In some ways President Donald Trump’s new national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, seems like the opposite of the man he will replace, John Bolton.
His current job in government is special envoy for hostage affairs, meaning he has had to negotiate with the sorts of rogues Bolton shunned. Last year he helped bring home the American pastor Andrew Brunson, who was imprisoned by the Turkish government. Earlier this year he negotiated the release of U.S. citizen Danny Burch from Yemen. In April he said that a necessary (though insufficient) step for Syria to rejoin the international community would be for it to help find and free the journalist Austin Tice.
O’Brien’s personal style — quiet and lawyerly — also differs from Bolton’s pugnacity. A senior administration official told me that O’Brien pitched himself to the president and his top advisers as someone who would make the National Security Council functional again and largely keep his head down. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who was Bolton’s biggest rival in Trump’s cabinet, endorsed him for the post because of his understated approach.
But O’Brien’s low-key style should not be confused with a softness on foreign policy. Trump disagreed with Bolton on Iran, Afghanistan and North Korea. His new national security adviser has a long history of conventional Republican Party hawkishness on all of those issues. He advised Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, and in 2016 worked with Governor Scott Walker and Senator Ted Cruz.
And way back in 2005, the so-called “anti-Bolton” worked for the man himself when Bolton was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
To get a flavor for O’Brien’s worldview, it’s worth picking up a collection of his essays published in 2016. The title gives a good indication of what’s inside: “While America Slept: Restoring American Leadership to a World in Crisis.” Bolton himself blurbed the book, saying it should be “required reading” for all 2016 presidential candidates.
It’s easy to see why Bolton liked it. O’Brien’s essay on the 2015 Iran nuclear deal is titled, “Obama’s Folly.” In the preface, he writes about his experience in Afghanistan when “some young Afghan patriots, who chose to side with us after the 9/11 attacks, asked me if we would abandon their country as we had abandoned Iraq.” O’Brien identifies “Russian aggression” as one of the primary threats Obama’s successor must address to restore U.S. leadership in the world.
This is good news for America. There was a real risk that Trump would choose a national security adviser who would indulge the president’s worst instincts on foreign policy, arranging for flashy summits with the world’s most loathsome leaders. That is the kind of guidance he gets from people like Senator Rand Paul, who has tried to be an intermediary for Trump with Russia and Iran. And it’s the kind of advice he hears from Tucker Carlson of Fox News, who often sounds like a progressive activist when railing against neoconservatives.
The danger, of course, is that Trump is capable of changing his mind in a flash. A year ago, it was Bolton who had the president’s ear and trust. A year later, Trump announced his firing on Twitter. Now it will be O’Brien’s turn to advise a mercurial president on how to lead a world in crisis.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.