July 7, 2020


Pounding to nothingPatrick Porter reviews The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir, by John Bolton (Patrick Porter, 7/04/20, The Critic)

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.

In the end, it was Donald's Islamophobia that saved him from Bolton.

Posted by at July 7, 2020 12:00 AM