(Photo by Oliver Contreras/For The Washington Post via Getty)

Pounding to nothing

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

Artillery Row Books

President Donald Trump’s third National Security Advisor opens his memoir with this quote from the Duke of Wellington at Waterloo: ‘Hard Pounding, this, gentlemen. Let’s see who will pound the longest.’ And pound for pound, that’s the (nearly) 500 page memoir in a nutshell. Unremitting pounding is both the theme and the style. As John Bolton urged the White House to take a ‘harder line” on Iran and North Korea, Trump’s chief of staff “urged me to keep pounding away in public, which I assured him I would.’ China ‘pounded away during my tenure, sensing weakness at the top.’ As with Bolton’s mission, so too with America’s statecraft, that must ‘keep moving and keep firing, like a big grey battleship.’ 

From his infamous unsubtle moustache to his bellicosity, Bolton traffics on a self-image of straight shooter who sprints towards gunfire. He does not set out to offer a meditation on a complex inner life. This image is also slightly misleading. For all the barrage, Bolton turns out to be a more conflicted figure, especially when his supporting fire is most called upon.

The Room Where it Happened is Bolton’s account of his part in the power struggles within Trump’s almost medieval court, his attempt to steer the executive branch towards the right course, unmasked supremacy everywhere, and his failure and disillusion with Trump’s chaotic, self-serving and showbiz-driven presidency.

The room where it happened: A White House memoir, by John Bolton

The memoir itself is a non-trivial political event. Other reviewers have assailed it for being turgid. Bolton, though, has at least done the state some service by habitually recording and recounting every meeting. This is an important record of an important eighteen months packed with the escalating brinksmanship with Iran, an impeachment inquest, the return of great power competition and a fierce struggle to control the policy levers in Washington itself. For that detail, especially when contrasted with the exhausting melodrama of the era, Bolton deserves a little credit. The Trump administration’s determined effort to suppress it on the grounds of classified information suggests there is substance to Bolton’s allegations of corruption and turmoil at the heart of government.  

It is also, though, a work of self-vindication. Bolton’s life is an adversarial one. A former attorney, he became a policy advocate and a Republican Party institution, consistently taking the hardest of lines. He was ever drawn to aggressive combatants – like Hillary Clinton, in his formative years he supported Barry Goldwater. He interned for Vice-President Spiro Agnew, the “number one hawk.” As a measure of Bolton’s faith that war works and that co-existence with “rogue states” is impossible, he advocated attacking a heavily (and nuclear)-armed North Korea in 2018, an adversary that lies in artillery range of Seoul and thousands of Americans as effective hostages, and offered up a best-case scenario in doing so.

Bolton brought to government a world view that was dug-in and entrenched. For Bolton, the world is hostile, and to survive America must be strong (wielding and brandishing overwhelming force) at all times. Enemy regimes cannot be bargained with or even co-existed with on anything less than maximalist terms dictated by Washington. The US never gives an inch, and must demand everything. And if those regimes do not capitulate, America must topple or destroy them: Iran, Syria, Libya, Venezuela, Cuba, Yemen and North Korea, and must combat them on multiple fronts at once. In doing so, America itself must remain unfettered with an absolutely free hand, not nodding even hypocritically to law or custom or bargaining. 

If Bolton’s thoughts add up to anything, it is a general hostility, if not to talking, certainly to diplomacy – the art of giving coherence and shape to different instruments and activities, above all through compromise and a recognition of limits. The final straw for Bolton was Trump’s cancelling an airstrike on Iran after it shot down a drone. An odd hill to die on, given the graver acts of corruption he as witness alleges, but fitting that the failure to pull the trigger for him was Trump’s most shocking misdemeanour. 

What is intended to be personal strength and clarity comes over as unreflective bluster

This worldview is as personal as it is geopolitical. Importantly for Bolton, in the end he fights alone, bravely against the herd. He fights against other courtiers, even fellow hawks, who Bolton treats with dismissive contempt – Nikki Haley, Steve Mnuchin, Mike Pompeo, or James Mattis who like Bolton, champions strategic commitments and views Iran as a dangerous enemy, but is more selective about when to reach for the gun. The press is little more than an “hysterical” crowd. Allies like South Korea, who must live as neighbours with one of the regimes Bolton earmarks for execution, and who try conciliatory diplomacy occasionally, earn slight regard. Critics, opponents or those who disagree are ‘lazy,’ ‘howling’ or ‘feckless.’  

For a lengthy work that distils a lifetime’s experience, it is remarkably thin regarding the big questions of security, power and order. The hostile world for him contains few real limits other than failures of will. He embraces every rivalry and every commitment, but explanations are few and banal. ‘While foreign policy labels are unhelpful except to the intellectually lazy,’ he says, ‘if pressed, I like to say my policy was “pro-American”.’ Who is lazy, here? 

The purpose of foreign policy, too, is largely absent. Armed supremacy abroad, and power-maximisation, seems to be the end in itself, regardless of what is has wrought at home. This makes his disdain for Trump’s authoritarian ways especially obtuse: what does he think made possible an imperial presidency in the first place?

 There’s little room for principled or reasonable disagreement. What is intended to be personal strength and clarity comes over as unreflective bluster, in a town where horse-trading and agility matter. Unintentionally, it is a warning to anyone who seeks to be effective as well as right, and to those of us who debate these questions.

The most provocative part of the book comes at the end, and points to a man more conflicted than his self-image of the straight shooter. Bolton issues an extended, uneasy defence of his decision not to appear as a witness before the House impeachment inquiry against a president he believed to be corrupt. Having celebrated the need to “pound away” with inexhaustible energy, it turned out his ammunition was low. ‘I was content to bide my time. I believed throughout, as the line in Hamilton goes, that “I am not throwing away my shot”.’ Drawing on a characteristic claim to certainty, ‘it would have made no significant difference in the Senate outcome.’ How can he know this? And even if the odds were long, was there not – for once – a compelling basis in civic virtue to be that relentless grey battleship, pounding away? He now hopes “history” will remember Trump as a one-term president. History needs willing agents.

Other reviews have honed in on Bolton’s decision to delay his revelations for a book pay-day. But consider another theme – the war-hawk who is in fact torn and agonised around combat when it comes to himself. It echoes his retrospective rationale for not fighting in Vietnam, a war he supported, and (as he has recorded) the detailed efforts he made to avoid service in that tragic theatre after being drafted. It was, he decided, bound to fail given that the anti-war Democrats would undermine the cause, a justification he later sheepishly regretted. 

So twice the advocate of forceful confrontation refused the call to show up, generously awarding to himself a rationale for non-intervention that relieves him of commitment. He refuses to extend that same exonerating, prudential logic to his country, when it debates whether to wade in to conflict abroad. Neither does he extend it to other Americans who think the nation, like Bolton, might be better off sometimes holding its fire, biding its time, dividing its enemies, and keeping its powder dry.  

Given that Bolton failed in the end to attend the “room where it happened”, his title is unwittingly ironic. In his favour, Bolton’s testy defence of his absence at least suggests something. In contrast with the front cover of another forthcoming, Trump-era memoir, he retains a modest capacity for embarrassment.

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