Book Review: The Room Where It Happened by John Bolton

Once again, for consistency sake (there being little of additional philosophical import) I include this review of John Bolton’s memoir of 18 months working as National Security Advisor from April 2018 to September 2019 for the Trump administration. It would I think be unfair of me to criticize Bolton on the basis of my politics compared to his. In point of fact I do not disagree with some of his assessment of threat situations. Iran and North Korea will never give up development/possession/proliferation of “weapons of mass destruction” (nuclear or otherwise). Bolton is quite right I think to believe that the only way to stop these developments is with overwhelming military force, but he is far to sanguine about assessments that, in response, millions of people (especially South Koreans) would die.

Is there any other option? India and Pakistan (bitter enemies for 72 years) possess nuclear weapons (Pakistan also a known proliferator) for some decades now and neither have used them (the potential collapse of the Pakistani State being another kind of problem). Perhaps there are sensible means of preventing N. Korea or Iran from ever using their weapons? In this respect, not sanctions, but trade and economic engagement make more sense. Why? Because when you tighten economic and diplomatic screws to the point where a people figure they have “nothing else to lose”, you provoke war rather than prevent it. Bolton knows history well enough to know this. He also knows what happened to Qaddafi in Libya after he gave up his weapons programs, yet dismisses this history as though it mattered not to Iranian, and especially to N. Korean calculations.

So I differ from Bolton on these matters, but I am not sure enough about my own views to say Bolton must be wrong. In any case this chasm between us does not take away from his observations and criticism of Trump’s administration concerning both substance and (more importantly) its lack of consistency, not to mention Trump’s self-serving, ego-maniacal fixations.

Like the other books reviewed in this series (“Fire and Fury”, “Fear”, “A Warning” “Devil’s Bargain”, “A Very Stable Genius”,  and “The Despot’s Apprentice”), this is a frightening book and the only one of the six reviewed focused on foreign policy.

The Room where it Happened (2020) by John Bolton

People mostly either like or dislike John Bolton based on their alignment with his politics. I do not see him that way. I have had jobs (never in government) where my role was to highlight and advocate for some specific aspect of a corporate hardware and software infrastructure. Bolton’s job was to advocate for the national security interests of the United States, and of course the recommendations he made (like mine) flowed from his background, experience, and yes, politics.

His experience is the key here, for Bolton has consummate knowledge of the workings of international institutions and also the governments they serve. He has also an appreciation for geopolitical history and isn’t afraid to call out a pointless exercise when he sees it. In part his politics is informed by his historical knowledge, for example the duplicity of nations like Iran, North Korea, and yes also China and Russia, with regard to respecting treaty obligations. But if anything makes Bolton more angry than Trump’s waffling and sometime expressed admiration for tyrants, it is his treatment of our own allies, the EU (NATO), Japan, and South Korea in particular. All this is revealed!

This book is about what Bolton found himself facing from April 2018 until September 2019, Eighteen short (must have seemed very long to him) months in the middle of Donald Trump’s administration. Reorganization of the NSA early in his tenure, the book touches on every new and on-going global threat of the time stemming from North Korea, Syria, Iran, Venezuela, Russia, China, and others. Each of these regions is a fount of over-lapping threats.

Bolton is in a unique position to appreciate the complexity of these situations. He castigates the Obama administration on a few matters, but points out, with some irony, that Trump’s instincts sometimes paralleled Obama! With regard to North Korea he is fair enough to note that none of the past four administrations (two Republican and two Democratic) have accomplished anything useful. When he alludes to differences in procedural style between Trump and former administrations, he mentions only the prior Republican administrations for whom he worked.

Very much this book is a detailed account of the operation of the Trump administration as concerns foreign national security issues with an occasional domestic matter (the Mexican border, Russia’s 2016 election interference) crossing the line. Although the NSA is involved in these matters, Bolton does his best to minimize his role in them, preferring the more global threats whether immediate or more temporally distant. As with my own some-time role in corporations, Bolton does not expect his boss to agree with his every recommendation. He notes that as goes national security, Trump’s instincts are often like his own. The problems threaded throughout the book are concerned with Trump’s flip-flopping almost constantly on matters where waffling, with mixed signals sent via tweets to the world, is universally detrimental to the outcome we want, that is a more, and not less, secure United States. There are a even a few examples, (to my politics not Bolton’s) where the President made the right call (even if for the wrong reasons) over Bolton’s recommendation as when Trump chose not to risk Iranian lives (Iranian body bags would make him look bad) in exchange for an American drone!

