The Room Where Not Much Happened
John Bolton, The Room Where It Happened (Simon & Schuster, 2020)
Let me take advantage of the fact that John Bolton’s memoir of his time as national security advisor — The Room Where It Happened — has inspired so many discussions amongst the media to skip the plot summary and naughty bits, and instead give my impressions of Bolton, his unusual approach, and his startling self-regard.
The contrast between Bolton’s book and Henry Kissinger’s memoirs is illuminating. Kissinger’s personal writings not only had wit, irony, self-deprecating if insincere humor, and vivid portraits of peers but also made a real effort to persuade readers that his behavior was honorable and that his policies were reasonable. However, our ability to now compare Kissinger’s version of his story with the documentary record reveals that he was often less than honest — for example, concerning U.S. policy toward the Allende regime in Chile, the South Asian crisis of 1971, and the American stance toward nuclear weapons and arms control. Nevertheless, he went to great lengths to show that American goals and the instruments employed to reach them made a good deal of sense. His discussion of Vietnam, although glossing over many key points, made a strong argument for Richard Nixon’s policy that gave pause even to those, like myself, who had been anti-war protestors.
Such an approach is not Bolton’s game. Rather, he simply re-states his positions on issues like Iran, Cuba, Venezuela, and North Korea as though they are self-evidently correct — all while making no effort to persuade. Even open-minded critics should not re-think their positions because of what they have read in Bolton’s book. There is another side to this coin: Because Bolton isn’t interested in expanding his base, it is possible that much of his account will hold up better than that of Kissinger in terms of accuracy when the historical record is opened — assuming that decent records exist and will be preserved, which is a big assumption. Bolton appears to have summarized the voluminous notes that he took while serving as national security advisor. Though these notes are, of course, subject to normal biases, there is no reason — other than a general mistrust of the man — to think that they have been largely altered for a wider audience. He doesn’t have the shrewdness that allowed Kissinger to see the good reasons for doing so.
The puzzles start early in The Room Where It Happened. It is amazing that, according to this account, before taking the job Bolton never talked to President Donald Trump about any of the issues on which they might have disagreed. Trump was probably attracted to Bolton because of the latter’s belligerent style, attacks on everything linked to President Barack Obama, and zest in defending Trump, who did not think about potential divergences on substance. But, it would have been hard for Bolton not to know of his and Trump’s deep disagreements on Russia, the nature of the threat from China, and the costs and benefits of maintaining military involvement in the Middle East. It is more plausible that he would not have realized that Trump’s aversion to foreign adventures would lead him to draw back from military strikes against North Korea and Iran. However, even on this point, there were hints that a more perceptive observer would have noticed. Perhaps Bolton understood the situation and thought he could manipulate — if not convert — Trump. Or, maybe he just couldn’t resist getting into “the room where it happened.”
Bolton shows a flash of ambivalence. From the beginning, various members of the administration courted him to join — but not at the top level. In response, Bolton made clear that he would only serve as the secretary of state or national security advisor. Ego played a role, of course. But, having held high-level positions in previous administrations, this refusal to take anything that was not a step up does not make Bolton unique among his peers, past or present — except in the noteworthy case of W. Averell Harriman, who served President John Kennedy in lower-ranking positions than those he had previously held under President Harry Truman. Even from the outside, however, Bolton’s frequent conversations with all the top political players, including the president, gave him a good sense of how the White House was functioning — or not functioning. Early in his book, he reports,
I ended the Administration’s first hundred days secure in my own mind about what I was prepared to do and what I wasn’t. After all, as Cato the Younger says in one of George Washington’s favorite lines from his favorite play, “When vice prevails, and impious men bear sway, the post of honor is a private station.”
So, the end of the story was that Bolton would not join this group of pirates. Or was it? While Bolton wouldn’t serve below decks, standing next to the captain was different. I doubt if Cato would have approved.
Of course, we know that Bolton had a chance to get in the room, but remarkably little happened not only because Trump couldn’t orchestrate a coordinated policy but also because of a much more fundamental problem: With some exceptions like trade and immigration, Trump really didn’t want much to happen other than the rolling back of his predecessor’s achievements. On this matter, Bolton strongly agreed, as did Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. As a result, this is much of what happened during this presidency: Withdrawing from the nuclear agreement with Iran and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty with Russia; ending participation in the U.N. Human Rights Council; breaking relations with Cuba; and pulling out of the Paris climate change agreement earlier in the administration. Bolton can point to few positive achievements.
