Can a tedious, overlong book, packed from one end to the other with self-serving anecdotes, half-truths, and hearsay, still, in spite of its obvious faults, be an instructive one? One that helps make sense of a particular era, and of the players involved?
In the case of John Bolton’s The Room Where It Happened, the answer is yes, not only because it reinforces what we already know about the venality and narcissism of the current president, but also because of what it reveals about the author. Bolton’s plan was to expose the buffoon in The Room, but in the end, it is Bolton who stands exposed, not only as a warmonger par excellence but as someone who may have witnessed criminal actions by the president and did nothing.
Bolton recounts conversations Trump had with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Chinese President Xi Jinping in which Trump seemed to try to leverage the power of his office in ways that, at a minimum, are worthy of congressional investigation.
This would seem to be in keeping with Trump’s habit of conflating his personal and political wants with his duties as president; his now infamous conversation with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, which served as the basis for Trump’s impeachment by the House, being the best-known example.
But instead of coming forward with potentially damning information that, importantly, might have convinced House investigators to expand their inquiry beyond the Ukrainian muddle, Bolton simply sat on it and saved it for the book.
And then there is the separate issue of the kind of advice Bolton was dispensing to Trump during his time as an outside adviser, and later on as national security adviser.
In the span of just several pages, Bolton recalls that at one time or another he has counseled Trump to launch a preventive strike on Iran’s nuclear program; scrap the Paris climate agreement; tear up the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (aka the Iranian nuclear deal); pull out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty; withdraw from the UN Human Rights Council; defund the UN Relief Works Agency; prepare a preemptive strike against North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile program; and consider the idea of a sinister, conspiratorial link between Iran, North Korea, and Syria.
After a litany like this, one can’t help but recall MacGeorge Bundy’s observation about the hawkish Washington columnist Joseph Alsop, that he had “never known him to go to any area where blood could be spilled that he didn’t come back and say more blood. That is his posture toward the universe.”
As it is Bolton’s.
To see the truth of this, all one has to do is look at what Bolton considers his successes and his failures from his time in office.
Bolton clearly feels he succeeded on a number of fronts, particularly with regard to gutting what was left of the arms control and verification regime, painstakingly designed over decades to prevent another Cold War–style arms race and slow the spread of nuclear weapons. Not content with killing the INF, Bolton writes that “other bilateral and multilateral treaties involving Russia and the United States should also come under the ax, not to mention numerous multilateral agreements the US has unwisely made.” These include (but are bymm no means limited to) the Law of the Sea Convention, the 1992 Treaty on Open Skies and the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty.
Perhaps Bolton’s proudest achievement (if you can call it that) was preventing Trump from fulfilling his campaign promise to withdraw American troops from Syria. According to Bolton, Trump repeatedly told then–White House Chief of Staff John Kelly that he wanted to get out of the Middle East entirely, and in December 2018, Trump instructed his national security team to begin planning a withdrawal from Syria.
This was unacceptable to Bolton because of his fixation, to the exclusion of all else, on Iran, which, like a clinical paranoiac, he saw lurking around every corner. His scheme to prevent a withdrawal from Syria proved successful: “The US presence remained, fluctuating around fifteen hundred country-wide.”
At no point does Bolton, a lawyer, a former undersecretary of state and former UN ambassador, ever broach the subject of the legality of our military presence and actions in Syria—or elsewhere. In this, he is an all too typical product of the US foreign policy establishment, where the ends justify the means and the exercise of American power need not be constrained by trifling considerations like morality and justice. Americans might look at Bolton and see a bland mustachioed bureaucrat; the rest of the world likely sees a terrorist in pinstripes. And in this book, Bolton only lends credence to that perception.
What does it say about Bolton that when Trump’s instincts inclined more toward diplomacy and less toward military action, Bolton always did his best to undermine the president?
No one could possibly mistake Trump for a dove when it comes to the Islamic Republic of Iran. Yet withdrawing from the JCPOA and slapping Iran with harsh economic sanctions wasn’t nearly enough for Bolton. His goal was the wholesale destruction of the Iranian economy, and he laments that the administration’s policy didn’t go far enough.
Over a span of two weeks in June of 2019, Iran was alleged to have, in short order, shot down an unmanned American drone and been behind attacks on several oil tankers (none of them American) in the Persian Gulf.
Bolton saw an opening for a war with Iran that he has long desired. Never one to take a crisis for granted, Bolton manipulated the NSC process and won Trump’s approval for a series of US strikes along the coast of Iran and “other measures.”
And then Trump balked.
Trump said he had been told by someone unnamed there might be a hundred fifty Iranian casualties. “Too many body bags,” said Trump, which he was not willing to risk for an unmanned drone—“Not proportionate,” he said again. Pompeo tried to reason with him, but he wasn’t having it.
And what was Bolton’s reaction?
In my government experience, this was this most irrational thing I ever witnessed any President do…. I had thought about resigning several times before, but this for me was a turning point.
Think of it: Bolton nearly resigned because he wasn’t able to stop Trump from not killing 150 people over the loss of an unmanned drone which had no business being over Iranian airspace in the first place.
If Trump’s resistance to attacking Iran brought the national security adviser to the brink of resignation, the president’s efforts—wholly supported by the South Korean government and a wide plurality of its people—to reach some kind of modus vivendi with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un made Bolton apoplectic.
Eventually, Trump tired of his national security adviser’s efforts to undercut him, and when Trump met Kim for a second time in the DMZ, Bolton was 1,200 miles away in Mongolia.
Ultimately, The Room Where It Happened is proof, hard as it is to believe, that there are even crazier people than Trump in Washington—and John Bolton is one of them.