The bigger problem, as Bolton sees it, is that the decisions Trump does make, whether coming out right or wrong for national security, are made only on the basis of what Trump thinks makes him look good in the press, helps him in the 2020 election, or furthers the enrichment of his family! Along with all of this come also problems with the bureaucracy surrounding Trump. Bolton is an astute critic of bureaucracies in general (see his “Surrender is not an Option” also reviewed) and where warranted, individuals who do little to serve the organization’s purpose. In this regard the Trump administration is no different than others except for the extraordinary number of musical chair events and as consequence the style and substance variations already and still passing through this administration — including of course now Bolton himself.

In only a couple of places in the body of the book does Bolton call attention to what his government book reviewers forced him to remove. In an epilogue he describes a little more of this process but on the whole does not seem too unhappy with its results. He also offers a critique of the House impeachment process that got going after he left the NSA. This short analysis is among the most telling of Bolton’s real feelings about his time as National Security Advisor. He does not say that Trump should not have been impeached. The Ukraine matter over which the House obsessed was, in Bolton’s opinion, only one, and a lesser one at that, of Trump’s potentially impeachable offenses! The House should have taken more time, let the court processes (for documents) complete themselves at their own pace, and evidence of more serious malfeasance would have turned up! By rushing the job for political reasons, the Democrats shot themselves in the foot, and left Trump more unconstrained than he was before. No one, after all, is going to try to impeach him again!

Review: A Very Stable Genius by Leonnig and Rucker

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The idea behind these commentaries and book reviews here is that in many cases (whether politics, science, or philosophy), the books themselves leave dangling and potentially interesting philosophical issues un-addressed. Exploration of such issues is not usually appropriate (in my opinion) in a book review, so I bring the reviews over here always attached at the end of these little (and sometimes not so little) commentary essays, along with a link to the book itself on Amazon.

In this particular case there were no dangling philosophical issues that struck me as worthy of an essay. But because this collection of my reviews of books about the Trump administration is growing (“Fire and Fury”, “Fear”, “A Warning”, and “Devil’s Bargain”), I’m including this review for the sake of completeness.

A Very Stable Genius (2019) by Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig

Here we have yet another very carefully and competently written book illuminating the dysfunction in the American Presidency of Donald Trump, addressing both the man and the administration. Journalists Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig have done both the Washington Post and history proud with this tale of malfeasance and character disorder in the man himself and the chaos among those who surround him, some trying to moderate Trump’s worst impulses while others encourage them.

This is the fifth book on this subject that I’ve read and reviewed. As each one, all excellent histories, slides into the ocean of non-fiction literature, they seem to have less and less impact on the world, though perhaps that is only my jaded perception. This one is superbly written, told broadly in temporal sequence from the 2016 election up to September 2019 when Trump asked “a favor” on a call with Ukrainian President Zelinsky, witnessed (listening in) by several military and foreign policy personnel. This particular call follows by a few weeks Trump’s “exoneration” by Mueller.

Although it moves along generally from the past towards the present, it preferentially follows subject threads to their conclusion rather than try and document everything that happened on a particular day or week. Sliding as necessary between domestic and foreign policy matters, eventually all the days and weeks are covered somewhere. I can’t remember any of the salient matters reported in the news (not to mention Trump’s tweets) that aren’t in the story. Following the text, there are copious notes and documents listed. Historians will appreciate this.

In the opinion of the authors, Mueller made a big mistake. He treated his mission (the Russia probe and accusations of obstruction on Trump’s part) perhaps appropriately for a normal administration in which the Justice Department and Congress were not prior-determined to “protect the boss at all costs”. Mueller did not feel it was his job to say, explicitly, that Trump should be impeached or indited on the obstruction charge at least, obstruction being more clear cut than any personal collusion with the Russians. Instead, he phrased his report in such a way as to leave it to Congress to decide. Yet even a democratic congress did not begin the impeachment process until the content of the Ukraine call emerged.

