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‘The Room Where It Happened’ review: The insider who didn’t testify

Disturbing glimpse The former national security adviser critiques both Trump and himself. John Bolton with President Trump in 2018.   | Photo Credit: AFP

If there is one observation that former senior National Security Adviser John Bolton’s tell-all book makes clear regarding the Donald Trump administration’s bumbling approach to foreign policy, it is that the U.S. President has been preoccupied with relentless efforts to build a domestic political narrative that could catapult him back into the Oval Office for a second innings later this year.

However, history will likely judge Mr. Bolton and this book harshly for the role that both have played in undermining transparent democratic processes at work: it is evident that the material for this book would have overlapped considerably with, if not been identical to, Mr. Bolton’s testimony to Congress during Mr. Trump’s impeachment inquiry — but the former NSA refused to testify, preferring to maximise his private gain from the publication of The Room Where It Happened.

Critiquing himself

Indeed, this 577-page, 15-chapter book does more than provide a disturbing insider glimpse into the staccato ‘policymaking’ process in the Trump White House: it is doubly valuable for the unwitting critique it provides of the author himself — a warmongering foreign policy hawk who consistently appears to be unable to separate his ultra-conservative ideological leanings from advice that would best serve U.S. national security priorities in the longer term.

‘The Room Where It Happened’ review: The insider who didn’t testify
 

Take for instance Mr. Bolton’s vehement opposition to the U.S. entering into talks with the regimes in Iran and North Korea, respectively. Regarding Iran, Mr. Bolton appeared to have a problem, not so much with technical details of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the Iran nuclear agreement cobbled together under President Barack Obama in 2015, as he did with the very idea of doing any deal with Tehran. His answer to the sensitive strategic conundrum of how to manage Tehran after Trump pulled the U.S. out of what Mr. Bolton calls the ‘wretched’ (page 77) JCPOA was blunt and callous. He argues, on page 396: “Trump may or may not have realized it, but he was making an important point about how to ‘re-establish deterrence,’ a favourite Pentagon phrase. The Joint Chiefs preferred to do so by a ‘proportionate’ response, ‘tit-for-tat,’ that no one could criticize them for. But, in my judgment, it was far likelier that a disproportionate response — such as attacking oil refineries or aspects of Iran’s nuclear-weapons program — was necessary to re-establish deterrence. The point was to convince Iran it would face costs far higher than it was imposing on us or our friends if it used force. As of now, Iran had paid no costs at all. Even Obama at least threatened attacking Iran, although the seriousness of his statements was open to question.”

Similarly in the case of North Korea, Mr. Bolton can scarcely hide his disgust at the idea of Mr. Trump engaging Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un, revealing his prejudicial view before the talks began, saying in the chapter titled ‘Singapore Sling’: “Having endured eight years of Obama mistakes, which I constantly feared would include dangerous concessions to North Korea, as his Iran policy had, not to mention the Bush 43 Administration’s failed Six-Party Talks and Clinton’s failed Agreed Framework, I was sick at heart over Trump’s zeal to meet with Kim Jong Un. Pompeo told me that Trump’s fascination with meeting Kim dated to the Administration’s outset; clearly the options were very limited.”

Ominous portents

Setting aside Mr. Bolton’s lopsided and dogmatic view of foreign policy, and the core tenet of forced Americanisation of the world that it appears to be built upon, the book does act as a portent of things to come should there be a Trump 2.0 administration in place after the November 2020 U.S. presidential election. There is considerable journalistic value contained within this tome to the extent that Mr. Bolton has recounted numerous strategically important conversations based on diligent note-taking — some important enough for the Trump White House to unsuccessfully sue Mr. Bolton for breach of contract and exposing classified materials.

It should cause great consternation to American voters and leaders of peaceful democratic nations across the world that these notes reveal that the 45th U.S. President has, according to Mr. Bolton, asked Chinese President Xi Jinping for help with trade issues so Mr. Trump could get re-elected, was willing to look the other way on China’s mass concentration camps for Uighurs, suggested he could aid Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on an investigation by the U.S. Justice Department, expressed deep discomfort with sanctions levied on Russia and wondered aloud why the U.S. could not invade Venezuela.

Reading this book, it is hard to shake off the disturbing idea that the only person who might even make Mr. Bolton appear relatively doveish is his former boss.

The Room Where It Happened; John Bolton, Simon & Schuster, ₹899.

narayan@thehindu.co.in

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Printable version | Oct 22, 2020 4:23:38 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-reviews/the-room-where-it-happened-review-the-insider-who-didnt-testify/article32180449.ece

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