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BOOK REVIEW: The Room Where It Happened

Bolton’s Broadsides — revenge is a dish best consumed cold

Bolton’s Broadsides — revenge is a dish best consumed cold

‘The Room Where It Happened — A White House Memoir’: Former US National Security Adviser John Bolton’s new book, savaging the incumbent president as incompetent and unfit for office, has brought criticism on the author as well, for not testifying at the impeachment inquiry or Senate trial. We’ve read it and this is what we think of it.

The tempestuous political marriage between John Bolton and Donald Trump that was consummated when the president appointed Bolton as his third national security adviser was both an astonishing mismatch and the most unlikely of political unions. Bolton was the super-bright, white working-class kid who, after undergraduate and law degrees from Yale University where, among other things, he had carried the lonely flag for Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign in 1964 on campus. (By the 60s and 70s, Yale was moving a long way from being a favoured recruiting spot for the CIA, as depicted in the film, The Good Shepherd.) 

Bolton then stormed the barricades of government jobs, beginning in Richard Nixon’s presidency, eventually including the worlds of op-ed writing, broadcasting, board memberships and the consultancy roles he revelled in — and did well by financially. Through his frequent writings, Bolton delivered a stream of ideas and proposals that frequently set off alarm bells throughout the world, but that simultaneously guaranteed old-style and neo-conservative Republicans took increasing notice of his skills as he moved upwards in his trajectory. 

Along the way, he earned a not entirely jocular reputation as a man who had never met an adversary he didn’t want to bomb into submission. In his successive government appointments at the Justice Department, the US Agency for International Development, the State Department (including a recess appointment as US ambassador to the UN), and then, finally, as national security adviser in the White House, Bolton demonstrated his bureaucratic agility and aggression and a reputation for having some of the sharpest elbows ever — and an ability to make some really visceral enemies as well.

By contrast, Donald J Trump was an unruly rich man’s child; a man with an indifferent educational trajectory and an untidy professional life that largely focused on high-risk property development and investments (and bankruptcies). His significant engagement with the real world of politics and government policy (as opposed to unreal reality television) came very late in life, culminating in his unlikely but successful run for the Republican nomination for the presidency, and then victory in the 2016 election.

Very different from John Bolton’s experience, during his entire life, Donald Trump had virtually no grounding in either the actual details or the broader textures of public policy, international relations, economics — or pretty much anything else beyond crass self-aggrandisement and making a buck. Or, rather, lots of them. And that history, rather than real study and hard thinking, gave this president the compelling belief that his intuition and “gut instinct” made him superior to all others. Accordingly, John Bolton was an odd duck mismatch with the increasingly chaotic Trump team — or with the president himself — as this administration’s third national security adviser. 

The central task of the national security adviser is to marshal information and to prepare options in order to present the president with the best picture on a national security issue or circumstance, bringing together information from the entire national security community — the military, the intelligence services, the justice and the treasury departments and other organisations, as warranted.

Crucial to this role is the creation of an orderly, cogent process for consolidating ideas and building the staffing needed to bring forward such information and recommendations, drawing on career experts from throughout the government — as well as external appointments such as Fiona Hall, the Russian expert who had delivered that devastating testimony at the impeachment hearings. At any given time, the total National Security Council staff complement may comprise around three or four hundred people, making the task of running this staff and constructing relationships with the rest of the White House staff and the rest of the federal bureaucracy a complex managerial project in addition to functioning as a special-purpose think tank inside the White House. 

When this structure and position was first established in the years just after World War II, initial appointees had functioned largely as a kind of very senior traffic director for foreign policy ideas. Eventually, higher visibility international relations “stars”, supreme bureaucratic wranglers, or intellectual generals became the norm to be appointed to this position — with people like Walt Rostow, McGeorge Bundy, Frank Carlucci, Henry Kissinger, Condoleezza Rice, Susan Rice, and Zbigniew Brzezinski, or retired generals Colin Powell and Brett Scowcroft in the first chair.