The book ends with that call. The book’s authors are at that point sure not only that Trump committed a clear-cut crime, but intimate at least that Congress and the Senate would at last do their job and get rid of this embarrassment to the American presidency. History has shown otherwise, and we are now faced with a president, surrounded by sycophants (most significantly a throughly corrupted Justice department), who thinks (apparently correctly), that he can get away with anything.

Like the other books written on this subject, this one is very scary.

Review: Surrender is not an Option by John Bolton

John Bolton raises no philosophical issues in this book, in fact he elides them where they would naturally emerge. This is a book about events, what happened, what was going on in the U.S. State Department and around the world, and what John Bolton did about it given the role he played at any given time. The philosophical issues arise from the tension between nationalist-oriented “American interests” versus “global interests”, and also between the need for foreign-policy continuity over decades versus the task of executing the policies of the “administration du jour”.

On the first issue Bolton is clearly a nationalist. He is not opposed to working with the international community, even furthering the interests of other nations (usually our allies) provided doing so also furthers American interests. This nationalistic bent reveals itself most starkly in the U.S. (and so Bolton’s) opposition to the ICC (International Criminal Court). The great moral light of the national community, a nation that was front and center in the prosecution of Nazi war crimes, opposed (and still refuses to recognize) an international body charged with prosecuting war crimes and other “crimes against humanity”. One has to ask why? The answer is two fold. First, being the elephant in the room of nations, enemies of the U.S. would be (and are) constantly charging the U.S. with crimes to distract the world’s nations from their own bad behavior. Second, however, the U.S. has in the past, and continues to be at times, guilty of crimes!

Vietnam comes to mind, the Eisenhower administration’s blocking of the 1954 unification vote precipitated 20 years of civil war in which millions died. Today, despite its communist government, Vietnam is an ally and important trading partner. A year earlier (1953) the CIA over-threw the elected government of Iran solidifying the monarchy of Shah M. R. Pahlavi. Then there was, and still is, Cuba. What the Kennedy administration did (or tried to do) to the Castro government (not to mention Castro himself) surely comes under the heading of “crimes against humanity” and if not “war crimes” then at least “acts of war”. A little later (1973) came the CIA sponsored coup in Chile and the murder of its legitimately elected president. All of these crimes reflect irrational American anti-communist panic. The U.S. has never (to this day) been able to distinguish between communism and socialism. Castro was a socialist but not a communist until the U.S. embargo literally drove him into the arms of the Soviet Union!

Such shenanigans go on to the present day as we look aside while right-wing autocratic regimes murder journalists and opposition figures. In Israel today, though its slide to the political right was well along in Bolton’s time at the UN, the farthest right, who also happen to be the settlers in the formerly Palestinian (Jordanian) West Bank are now such a huge voting block, having out-reproduced other Israeli Jews for 3 generations, they either control or have veto power over the national government! Treatment of West Bank Palestinians by the far-right settlers is sometimes akin to the treatment of American blacks in the South during the first half of the 20th century! While perhaps not an Israeli policy, the government’s turning a blind eye to it surely is some part of a “crime against humanity”.

These just a few examples of America or its allies behaving badly. There are others, but the broader problem is how to live in an anarchic world community being the biggest kid on the block and having to fight (often diplomatically at least) to maintain the product and resource flows (both in and out) that maintain your biggest kid status. Bolton repeats several times the mantra that “the [UN] diplomats work for their respective governments, not the other way around”. If one accepts that for a given delegation only the national interest is at stake, then it will be surely guaranteed that nothing will get done. Short of military intervention or economic destruction so thorough it precipitates a period of anarchy, no nation will agree to act against its interests. Bolton is right to complain that far too much of what the UN throws up in the way of opprobrium is so watered down that even to agree to the terms does not much slow the offender down. Even many of the potential “sticks” (and the carrots too) are both ineffective and expensive in global economic or military terms, while accomplishing little but steeling the bad player’s resolve or triggering a hot war.

I agree with Bolton that empty agreements are no agreements, but substance is not easy to achieve unless both sides can give up something substantive. Too often the global community has not sufficient motive to surrender or spend what is necessary to make something substantive happen. Surely Bolton is aware of this. He does not seem interested in reflecting on it, though he is, and especially now (in 2020 after his stint as Secretary of State), in a very good position to say something interesting.

