Jun 25, 2020

Bolton’s memoir oozes with contempt for his former boss, CNN.com

Bolton book oozes with contempt for his old boss Peter Bergen Opinion by Peter Bergen, CNN National Security Analyst Peter Bergen is CNN's national security analyst, a vice president at New America, and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. His new book is "Trump and His Generals: The Cost of Chaos." The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN. (CNN)There is simply no precedent for a former top administration official publishing a book about a sitting president that is as damning as John Bolton's. To even come close, you have to go back three and half decades to David Stockman, President Ronald Reagan's director of the Office of Management and Budget, and his 1986 book, "The Triumph of Politics: Why the Reagan Revolution Failed," which painted a deeply unflattering portrait of Reagan and his senior White House advisers. But Bolton's book "The Room Where It Happened" makes Stockman's look like one of the so-called "love letters" that the North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un has routinely sent to the easily-flattered and bottomlessly narcissistic President Donald Trump. Bolton's portrayal of Trump is devastating. And it will be hard for Trump supporters to paint him as some pinko liberal since he volunteered as a teenager to work for the Barry Goldwater campaign, then interned for Spiro Agnew and went on to work in Republican administrations going back to Reagan. Bolton was also a frequent and bellicose presence on Fox News before he joined the Trump administration. It's not hard to understand why Trump has sought to block the book's publication and has branded it a pack of lies. Some Trump allies have suggested that Bolton, who received a reported $2 million book advance, is larding up his memoir with untruths to sell books. This seems unlikely. Bolton is already quite well off, according to his 2018 financial disclosures, earning more than half a million dollars a year from Fox News alone before he joined the Trump administration and possessing many millions of dollars in stocks and other property. There may be a simpler explanation for why Bolton wrote his tell-all book, which is being published Tuesday. Unlike Trump who was born with a platinum spoon in his mouth, Bolton is the son of a Baltimore firefighter who by dint of smarts and hard work went to Yale University and then Yale Law School. Subsequently, Bolton mastered the arcana of policymaking working at ever-higher levels in four Republican administrations. Whatever you think of his views, he had spent a long career studying the issues facing those at the highest levels of the national security apparatus, in contrast to Trump who had done absolutely no serious preparation for the decisions he would have to make as president. A blistering takedown Bolton's personal contempt for Trump oozes from almost every page. In the 500-plus page memoir it's hard to find any moment where Trump is portrayed in any kind of positive light. Indeed, Trump took an action which Bolton wholeheartedly approved of -- ordering the killing in early January of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, who ran Iran's military operations around the Middle East -- yet it goes unmentioned in Bolton's memoir. (In the immediate aftermath of the event, Bolton tweeted, "Congratulations to all involved in eliminating Qassem Soleimani. Long in the making, this was a decisive blow against Iran's malign Quds Force activities worldwide. Hope this is the first step to regime change in Tehran.) There would have been plenty of time for Bolton to include praise for the killing of Soleimani in his manuscript since it occurred many weeks before the full emergence of the coronavirus crisis in the US, a subject the former national security adviser covers devastatingly. When the crisis hit, according to Bolton's book, "the chair behind the Resolute desk was empty," referring to the president's desk in the Oval Office. On one level, "The Room Where It Happened" is a blistering, bitter takedown of the president who Bolton describes as ignorant of such basic facts as that the United Kingdom is a nuclear power; a commander in chief who blathered through many of his own intelligence briefings and who changed his mind on a dime -- "we made a weathervane look like the Rock of Gibraltar" -- and who filtered all his decisions through an electoral lens, even to the extent of encouraging Chinese President Xi Jinping to help him get reelected by purchasing more goods from American farmers. Bolton observes, "I am hard-pressed to identify any significant Trump decision during my tenure that wasn't driven by re-election calculations." At another level, "The Room Where It Happened" is also a searing indictment of the Trump administration's incoherent foreign policy in which, of course, Bolton played a starring role in as Trump's National Security Adviser even as he often privately thought that much of Trump's foreign policy was going off the rails. Bolton describes Trump's foreign policy thusly: "Trump was not following any international grand strategy, or even a consistent trajectory. His thinking was like an archipelago of dots (like individual real estate deals) leaving the rest of us to discern-or create-policy." Trump got played Take all those love letters from "Chairman Kim" as Trump has often referred to the North Korean dictator in his frequent tweets about him. Bolton, who has spent a good chunk of his professional life working on arms control issues, wrote in his 2007 memoir "Surrender is Not an Option" that North Korea will "never give up its nuclear weapons voluntarily" and that any promises to do so were simply to lift sanctions against it. North Korea, Bolton wrote, "has followed this game plan many times, and it has every reason to believe it will succeed in the future." Quite so. As Bolton's new memoir amply documents, Chairman Kim played Trump like a Stradivarius, showing up for meetings with Trump in Singapore in 2018 and the following year at the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea that were no more than great photo