The Atlanticist

The estimable John Bolton’s White House memoir The Room Where It Happened is a tour de force, vividly recounting the policy wins, fumbles, and cast of actors, including at the epicenter Trump, the good, the bad, and the ugly. It’s an eminently worthwhile read, at times delightful, at times painful.

Bolton and Trump are very different men. Bolton was the National Security Advisor, Trump the Chief. The lawyer and NSA operated from a policy compass. The former real-estate mogul’s transactional.

Bolton was exasperated the President didn’t follow “any international grand strategy, or even a consistent trajectory,” with national security decisions often hinging “more on political than on philosophy, strategy or foreign policy and defense rationales.”

The mustachioed NSA’s tarred by critics as a dastardly neocon. He’s not. Bolton’s decidedly a hard-nosed nationalist believing muscular foreign and defense policies and America engaged with the world, are in the national interest.

Trump’s overweening vanity and conceit only he can clinch the breakthrough deal, are a weakness, and played on by the world’s bad actors.

Trump’s flattery of North Korean tyrant Kim Jong Un, Chinese Emperor Xi, Russian capo di tutti capi Vladimir Putin, and Turkish Islamist Recep Erdogan isn’t seemly. Nor, more importantly, does it advance US interests. For Bolton the currencies these political leaders understand are interests and force.

He views Russia and China as threats that must, ideally with allies, be firmly managed. While Bolton understands Putin’s a bad actor there’s perhaps a grudging respect, describing him as “totally in control, calm, self-confident” and “totally knowledgeable on Moscow’s national-security priorities,” in implied contrast with the Leader of the Free World.

The hawkish NSA wanted to prevent Iran’s mullahs from obtaining nuclear weapons and North Korea to give up its nuclear arsenal because America and the Free World would be safer. US interest in Afghanistan is in preventing it from being used as a platform for Al Qaeda and others to launch attacks, and to affect neighboring nuclear Pakistan’s and terror sponsor Iran’s calculations. While he’d be pleased if Iran and Afghanistan were magically transformed into Switzerlands of the Middle East, it’s improbable, not the objective, and not worth spending American blood and treasure on.

Notwithstanding fiery rhetoric, Trump is a dove, perhaps the most dovish president in a century. More hawkish Bolton views military force as a time-honored, necessary, and effective policy instrument.

He’s appalled when the Commander in Chief cancels an already launched retaliatory air strike against several Iranian military installations, describing it as “the most irrational thing” he “ever witnessed any President do.” It signaled weakness to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

Presidents Bush, Obama, and Trump all declared Iran wouldn’t be permitted to obtain nuclear weapons. Bush and Obama punted. Likely Trump will as well. A US military strike could destroy its nuclear-weapons program, and, would have a salutary effect on other bad actors.

Trump implemented policies dear to Bolton. He pulled America out of the Iran Nuclear Deal, Paris Climate Accord, and INF Treaty, and moved the embassy to Jerusalem, none of which would have happened under an establishmentarian president, Democrat or Republican.

Not unlike Obama’s covering up Russian violations of the INF Treaty, Trump wanted to ignore Kim Jong Un continuing to test ballistic missiles. His clear-eyed NSA confronts the grim reality.

While the President’s jawboning allies to share more of the defense burden is often crude, Presidents Bush and Obama professed the same objective.

Western European allies, come across as pantywaists, happy to free-ride, and more worried about preventing the US from acting forcefully than in preventing Iran from getting nuclear weapons or keeping the Russian bear at bay.

Bolton’s a free trader who thinks crushing economic sanctions swiftly applied can be useful, whereas the former real-estate mogul in the Oval Office is instinctively a mercantilist. Trump more than his NSA has an abiding faith in the effectiveness of and enthusiasm for tariffs and economic sanctions. Sanctions, however, aren’t a panacea.

In pursuit of a ballyhooed managed-trade deal with China, Trump and Mnuchin wanted to relax restrictions Chinese telecom company ZTE was subject to under a criminal-consent decree for violating Iran and North Korea sanctions. Pursuit of the deal trumped everything. Bolton mocks “panda hugger” Steve Mnuchin for his joy “getting China to agree to purchase more soybeans” and “other agricultural products,” as if America were “a Third World commodity supplier to the Middle Kingdom.” Mnuchin also waters down and frustrates economic sanctions against Maduro’s Venezuela, and Iran.

The President’s notoriously difficult to work for, and lacks impulse control. It’s not hard to understand why Bolton left. Still, Americans and Europeans would sleep better at night and the world’s baddies perhaps not so well, if he were still NSA.


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