On Venezuela, policy transformed into a much more aggressive stance against the Maduro regime— but to no avail. Against Bolton’s wishes, an agreement has been reached with the Taliban, but it remains to be seen whether this agreement will be more than a cover for a withdrawal that was previously underway. Perhaps the main thing that happened in the room was a non-event, albeit an important one: Trump did not pull out of NATO or weaken it as much as seemed likely. Here, Bolton — along with many other Trump appointees and Republican members of Congress (Trump did not need the support of the Democratic ones) — deserves great credit (or blame, depending on one’s views). Trump had two basic complaints about NATO. First, allies, especially Germany, were not paying their ‘fair share’ and weren’t yet living up to the meager pledge they had made when Obama was president to raise their defense spending to 2 percent of their GDP. Second, the alliance could drag the United States into an unwanted war. From the standpoint of world politics, the latter should have been the dominant concern; it fit with Trump’s belief that Vladimir Putin was or could be made into his friend. Given that Bolton embraced the former complaint and vehemently rejected the latter, he steered Trump’s ire towards increasing European payments. Bolton reports that he told Trump that taking on the commitment to NATO would endanger the 51 votes he needed from the Senate for key issues like the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh for his Supreme Court seat. From this and other accounts, it remains unclear how serious Trump was on acting on his instincts to get out of NATO. But, if he had had a supportive national security advisor at the time, the demise of the Western alliance certainly could not have been ruled out.
This accomplishment of protecting NATO from complete destruction highlights one of Bolton’s outstanding hypocrisies: He attacks others for thwarting Trump’s policies but brags when he engages in the same practice himself. He is especially critical of Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who is a prime target of Bolton’s ire for only laggardly developing military options during Middle East crises, thereby providing time for Trump’s anger to cool. Early in his book, Bolton quotes with approval a conversation with James Baker, President George H.W. Bush’s secretary of state, who, in response to Bolton’s pushing of his preferred approach, said, “John, the guy who got elected doesn’t want to do that,” leading Bolton to back off. But Bolton abandons this stance regarding the many issues on which they disagree. His “out-Mattising Mattis” is clear on page after page of The Room Where It Happened — and Pompeo often joins him in these efforts. A chapter titled “Thwarting Russia” might be better summarized as “Thwarting Trump on Russia.” Moreover, to the next chapter’s title of “Trump Heads to the Door in Syria and Afghanistan, and Can’t Find It” should be added “In Part Because I Didn’t Help Him.” In an amazing statement, Bolton says that, after Trump decided to reverse his decision and not strike Iran when it shot down a drone while Pompeo was trying to accommodate the president on the next steps, “I was not so prepared to give Trump latitude in what he decided, since so much of it was badly wrong.” The title of the chapter in which that statement appears speaks volumes: “Trump Loses His Way, and Then His Nerve.”
Explaining why he disagreed with the president was appropriate — indeed mandatory — at the time and is helpful in retrospect. However, Bolton is clear that he mainly sought to sabotage rather than confront Trump’s policies. Nixon’s loyal subordinates famously disregarded many of his instructions — but that is because they understood that he was just blowing off steam. Trump’s instincts, misguided as they may have been, were steadier than that. He really did want to get out of the Middle East, to privilege trade over strategic concerns with China, and to reduce the American commitment to NATO. Meanwhile, Bolton’s proudest achievements had to do with standing in the way of these policies. I, for one, am glad that he did. But, for Bolton to blame others for similar behavior is to show that his loyalty was to his own policies, not to carrying out those of the president. Perhaps, then, Bolton can be seen as a leading member of the resistance. This is admirable if doing so buys the country and the president time for the latter to reconsider. However, when someone in Bolton’s position sees a continuing conflict between serving the country and serving the president, he should resign. And, when Bolton eventually did resign, it was more on account of his having lost the president’s trust and the accumulated frustrations of the job than a principled dispute over policy.
While Bolton says that Trump is inconsistent, the real problem for Bolton has to do with how Trump is soft on Russia, is not fully committed to NATO, puts trade first when dealing with China, and is not willing to use force against North Korea and Iran. Trump’s digressions in meetings with his advisors are evidently maddening to Bolton — as they should be. But, for him, the main problem is that, unlike Bolton, Trump is committed to staying out of trouble, not that he cannot stick to a policy. Similarly, Bolton’s narrative contradicts his claim that everything Trump does is to facilitate his reelection. The often-quoted conversation with Chinese President Xi Jinping in which Trump says that China’s help on trade could secure his reelection certainly unfolded in glaringly bad taste but does not show that electoral concerns were paramount because from long before he sought the presidency, Trump declared that other countries were blocking U.S. exports. A president who sought reelection above all would have tried to broaden his base and look like a responsible caretaker of the nation’s interests. While it is true that getting into a war with Iran probably would not have improved his electoral prospects, there is little reason to doubt that Trump also saw it as bad policy. Likewise, withdrawing from NATO would not have earned him many votes. Aside from the case of Ukraine, from what we are told, it would be more accurate to say that, rather than being driven by the desire to bolster his prospects for reelection, Trump generally follows his instincts or gratifies his ego.
