On Wednesday morning, President Trump tweeted out the winner of the contest to replace John Bolton as national security adviser: Robert C. O’Brien, who currently serves as special presidential envoy for hostage affairs at the Department of State. So Trump’s new national security adviser is a hostage negotiator. The jokes just write themselves, don’t they?
More seriously, the appointment of Robert O’Brien doesn’t tell us very much about the prospects for war in the Gulf or deals with Iran or North Korea. O’Brien’s published writings place him in the traditionally hawkish wing of the GOP. His 2016 book While America Slept slammed President Obama for a “‘lead-from-behind’ foreign policy” and featured a cover blurb from Bolton. But his predecessor, who not only had hawkish views but a significant national following for them, failed to move Trump and lost control of the policy process. O’Brien’s first task, an unenviable one, will be demonstrating to his fellow Cabinet members that he can steer foreign-policy decision-making — and making the case that they, especially the empowered Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, should allow themselves to be steered.
While O’Brien’s selection offers few clues about the direction of Trump’s haphazard foreign policy, it does tell us a several things about the president and the state of the Republican Party. First, Trump still wants the patina of national security pros with GOP establishment pedigrees. He didn’t take the opportunity to be his own national security adviser, or dual-hat Secretary of State Mike Pompeo or chief of staff Mick Mulvaney. He didn’t choose one of his more prominent current officials like ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell or Iran envoy Brian Hook, both of whom have well-established and controversial public profiles as enthusiasts of administration policy. Instead, he chose someone with a low profile but a serious one; or, put another way, someone with credibility to sacrifice on Trump’s behalf.
Second, members of the GOP establishment still want to lavish their professional credibility on Trump and his shambolic, blustering, unapologetic approach to world affairs. O’Brien lacks the senior experience of recent past national security advisers, and his tenure as special representative for hostage affairs is not universally well regarded. “I cannot point to a single major accomplishment during his tenure,” an academic who studies hostage policy told me. But O’Brien is not a lightweight. He served at the United Nations under George W. Bush, in a Senate-confirmed post. He was a lawyer in the Army Reserves and worked for the UN Security Council resolving claims that originated in the first Gulf War. He advised presidential candidates Mitt Romney, Ted Cruz, and Scott Walker.
Though O’Brien expressed reservations about Trump in 2016, after the election he began lavishing praise on the new president, describing him recently as the “greatest hostage negotiator that I know of in the history of the United States.” O’Brien chose to press his case for the job with Trump the same week the president mocked the previous national security adviser publicly, appeared to put U.S. forces and war-making decisions at the disposal of Saudi Arabia, and then blithely told reporters that the Saudis would pay us for taking military action.This was also the same week that Trump appointees were accused of suppressing an intelligence community whistleblower’s allegations about misconduct of senior-level officials. Even as those failures of policy process, of diplomacy, and of basic conservative values like discretion and respect for the law were reported, O’Brien and other men who were mainstays of the GOP foreign-policy establishment lined up to compete to be the next national security adviser Trump ignores and humiliates. At least they didn’t have to wear neon-yellow ruffled shirts and dance like Sean Spicer, I guess.
I hope O’Brien can rebuild a policy process that can tell Trump and his inner circle why some ideas are bad and some tweets inappropriate. I hope he cares enough to keep policy moving in the places where good people in government still get up every day and try to do good things around the world under the radar — and yes, they are still there.
But what I see in Trump’s choice and the dance that led up to it is a GOP foreign-policy establishment that thinks it has no options other than Trump and little future beyond him. O’Brien and his peers — men in their 40s, 50s, and 60s — could choose to wait Trump out, or depart, in the expectation of serving more honorably in a future Republican administration. They look to the GOP national-security leadership in the Senate and see little inclination to challenge either Trump’s policies or his ethics. And the GOP leadership in turn looks back at the willingness of respectable men to serve (yes, I am intentionally using “men” here) and uses that as a data point to tell each other that everything is fine.