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The real villain of John Bolton’s Trump book is John Bolton

Bolton makes clear President Trump’s foreign policy is absolutely terrible — but Bolton’s is much, much worse.

Former National Security Adviser John Bolton listens as President Donald Trump meets with Prime Minister of the Netherlands Mark Rutte in the Oval Office on Thursday, July 18, 2019, in Washington, DC.
Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images

After reading former National Security Adviser John Bolton’s tell-all book, it becomes exceedingly clear that President Donald Trump’s foreign policy is terrible — but Bolton’s is much, much worse.

Anyone who reads the 500-plus-page book will find their suspicions were correct: Trump’s approach to the world truly is that shambolic and dangerous. But there’s a twist: The author inadvertently offers readers hope that there’s been a major improvement — because the author himself is no longer in the White House.

By his own recounting, Bolton urged Trump to shy away from diplomacy and seek hardline positions against adversarial countries, namely in North Korea, Iran, and Venezuela. In one particularly disturbing passage, Bolton says it was “irrational” for Trump not to conduct an attack on Iran that could have led to tens to hundreds of civilian casualties, after it downed an unmanned American surveillance drone.

Had Trump taken Bolton’s advice more often, then, the US would be engaged in multiple conflicts across the globe. “It’s not clear to me that something equivalent to two more Iraq Wars would be better for the country,” Joshua Shifrinson, a US foreign policy expert at Boston University, said.

“Here’s a man that makes Trump’s bellicose foreign policy look good,” he added of Bolton.

Trump, the book makes clear, was the reason Bolton’s most aggressive plans were foiled. As scenes inside the West Wing show, it was because Trump had created a chaotic national security process in which little to nothing could get done. “What happened on one day on a particular issue often had little resemblance to what happened the next day, or the day after,” Bolton wrote. “Few seemed to realize it, care about it, or have any interest in fixing it.”

A handout photo provided by Dong-A Ilbo of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump inside the demilitarized zone separating the South and North Korea on June 30, 2019, in Panmunjom, South Korea.
Dong-A Ilbo/Getty Images

Trump appointed Bolton in April 2018 after watching his Fox News appearances. An infamous archnationalist hawk, Bolton believes firmly in exercising unilateral American power around the world and cutting ties to international institutions. Trump, Bolton alleges, used American power less in any ideological sense and more to boost his reelection prospects, even if that came at the expense of defending human rights abroad.

Still, Bolton did leave a mark. During his 17-month tenure, Bolton offered Trump advice to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal “as long as Iran’s current regime remained” and seek regime change in Venezuela — two policies that received condemnation across the ideological spectrum.

In many instances, Bolton and Trump did have the same views. They both called for increased defense spending at the expense of bolstering diplomatic power; maximized sanctions to bend adversaries to America’s will, a play that has yet to work everywhere they tried it; and curbed the influence of international institutions, harming America’s global reputation the process.

But the book’s true virtue is its surprising, unmistakable conclusion: Given the choice between having Trump or Bolton leading US foreign policy, Trump is clearly the better option.

Bolton tells us Trump is a bad foreign policy president

Before understanding just how bad Bolton’s foreign policy is, it’s worth taking a moment to see Trump’s worldview through the aide’s eyes.

On the whole, the critiques of Trump aren’t new, but they now carry more weight because Bolton — a top person by Trump’s side during high-level foreign policy discussions and summits — made them. It’s no surprise the White House now claims Bolton wasn’t “in the room” as often he says. But such a defense rings hollow, because as national security adviser he had his hands on the levers of power like few other officials in the administration.

Which is why it’s worth taking Bolton’s three main Trump critiques seriously.

First, that Trump has no real intellectual or ideological heft to his foreign policy. “His thinking was like an archipelago of dots,” Bolton wrote, “leaving the rest of us to discern — or create — policy.” He mostly liked that, though, because it gave him more room to maneuver within the administration. But he also found it frustrating, claiming the most important rift in US foreign policy is “the split between Trump and Trump.”

Second, that Trump is historically unfit and unprepared to lead America in the world. Trump often went into tough negotiations with foreign leaders with minimal understanding of the stakes, making his top aides fearful of what he would do, say, or concede. Such concerns were justified, especially when Trump signed a toothless, vague agreement with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore or sided with Russian President Vladimir Putin over the US intelligence community on election interference.