Consistent with his claims that Trump put his own personal interests before those of the country, Bolton unfailingly disparages the motives of those who disagree with him — especially Mattis, Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin, and career diplomats. According to Bolton, there never are legitimate differences of opinion or important issues on which thoughtful people might disagree. Bolton is not only always right, but there are not even significant considerations on the other side. It is crystal clear to him that removing U.S. troops from the Middle East would invite disaster. Accordingly, in his book — and presumably in meetings — he never develops the argument with care or thinks about how others might reason differently. This method aligns with the style that was on display when he was a Fox News Channel commentator: Great certainty and self-righteousness that preclude a serious — let alone generous — engagement with conflicting values or concerns outside those that reoccupy him, and calculations that produce expectations about other countries’ behavior that would thwart his policies.
Bolton’s attitude toward his colleagues follows suit. According to him, their value is proportional to their ability to see the light. And, even if they are so able, they are not to be fully trusted (which is probably right). He says that Pompeo shared most of his views. However, as Bolton is resigning (or, by Trump’s account, being fired), he blames Pompeo for spreading rumors about him and poisoning his relations with the president. He gets his revenge by revealing Pompeo’s low regard for Trump’s mental acuity and policy preferences. In addition, he despises Mattis for not being warlike enough and Mnuchin for putting economic considerations first and infringing on Bolton’s turf. The only person he doesn’t attack is Vice President Mike Pence, maybe because he expects to come back in a Pence administration.
In the same vein, Bolton rarely gives others any credit, particularly to the National Security Council staff, few of whom are mentioned in The Room Where It Happened. If they prepared him for meetings, developed information and options, or thought through issues and choices, Bolton does not say. If they didn’t, it isn’t clear why he bothered keeping them around. On a related note, although he excoriates Trump, Pompeo, Mnuchin, U.N. Amb. Nikki Haley, and others for neglecting or short-circuiting process, Bolton says nothing about the National Security Council process below the level of meetings with cabinet principals. Bolton did make some consequential changes, however, in downgrading the White House structures dealing with cyber and homeland security as well as in dismantling the National Security Council office charged with protecting against pandemics. His defense of these moves is so superficial that it makes him appear even more foolish than is necessary.
Bolton considered resigning at several points and should have done so earlier (or been fired) because he was unwilling or unable to guard the process. Even those who don’t stress the so-called Scowcroft model of the National Security Council as an honest broker agree that one of the prime jobs of the national security advisor is to manage a processes that brings relevant information and options to the president and ensures that key officials have their say. Of course, strong cabinet members and ambivalent presidents can make it hard to carry out this mission. Even Kissinger could not prevent Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird from announcing troop withdrawals from Vietnam before they had been cleared by the White House, and Condoleezza Rice was thwarted for much of her time as national security advisor. However, the Laird incident is an exception under Kissinger and Rice faced a secretary of defense and vice president who were much more experienced than she was. Bolton had it easier because the secretaries of defense with whom he dealt were weak. Additionally, Pompeo, while on good terms with the president, was no Donald Rumsfeld in his mastery of bureaucratic in-fighting. In the case of Ukraine, no process would have been possible because Trump did not want one since what he was doing was illegitimate if not illegal. But, on North Korea and Afghanistan, such was not the case. Even though Trump did not care for deliberations and any that involved him would have been messy, he was not a complete obstacle — especially not to meetings that his cabinet secretaries would have had to attend even when he did not. On North Korea, Trump came down where Bolton wanted him to, but in the meantime, Steve Biegun, Pompeo’s envoy for North Korea, had given a publicity-garnering speech pointing in a very different direction, perhaps misleading North Korea and so contributing to the fiasco of the Hanoi summit. On Afghanistan, Bolton’s account has Pompeo monopolizing the instructions given to the special representative on Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad. Therefore, it is possible that, if Bolton had sharply raised the issues and teed up the important decisions for Trump, the president would have decided against him and declared that the withdrawal schedule should not be conditions based. So, there Bolton was trying to manipulate the president by keeping decisions out of his hands. Yet, the more fundamental point is not whether Bolton would have won or lost — although surely that was what Bolton thought was most important — but that good governance and a well-run process called for bringing the relevant players and interests to the table, supported by thorough staff work and detailed discussions at the working level. If such an approach does not guarantee that either the final decision will be the best one or that the president’s preferences will prevail, surely it is the best way to proceed over the long run. Information will be shared even if not willingly, options will be explored, and the departments with legitimate interests will be heard and be in a position to follow up. Instead of insisting that this be done, Bolton seized as much power as he could and, in the cases of Korea and Afghanistan, let Pompeo have a free hand until train wrecks loomed at the end. His job was to avoid such a result — to bring in all the key executive branch players at all stages. If he could not or would not do so, he had no business being in the job.
