John Gans has published widely with articles, reviews, and opinion pieces in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Wired, Politico, Foreign Affairs, The International Herald Tribune, The Times of London Literary Supplement, The Boston Globe, Foreign Policy, and more. He has appeared on CNN, BBC, MSNBC, NPR, and been quoted as a source in the The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, and more. Gans is also a contributing editor to the journal Survival.
More than commentary on U.S. foreign policy and politics, Gans has built a following with his writing on Bruce Springsteen and “The Boss’s” unique influence on the United States. Gans has published three long-form articles on Springsteen’s life, his politics, and, indeed, the rock star’s foreign policy. The latter gained attention for asking and answering the provocative question, “Did Springsteen win the Cold War?”
Below is a selection of recently published commentary. If interested in original commentary or reviews from Gans, please use the contact page.
At the National Security Council, Trump loyalists are at war with career aides
Washington Post, November 21, 2019
When President Trump’s White House used its official Twitter account Tuesday to criticize Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a staffer on its own National Security Council testifying in the House impeachment inquiry, it seemed to some like a new low for Washington. But it was just another day for Trump’s NSC. The staff, which traditionally helps presidents manage the government and make foreign policy decisions, has instead become accustomed over the past three years to name-calling and accusations of disloyalty.
That’s because, more than any other place in government, Trump’s NSC has been home to a pitched and persistent battle between those dedicated to this irregular presidency and those who prefer the regular way Washington has made national security policy for decades. Trump is far from the first president to quarrel with the bureaucracy or those serving in it. But this fight has lasted longer and grown far more heated for two reasons: First, Trump brought incredibly unorthodox views to the West Wing. And second, the NSC’s power grew immensely during the post-9/11 wars, making it a force difficult to tame.
The Ukraine scandal puts national security officials in an uncomfortable spotlight
CNN, November 7, 2019
Although it remains to be seen what will come of the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump’s alleged pressure campaign against Ukraine, Americans will have at least received in its earliest stage a lesson in how government really works. The difference between an ambassador and a chargé d’affaires has been explained. Most avid news consumers have now heard of a sensitive compartmented information facility, or SCIF. And everyone has learned how presidential phone calls work and sometimes don’t.
That education continued last week as members of the powerful National Security Council staff began testifying. For over 70 years, NSC staffers have helped presidents with the big stuff, like wars, and the small, including meetings with other heads of state. Because of their unique position and purpose, it’s no surprise congressional investigators want to talk to members of the NSC. But as new staffers come into the spotlight, Americans might be surprised that members of the President’s NSC appear to be have taken different sides, and to have played different roles, in the confusing development of America’s Ukraine policy under Trump.
Don’t Bet on John Bolton to Be an Impeachment Hero
Politico, October 27, 2019
After decades of ostracizing much of Washington with his hardline views and sharp elbows, John Bolton now finds himself more popular than ever.
Everyone wants to talk to Bolton amid the inquiry into President Donald Trump and his associates’ pressure campaign against Ukraine, a scheme Bolton, then the national security adviser, reportedly likened to a “drug deal.” On Twitter, some already have welcomed him to the “resistance”; others speculate he’ll end up one of the “heroes” of the impeachment story, a star witness. High-profile agents want to sell his book. And now, it appears Congress wants to hear from Bolton, too—his lawyers are reportedly arranging a deposition.
Donald Trump Looks More and More Like Oliver North
Defense One, October 17, 2019
The news about President Donald Trump’s efforts to pressure Ukraine for dirt on a political opponent has piled up so quickly that everyone is struggling for a shorthand — not just a name to call the affair, but a historical analogy to understand it. The usual suspects do not seem to fit. The Ukraine initiative was not about a private matter, like President Bill Clinton’s scandal, or a domestic initiative, like Richard Nixon’s Watergate.
