Revenge Served Tepid

John Bolton
John Bolton; illustration by John Cuneo

Back in January, when it emerged that former national security adviser John Bolton was publishing a book critical of the Trump administration and was willing to testify against President Trump in his Senate impeachment trial if subpoenaed, I speculated in a New York Times op-ed that a combination of patriotism, professional principle, payback, and personal ambition must have motivated him to turn against the president.1 Having now read Bolton’s The Room Where It Happened, slogging through almost five hundred pages of bumptious recitation, fatuous braggadocio, and lame attempts at wit, I can confirm that those were his reasons, though I’d change the order. The virtuous ones—patriotism and professional principle—were clearly subordinate to the other two.

It’s hard to be cool when you’re John Bolton, and evidently almost as hard not to be outright offensive. This emerges in his painfully maladroit efforts to lend color to a turgid narrative preoccupied with self-flattery and score-settling. In a particularly distasteful instance of the latter, he reports that Trump told him that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had called UN ambassador Nikki Haley a “cunt” to her face. The main point that Bolton is developing here is that Trump disliked Tillerson. Yet given what we know of Trump’s attitudes toward women, that particular snippet of vicious hearsay—Bolton intimates that Trump may have fabricated it—would have been more likely to endear Tillerson to the president than to offend him, which makes Bolton’s retailing of the anecdote especially gratuitous. His likely intent is to underline his own evident disdain for Haley without taking responsibility for vulgar misogyny. Later in the book, he oozes condescension toward her, accusing her of “taking advantage of the very few camera appearances left” before she stepped down as UN ambassador. Perhaps he thinks he’s being clever.

Bolton also has an unfortunate penchant for defensive self-justification. In late April 2018, he appeared on a couple of Sunday talk shows and put forward “the Libya model” as suitable for taming North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. That example, as an instrument of persuasion, was inane: in October 2011, Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi was overthrown by rebels assisted by US and NATO forces, chased into a drainage pipe, and executed. Many commentators noted that this was hardly a scenario likely to appeal to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, and even Trump agreed. Yet Bolton insists on his rhetorical artfulness, implying that he “didn’t get through” because Trump didn’t understand that before the Arab Spring led to Qaddafi’s overthrow and death, the United States had successfully weaned Libya off nuclear weapons in 2003 with effective interdiction of necessary materials, prospective international political rehabilitation, implicit security guarantees, and possible sanctions relief. Then he pedantically deigns to school his readers in “the classic logical fallacy of ‘post hoc, ergo propter hoc’ (‘after this, therefore because of this’).” They are…


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