The newly-published – over the objections of the Trump Administration – book by former National Security Advisor John Bolton, The Room Where It Happened, is worth the read, even if not for most of the reasons I had expected.
I picked up on it (and yes, I know the many arguments for not doing so) definitely not for guidance on the more controversial aspects of foreign policy; Bolton and I, for example, simply would never see eye to on the Iraq war, or on a number of other items. In a book that covers the range of foreign policy in a rough tour d’horizon (to use the favored phrase in that crowd), I wasn’t anywhere persuaded off earlier views, though I did find useful education a number of areas I hadn’t been very familiar with.
And as for political bombshells … most (not all) of those already have been exploding in news reports.
No parts of the book I found most interesting and useful, and these parts took up a great deal of the text, had to do with this: What’s it like to work in and make decisions in the Trump Administration? That is, not just as a matter of adjectives and metaphors (though we do get some hot examples of those here too), but rather, in plain language, how does decision-making work, or not, at the White House in the current term, especially as compared to how it was done before.
Bolton had the advantage of working in three presidential administrations before Trump’s, and at a high level in foreign affairs in two of them (the Bush administrations), so he has a basis for comparison. A lot of the book is about the nuts and bolts of how information is evaluated and decisions are made. You don’t necessarily have to agree with Bolton’s policy preferences to see clearly when the process is going awry. As, in Bolton’s telling, it often does.
This is no hatchet job. Bolton loads his narrative with precise detail (these five people met on this day at this time for 20 minutes in this room), which speaks to his reputation (like that of many foreign affairs professionals) as a note-taker. He is careful to give credit to Trump where merited, as happens, from time to time. But the basics are damning. Trump seems unable to learn, to think conceptually, to get beyond personalities and immediate impacts on himself. His obsession with his own image (and how things play on cable television) seem as front-and-center here as in many other reports. Attempts by aides to educate him in the complexities of the real world typically run into a thick wall.
Seeing that description (you’ve of course seen it before) is one thing. But over the course of 592 pages, Bolton lays it out day by day, meeting by meeting, conversation by conversation. What’s damning is not so much the big news items (the plea for Chinese help with his re-election, for example). What’s damning is how it all settles into a depressing, rut.
What is this White House actually like? An answer to that question, from someone who was in a central position there, for a while, is what this book answers. It makes it worth the read.