Instead, with each revelation Trump looks less and less like previous presidents and more like Oliver North, a National Security Council staffer who used the power of the White House to spearhead the operation that eventually became known as Iran-Contra. There are differences between the irregular president and a mischievous staffer, but as Fiona Hill, a former member of Trump’s own NSC, reportedly revealed in testimony Monday, both attempted to run rogue foreign policy operations from the White House with little oversight or respect for the law.
John Bolton Is Ready to Go Rogue
Foreign Policy, October 1, 2019
A difficult relationship that wasn’t working finally ends. A war of words over just who got fired and who quit clouds the final departure. An unconventional commander in chief pushes for unconventional policy views. And a high-profile advisor goes off into the wilderness with not just a bone to pick but an audience clamoring to hear all about it.
If Alexander Haig’s stormy tenure and stormier exit as Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state in June 1982 sounds familiar, that’s because it is. John Bolton’s messy firing from his job as national security advisor in early September is not a new story in Washington. But even if presidential advisors have been fired before, with the heightened pitch of today’s moment, many are now eager to hear Bolton’s gripes—even those that are sour grapes.
The Dangers of a Weak National Security Adviser
Politico, September 19, 2019
If there are any rules for hiring a national security adviser, the first is to avoid someone too powerful. That prohibition has served several presidents well since the stormy tenure of Henry Kissinger, who is the only person to have served as both national security adviser and secretary of State. When Donald Trump last week decided against giving the national security adviser title to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the president wisely abided by the Kissinger rule.
But in his selection Wednesday of lawyer Robert O’Brien, who has most recently served as hostage negotiator at the State Department, Trump might have broken a second, even more important, rule. Presidents should worry at least as much about a weak national security adviser as a strong one. O’Brien could end up growing into the role, but with an irregular president, a lower public profile and limited national security policymaking experience, he will have to work hard to avoid the frustrations and failures of his weak predecessors.
Robert O’Brien Should Have to Face Senate Confirmation
The Atlantic, September 18, 2019
Congress could have saved Donald Trump a tweet. Last week, the president took to Twitter to announce the departure of his irascible national security adviser, John Bolton, who had either quit, been fired, or both. Yet if Congress had had a vote, Bolton, whose sharp elbows and hawkish views on Iran and North Korea have never made him very popular on Capitol Hill or anywhere else in Washington, may never have become national security adviser in the first place.
Unfortunately for Trump, who learned the hard way just how hard it is to work with Bolton, Congress has never required confirmation of the national security adviser, instead deferring to presidents to choose their staff. Given the importance of the position and Trump’s selection today of the relatively unknown lawyer Robert O’Brien as Bolton’s replacement, as well as the questions about Trump’s own management of national security, it is time for that to change. Congressional approval of Trump’s pick for national security adviser would be good for him, and for all of us.
How John Bolton Broke the National Security Council
The New York Times, September 10, 2019
The irony of John Bolton’s tenure as national security adviser, which ended Monday night and was confirmed by presidential tweet on Tuesday morning, is that upon the news of his initial appointment, most foreign-policy experts in Washington worried about the damage Mr. Bolton could do abroad. He was known for his hard-line views on North Korea, Iran and other issues, and several fretted about the wars this irascible firebrand might persuade an inexperienced president to start.
Yet Mr. Bolton’s legacy is not of destruction overseas, but dysfunction in Washington. To pursue his own policy agenda and serve an erratic president, in just 17 months Mr. Bolton effectively destroyed the National Security Council system, the intricate structure that governed American foreign policy since the end of World War II. Mr. Bolton’s most lasting legacy will be dismantling the structure that has kept American foreign policy from collapsing into chaos, and finally unshackling an irregular commander-in-chief.
What Henry Kissinger Can Teach John Bolton About Keeping the President Happy
Politico, September 8, 2019
John Bolton’s long summer got even longer just before Labor Day weekend.