In the North Korean case, per Bolton, Trump mainly wanted a grand spectacle of the first-ever meeting between the sitting leaders of Washington and Pyongyang. “He was prepared to sign a substance-free communiqué, have his press conference to declare victory, and then get out of town,” Bolton said the president told him.

Add to that Trump’s impulsiveness. One of the most shocking scenes in the book involves the president casually advocating for withdrawing the US from NATO solely to make a splash. Before the alliance’s 2018 summit, Trump rallied his aides: “‘Do you want to do something historic? ... We’re out. We’re not going to fight someone they’re paying,’” referencing how Europeans trade and do business with neighboring Russia.

When Trump was actually in the meeting shortly afterward, he turned to Bolton and asked, “Are we going to do it?” Bolton talked him down from doing so, saying, “Go up to the line, but don’t cross it.” Trump ultimately obliged, but it goes to show just how close the US really came to leaving the political-military alliance America has benefited from for decades.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, Trump used his position atop the American government solely for his own purposes. One of the newsiest items in the book details how Trump turned a trade negotiation with Chinese President Xi Jinping into a discussion about the 2020 election:

He then, stunningly, turned the conversation to the coming US presidential election, alluding to China’s economic capability to affect the ongoing campaigns, pleading with Xi to ensure he’d win. He stressed the importance of farmers, and increased Chinese purchases of soybeans and wheat in the electoral outcome. I would print Trump’s exact words, but the government’s prepublication review process has decided otherwise.

Importantly, Trump and US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, who was in the room, deny that this happened. But it’s worth noting Trump already openly asked China for reelection support when he encouraged Beijing to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden.

These are damning accounts, and should provide even more pause about the state of American foreign policy. In a Sunday interview with ABC News, Bolton added there should also be doubt about the state of Trump’s presidency. “I don’t think he’s fit for office,” he told Martha Raddatz. “I don’t think he has the competence to carry out the job.”

Bolton, in other words, wants to leave readers with the sense Trump is a very bad president with very bad habits and very bad ideas. He succeeds in doing that, but Bolton also succeeds in showing he has some very bad ideas of his own.

Trump is right: American foreign policy would be worse if Bolton had his way

Trump is prone to exaggeration and lying, which is why it’s easy to dismiss his counterpunches that Bolton, left to his own devices, would have pushed the US into new wars.

Ironically, the person who makes the best case for Trump’s argument against John Bolton is John Bolton himself. The most surprising thing about Bolton’s book is how nonchalant he is about advocating war and denigrating diplomacy — and how he tried to impose that mindset on the president.

Even before Bolton became national security adviser, Trump sought his counsel on stemming North Korea’s nuclear program. Bolton describes how he detailed his view that a military attack would be the best course of action:

I explained why and how a preemptive strike against North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic-missile programs would work; how we could use massive conventional bombs against Pyongyang’s artillery north of the [Demilitarized Zone], which threatened Seoul, thereby reducing casualties dramatically; and why the United States was rapidly approaching a binary choice, assuming China didn’t act dramatically, of either leaving the North with nuclear weapons or using military force. The only other alternatives were seeking reunification of the Peninsula under South Korea or regime change in the North.

As national security adviser, Bolton worked fiercely inside the bureaucracy to stop Trump’s diplomatic effort with North Korea’s Kim. Not because of its (many) flaws, but because he inherently didn’t believe in diplomacy and would have preferred to launch a preventive attack that some regional experts say would have led to all-out war.

Trump also showed an inclination to open diplomatic channels with Iran, according to Bolton. “Trump mused that at some point he should meet with Iranian President [Hassan] Rouhani,” the former adviser wrote about what the president said during a meeting with his French counterpart, Emmanuel Macron. This was a bridge too far for Bolton, who later typed up a two-sentence resignation letter if Trump ever met with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.

Trump considered holding a meeting not only because he thought he could lower tensions, but also because he wanted a new, better Iran nuclear deal. Unsurprisingly, Bolton lobbied against such a policy in a Pentagon meeting:

I argued again that … there would be no “new” Iran deal and no “deterrence” established as long as Iran’s current regime remained. You could like it or not, but basing a policy on some other reality would not get us to any “end state” we sought.

Key in that passage is “as long as the current regime remained.” Before reentering government, Bolton consistently said he wanted regime change in Iran, and it appeared he held on to that belief as national security adviser. If Trump didn’t have some innate inclination to sign a new accord with Tehran, Bolton’s sentiments may have carried more weight.

