction of America’s foreign policy. 

Tillerson was a notoriously ineffective secretary of state who did not see eye to eye with the president and had a relationship with his State Department that was best described as “toxic.” He seemed to be more interested in downsizing the State Department than in its diplomatic mission, although Congress quickly shot down the massive cuts to the department’s budget that were proposed. What efforts he did make diplomatically were often quickly undercut by Trump. He had clashed with the president on multiple issues from North Korea to Iran to Russia. The secretary was unsurprisingly and unceremoniously fired by an early morning tweet on March 13 after an official visit to Africa. 

Pompeo on the other hand is a seasoned politician and intuitionalist who will no doubt eschew the businessman-like drive for efficiency of Tillerson and place a greater emphasis on policy and on filling the many vacancies still present at the upper levels of the department. Whether these policies are beneficial to American interests is another matter entirely. Pompeo holds many of the president’s more hawkish views and is significantly tougher on both Iran and North Korea than his predecessor was and shares Trump’s disdain for the nuclear deal. While director of the CIA, Pompeo quickly became one of the president’s favorite cabinet members and will likely have the president’s ear to better advocate for the policies he believes in. At the CIA, Pompeo will be replaced by Gina Haspel, who will become the first woman to lead the agency. Haspel, though, has a dark past — she was in the operations directorate during the CIA’s “rendition, detention and interrogation program,” the program that involved the torture of detainees. Of course, Pompeo will still need to be confirmed by the Senate but it is unlikely that his confirmation will be blocked.  

McMaster was let go about a week later. He also did not have a great relationship with the president and butted heads with him on many policy issues, although the relationship was perhaps not as contentious as that of the president and Tillerson. Many considered McMaster to be one of the “adults in the room” who would act as a moderating influence against some of the president’s more dangerous impulses. Although he was arguably not very successful in this effort, his absence will almost surely give the president and some of the ideologues surrounding him much more free reign to shape what could potentially be a counterintuitive and destructive foreign policy.   

McMaster’s replacement, Bolton, served in former President George W. Bush's administration, is a former ambassador to the United Nations and a committed war hawk. During the Bush administration, he was one of the fiercest proponents of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Bolton has been an outspoken advocate of military action and has supported preemptive attacks against both Pyongyang and Tehran. He has also been extremely critical of the planned negotiations between the U.S. and North Korea, and his appointment potentially puts them at risk. Many are apprehensive at the appointment, with the New York Times editorial board describing him as being one of the few people most likely to lead the country into war. One of the most important jobs of the national security advisor is ensuring that the all voices are heard during the national security process. Given his reputation, Bolton is unlikely to allow differing perspectives to be heard, effectively undermining the decision-making process. It is unlikely that Bolton would have been able to achieve Senate confirmation for any post that would require it, he was unable to do so in 2005 for UN ambassador, but the post of national security advisor does not require any such confirmation. 

These staffing changes could and likely do signal a significant shift in what has been the administration’s foreign policy thus far. We are most likely entering into a period of a “more confrontational approach” to foreign policy. At a time when our allies are already worried about America’s position in the international order, such a shift will likely do more harm than good. America is likely to become increasingly alienated from the rest of the world, turning “America first” into “America alone.”

Yousuf Abdelfatah is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in political science and economics. His column, "Global Perspectives," runs on alternate Tuesdays.


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Yousuf Abdelfatah

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