In May, President Donald Trump publicly and privately distanced himself from his hawkish national security adviser, particularly on Iran and North Korea. Every few weeks since then, the media have documented someone else—a TV personality, a retired general, a senator or two—who has the president’s ear on foreign policy and wondered why Trump has kept Bolton around at all. Then, last week, the Washington Post reported Bolton had been cut out of a briefing on the U.S. plan to end the war in Afghanistan by way of a peace deal he has opposed.
How Not to Run the World
The Atlantic, September 6, 2019
The most significant shock to the international order last week—amid the latest Brexit dustups, a North Korean missile test, protests in Hong Kong, and a hurricane in the Caribbean—might have been news of a meeting that did not happen. President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, was denied a briefing on the negotiations to end the Afghan War, The Washington Post reported. After Trump publicly sidelined Bolton earlier this summer, the latest indignity was further proof that national security adviser is not the job it used to be.
Yet Bolton’s humiliation also signals something more important: The United States is no longer capable of being the global leader it once claimed to be. The national security adviser, the official charged with organizing and integrating all discussions of U.S. foreign policies, has been an essential piece of how the United States has tried to lead the world for more than 70 years, and why the world was willing to be led at all. As a result, the breakdown in the way that Washington works could prove more destabilizing than any of the crises dominating the headlines today.
The Guy Behind the Guy: Samuel Nelson Drew & Peace-Building in the Balkans
War on the Rocks, July 18, 2019
In July 1995, President Bill Clinton was upset. The war in Bosnia, which by then had killed hundreds of thousands of people and created over a million refugees, was a humanitarian, diplomatic, and political nightmare for the president and his administration. An aggravated Clinton vented to aides and looked everywhere — and to everyone — for ideas.
At one point, the president turned to a young sailor who was in the Oval Office to set up a telephone line and asked, “What do you think we should do on Bosnia?” The Navy technician replied, “I don’t know, Mr. President.” And at that moment he was not alone: Few in Washington or around the world had any good ideas for how to stop the violence in the Balkans or solve the long-term ethnic and nationalist tensions there.
Trump’s National Security Council Is Replicating Reagan’s Chaos
Foreign Policy, June 21, 2019
The Time magazine cover said it all. Above a somber portrait of U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s national security advisor, William “The Judge” Clark, a bold-faced headline proclaimed: “The Big Stick Approach.” The message was clear: The White House was taking charge of a more forceful foreign policy. Yet just two months later, in October 1983, that cover boy was out of the job, a casualty of a breakdown on the National Security Council over the United States’ role in the Middle East.
This mostly forgotten history should serve as a warning to President Donald Trump’s National Security Advisor John Bolton—whose push to use the big stick effectively against Iran, North Korea, and other countries has led to speculation over his job security.
John Bolton and the Lost Art of Honest Brokering
CNN, June 6, 2019
Although Americans might suspect the national security adviser’s office in the White House is a high-tech command post, like something out of Hollywood, the modest space has few bells and whistles. It is not bereft of personal touches, however. Above his desk, President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, has a gold-framed portrait of President George H.W. Bush and his foreign policy team, which included then-national security adviser Brent Scowcroft.
In some ways, such a decorating choice is not a surprise: The low-profile Scowcroft, who served as national security adviser to two Presidents, is the gold standard for the position. But as the past weeks’ crisis with Iran has shown, the far more outspoken Bolton is a tough fit for the Scowcroft mold. As the current national security adviser pursues his own agenda in Iran and elsewhere, regardless of the costs in Washington and contradictions with Trump’s personal views, it is all of us who should be worried.
How Tech Helped Unknown Staffers Change the US Way of War
Wired, May 13, 2019
The Tandberg video-teleconference monitor is sleeker than the average desktop computer but not much bigger. Developed by a Norwegian concern now owned by Cisco Systems, the desktop units—which look like knock-off iMacs, with a handset for dialing—support seamless and, when enabled, classified video-teleconferencing. Although businesses are the predominant market for the machines, they have become almost as common as the US flag in government offices around Washington, at embassies, and in war zones.