Which may help explain why he was so angry Trump didn’t attack Iran last summer after the regime shot down a US surveillance drone. Trump at the last minute called off planned strikes on Iranian sites because he felt it wasn’t “proportionate.”

“‘Too many body bags,’ said Trump,” according to Bolton, “which he was not willing to risk for an unmanned drone — ‘Not proportionate,’ he said again.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Bolton tried to change Trump’s mind to no avail.

Bolton clearly is still furious. “In my government experience, this was the most irrational thing I ever witnessed any President do,” he wrote. “Trump had behaved bizarrely.”

Let that sink in for a moment. The most irrational thing Bolton says he ever saw a president do wasn’t, for example, invade Iraq over weapons of mass destruction it didn’t have (Bolton was in the State Department at the time as the undersecretary of arms control and international security). No, he saves that designation for Trump’s decision not to put Iranian lives in danger over a downed pilotless aircraft.

Granted, striking Iranian military sites may not have directly led to an all-out fight, but it certainly would’ve made one more likely. Trump clearly saw that danger; Bolton didn’t. “In the places where those two men parted, it seems clear to me that Trump got it right,” said Justin Logan, a US foreign policy expert at Catholic University.

Of course, Bolton does have a bit more leeway to advocate for conflict. At the end of the day, Trump’s name would be the one tethered throughout history to a war — not Bolton’s.

“If that Iran attack had gone ahead, Trump would deservedly have shouldered the blame,” Heather Hurlburt, a US foreign policy expert at the New America think tank, told me. But, she noted, “Trump deserves very little credit for pulling back after having dismantled so many off-ramps and gotten himself to the brink in the first place.”

Still, what these episodes — and Bolton’s book writ large — make clear is that despite his predilection for very publicly ramping up tensions with other countries, Trump isn’t the one most hungry for armed conflict in his White House. Veterans of Washington’s foreign policy world are.

That’s a troubling insight.

Bolton’s book highlights the one big upside of Trump’s foreign policy

Trump is a national security hawk. He has increased US bombing rates around the world and killed top American adversaries, most famously Iran’s Qassem Soleimani in January. But his greatest virtue as a foreign policy leader is his reticence to actually start a new war, his many threatening boasts notwithstanding.

“I disagreed strongly with many of his suggestions, as did others in the Administration,” Trump tweeted last September when announcing Bolton’s ouster. That echoed comments he’d said in May 2019 when he told reporters, “I’m the one that tempers him. That’s okay. I have different sides. I have John Bolton and other people that are a little more dovish than him.”

Copies of the new book The Room Where It Happened by former National Security Adviser John Bolton are displayed at Book Passage on June 23, 2020, in Corte Madera, California.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Bolton, like other traditional foreign policy thinkers, has relied far too often on American military might, an argument that even former secretaries of defense now make. “Bolton’s approach to the world is a pure distillation of many of the worst impulses of the US foreign policy tradition: belligerence, overconfidence, greed, prejudice masquerading as sophistication,” Hurlburt said.

In the past, presidents initially devoid of hawkish instincts — like George W. Bush — got convinced to launch invasions because of the hawkish advisers around them. Trump similarly surrounded himself with Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, but he has time after time stopped short of starting wars they wanted to wage.

And there will be future presidents who follow those impulses, with or without Bolton in the White House. Think, for instance, of a President Tom Cotton. If he were in charge now, his policies toward North Korea and Iran, among others, may have followed the Bolton playbook. “A lot of the ideas that [Bolton] holds have more currency in Washington than you would hope,” said Logan.

Make no mistake: War has a place in US foreign policy, and for good reason. It’s an essential element of statecraft, and a leader shouldn’t shy away from it when — and only when — absolutely necessary. But going to war for foolish reasons is the cardinal sin of foreign policy, and Bolton wanted to commit it all the time.

That Trump patently refused to consider all-out war a viable option when war wasn’t necessary, whereas Bolton clearly did, is an indictment of the foreign policy tradition the former national security adviser embodies. “Are the random outbursts of an ill-informed, rich 70-plus-year-old white guy better than the views of the Republican establishment to which Bolton belongs?” asks Logan. “The answer is yes.”

Again, it’s not to say Trump is a good foreign policy president — he’s far from that. But the book shows there are worse options out there. “You don’t have to say Trump has done well to say America would be in a worse place if he listened to Bolton,” Boston University’s Shifrinson said.

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