Besides the national-international world tension, there is the matter of U.S. State Department thinking. Some of the dynamics that drive global competition never change (geography) while others change every few decades with broad changes in trade flows and military power. Still others change every few years, especially in democracies having typically short election cycles. Bolton says both that the State Department must “think and act long range”, while also telling us that the job of an employee of State is to serve the policies of the “elected person at the top”. It should be obvious that these two mantras can easily come into conflict. Bolton fails to make any attempt to reconcile them. As I said at the end of my formal book review (attached below), I look forward to what he might say in his new book.

Surrender is Not an Option (2008) by John Bolton

Awaiting John Bolton’s new book on his short stint as Secretary of State in the Trump Administration. I thought it would be good to familiarize with his thought about his efforts in more conventional administrations. I have to wonder, given what he says in this book, if he has at all changed his mind about the proper role of career people in the State Department.

Surrender is not an Option begins briefly with Bolton’s introduction to politics as a 16-year-old volunteering for the Goldwater campaign in 1964. He never really says why he was so drawn to the Republicans, but other than alluding to his dislike for Democrats he doesn’t much compare and contrast them. Obviously a smart man, Bolton got the right education (Yale law) and was at the perfect age to mount the first rung of the State Department ladder under Reagan continuing into the elder Bush (Bush 41) administration. Skipping over Clinton (he went back to law practice) and then again jumping into government with the election of Bush Jr (Bush 43) in 2000.

Bolton seems to have earned each new rung on the ladder through good work for his superiors. He also seems drawn naturally to the neo-conservatives whose broad approach with foreign policy was to engage with the world for the purpose of shaping it to American interests. The first half of the book is about what he did at State from Reagan through the first Bush 43 administration. In the second half, he details his work as UN ambassador during Bush 43’s second term, two plus years, from August 2005 (the Senate never would confirm him, his time spent as a Bush “recess appointment”) until the end of the year 2007. These were all years of constant crisis whether the Iran-Contra scandal, disintegration of the Soviet Union, North Korean or Iranian pursuit of nuclear weapons, genocide in Sudan, or the mess in Somalia. He mostly skips past the disastrous (Bush 43) debacle of Iraq saying only (in his concluding chapter) that it was right to depose Saddam notwithstanding we mostly botched the aftermath. He is short here on details.

In the book’s first half, he is little critical of the State Department under Baker (Reagan and Bush 41), and even Powell (Bush 43) in his early days, but as his experience at State grows he finds much to dislike about the later Bush years. As UN ambassador he finds a lot to dislike about the UN, and understandably so having become mostly a debating society now and for many decades, something even the liberal “high minded” as he calls them, recognize. In both parts, he bemoans international diplomacy as too much carrot and concession and not enough stick. He says little in the first half about what the sticks might be though he does address this in his conclusions.

He gets into specific recommendations in the second, UN-years half of the book, but here the tendency of others (including Bolton’s superiors at State) to compromise over-much and give away the store (at least as far as American interests are concerned) before real negotiations begin is front and center. Bolton is ideologically far to my right, but his observations, “process over substance” and numerous problems with UN diplomatic ritual (not to mention outright failure and corruption in places) are accurate portraits of organizational dysfunction.

Bolton does his best to represent U.S. interests as he sees them and at the same time be a loyal soldier of the Bush 43 State department. There certainly was enough nonsense going on in the UN to fill several books, and as the second Bush 43 term winds on he finds much to criticize about the Rice State Department as well. No one gets away unscathed here except Bolton himself. He would come across a statesman except he ruins the effect with incessant (almost every page) derogatory remarks targeting both individuals and various collectives.

Time marches on, and much has happened since the end of 2007. Has Bolton learned anything? The international community is less stable than it was 13 years ago, much of this we might say due to American and international failure to take Bolton’s advice. On the other hand, very much might just as easily be laid at the feet of an international community (including the U.S.) too willing to engage in stick-wielding at the wrong time and place. He tells us the job of the people at State is to implement the policies of the big boss, the elected president. Does he still believe this about the current boss? I am very much looking forward to his present thoughts.