John Bolton’s “The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir” will not tell you anything you already don’t know about Donald Trump and his administration. If you have read Michael Wolff (“Fire and Fury”), Bob Woodward (“Fear”), and Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig (“A Very Stable Genius”), you have a full picture of Trump’s ignorance and indifference. You know about the failures of his people and his policies as well as his policy process, which is essentially nonexistent.
But you will learn a great deal about John Bolton, and none of it is laudatory or admirable. For me, Bolton will forever be remembered as the national security adviser who dismantled the National Security Council’s Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense, created by the Obama administration to deal with pandemics.
Bolton, the classic Chicken Hawk, used student deferments and the Maryland National Guard to avoid serving in Vietnam. But he supported the Vietnam War and the Iraq War, and still favors preemptive military strikes in North Korea and Iran. President George W. Bush had his phony “axis of evil” (Iran, Iraq, and North Korea); Bolton has an even more bizarre “troika of tyranny” in the Western Hemisphere (Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba). Trump tells Bolton that he likes the phrase “troika of tyranny,” adding that “You give such great speeches.” When Bolton was in the Bush administration 15 years ago, he talked about an “axis of evil” that incorporated Cuba, Libya, and Syria, and was known for distorting the intelligence on all three.
One of the telling aspects of the book is that so little attention is given to seminal policy concerns (Russia and China), while one of the most detailed chapters deals with Venezuela. Bolton is genuinely interested in invoking the Monroe Doctrine to rid the international community of the “illegitimate regime” of Nicolas Maduro. Trump said that he wanted military options for Venezuela because “it’s really part of the United States.” Bolton prefers the covert action option of working with Juan Guaido, the leader of an opposition movement that failed miserably. Bolton was particularly disappointed with Trump’s dismissal of Guaido as weak, labeling him the “Beto O’Rourke of Venezuela,” which Bolton recognized as “hardly the sort of compliment an ally of the United States should expect.”
Bolton worked for greater sanctions against the “troika of tyranny,” particularly Venezuela, and cited the model of sanctions in the 1956 Suez Canal Crisis, which was a major policy and political failure for the three powers—Britain, France, and Israel—trying to compromise the government of Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser. During intense discussions within the administration regarding Venezuela, Bolton displayed his true colors by traveling to Coral Gables, Florida to speak to the Bay of Pigs Veterans Association about the “resolve” of the Trump administration. There was no bigger failure in U.S. covert action than the Bay of Pigs, and Bolton knew full well that Trump was not on board with support for any rebellion. The opposition to Maduro soon unraveled, and Bolton typically blamed everyone, including Trump, but himself.
Bolton’s support for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the wake of the brutal killing of Jamal Khashoggi provided more clues to Bolton’s pathetic policy prescriptions. Bolton favored protecting bin Salman because there were “significant U.S. national interests at stake,” and that if we didn’t sell sophisticated weaponry to Saudi Arabia, then Vladimir Putin’s Russia would swoop in. Bolton never took into account the impossibility of the Saudis easily switching from sophisticated U.S. weaponry, particularly for its air force, to comparable Russian systems. Bolton praised Trump’s support for bin Salman, and cited one of his heroes, the neoconservative Jeane Kirkpatrick, who supported authoritarian regimes, even the one in El Salvador where four U.S. churchwomen were murdered. She absolved the military regime and argued the “nuns were not just nuns; they were political activists.”
Bolton was never a team player and never someone who could garner Senate confirmation for a key position, which is why he got a recess appointment from George W. Bush and the position of national security adviser from Trump. Bush eventually conceded it was a huge mistake, and of course Bolton soon wore out his welcome with Trump. Bolton is critical of virtually every White House and National Security Council colleague, particularly Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis. Bolton blames Mattis for Trump’s unwillingness to conduct a reprisal attack against Iran in the summer of 2019, and argues that Mattis’ “spirit” lived on in the Oval Office in explaining Trump’s unwillingness to use force or to encourage Israeli use of force.
Bolton argued there would be no success in dealing with Tehran “as long as Iran’s current regime remained.” Trump saved us from the worst of Bolton’s excesses in the “room where it (ultimately didn’t) happen,” when Trump called off a military strike against Iran at the very last minute. Bolton called Trump’s decision the “most irrational thing I ever witnessed any President do” in “my government experience.”
Bolton had no use for Russia, and visited former Soviet republics just to show Moscow that “we had a sustained focus on its periphery and were not content simply to leave these struggling states to contend with Moscow alone.” If there is a key to understanding Putin’s policies toward the former Soviet republics, it is acknowledging the policies of the past four American presidents to draw the former Cold War lines closer to the Russian border by expanding the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and deploying a regional missile defense on Russia’s periphery. Bolton contends that, if he had remained in the administration, he had additional “substantive plans for U.S. relations with the former Soviet states,” which would have worsened Russian-American relations. Bolton ominously warned that “there was plenty we could do diplomatically as well as militarily.”
One thing is clear: Bolton accomplished nothing during his 17 months as the national security adviser, which was fortunate. If he had not been tethered by the so-called “high-minded” people inside and outside the administration, there would have been greater use of force (see Iran), more covert action (see Venezuela), increased acrimony with key allies (see Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron), and additional infighting within the administration (see Mattis, Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin, and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper). Bolton was a self-proclaimed advocate for “disproportionate response” in an administration that fortunately was reluctant to pursue another fool’s errand in the Middle East.
The book offers so little in the way of sensitive policy matters that it begs the question of why the administration held it up for a lengthy security review, guaranteeing Bolton a best seller. There are embarrassments galore involving Trump and his minions but no genuine national security information, let alone a compromise of U.S. national security. Indeed, there was little strategic discussion in Trump’s administration, including Bolton’s National Security Council, and Trump had virtually nothing to say about U.S. national interests or national security. The closest we get to Trump describing his actions toward an ally or an adversary is when Bolton quotes the president defending his bellicose tweets toward Iran by saying “I like to fuck with them.”
For Trump, Bolton concludes, this was “more grand strategy.” As for the domestic front, Bolton reports that Trump’s “enemy of the people,” the press, is made up of “scumbags” who “should be executed.” More grand strategy.