Former US national security adviser exposes the frailties of the Trump administration, but falls woefully short in providing an analysis of backroom dealings and policy decisions
In one of the interviews at the fag end of his second term, former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh remarked that history would be kinder to him than contemporary media. The current US President, Donald Trump, has no such premonitions. Although all US presidents, since Gerald Ford at least, have been called more divisive than the last, in the case of Trump, it has indeed been true. For his supporters, Trump has been able to deliver on most promises. By pulling out of agreements and deals, he has shown that America need not pay for others’ adventurism. He has also been cracking down on immigration to assure his supporters that he stands for them. But for his opponents, his term has been characterised by rhetoric and uncertainty. One of the reasons behind the stark polarisation that the US is witnessing today are the changes in social construct that Trump has brought about. More tumultuous, however, has been the White House, which has seen numerous exits on the whims and fancies of the chair and those closest to it.
John Bolton’s The Room Where It Happened does not present any new facts on what transpired since Trump became President, but he does furnish details on how things happened and who the key players were influencing decisions. The former national security advisor, who was part of the Trump administration, is often trapped in displaying his grandiose stands rather than what transpired. Bolton does present an account of how he became national security adviser and the events leading to his resignation from the post. The account also details Trump’s mishandling of events, as per Bolton. Most of it is somewhat superfluous, as the author avoids major events. He does, however, give insights into how Trump’s relationship with world leaders has often been transactional in nature, but doesn’t go beyond to explain how. The rest of the book is riddled with America’s policy and Bolton’s interpretation of it, as well as the failures of the Obama administration. And Trump’s, of course.
The problem with Bolton’s book is that, one, it is far too influenced by his perspective rather than what transpired and, two, it doesn’t go beyond the mundane details of the functioning of his office. Bolton seems conspicuously absent from the room where it all happened. He did not testify against Trump during the impeachment hearings. He, however, tries to spice up his otherwise dull account with anecdotes from Shakespeare, but given how they are used, it makes him seem more high-headed.
Bolton gives a detailed account of how he avoided landing a nondescript post at the start of the administration and recites lines from Joseph Addison’s Cato: “When vice prevails, and impious men bear sway”, explaining the reasons for not doing so. There is some wisdom from Henry Kissinger as well.
There is a fair bit of dichotomy in the book. On one hand, Bolton criticises Trump’s handling of events, while on the other, he admires the fact that the President is ready to listen to him and implement his plans. When Trump does depart from Bolton’s position, there is a fair bit of lashing out. One event that is well-detailed is Iran’s downing of an American drone. Trump did not agree with Bolton’s suggestion of equal retaliation. What is surprising, though, is the fact that Bolton refused the Vietnam draft and joined the National Guard, as he did not find any point in fighting a losing war, but here, he was ready to wage wars on America’s behalf with little to no regard for cost. What could otherwise have been an important note on Trump’s administration is reduced to the ramblings of a disgruntled adviser.
Unfortunately, Bolton’s account is filled with unnecessary details and war-mongering. Even discounting for his views on war, Iran, Venezuela and Vietnam, he doesn’t have much to offer. For policy enthusiasts, there is some knowledge about inner workings and Bolton’s style of administration, but it stops at that. What could have been a detailed analysis of backroom dealings and policy decisions falls woefully short.
Much was made about Bolton’s claims of exposing the administration on Ukraine, but that, too, turns out to be a disappointment. Media reports have exposed more than Bolton has in a single chapter. The media events surrounding the book created more of a flutter than the book itself. Trump or his followers won’t lose sleep because of what Bolton has said. Ultimately, he hasn’t said anything that people didn’t know already. One of the interesting parallels in Indian politics is VP Singh’s meteoric rise to power. Singh, once a part of Rajiv Gandhi’s cabinet, repeatedly claimed to expose the people involved in the Bofors scam. He would dramatically pull out a piece of paper from his pocket claiming it had names of those involved in the scam. The optics catapulted him to the post of prime minister. Bolton would have done better if he had only threatened to expose Trump on Ukraine, China and Russia instead of writing a book about it, which could have always come later. Why burn bridges now? If Trump does get a second term, there still may be a chance to make a comeback. In politics, there are no permanent foes or friends.