As John Bolton took up his new role as national security adviser last month, a tingle rippled up the spine of those of us in Washington who like to see a good fight. Mr. Bolton brings to the job a reputation for not only being a hawk on military matters but for also being a particularly forceful and skilled bureaucratic infighter. All this will make for engaging theater as he settles into a position that has since the Truman administration been a source of contention between the White House and the Department of State, now officially headed by former CIA director Mike Pompeo, whom the Senate confirmed as secretary of state last week.
President Truman’s national security adviser, Clark Clifford, struggled with then Secretary of State George Marshall in one of the most dramatic White House conflicts in history as the two men fought over whether the administration should officially recognize Israel’s independence in 1948. After their legendary showdown in the Oval Office, where they both argued opposing sides of the issue, and during which Marshall not only attacked Clifford but personally threatened the president, the two men were said to have never spoken to each other again.
Conflict has been a part of the relationship between the secretary of state and the national security adviser ever since as the overlapping responsibilities of the roles often has them on the opposite side of foreign policy matters. The inherent tension between them has been a source of heartburn, at some time or other, for every president.
President Carter had to frequently play referee between his national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski and Secretary of State Cyrus Vance during their often bitter conflicts. Brzezinski eventually rolled Mr. Vance because Brzezinski was a far more committed and aggressive infighter than the secretary of state. Mr. Vance would resign out of frustration.
Woodrow Wilson’s good friend and de-facto national security adviser Col. Edward House existed in the days before the position officially existed, but House functioned as Wilson’s principal foreign affairs adviser nonetheless. House got the role because he was especially skilled at marginalizing Wilson’s successive secretaries of state. First, there was William Jennings Bryan, who thought he and House were good friends even as House was destroying Bryan’s reputation with the president behind his back. Bryan was succeeded by Robert Lansing, who was also no match for House. During the Paris Peace Conference after World War I, the secretary of state accompanied President Wilson to Paris, but it was House, not Lansing, who sat in on all the meetings and oversaw all of the negotiations on Wilson’s behalf even though at the time, House possessed no official government portfolio and was not an actual federal employee.
Ian Bremmer, the founder of the Eurasia Group and noted foreign-policy analyst described John Bolton in a Vanity Fair interview as “extremely bureaucratically capable.” He goes on to say that Mr. Bolton “knows how to get in meetings that matter, he knows how to play the media, and he is going to push hard to be a very strong national security adviser with those views vis-à-vis his colleagues in the Cabinet.”
Given Mr. Bolton’s reputation and strong views, any student of history should expect fireworks as he and Mr. Pompeo circle each other in an attempt to mark their respective territories.
But Mr. Pompeo may actually be a good match for Mr. Bolton. Mr. Pompeo comes to the job of secretary of state after years in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he was forced to learn infighting skills as he struggled with his colleagues over limited federal resources in committee, in leadership and across the aisle. As a six-year veteran of Congress — followed by a year as CIA director — Mr. Pompeo undoubtedly learned a few tricks that he will bring to any conflict with Mr. Bolton.
Up to this point, Mr. Trump may have tried to keep staff infighting to a minimum, but by giving a man with Mr. Bolton’s reputation a job that is essentially an invitation to engage in open combat with the secretary of state, he is about to be introduced to level of infighting that even he might be unprepared for. May the best man win.
K. Ward Cummings (email@example.com) is the author of “Partner to Power: The Secret World of Presidents and their Most Trusted Advisers.”