They were the kind of people who could go toe-to-toe with the secretaries of state and defence — and pretty much anybody else — to protect the president’s ability to see all his options — and, of course, to help shape and guide his decision making. This time around, in his third try to fill the position, the president selected John Bolton, in part because Trump seemed to think Bolton had enough of an outsized personality, major levels of intestinal fortitude, razor-sharp elbows, and solid bureaucratic nous such that he could duke it out successfully with the big boys.

Bolton, in contrast to the president’s rambling, shambling discourses and odd segues in his public pronouncements, brought to his job a fully-thought-through approach to international relations, regardless of whether or not one agreed with his choices. At least they were predictable to friends as well as antagonists. 

His key objectives included carrying out continuing strategic pressure on states such as Iran, Syria, Venezuela, North Korea and Russia; implementing a comprehensive, coherent strategy to address China on both economic and security axes; and supporting nations under pressure like Ukraine, located on the fringe of Russia, as well as Saudi Arabia and Israel. Moreover, he was committed to enhancing a vigorous political and defence relationship with the nation’s alliance structures that included the Nato nations, South Korea and Japan, despite disagreements over the levels of defence spending by allies. 

In fact, Bolton’s ideas and positions had been honed from decades of verbal-style, mortal combat in conference rooms, as well as through vociferous argument for his corner in the op-ed columns of dozens of newspapers and foreign affairs periodicals. For Bolton, imposing this strategic vision on the chaotic circumstances of the Trump administration’s national security strategic planning was an opportunity — and a challenge — too good to refuse.

It was, in effect, one of the jobs he had lusted for during his adult life, and this brass ring might never come again. (Trump had also given Bolton consideration for the post of secretary of state, but ultimately he first went with energy executive Rex Tillerson, until that didn’t work out. Second time around, the president went with the then-CIA director and former congressman Mike Pompeo, once again instead of Bolton.)

But in contrast to Bolton’s assertive neo-conservative style, the Trump approach to foreign policy had copious quantities of alarmingly ad hoc, on-the-fly decision-making, sudden reversals of positions and decisions, and abrupt changes of focus and attention. All of this was somehow rooted in his campaign slogan of “America First”. There was also his insistence that all international relationships were transactional, based on the zero sum game theory proposition that a victory was inevitably an “I win, you lose” event, rather than the more usual idea guiding much of American foreign policy of slowly and systematically building relationships and agreements on principles, actions and desired outcomes. 

To take one example, the Trump approach to Nato burden-sharing was to berate allies for not bringing their defence budgets up to previously agreed levels, but at the same time consistently confusing that concept with the idea that somehow, somewhere there was a central pot where the money was deposited — and if France or Belgium failed to make their quota, it became America’s financial problem. Simultaneously, the Trump idea about American bases in Nato nations, and South Korea or Japan was that problems with their cost were solved either through simply bringing all American personnel home, or by getting the host nations to quadruple their share of the cost of maintaining those bases. 

As for Iran and Venezuela, threats and public beratings (a form of negotiation Trump had used successfully in real estate transactions) were the preferred courses of action; even as, contrawise, he had figured that, somehow, the protean force of his personality would help him reach whatever goal was in his mind, through a warm embrace and lots of happy talk with antagonists. In particular with Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin, Trump had determined that the obsequious demeanour of an eager suitor or supplicant was the right posture. Far too often, as Bolton soon discovered, Trump was conflating his personal likes and dislikes (and presumably tangible benefits as well) with efforts supposedly in the national interest. Into this policy swamp, then, Bolton stepped in, eyes wide shut.

The former national security adviser eventually left his position under a growing cloud, along with his distress at what he was seeing around him, on 10 September 2019, after about a year-and-a-half in the job. (For several weeks before he actually resigned, he wrote that he kept a short letter of resignation in his coat pocket, ready to go at a moment’s notice.)

