Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,
Nicholas
nwhyte

The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir, by John Bolton

Second paragraph of third chapter (it's a long 'un, forgive me):
Even the simple task of preparing Trump for Abe’s visit turned out to be arduous, and a sign of things to come. We arranged two briefings, one largely on North Korea and security issues, and one on trade and economic issues, corresponding to the schedule of meetings between Abe and Trump. Although the first Abe-Trump meeting was on political matters, our briefing room was filled with trade-policy types who, having heard there was a briefing, wandered in. Trump was late, so I said we would have a brief discussion on trade and then get to North Korea. It was a mistake. Trump, set off by a comment that we had no better ally than Japan, jarringly complained about Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. Things went downhill from there. Before long, Abe arrived, and the session ended. I pulled Kelly aside to discuss the fruitless “briefing,” and he said, “You’re going to be very frustrated in this job.” I answered, “No, I’m not, if there are minimal rules of order. This is not a Trump problem; this is a White House staff problem.” “I don’t need a lecture from you,” Kelly shot back, and I replied, “I’m not lecturing you, I’m telling you the facts, and you know it’s true.” Kelly paused and said, “It was a mistake to let them [the trade people] in,” and we agreed to fix the problem next time. But in truth, Kelly was right and I was wrong. It was a Trump problem, and it never got fixed.
There have been a lot of White House memoirs in the last three and a half years. This is the only one I have read. I've been aware of John Bolton for a long time, as a particularly hardline (and reputedly unpleasant) activist on the Right of US foreign policy debates, who briefly served as UN ambassador under the junior Bush; and of course I've been in and out of the various Washington foreign policy institutions for years, but less so in the most recent period. This book, as if you didn't know, is Bolton's own account of his 17 months as National Security Adviser to President Trump.

I found it fascinating. I've seen a lot of reviews complaining that it is badly written. I disagree. I would say that Bolton takes no hostages - he assumes that the reader is already familiar with the ins and outs of US foreign policy, and with the detail of what Trump had done in his first two years in office (and what Obama did before him). Bolton barely even explains his own thinking on some of the crucial issues - he makes it clear that he hates the Iran deal and the Paris climate treaty, but only offers snippets of analysis in passing. So I felt some frustration about what is not there.

But what is there is fascinating. Bolton clearly kept good contemporaneous notes of all of his meetings and conversations, obviously with the intention of writing this book. (Trump even jokes with him about that at one point.) It's a dreadful picture of presidential disorganisation and ego, of decision systems which do not work because Trump himself refuses to be managed, of years of careful diplomacy up-ended by a single volatile outburst, and of opportunities lost. One does not have to sympathise with Bolton's political goals to sympathise with his frustration.

There are some very good set-piece accounts as well. The account of the NATO Brussels summit deserves to be made into a theatrical farce; very few details would need to be changed. The accounts of Trump's relations with North Korea are spine-chilling. The sections on Russia and China are very enlightening. The chapter on Venezuela is a record of a failure of US power projection, which Bolton attriubutes to mistakes largely made by Trump, but frankly from his own account it seems at least as important that the actors who the US supported on the ground were unable to deliver.

The chapter on Trump's last-minute decision in June 2019 to cancel a planned retaliation strike on Iran, with the title "Trump loses his way, and then his nerve", is particularly interesting because it actually shows a rather good side of Trump (which Bolton deeply disparages) - he doesn't actually like the idea of killing people, and the information that the US could be about to cause 150 Iranian deaths caused him to change his mind on authorising the strike. Bolton is of course right that the process of reaching the final decision was chaotic and wasteful of political capital, but I give Trump credit for his squeamishness. (Of course, this was motivated by the bad publicity that the casualites would generate, rather than any human sympathy for the potential victims, but we will take what we can get.)

Another specific point where (to my surprise) I found myself closer to Trump than to Bolton was the question of the planned Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany through the Baltic. It seems to me that this project dangerously increases Russian influence in the EU's energy market, and that there are many questions to be asked about it. Trump's hostility to it is more visceral, but comes from a similar suspicion of Russia (he is not as pro-Russian as some like to depict him, at least from Bolton's account). Bolton doesn't spell out his own position, but makes it clear that he disapproves of the extent to which Trump's attitude to Germany and to Angela Merkel is driven by this one issue.

I had hoped to see some discussion of a situation where I know Bolton's views are closer to mine than either of us is to the mainstream of EU and US foreign policy - the Western Sahara, where he worked with James Baker at the time when he came close to solving the comflict with Morocco. I had heard through the grapevine that he was exerting some pressure on Morocco at the time, but this may have been wishful thinking - there is no mention of it in the book, which suggests both that Bolton has moved on and that he did nothing about it when in the NSC, let alone bring it to Trump's attention.

Bolton ends by going into some detail on the impeachment process (which happened after he resigned in September 2019). Both left and right have attacked him for his behaviour here (he did not offer evidence to the House, but made himself available to the Senate, which did not avail itself of the offer). I found it difficult to get excited about the impeachment at the time - it was always clear that a supine Senate was going to acquit Trump, and truth be told the case was not as solid as it would have needed to be even in less partisan times. I also found it difficult to get excited by Bolton's account except to observe that his conscience clearly does trouble him, otherwise he would not have written at such length (and comparatively less lucidly than the rest of the book).

I'm not going to put an Amazon link here as I usually do, because I did not pay for my own copy of the book and I don't especially enourage others to do so. But it is an interesting read, at least for those who are as wonkish as I am about international politics.
Tags: bookblog 2020
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