THE ROOM WHERE IT HAPPENED
A White House Memoir
by John Bolton
577 pp., Simon & Schuster, $32.50
This book review follows an earlier post I did on Middle East policy in Bolton’s book.
John Bolton’s memoir proves that he’s a worse human being than Donald Trump most clearly when he describes what happened after Iran shot down an unmanned U.S. drone aircraft over the Straits of Hormuz in June 2019. Bolton says that he was at first delighted that he (and others) convinced Trump to retaliate by escalating the conflict. He gets Trump to agree to strike three Iranian military facilities, even though, as Bolton writes clinically, the attack would be “likely entailing casualties.”
But Trump has second thoughts. He learns the air raids might kill 150 people. Bolton quotes Trump directly:
“Too many body bags,” said Trump. . . “Not proportionate.” And then: “I don’t like it. They didn’t kill any of our people. I want to stop it. Not a hundred fifty people.”
Trump calls off the attack. Bolton says, “This was the most irrational thing I ever witnessed any president do,” and nearly resigns. And three months later, he is gone.
That Bolton thinks this episode shows Trump in a bad light is shocking. The real question is: How did someone with Bolton’s poor judgment and immoral ethics get into the rooms at the White House where he could help decide if America goes to war?
John Bolton is a corporate lawyer. He speaks no foreign languages, has never lived overseas, and has no expertise in any area of the world. In the 1960s, when he was the prime age to serve in the U.S. military, he got deferments to avoid combat, even though he supported the war in Vietnam. So he has no first-hand experience of what combat is like, although his memoir regularly chides senior U.S. generals with excessive timidity. He served in two national security posts in the George W. Bush administration, from where he enthused over the disastrous U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, but his memoir barely mentions the American war there, now in its 18th year.
Bolton’s book is filled with errors of simple fact. In his chapter recounting the Trump administration’s bumbling efforts to overthrow Venezuela’s government, he alleges that regime change there should have come earlier, because “there is a two-decade-long history of missed opportunities in Venezuela, given the widespread strongly held opposition to the Chavez-Maduro regime.” His ignorance is breathtaking. Even critics recognize that Huge Chavez was widely popular for years, and that his successor maintained considerable support up until 2016 or so.
But Bolton’s misinformation is worse than immoral; it is dangerously stupid, and nowhere more clearly than in his zeal to attack Iran. He still believes Iran’s leaders are dominated by religious fanaticism, claiming that “after forty years, the fervor of Iran’s Islamic Revolution showed no signs of abating in its political and military leaders.” No genuine expert believes this, recognizing that Iran’s leaders have stayed in power for four decades not because they are impetuous zealots, but instead because they are intelligent, calculating and patient.
Bolton simply takes as a self-evident truth that Iran threatens U.S. national security, and doesn’t even stir himself to offer proof. The fact is: Iran has not directly attacked the U.S. since the 1980s. By contrast, Bolton also just assumes that Saudi Arabia is our friend and ally, even though high officials in the desert kingdom arguably had links to the terrorists who destroyed the World Trade Center in 2001 and killed 3000 Americans.
Bolton is proud that within a month of becoming national security adviser he helped convince Trump to shred Obama’s 2015 Iran nuclear deal. But Bolton wants more: “only full-out regime change would ultimately prevent Iran from possessing nuclear weapons.” Here he’s even going beyond his notorious New York Times opinion article (“To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran”), in which he limited his bellicosity to air strikes against the country’s nuclear installations.
Let’s set aside whether Bolton’s warmongering about “regime change” is immoral, and quite possibly would break the international laws that prohibit launching wars of aggression. What’s worse, he is colossally stupid. Even assuming Iran’s present government fell, what does he think would succeed it? A pro-western democracy, delighted to make friends with the U.S.? The same America that supported Saddam Hussein’s invasion of their country in the 1980s, in which 1 million Iranians died; the same America that waged decades of economic warfare against them, including blocking medical aid as the coronavirus hit; the same America that just 6 months ago assassinated the respected Iranian general, Qasem Soleimani, whose funeral attracted millions of mourners?
Iran has 82 million people, more than twice as many as Iraq, pride in its nationality and culture, and an army whose senior commanders have plenty of combat experience. Bolton and other regime-change advocates simply do not understand the power of nationalism. You can vigorously oppose your government, but join together and fight if your country is under attack. Bolton has learned nothing from the U.S. invasion of Iraq, where resistance started within months, including from people who hated Saddam Hussein. If the U.S. invaded Iran, how many decades into the future would America, and American citizens, suffer retaliation from patriotic Iranians?
We’ve already looked at one partial explanation for John Bolton’s stupidity; he supports Israel and wrongly views its national security as identical to America’s. Unlike the U.S., Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israel most definitely does have something to fear from Iran. Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states have abandoned the Palestinians and made de facto peace with Israel, at least for now, but Teheran continues to support two independent armed forces in the area: Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Hamas in besieged Gaza. If Israel could neutralize those two forces, it could annex even more than the 30 percent of the West Bank proposed in the Trump “peace plan,” and strengthen its illegal occupation even further.
(In passing, Bolton’s reflexive pro-Israel view is an oddity for a man who considers himself a conservative, America first nationalist. Why is he willing, even eager, to fight Israel’s battles for it by ordering American troops to invade a country that does not threaten us?)
The first press reports about John Bolton’s memoir were somewhat misleading. His evidence that Donald Trump puts his own re-election considerations before the U.S. national interest is actually a small part of this long book, confined to the last 50 pages or so. Bolton’s information is useful, but not much of a surprise.
What is truly frightening, though, is what Bolton tells us about himself, and by extension about certain other high-ranking U.S. officials. His real revelation is that even more than we feared, our foreign policy is guided by people who make life-and-death decisions based on a lethal combination of arrogance and ignorance.