Even as you read this, there is almost certainly a member of the National Security Council staff on their Tandberg trying to respond to a crisis somewhere in the world. The NSC, which sits on the third floor of the Executive Office Building next to the White House, was created in one line of law in 1947 to help keep papers moving as national security decisions were made. Yet, armed with a Tandberg and other technology advances, the low-profile aides have become the president’s “personal band of warriors,” as President George W. Bush called them, helping manage—and in some case micromanage—the nation’s wars.
If You Fear the Deep State, History Explains Why
The Atlantic, May 12, 2019
In July 1987, Oliver North was living proof of what could happen when obscure government staffers exercise power on their own. North, a Marine lieutenant colonel who’d been assigned to work on Ronald Reagan’s National Security Council staff, sat upright in his olive-green uniform before a joint congressional committee. As television cameras rolled, the staffer recounted his role in the scheme to sell weapons to Iran and funnel the proceeds to Contras battling a socialist government in Nicaragua.
On paper, North and others at the NSC were supposed to support the president’s policy-making process, but Reagan staffers had cooked up their own plans and then carried them out. Amid what became known as the Iran-Contra affair, North and the rest of the NSC looked to many like, in the words of one observer, “reckless cowboys, off on their own on a wild ride.” Today conspiracy theorists would have simply called them part of a “deep state”—shadowy, unelected officials controlling government even as presidents come and go.
‘Direct to President’: A national security advisor who wants to make policy more than manage the process is a proven recipe for disaster
Daily Beast, April 5, 2019
In the middle of the night on October 23, 1983, White House operators started calling National Security Council staffers with the news that a yellow Mercedes truck weighed down with explosives and gas canisters had detonated at the Beirut Airport where U.S. Marines were trying to bring peace to the Lebanon’s long civil war. As casualty reports poured in, the staff rushed to help President Ronald Reagan figure out what to do next.
“The Beirut Massacre,” as one headline called it, killed 241 Marines and injured 100 more. Yet the decision days later by NSC staffers and National Security Advisor Robert “Bud” McFarlane to push for an aggressive response to the bombing, without consulting the Pentagon, proved far more consequential. Their shortcut undermined trust between the White House and Defense Department and set the stage for even bigger mistakes in the years ahead.
Obama Makes It Harder to See the Arc of History Bend
Politico, February 25, 2019
The former president’s foundation and the National Archives have announced that Obama’s presidential center will not host a working research facility or even host his White House’s papers but instead host the papers only digitally. Made on the promise of online access’s efficiency and accessibility, this disappointing decision will instead make research into the 44th presidency much harder and, unfortunately, far less helpful for those trying to understand today’s chaotic politics.
Who Killed Diplomacy?
Survival, January 2019
In July 2018, US President Donald Trump took to Twitter to defend his latest foray into international affairs. Coming shortly on the heels of his made-for-television summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, the American president’s ingratiating press conference with Russia’s Vladimir Putin in Helsinki elicited ridicule in the United States and around the world. Amid the outcry, a defensive Trump tweeted, ‘In the Old Days they would call it Diplomacy.’1
Regardless of the veracity of the president’s claim, Trump is not the only one who thinks the ‘D’ in diplomacy should be capitalised. Journalist and author Ronan Farrow, whose reporting has helped fell many high-profile sexual harassers and build the ‘Me Too’ movement into more than a hashtag, investigates a far different crime in his book War on Peace: the death of US diplomacy. Cracking the case is personal for Farrow, who, long before he started outing Hollywood predators, pursued a career at the US State Department under his mentor, the legendary ambassador Richard Holbrooke.
The Costs of George H. W. Bush’s Foreign Policy Genius
Foreign Affairs, December 5, 2018
A few days after Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, President George H. W. Bush surprised even his closest foreign policy advisers. Walking from the presidential helicopter toward the White House, Bush paused to tell assembled reporters on the South Lawn: “This will not stand, this aggression against Kuwait.”