A year later, he has delivered his memoir, The Room Where It Happened — A White House Memoir, reportedly for a $2-million advance from his publisher. The book’s announcement came with a huge buildup of publicity, accompanied by a bit of exotic dancer-esque-style public teases — an enticing leak here, a sly allusion to the good stuff on television there, and a prurient peek way over there in his conversations with reporters eager to report on the book. (Intriguingly, Bolton’s book title echoes the song in the hit Broadway show, Hamilton, where bull-in-a-china-shop politician Aaron Burr sings of founding fathers Washington, Jefferson and Hamilton sorting out the new country, in a bitter song entitled, The Room Where It Happens. Just a coincidence?) By the time Bolton’s book was available for purchase, the choice bits of his tale were already largely public knowledge.

Even though the harsh descriptions of Trumpian decision-making in Bolton’s book can hardly surprise anybody any more, and the evidence of the conflation of public and Trump’s private interests (such as getting re-elected) is now common knowledge, Bolton did not testify at the House of Representatives impeachment investigation, nor at the Senate trial that followed. For this, he has come in for some very harsh criticism for a failure to step up and embrace his duty as a particularly knowledgeable citizen and recent presidential aide. 

Had the evidence in Bolton’s book been spoken about under oath, then, there is reason to speculate a number of Republican senators might well have been embarrassed into voting for at least one of the articles of impeachment. Bolton, for his part, denies his testimony would have put the ball over the goal line — arguing instead that the way the impeachment came out was the fault of House Democrats. They fatally mishandled their task by limiting their articles of impeachment to Trump’s dealings over Ukraine, rather than all the other evidence of incompetence, lack of fitness for the job, and special dealing, such as his promise to the Turkish president that he, Trump, would get the Turkish Halkbank out of its criminal troubles in America.

More cynical observers comment that had Bolton testified, voluntarily or even in response to a subpoena, the really tasty bits in his book would all have been out in the open, in advance of publication. Thus there would be no need for anyone to buy it, or for the publishers to lavish upon him that magnificent advance. Goodbye nest egg.

Either way, though, what about the text itself? Bolton has clearly taken Oscar Wilde’s advice about the chilled serving temperature when dishing out a generous dollop of revenge. His writing reads as if he had drawn upon every “memcon” (government-speak for a memorandum of a conversation) of every interchange he had with every foreign leader (or domestic colleague or bureaucratic antagonist) during his tenure in office, as well a reliance on his personal diaries, phone records, email and Twitter accounts. But as a result, in the process it became a choppy text that has near-endless variations on the theme:

“He said; then I replied; then his colleagues added; whereupon we all agreed to meet again, once we could schedule a larger joint meeting of the principals to the discussion and the agreement.” And it goes on pretty much like that for nearly 200 pages. 

For South Africans or others interested in the quality of Trump’s thinking on South Africa, the only real mention of the country comes along on page 160: 

“After the Lincoln [a US aircraft carrier] reverie, Trump moved to a short-form version of the soliloquy on John Kerry [former Secretary of State] and the Logan Act: ‘The Iranians aren’t talking only because of John Kerry,’ he mused, but Shanahan [the acting defence secretary], seeing how successful [CIA Director Gina] Haspel had been by just ignoring Trump and interrupting, resumed talking about more boring things like risk, cost, and timing regarding the various options we might consider, including the use of force. ‘I don’t think they should start on building nuclear weapons,’ Trump offered. When [Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General] Dunford tried to get more specific on what we might do and when in response to an Iranian attack, Trump said the Gulf Arabs could pay. Dunford kept trying to get Trump to focus on specific options along a graduated ladder of possible responses, but, somehow, we veered off to South Africa and what Trump was hearing about the treatment of white farmers, asserting he wanted to grant them asylum and citizenship.”

Readers may recall the president had issued instructions for the department of state to monitor this situation and report back to him. The impetus for this sudden interest seems to have come from a broadcast report by Tucker Carlson on Fox News TV, based on representations made by AfriForum in Washington. 

