It is clear from his book that while Donald Trump should reign over the policy matrix, it is John Bolton who should rule.
There are some in Washington who admire John Bolton, and a lot more who dislike him. Although there are is a vague recollection of being in the same room with him in a few events across the decades, our paths have yet to cross, which is probably just as well. Although a proponent of a strong India-US security and defence alliance since the 1990s, this writer is clear that it would be folly to follow the US in adopting harsh methods towards Iran. Or indeed, embracing “freedom fighters” in Syria and Libya who are at the same time linked to ISIL, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. It would take an excursion into psychology to determine why Bolton sports a luxuriant moustache within the Beltway, a zone where such an add on is considered a deviation from the clean-shaven faux genteel attitudes favoured by Beltway favourites. A possible explanation is that Bolton is clearly an admirer of Rudyard Kipling, whose looks in some way seem to resemble that of the former US National Security Advisor. There are many within the chancelleries of the great European capitals who suffer from recurrent waves of nostalgia at the world of the 19th century, when a small continent ruled over much of the globe. Which is perhaps why they seek to insert themselves into every theatre, most notably the Indo-Pacific, although their expanded presence here may prove less helpful than the UK, France or Germany believe it to be. Bolton is a Europeanist who would have been a favourite of John Foster Dulles. In a way, it was predictable that Bolton would turn on Donald Trump, for the 45th President of the US is neither an Asianist nor a Europeanist. He is a Trumpist, fixated on how he and his family can prolong into a second term the cachet of being the legal occupant of the White House. The casual approach taken by Trump to the Atlanticist catechism of his National Security Advisor must have wounded the latter’s pride. After all, he was in his mind the most mature adult in the room, trying to ensure that a bunch of amateurs did not mess up the future of the US. Exactly the message to voters of Bill and Hillary Clinton (not to mention numerous others in the Hate Trump brigade). If the publicly expressed worries of such individuals were true, the US must have a very fragile system of governance, when just the President and his coterie can bring down the country in ruins. It is bad form to admit that personal dislike of Trump is what propels the high decibel campaign against him, so it is packaged not as “Elect anyone but Trump” but “Save the US”, which sounds ever so much better.
John Bolton’s Kiplingesque mindset (not uncommon in the Atlanticist world, although usually better concealed) leads him repeatedly to look for solutions that may have been accomplished with ease in the 19th century, but which were a bit more difficult even in the 20th. Which is why The Room Where It Happened, Bolton’s memoirs of life in the Trump White House, is a book impossible to ignore for any student of policy. Bolton sought relentlessly to advance his agenda, even if this conflicted with that of Trump (which the former NSA believes comprises almost entirely of ensuring his re-election and the greater good of his family). An example of his 19th century thinking is Venezuela, where Bolton believes that it is perfectly normal for the self-declared (Atlanticist-backed) “President” Juan Guaido to accept the personnel choices given to him by US officials to insert in staff positions in that country’s oil monopoly, parts of which had drifted outside the control of the Maduro government. The compliant Guaido was a true “democrat” (defined by followers of Kipling as a puppet who does what he is told to do by his masters). Bolton was surprised that what he defines as an attempted “revolution” (i.e., the overthrow of Maduro by the Atlanticist favourite) was a failure. It showed in his mind not the limitations of the time we live in, but the errors made by the “revolutionaries”. At least President John F. Kennedy admitted that it was the fault of the US side that caused the Bay of Pigs to end in disaster, and did not pin the blame on the hapless “freedom fighters” who were sent to die on the beaches of Cuba without adequate preparation, numbers or air and naval power to back them. It must be said that the book’s description of Trump’s mode of decision making and his (according to Bolton, non-existent) grasp of facts is a scary read. However, such a verdict seems to reflect less the reality of the Trump White House than the frustration felt by Bolton at not getting his way on policy except rarely, given that in his view, while Trump should reign over the policy matrix, it is Bolton who should—of course in the US national interest—rule. What is unfortunate is that Trump’s tantrums and his way of firing people at whim and without sufficient cause may have prevented several of his subordinates from standing up to him and insisting that he was wrong, for example when Trump betrayed the Kurds in Syria for the benefit of Erdogan and the Afghan people in his incredible genuflection before the Taliban. If the book is correct, to Donald Trump, love meant only paid sex. Anything that did not bring money was to be shunned, while actions that did (no matter what the consequences to longer-term interests) were to be put on a fast track. On China, Bolton hints at secret diplomacy with Jared Kushner, who seems by far the most influential individual within the White House, and who is firmly on the same page as his father-in-law in furthering the family’s interest and in ensuring a repeat of 2016 in the 2020 Presidential polls.
Had there been any other President except Trump, and had John Bolton as NSA less than 100% success in deciding his policies, similarly cutting comments would have been made of them. What comes out in the book is not a characterisation but a caricature of Donald Trump, ignoring the fact that he has (in action, if not in word) been among the most hard-hitting of US Presidents where both China and Russia are concerned, despite Bolton’s hints about a closeness between Trump, Xi and Putin. The Russian leader does command a country that is still a Great Power and could once again be a Superpower, and it is logical to want to establish a relationship with him. Indeed, Trump in a possible second term or a 46th President may do a China in reverse in the future, winning over Russia to help fight China, the way Beijing was conscripted by Washington against Moscow in the days before the USSR began to visibly implode. This seems an impossibility at present, but so did a rapprochement between Mao and Nixon in 1972.