Unceremoniously dumped on Tuesday, he joined Rex Tillerson, Jim Mattis, H. R. McMaster and other high-profile departures.
For hard-liners on Iran, Bolton's dramatic removal could be a sign that US President Donald Trump will shift to a more moderate position, but with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo still running the show on Iran sanctions, it's hard to imagine a major change.
Bolton joined the administration as part of the second string of hires after Trump's first team appeared shaky in the spring of 2018. He was appointed on March 22, 2018, a week after Pompeo was called up from CIA on March 13 to run the State Department. It took until April to confirm Pompeo.
Bolton was seen as an Iran hawk who had previously been UN ambassador under George W. Bush, appointed in 2005. Bolton was portrayed as the one trying to "goad" Iran into war, accused of being "desperate" for war. Whether this was accurate is not entirely clear, but perception is often as important in Washington as it is in Tehran. When Trump called off Iran strikes on June 20 in the wake of the downing of a US drone, it was clear that the Bolton agenda might be on the rocks.
With Pompeo running the show on sanctions, it's hard to imagine a major Iran policy change.
There have been rumors over the last year about daylight between Trump and Bolton that almost portrayed the two as involved in separate agendas. This would be strange for a National Security Advisor who is supposed to be close to the president. In the last days of August, it was reported by The Washington Post that Bolton was sidelined from Afghan policy. But Trump canceled the Taliban peace talks and high profile sit down anyway, so it's not clear what the sidelining meant. CNN reported four days ago that Pompeo and Bolton were no longer speaking.
It now appears Trump, going into 2020, will need yet another new team. He lost Defense Secretary James Mattis in December 2018 over his Syrian policy. Patrick Shanahan, who was supposed to replace Mattis, only lasted six months. Jason Greenblatt, who was supposed to be pushing the "Deal of the Century" with the Palestinians, is also leaving. The Afghan deal envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, may not be at the helm much longer. If this were an episode of Survivor, it would be time to combine the tribes. In an administration that sometimes seems a bit more like it was scripted for reality TV in an era of social media driving politics, these things matter.
McMaster, Bolton's predecessor and a competent hire who is largely forgotten as the man who steadied the ship for the first year of Trump's tenure, is emblematic of the revolving door. He replaced Michael Flynn, who had to leave due to a scandal in the first days of the administration. It is easy to forget that Trump's second chief of staff, John Kelly, left in January. He, like McMaster, sought to steady things. Mick Mulvaney is still acting chief of staff.
Having gone from CIA to State, Pompeo has eclipsed both.
The big question is whether Bolton's departure will also eventually erode Pompeo's agenda, or if Pompeo will simply assume more power now. Having gone from CIA to State, he has eclipsed both. He has also brought in a competent team with Brian Hook to play linebacker for Iran issues, and Jim Jeffrey to deal with Turkey, ISIS and Syria issues alongside Joel Rayburn, who is Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Levant Affairs.
On foreign policy, whether dealing with China, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Russia, Iran or Syria, Pompeo has proved a center of gravity. But The Washington Post reports that he may be eying a political future. There are thoughts he could run for Senate. But why would he do that when he is the administration's rock?
Bolton warned Iran frequently, talking about not mistaking prudence for weakness, warning of hell to pay and that there would be "serious consequences." He also warned foreign countries not to meddle in Venezuela against US policy. His departure will be seen in Tehran and Caracas as signaling that the more isolationist tendencies of Trump have won out. That may not be accurate, and those countries should not test the US, as the Taliban learned.
Seth Frantzman, a writing fellow at the Middle East Forum, is the author of After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East (2019), the op-ed editor of The Jerusalem Post, and a founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.