John Bolton’s White House memoir requires conservatives to do some thinking

John Bolton’s book on his time as Donald Trump’s National Security Adviser – The Room Where it Happened –  is worth reading.  His forensic training means he sets out clearly his own actions and their motivations.  His recording of the responses of others appears scrupulous, albeit disputed. Failings of omission or judgement in the record seem more probable than failings of accuracy.

It manages to be a narrative of his 17 months in office and a personal recounting of a succession of foreign policy set pieces – North Korea engagement; the Iran nuclear deal; scrapping the INF treaty; Syrian and Afghan wind-down; Venezuelan turmoil; helping Ukraine; Chinese trade negotiations.  The book starts with the author joining the team in the hope that he shares enough principles with Donald Trump to do good policy and ends when it’s clear to him that he doesn’t.

Bolton’s view of the world is unmistakable.  It’s also one of the principal strands of thinking in the Republican party foreign policy establishment.  The US needs to use force and suasion to influence those who might use similar tools to threaten America’s vital interests.  Which makes his comparison – and critique – of US foreign policy under Trump and Obama instructive.

He thinks Team Obama had the wrong view of the threats. Accordingly, they squeezed and repatriated American military power, baulked at using force and chased deals with strategically bad outcomes (he has a particular animus against the Iran nuclear agreement), leaving the US and its allies in a strategically worse position after eight years.

He saw Trump as having a more realistic world view – sharing some of Bolton’s analysis of world problems and his critique of Obama’s Iran deal; keen to increase America’s striking power and get her allies to do more – but also having opportunistic and unrealistic ideas of how even sensible objectives might be achieved.

It was still possible to achieve some important goals together, pulling out of the nuclear deal with Iran and the INF treaty with Russia for example.  But in practice it also meant trying (often unsuccessfully) to do dodgy deals with hostile autocrats, offering them opportunities in their spheres of influence.  Little charity was shown to the weak and friends were to be bullied into pulling their weight.

So in key respects Bolton offers parallel criticisms of both Trump and Obama.  Both ignored provocations (eg, from Iran) and shied away from recognising the need for US forces to fight in uncomfortable places like Syria and Afghanistan to avoid even worse options later.  Both overestimated their ability to negotiate good agreements – Obama through poor strategic judgement; Trump by overrating his deal-making skills.

Bolton’s views on the Trump impeachment were as he puts it “decidedly mixed”.  While criticising Trump’s willingness to seek domestic political advantage in providing military aid to Ukraine, he slates the Democrats “impeachment malpractice” in the way they developed this as a case. Elections, he argues, are a more effective restraint on presidential behaviour. 

But because he thinks Trump does not share his more traditional Republican policy principles, he is not optimistic for foreign policy should Trump be re-elected.

The risk is that “… a second -term Trump will be far less constrained by politics than he was in the first term.  The irony could well be that Democrats will find themselves far more pleased substantively with a “legacy”-seeking Trump in his second term than conservatives and Republicans”.

Maybe so.  It is extraordinarily hard to guess how a re-elected Trump would choose between conflicting priorities of reducing US commitments whilst still exercising meaningful influence.

Bolton doesn’t think it’s worth taking the chance. He won’t be voting for either Biden or Trump. Instead, he’s pinning his hopes on a Republican-controlled Senate to manage the risks after the November elections. And hoping that the next Republican presidential candidate will be more attuned to John Bolton’s view of foreign policy.


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