A persistent reader eventually reaches the book’s epilogue, where Bolton finally pulls together his opinions and judgments about the man he served and the deep, even fatal, flaws of that president. As Bolton writes:

“When I resigned as National Security Adviser on September 10, 2019, no one was predicting the subsequent Trump impeachment saga. I was not then aware of the now-famous whistle-blower’s complaint, nor of its handling within the Executive Branch, but that complaint and the publicity it subsequently received transformed the Washington political landscape in completely unforeseen ways. I have no idea who the whistle-blower is. 

“Nonetheless, as the previous chapter demonstrates, I knew more than I wanted to about Trump’s handling of Ukraine affairs, and while the nation as a whole concentrated on the unfolding events relating to impeachment, I concentrated on deciding what my personal and constitutional responsibilities were regarding that information. Whether Trump’s conduct rose to the level of an impeachable offense, I had found it deeply disturbing, which is why I had reported it to White House Counsel Pat Cipollone and his staff and Attorney General Bill Barr, and why Pompeo, Mnuchin, and I had worried over it in our own conversations. But the importance of maintaining the President’s constitutional authority, and what Hamilton called ‘energy in the Executive’ were no small matters either. In the subsequent partisan Armageddon, virtue signalers on both sides of the battle were quick to tell the world how easy the choices were. I didn’t see it that way…”

And on impeachment itself, Bolton concludes:

“…of course, [it] is, for the most part, only a theoretical guardrail constitutionally. The real guardrail is elections, which Trump faces in November 2020. Should he win, the Twenty-Second Amendment precludes (and should continue to preclude) any further electoral constraint on Trump. While liberals and Democrats focus on impeachment, conservatives and Republicans should worry about the removal of the political guardrail of Trump having to face re-election”.

“As this memoir demonstrates, many of Trump’s national security decisions hinged more on political than on philosophy, strategy or foreign policy and defense rationales. More widely, faced with the coronavirus crisis, Trump said, ‘When somebody is the President of the United States, the authority is total, and that’s the way it’s got to be.’ He threatened to adjourn Congress, wrongly citing a constitutional provision that has never been used. No conservative who has read the Constitution could be anything but astonished at these assertions. 

“Of course, politics is ever-present in government, but a second-term Trump will be far less constrained by politics than he was in his first term. The irony could well be that Democrats will find themselves far more pleased substantively with a ‘legacy’-seeking Trump in his second term than conservatives and Republicans. Something to think about.” 

Finally, a word about the style of this book. While the text is relentlessly driven by a need to report each and every conversation (and to show that the author was the winner of every dispute, even if that did not always mean the final decision); it would have been a more engaging volume had he followed examples from many previous writers on diplomacy and government policymaking in terms of sheer readability that could have allowed deeper glimpses of the personalities and motives of the protagonists. Studying volumes like George Kennan’s Memoirs or Dean Acheson’s Present at the Creation could have served as examples of how to marry the personal and professional ways that illuminated the core substance. 

Reaching further back, he might have looked at 19th-century examples such as British diplomat Sir Ernest Satow’s A Diplomat in Japan, or Townshend Harris’s The Complete Journal of Townshend Harris, as the first American envoy to Japan, for clues on how to describe a confusing, even chaotic decision-making environment in a way that becomes something close to a page-turner. There is also Walter Isaacson’s, The Wise Men (about the major American figures in the immediate post-World War II diplomacy and foreign affairs period), or his Kissinger biography, for lessons on how to describe decision-making by real people in dangerous times, with all their quirks and foibles. 

A tell-nearly-all book like Bolton’s should certainly have been immensely readable, given the personality of the main character of the drama. Even with this flaw, this testimony will be a primary source for writers discussing and evaluating the troubled legacy of the Trump administration. Going forward, with this guide in hand, no one will now be able to say they didn’t know Donald Trump was a foolish, quixotic, dangerous man, totally unfit for office. DM

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