Pax Bolton - I
by Michael Brenner on 08 Aug 2020 1 Comment

Political autobiographies by former high officials are notoriously self-serving and economical with the truth. Only the former charge is applicable to John Bolton’s book. For Bolton is foremost a crusader for a hawkish foreign policy agenda, someone who measures success solely in terms of advancing it rather than in tactical victories in the struggle for position and the ear of the President. The latter is strictly a means to the end of impressing his views on policy decisions/actions. Failures in internecine tussles are openly acknowledged - including the ones that led to his dismissal. So, it is a fair judgment that we accept his depiction of events as accurate - and reasonably complete.  


“The Room Where It Happened” is a meticulous record of deliberation and diplomacy during the time he spent in the White House. Indeed, it records much of what transpired before his arrival since Bolton was a trusted confidante of Trump throughout - beginning well before his appointment as National Security Adviser in March 2018.[1] This is not to say that Bolton’s  recounting is dispassionate or wholly objective. His own radical thinking about the United States’ place in the world is never questioned, its premises taken as given, the direction of the courses he advocates undebated. However, the book makes no effort whatsoever to dress them up in anything but their natural garb. He is proud of them and expounds them articulately.   


Bolton displays an orderly mind, methodical and logical. Also, unbending in its premises, purposes, and mode of calculating - interests, cost/benefits, risks. His 500-page, exhaustive chronicle reveals a total inability for detached questioning of these elements. Although highly self-aware about tactics, and the environment in which he is operating, he lives in an intellectual straightjacket. Bolton is compulsive about detailing in proper sequence who said what, who did what, exactly when and where. That produces an uncommon chronology. Not just day by day, but hour-by-hour - and, at times, minute-by-minute.


How this was accomplished is a mystery. It does all ring true. Anyone who has closely followed American policy abroad in the Trump era will find no serious discrepancies in the Bolton narrative - just elaboration of his (and others’) mindset and the ensuing policies – all of which have been pretty much self-evident to attentive observers. There are noteworthy elisions, especially on Middle East topics and Russia. For example, the embrace of Mohammed bin Salman and the White House’s deference to Netanyahu are addressed with no greater attention than the sunrise and sunset. Al-Qaeda/al-Nusra in Syria never get a mention; nor does Turkey’s support for ISIS in its formative stage. Our participation in the Yemen carnage is ignored as well.  


No misstatements or outright lies, though. That in itself created some dissonance between Bolton and Trump. For the President, dealing with someone who knows fact from fiction can be uncomfortable - even if he is circumspect in calling attention to it, and basically sharing your outlook. Bolton is a different creature from Pompeo - a crude, blustering loudmouth whose sole mission is to ingratiate himself with Trump through amplification of the President’s primal obsessions. For the Secretary of State, the very idea of truth having some sort of priority claim is alien - if not absurd.  




The outstanding feature of the foreign policy process and substance exposed by Bolton’s account is the absence of anything approaching strategy. There is none, not even a hint of one. Instead, the impulsion is generated by dogmatic propositions - never appraised, tenets of belief taken for granted as would medieval seminarians Gospel Truths, and primitive emotions (in particular, Trump’s). One other additional ingredient in the mix is the instinctive protection of Pentagon interests on the part of the military, e.g. Mattis, McMaster, Dunford, et al. That’s it. Questions of strategic purpose, of shifting contours in global dynamics, of the multifarious intersection of domestic concerns and external relations are never posed - except for the electoral ones which are omni-present.  


Rather, all thinking unfolds within the confines of a rigid, low definition intellectual map - a map whose contours were first drawn by cartographer Paul Wolfowitz in his famous memorandum of March 1992. The National Goal is simple and blunt: American dominance of the world system. Militarily that means maintaining escalation dominance in every region of the globe; preemptive action to prevent any potential rival to emerge - regionally as well as system-wide; and readiness to use force wherever needed to achieve these objectives.


Diplomatically, the driving force is a relentless, unyielding campaign to keep allies obedient, to organize resistance to any government that is hostile to, or - in key regions - uncompliant with American wishes; to avoid treaties and other formal obligations that could curtail the United States’ freedom of action. Plus, creating a robust capacity to undertake regime change operations where deemed necessary. Economically, exploit the country’s unique position as the pivot for the financialized world economy so as to protect our exorbitant dollar privilege, to impose sanctions on targeted states, to use the IMF, World Bank and functional control of the SWIFT money transfer system as instruments of American leverage, and to minimize dependencies / vulnerabilities arising from a lack of technological or resource self-sufficiently.   