ops. Yet the North Koreans have done absolutely nothing to denuclearize, which for decades has been the bedrock aim of US policy on North Korea. At the Singapore meeting, Bolton describes Trump unilaterally giving away concessions to Kim -- such as canceling joint US-South Korea military exercises, a longtime cornerstone of containing the nuclear-armed North Korean rogue state -- and getting nothing in return. Bolton says Trump didn't consult any members of his cabinet when he told Kim the exercises would be canceled, blindsiding both the Pentagon and Bolton. Trump told Kim that North Korea was doing the US a big favor because cancelling the exercises "saved the United States a lot of money." Bolton writes that when Trump made this remark, "Kim was smiling broadly, laughing from time to time." The jovial dictator had correctly pegged Trump as an easy mark. Ditto for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who Trump infamously defended over his own intelligence community when he stood by Putin at a press conference in Helsinki in July 2018 and said that he believed the former KGB officer's assurances that Russia hadn't interfered in the 2016 US presidential election. Bolton describes how he and Trump's chief of staff John Kelly were "almost frozen in our seats" when Trump made this "self-inflicted wound" that led to "catastrophic" media coverage. If Trump loves kowtowing to dictators, he also enjoys dumping on close allies. Trump's first Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has described NATO as the most successful alliance in modern history, but rather than seeing NATO as a mutual self defense alliance that serves American interests very well, Trump sees it as a constellation of countries that are ripping off the United States. Trump often told Bolton and other key advisers that he planned to pull out of NATO, which makes about as much sense as closing down the Federal Reserve, another favorite Trump target. NATO countries have committed to spend at least 2% of their GDP on defense spending by 2024. For Trump, countries such as Germany that haven't yet met this 2% target "owe us a tremendous amount of money" as he said publicly when visiting NATO headquarters in Brussels in July 2018. In fact, the US is not "owed" any of this money. In Brussels, Trump added for good measure that "Germany is totally controlled by Russia," a bizarre statement since the Soviets had indeed once controlled East Germany during the Cold War but hadn't done so since the Berlin Wall had fallen. What the United States gains by Trump's alienation of close American allies such as Germany and cozying up to longtime US enemies like Putin has never been clear, and Bolton doesn't explore in his book what longer term damage Trump may have done to America's alliances. Nor does Bolton engage in any self-reflection about why he chose to serve and ultimately to enable someone as chaotic and incompetent as Trump. The Iran standoff Bolton, who has publicly advocated for regime change in Iran, was of course delighted that Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal a few weeks after Bolton was appointed National Security Adviser in March 2018. Bolton was far less happy when a $130 million US drone was shot down by the Iranians in June 2019 and Trump called back at the very last-minute a Pentagon-planned retaliatory attack against Iranian military facilities. The President told Bolton that there would be "too many body bags." Bolton fumes that it was "the most irrational thing I ever witnessed a President do." In fact, Trump likely showed some good judgment here as the US drone was, of course, unmanned, and killing Iranian soldiers on the ground in response likely would have provoked some kind of escalatory reaction by the Iranian regime. On Afghanistan, Bolton describes Trump "constantly" confusing the former Afghan president Hamid Karzai and the current Afghan president Ashraf Ghani while pursuing an incoherent policy of simultaneously having the State Department negotiate with the Taliban to draw down all US troops to zero, while the Pentagon and Bolton were planning to keep thousands of American troops in Afghanistan to pursue counterterrorism missions against al Qaeda and ISIS. This incoherent policy continues to this day. Settling scores There is a fair amount of score settling in the book. Trump's former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley is described to Bolton by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as "light as a feather." Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner is taken to task for his fantasy of bringing peace to the Middle East "where the likes of Kissinger had failed." Both former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and current Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin are portrayed as weak. The media is invariably described as a "press mob." Meanwhile, Bolton always positions himself as the smartest guy in "the room where it happened." One episode that doesn't suggest that this was always the case was the key role that Bolton played in trying to eject from power the Cuba-backed leader of Venezuela Nicolás Maduro in favor of the opposition leader Juan Guaidó. The whole effort fizzled, and Maduro is still in power today. On Trump's dealings with Ukraine, which led to his impeachment trial, Bolton says the president was convinced by the crazy conspiracy theory that "Ukraine was actually responsible for carrying out Moscow's efforts to hack US elections." Part of that conspiracy theory involves the barmy idea that the Democratic National Committee server that was hacked by the Russians can be found in Ukraine. Trump tells members of his cabinet including Bolton, "I want that f-----g server." Americans now have a president who lives in serious tin foil hat land. Bolton told ABC News that he wrote his book to tell a "complete picture" of what he saw during the Trump administration and let readers "make up their own decisions" about what it all means. In five months, many of those readers, who have already made Bolton's memoir the top non-fiction Amazon bestseller of 2020, will have an opportunity to do just that.