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"Bolton dodged the draft for Vietnam; maybe he's not so different to Trump"
Winston Churchill is famously quoted as saying "History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it." Unfortunately, Churchill said no such thing. What he did say in 1948 was "For my part, I consider that it will be found much better by all parties to leave the past to history, especially as I propose to write that history."
Not as snappy, but you get the point. John Bolton's book "The Room Where It Happened" would benefit from some snappiness. This book is in desperate need of an editor. It's an essential account because it brings together many threads of the chaos that frame the Trump presidency. Yet it's a clumsy read and full of unnecessary detail. For instance, Bolton's telling of the attempt to impeach Trump is all over the place.
Bolton, who served as Trump's National Security Advisor for 17 months, has decided to give us his version of history. In doing so, he joins a growing list of authors that pour scorn on Donald John Trump, the 45th president of the USA. Michael Wolf's "Fire and Fury" was the opening salvo in January 2018. Wolf laid the founding description of a dysfunctional president.
Next came "Unhinged" by a former competitor of Trump's TV show "The Apprentice," who took up the role of White House Communications Director for Public Affairs. Omarosa Manigault Newman paints Trump as a foul-mouthed racist. Bob Woodward, of Watergate fame, steps up next with "Fear". Based on interviews with insiders, Woodward portrays Trump as lacking the intellectual capacity for the role.
So after these three books, what is the purpose of Bolton's effort? Well, Bolton gives away his motivations by his self-aggrandising tone. He frequently suggests he's the only adult or realist in the room. In truth, the book offers little that's new despite a great deal of detail, much of which is unhelpful to the reader.
Yes, Bolton observes that Trump is 'off the rails' most of the time and unable to master his brief; but we knew that. We also know Trump lacks knowledge and is unconcerned with learning. Plus, Trump has no underpinning ideology or specific objectives beyond looking impressive around other world leaders.
In fairness, Bolton offers a couple of gems to affirm Trump's flaws. For example, we learn Trump didn't know that the UK had nuclear weapons. Also, the Trump official day doesn't kick off until 11:00 am. Moreover, we hear that Trump has a habit of ignoring his intelligence briefers to instead lecture them in lengthy free-flowing monologues that go nowhere. I can sympathise having had a few bosses who also loved the sound of their voices.
Bolton also bears witness to Trump's meanness of spirit; not attending John McCain's funeral exemplifies this vindictiveness. By any measure, McCain was a decent man and a war hero, who shamed Trump.
Trump's dislike of the EU and NATO gets more weight from Bolton's account. Although it's evident that Bolton sees NATO has a US adjunct that must follow Washington's direction. So much for partnership.
That Bolton is a hawk secured him the job because Trump wanted to appear resolute. Bolton comes from the 'bomb them into democracy' camp. You know the sort. It's the mindset that led the US to Vietnam, plus gave us the mess in Iraq. Bolton has had skin in the game for decades, having served both Presidents Bush and Ronald Reagan. Thus, you have to ask why he didn't appreciate what he was getting into with Trump? The temptation of power was too much.
Other contradictions mark Bolton. He harps on about international standards and being a good world citizen. Then in the next breath, he's disparaging the International Criminal Court. You can only conclude he's happy to hold other nations to account, but wants a free pass for the USA. It's this hypocrisy and his lack of finesse that marked Bolton as ineffectual in his role. He certainly couldn't steer Trump, resulting in most of their initiatives failing, especially the deal with North Korea.
Despite this, you have to admire that Bolton came from humble origins to his position. He is working-class, yet by his efforts alone earned a reputation for tenacity, toughness and plain-speaking. That candidness also counted against him, as he struggled at times to hold unhelpful opinions to himself.
Of course, Bolton is right on the threat posed by ISIS, Iran and North Korea. Likewise, his disdainful take of the European' end of history' mindset is accurate. But in other areas he's monochromatic, displaying some of the short-sightedness he lays at Trump's door.
It's notable that throughout the book Bolton offers few solutions to tackle the most threatening issues, beyond the failed military options of the past. Having framed each problem in his tough-guy image, he depicts everyone else as weak and naive. This attitude sits uncomfortably next to the fact that Bolton dodged the draft for Vietnam. Maybe he's not so different to Trump.
In the end, what does this book tell us that's new? Not a great deal. You can smooch Trump by flattery, which Xi and Kim did. Trump is out of his depth and lacks knowledge for the role — all said before. Trump tied trade deals to his personal interests, including getting reelected — we knew that.
Along the way, Bolton inadvertently exposes his own faults, including a lack of humility. Also, I didn't find Bolton a satisfying observer of events. Time and again, he's in the room at pivotal moments — but doesn't have much of interest to say about it. In the end, Bolton fails to make his account come alive.
Walter De Havilland was one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Royal Hong Kong Police and Hong Kong Police Force. He's long retired.