Bolton’s memoir is less than honest about the alternatives for dealing with North Korea and Iran. I can only assume that he was also less than honest when dealing with his colleagues and the president. He says that North Korea and Iran will never agree to forgo nuclear weapons, which is a reasonable view. Yet he doesn’t admit that his preference would be to use overwhelming force rather than settle for anything less. Alternatively, a third path would be for the regimes to collapse or be overthrown; while Bolton clearly hopes for this outcome, he never makes serious arguments for its likelihood. History is not encouraging here: As Adam Smith said, “There is a lot of ruin in a nation.” While both North Korea and Iran are plagued by weakness and suffering (and Iran has many dissidents), to argue that pressure will lead them to give up their most prized possessions or to be replaced by ones that would do so requires much more than the hand-waving Bolton offers. In talking about — or railing against — Iran’s unreasonable stance, he never mentions Pompeo’s 12-point “plan,” which is for Iran to surrender and then the United States will be glad to negotiate. So, overthrowing these regimes by force looks to be the only serious alternative to the policy of negotiations that Bolton scorns. While there are arguments to be made for going down this path, it is unattractive to a president who has been clear that invading Iraq was a disaster. Moreover, Bolton never lays out either how he thinks the United States could accomplish such overthrows or what would follow in those countries or the rest of the world. Instead, he offers gestures and magical thinking. No wonder that Trump grew tired of this line of approach, which could be implemented only if North Korea or Iran were so baited that they would strike out recklessly and embroil the United States in a war which it would decide to press on to a decisive conclusion.
Bolton’s account of the Ukraine affair is a strange mixture of admitting Trump’s wrong-doing (blaming Rudy Giuliani, an easy target) and distancing himself from what was going on. Bolton even misquotes the record of the infamous conversation between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. And, although he says he had several meetings with Trump to urge him to release the military aid to Ukraine, he omits the depth of detail he gives us elsewhere in The Room Where It Happened. Likewise, Bolton is either being disingenuous or revealing his stupidity when he says that he was puzzled by the involvement of Amb. Gordon Sondland in the Ukraine matter. Bolton knew that Trump was making illegitimate demands on Ukraine and had seen enough of Trump’s methods to know that he would circumvent proper channels. Though perhaps Bolton could not have stopped the operation, it strains credulity to believe that he did not realize that Sondland was carrying out the president’s instructions.
Of course, Bolton blames members of the press at every turn, never acknowledging that, even if they were wrong on some details, the general picture they drew is the same one that he presents.
Since he has better information at his disposal than does the press, a strength of Bolton’s account is the vivid portrayal of the chaos of Trump’s meetings. Such chaos is particularly evident in Bolton’s description of the key meeting at Trump’s Bedminster golf club where they discussed the terms of the Afghanistan deal. Although this point isn’t new, it is terrifying to read the minute-by-minute account, which resembles a typical Trump political rally with the president displaying the attention span of a gnat. What really gets Bolton riled up, however, is that Trump cares most about getting out of Afghanistan rather than being sure that the United States can maintain a counter-terrorism presence there. Ironically, Bolton’s position is the same as that of Vice President Joseph Biden during the 2009 Afghanistan debates — something Bolton refrains from noting.
For what it is worth, I don’t see anything that looks like special compartmentalized intelligence (SCI) in Bolton’s The Room Where It Happened. Having spent more than a dozen years on the CIA’s Historical Review Panel, I am fairly well attuned to what can and cannot be released. Of course, a lot of what Bolton says he knew about what was happening was derived from SCI, but nothing he says gives away sources or methods. Though I’m sure that the government was able to pick out sections and argue that they were based on secret intelligence, that is very different from showing that a foreign adversary could glean anything of value from such sections concerning codes the United States was breaking, wires it was tapping, or spies that it had. Foreign diplomats are surely poring over Bolton’s book and alternately chuckling and shaking their heads. The memoir may damage national interests — although much less than the Trump presidency itself — but does not reveal intelligence secrets.
Robert Jervis is Adlai E. Stevenson Professor of International Politics at Columbia University and author most recently of How Statesmen Think.