Bolton found himself increasingly excluded from policy relating to North Korea and Afghanistan.
The first fortnight of September has witnessed a series of dramatic and bewildering developments, whose implications remain uncertain.
On September 10, President Donald Trump unceremoniously dismissed his national security adviser John Bolton after just 18 months in office, the third American NSA to be removed in three years.
Mr Bolton’s departure was as controversial as his tenure — he has since reactivated his public affairs committee that will back “a strong, clear, and dependable US security policy, resting on constancy and resolve”, characteristics that he perhaps believes were missing in the Trump White House.
Last year, when President Trump sacked H.R. McMaster as his NSA, his major campaign donor, Sheldon Adelson, who is known for backing the interests of Israel’s right-wing politicians, particularly Benjamin Netanyahu, pushed for Mr Bolton’s appointment, all of them united in their hostility towards Iran.
The President went along with Mr Bolton on withdrawing from the nuclear agreement with Iran, ending the waivers on oil purchases, and declaring the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organisation, as well as imposing sanctions on “supreme leader” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and foreign minister Javad Zarif.
However, Mr Trump refused to accept Mr Bolton’s advice to bomb Iran after the downing of the American drone in mid-June. Mr Trump soon found that the “maximum pressure” strategy, instead of bringing Iran to the negotiating table, was pushing the region towards conflict.
Their differences were fundamental — for Mr Bolton, his rigid ideological positions were ends in themselves, including his dislike of multilateral treaties and organisations, negotiations with hostile nations, and constraints on the exercise of American power; his impulse was to push the country towards confrontation, even war.
For Mr Trump, this tough posture had to lead to deals with difficult partners and bring rousing public accolades for the President. Thus, Mr Bolton found himself increasingly excluded from policy relating to North Korea and Afghanistan. The “last straw” for the President was perhaps Mr Bolton’s opposition to Mr Trump’s invitation to the Taliban to meet secretly at Camp David in early September for the finalisation of the agreement being negotiated at Doha.
Other observers believe that Mr Bolton’s hostility to Mr Trump’s proposal to ease sanctions on Iran, which would prepare the ground for his meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in New York in late September, caused the final rupture.
Following Mr Bolton’s departure, secretary of state Mike Pompeo and treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin declared at a joint press conference that the President would meet Mr Rouhani “with no preconditions”; they clarified that the “maximum pressure campaign” would continue.
The Iranians, though, remained unimpressed. Their officials insisted that talks could not take place when “oppressive sanctions and [US] economic terrorism” continue against the Iranian people. Mr Rouhani agreed to the revival of the P5+1 talks once the sanctions were lifted.
After Mr Bolton’s departure, the media anticipated a breakthrough with Iran which would extol Mr Trump as the great peacemaker. This, of course, fell apart on September 14 when the Saudi oil facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais were attacked by drones that the Houthis in Yemen claimed had been fired by them. These attacks caused considerable damage to the Saudi facilities, leading to the withdrawal of about half its production for some weeks.
Mr Pompeo promptly blamed Iran for the attacks, though he offered no convincing evidence to back up his contention. The New York Times said on September 16 that evidence available at present was “insufficient to prove where the attack came from, which weapons were used and who fired them”.
However, the attacks changed Mr Trump’s attitude — he went into his belligerent mode and declared that the United States was “locked and loaded” for military action, while awaiting a final report on the attacks from Saudi Arabia. He also blamed “fake news” for suggestions that he was likely to meet the Iranian President or that any easing of sanctions on Tehran was being contemplated.
For most observers who are hostile to Iran and sceptical about peace in West Asia, Mr Bolton’s position on Iran stands vindicated.
These developments that have abruptly ended the prospects of a peace initiative with Iran have an uncanny resemblance to events surrounding the peace agreement that was being negotiated in Doha by the US, led by Zalmay Khalilzad, and a Taliban delegation. Those discussions were backed by Mr Trump, who needed the agreement to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan; they were bitterly opposed by Mr Bolton.
Here again the agreement was scuttled by a last-minute turnaround by President Trump. According to the Taliban spokesman, Suhail Shaheen, the detailed agreement had been finalised and handed over to Qatari officials for a public announcement. Neither the Americans nor the Taliban had any inkling that Mr Trump had changed his mind till his tweet of September 7 calling off the peace talks. This was in response to an earlier Taliban attack on a Nato office in Kabul in which an American soldier had been killed.
As Suhail Shaheen explained, such attacks on both sides had been going on continuously in Afghanistan in which the Taliban were also being attacked by government and US forces. The talks had carried on despite the violence, it being understood that a nationwide ceasefire would be in place after the agreement was signed.
This pattern of mutual violence being separate from the talks is reflected in Mr Pompeo’s September 8 statement that US soldiers in Afghanistan had killed “over a thousand Taliban in just the last 10 days”, that is, just as the negotiations were being concluded in Doha.
It makes no sense for Iran to launch an attack on the kingdom just when Mr Trump’s attitude was showing positive signs, just as earlier it served no useful purpose for the Taliban to scuttle the discussions when they were at the cusp of getting the agreement they had wanted for so long.
As war clouds once again shroud the skies of the Gulf, the conclusion is unavoidable that there is a “Deep State” within the United States that backs President Trump when he is aggressive, but manipulates him into reversing himself when he pursues his deal-making instincts and seeks accommodation with its foes. Clearly, the ghost of John Bolton still stalks the corridors of the White House.