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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 22 October 2019

Donald Trump appoints Robert O'Brien to replace John Bolton as National Security Advisor

The US president fired Mr Bolton as national security advisor last week
United States Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Robert O'Brien is seen here on the right while President Donald Trump speaks to former hostage Danny Burch at the White House in March after his release in Yemen. AP Photo

United States President Donald Trump on Wednesday appointed Robert O'Brien as the new National Security Advisor, replacing John Bolton and signaling a less combative approach.

Mr Trump made the announcement on Twitter, promising that Mr O’Brien, his former Special Presidential Envoy on Hostage Affairs at the State Department, will do a “great job” as the fourth NSA in this administration.

Securing the release of US hostages has been a priority for Mr Trump and the portfolio helped Mr O’Brien have a direct channel to the presidency following successes in North Korea and Yemen.

"I think he's fantastic,” Mr Trump said of Mr O'Brien back in February after he facilitated release of US hostage Danny Burch from Yemen in co-ordination with the United Arab Emirates.

The family of Robert Levinson, who is believed to be being held in Iran, issued a statement saying they were "very glad" to hear of Mr O'Brien's appointment.

Mr O'Brien, they said, "has been a strong advocate within the US government for our father".

"This is further evidence of President Trump's commitment to bringing home Americans held abroad," they said.

Mr Levinson became the longest-held hostage in American history in 2013.

Mr O'Brien's last mission, however, in July, to bring back US rapper A$AP Rocky from Sweden, elicited criticism from policy circles who said he used his job to intervene in the legal affairs of a sovereign government.

Seen as anti-Bolton in his demeanour, management and diplomatic skill set, Mr O'Brien is not known to be confrontational.

He has a long history in Republican foreign policy circles, having served in the administration of George W. Bush as US Representative to the United Nations General Assembly, and then advised two presidential candidates, Mitt Romney and Ted Cruz. He also worked with Barack Obama’s administration from 2008 to 2011 as a presidential-appointed member of a government committee that advises on issues related to the trafficking of antiquities and other cultural items.

The new NSA is viewed as a centrist on Middle East issues. In an interview with The National last April, he warned Iran against waiting Mr Trump out before releasing US hostages.

“I have heard that the Iranians believe if they wait this administration out, that if a Democrat gets elected, that they would get money for releasing hostages. I don’t think that this will happen,” Mr O’Brien said. “This policy will not change. The Iranians are sorely mistaken if they think that a new president, whether it’s in two or six years from now, is going to pay them for hostages.”

“It’s like piracy and human trafficking and slavery. If the Iranians don’t come to the table and if the Iranians don’t start releasing hostages, the sanctions will get worse and isolation continue,” he said.

Mr O’Brien also enjoys a good working relationship with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and with the Republican establishment.

While Mr Bolton was accused of being combative and picking fights with multiple senior officials in the administration, including acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, Mr Pompeo, and the Pentagon, his successor gets high praise for being a team player throughout his tenure.

One diplomatic source told The National that Mr Bolton had the tendency to insulate himself in his office and “spend much of his time on his computer.” In contrast, Mr O’Brien had an open door office policy.

Updated: September 18, 2019 11:24 PM