The dramatic and definitive declaration caught many in Washington, including on Bush’s own team, off guard. According to Bush’s biographer Jon Meacham, minutes later in the Oval Office, National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft asked the president, “Where’d you get that?” Bush replied, “That’s mine.”
Trumps Like Us
Times Literary Supplement,
On a hot, humid night in August, Bruce Springsteen stood with his long-time E Street Band before nearly 80,000 fans at a football stadium in northern New Jersey. At the tail end of a year-long American and European tour, the singer was on his way to breaking the record for his longest concert in the United States with a show lasting over four hours. Thirty songs into the night’s set list of greatest hits, Springsteen cried out a simple, “Here we go”, before he and the band broke into the familiar opening of “Twist and Shout”.
Did Bruce Springsteen Win the Cold War?
On 19 July 1988, New Jersey-born musician Bruce Springsteen and his E Street Band played a 32-song concert in East Berlin’s Weissensee district. The concert is a fond memory for the hundreds of thousands of East Germans who attended or watched its broadcast, and an urban legend to many of Springsteen’s devoted fans – but it is a less-acknowledged milestone in the Cold War’s long history.
A slender new book gives the concert a fuller journalistic treatment, while perhaps giving too much credit to its role in the Cold War’s end. Erik Kirschbaum, a Berlin-based Reuters reporter, Springsteen fan and believer in the ‘power of rock ‘n’ roll’, admits it was a ‘crazy idea’ to write an entire book about a single rock concert. But he wanted to find out if there had been ‘something really special’ about Springsteen’s 1988 show. Although he does not quite prove a concrete ‘link’ between the show and the ‘shifting sentiment’ that led to the collapse of the Berlin Wall, his interviews with the concert’s organisers and its attendees provide the book’s real value: it reminds us – amid the current surge of interest in so-called ‘soft power’ – of the small, hard-to-see developments that foretold and, just maybe, helped to usher in the Cold War’s quiet end.
Jersey Shore Jeremiah
The American Interest,
It was the “night before the day”, in Bruce Springsteen’s words. He stood hunched over his guitar at a cold election eve rally for President Barack Obama’s campaign in Des Moines, Iowa. Slowly strumming, Springsteen rasped an exhortation to “re-elect President Obama to carry our standard forward towards the America that waits in our hearts”and then escorted Michelle Obama to the podium. The Boss was a long way, geographically and otherwise, from the Jersey Shore, his musical, spiritual and personal home. But Springsteen’s De Moines…
‘This Is 50-50’: Behind Obama’s Decision to Kill Bin Laden
At a time when faith is low in the government’s abilities, the story of the bin Laden raid paints a remarkable portrait of what government can do…
…As with much of modern American national security as a whole, the bin Laden raid came down to a complex decision made by one person. Only one person is asked to simultaneously weigh the certainties, manage all the various domestic, military, diplomatic, legal, and moral considerations, and make a decision Americans will live with for years to come. It is a remarkable — some might argue impractical — burden. The only way the country can be comfortable with a single person being in the position to make a “50-50” call with such risks is if that person is elected to the position.
X For Conviction
The Times Literary Supplement,
A long-ignored public servant receives an urgent request for analysis from distant superiors. Taking advantage of the rare absence of a direct supervisor and breaking communications protocol that limited message length, this specialist crafts a 5,000-word answer. As the message is transmitted, the writer cries, “They asked for it – now they are going to get it!”. This is the legend of the “Long Telegram”. It not only changed the way Washington viewed the Soviet Union after the Second World War, but also the life of its author, the American diplomat, historian and Russia expert George Frost Kennan.
Devaluing a Diplomatic Asset
The International Herald Tribune,
As the end of the school year nears, many American students will be making decisions about their next academic steps. Many will want to study abroad to prepare themselves for the globalized economy. Unfortunately, they may have to stay at home because the dollar has shed so much of its value against other major currencies.
While many factors have contributed to the damaging of America’s image over the past seven years, the decline of the dollar could impose yet another barrier to a valuable asset: student diplomacy…