A Discredited Fanatic’s Last Hurrah
No one is damaged more by Bolton's book than Bolton himself.
Matt Purple is right when he says that John Bolton’s new book is just “career CPR by a war-happy Washington insider.” One of the things that has stood out in the manyreports and reviews of the book this week is how little new information Bolton reveals. An insider account should at the very least contain a lot of things that people couldn’t have already picked up from reading the news or watching television, and according to the initial reports the book doesn’t provide that. For instance, Bolton “reveals” that the North Korea negotiations were just a P.R. stunt and the president had no interest in a real agreement, but anyone paying the slightest attention could see that from the outside. The few newsworthy details that have come out, such as Trump’s willingness to interfere with law enforcement as a favor to foreign governments and his endorsement of the Uighur detention camps in Xinjiang, also show how indifferent Bolton was to the president’s abuses of power and indulgence of authoritarian governments. Bolton was content to let the president do whatever he wanted as long as he got to push for more aggressive policies and new wars, and it was only when he realized that he wasn’t getting his war with Iran that his attitude began to change. Then he saved up whatever he knew about the inner workings of the Trump White House so that he could get a payday instead of doing his duty to the country. No one is discredited more by Bolton’s book than Bolton himself.
Every book Bolton has written seems to be an elaborate exercise in score-settling more than anything else. The thesis of every Bolton book seems to be that he alone was competent and everyone around him was a fool, and he insists on this even when the evidence of his own policy failures mounts from North Korea to Venezuela. Bolton is not a reliable witness and has a record of manipulating and distorting intelligence to push for the policies he wants, so we should treat his account as the polemical and self-serving work that it is. It may contain some evidence that will be useful in reconstructing the history of the Trump administration, but it should be used very carefully with the understanding that Bolton acts and argues in bad faith.
There is a good deal of catty gossip meant to embarrass Bolton’s former colleagues. These claims may be true, but Bolton also has an incentive to make things up to make his rivals look bad. When Bolton was fired last year, the delight on the faces of Mike Pompeo and Steve Mnuchin was impossible to miss, so it comes as no surprise that Bolton makes sure to include anecdotes about both of them that he thinks will damage them. In Pompeo’s case, Bolton exposes the Secretary of State’s private expressions of disdain for the president, and that undercuts Pompeo’s assiduously cultivated habit of bootlicking. Pompeo fired off a short statement denouncing the book and labeling Bolton a “traitor,” but this was such obvious damage control that no one will take these denials from a serial liar seriously. As for Mnuchin, Bolton thinks he is mocking the Treasury Secretary when he recounts his concerns about the overuse of sanctions, but this actually makes Bolton look like the fool who can’t think more than one step ahead. Bloomberg reports:
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin emerges as the chief opponent of the Trump administration’s increased reliance on economic sanctions in John Bolton’s new book, worried that an over-reliance on such measures will weaken the global primacy of the dollar.
Mnuchin’s worry was justified, and we are already seeing how other governments, including allies, are trying to find ways to create alternatives that the U.S. doesn’t control. Bolton’s hostility to this legitimate concern is part and parcel of his bankrupt, hard-line worldview in which the U.S. should always be applying more pressure to compel others to do what Washington wants. Bolton was so obsessed with regime change in Venezuela, for example, that he found Mnuchin’s concern for the effects of sanctions on U.S. firms to be unacceptable:
Mnuchin’s greatest sin, according to Bolton, is his concern about the effect sanctions would have on the U.S. economy, rather than thinking about the foreign policy goals Bolton wanted the administration to achieve. He describes a standoff over Venezuela sanctions in which Bolton said his own view was that “Treasury was not entitled to its own foreign policy.”
“As Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, (a renowned financier much more politically conservative than Mnuchin, who was basically a Democrat) said to me in April, ‘Stephen’s more worried about secondary effects on US companies than about the mission,’” Bolton writes. “Which was completely accurate.”
Bolton thinks he is scoring a huge hit by saying that Mnuchin worried more about how a policy affects Americans than the “mission” of regime change, which just drives home how fanatical and bad for America Bolton’s foreign policy obsessions are. If we learn anything from Bolton’s book, it is that Bolton was a terrible and dangerous National Security Advisor, and the country is better off now that he will never again serve in government. But then, like most of the other things contained in the book, we already knew that.