The closest thing to a strategy is dedication to curbing China. For Bolton, there is an all-out war for global supremacy already underway. To win, the United States must deploy all its resources to hamstring the Chinese economy, undercut the state/market nexus that gives China a structural advantage in the struggle, blunt Beijing’s project of using capital and commerce to extend its global influence, and contain it both militarily and diplomatically by building a cordon sanitaire in South and Southeast Asia. One can almost hear the incantation: “China must be caged” at the end of each paragraph in his China chapters.


Two people in the administration have qualms about this call to arms. One is Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin; the other is Donald Trump. The latter has three concerns: bringing the trade balance into line with his notion of a fair deal; basking in the glow of pulling off the biggest deal in history with Xi; and helping his re-election by getting the Chinese to greatly expand their importation of American farm products. The combination theoretically could make him vulnerable to having the wool pulled over his eyes by Xi. Bolton and friends succeed, though, in preventing what they see as dangerous appeasement. Trump’s fleeting attention span and quixotic mood changes made it easy. COVID-19 and Hong Kong sealed it. So, war it is.  


No other country is recognized as having legitimate interests that may contravene the encompassing American missions to be custodian of the global commons by serving as the indispensable nation.  


The admonition that flows from this conceptual framework is that the United States must dedicate itself to an unceasing struggle to anticipate, to neutralize and to crush all manner of threats. All thinking about America’s foreign policy is overshadowed by this keenly felt sense of threat - both existential and as manifest in plethora of more immediate, tangible threats. Bolton’s narrative treats us to a disquisition on official Washington’s encounter with never ending threat: North Korea, Iran, Russia, China, Venezuela. Consecutive, overlapping, intersecting. They monopolize the mental space of the national security team: Bolton, Pompeo, Mattis, Dunford, Kelly, Pence, Haspel – and their associates. Featured enemies act as magnetic poles whose force fields order the entire international system.  


The great paradox, of course, is that the country never has enjoyed greater security than it does today. There is no threat to the United States’ territorial integrity or core interests. The implicit threat is to the American project of global hegemony. It is a hegemony different from the traditional pattern of conquest and control, but all the more audacious, and parlous, for that very reason. In an era of interdependence, of multipolarity marked by the rise of China as a superpower in its own right, of diminished capacity at home – that is a fool’s errand. One that leads inescapably to frustration, failure and then reinvigorated compulsions to pursue the impossible dream.  


To find the key to the American true believer’s unqualified dedication to having its exceptionalism /superiority universally acknowledged, we must look beyond conventional notions of security. Even paranoid feelings of dread as generated by 9/11 do not quite capture the state of mind/emotion that prevails among the likes of Bolton, Pompeo, Haspel et al, and which resonates across much of the foreign policy establishment. For it is becoming increasingly evident that the concern these days is what others think – not what they do, or even what they might do. What they think about the world, our conception of it, and about us – above all. That is most striking in the hostility we direct at ‘leftist’ leaders in Latin America or non-compliant governments in the Islamist realm who do not line up alongside us in the war against Iran.


What manner of ‘threat’ – by any definition – did President Morales in Bolivia pose to the United States? Or President Maduro? Or former President Zelaya of Honduras or the former President (and former Roman Catholic bishop, and Liberation Theologian) Fernando Lugo, of Paraguay? Or the Houthis in Yemen? None. It has been their political philosophy, their way of thinking, that we have found distasteful – indeed, intolerable. It does not conform to our standards of the true and proper – and, therefore, is an insult to the United States that should be rectified. 


To be perfectly honest, anyone who supports our actions in the above-named places shares this perspective - tacitly or consciously, e.g. Joe Biden. Were we to construct an index that juxtaposes Biden’s foreign policy views with those of Bolton/Pompeo, it would show a high correlation of roughly 75%. They are analogous on China, Russia (esp. Ukraine) - with the exception of arms control accords, on outstanding Middle Eastern issues, on Iran (the nuclear accord excepted, which Biden nonetheless would seek revisions), on Venezuela where he demands more direct action, or Bolivia. Susan Rice, a prospective Vice-President, is even more hawkish than Biden himself. So, too, Kamala Harris.


On the surface, this seems to hark back to the heyday of the Cold War. But let us recall that in that contest ideology and power elements of the struggle were intertwined. That is not the case today. Back then, some really did believe that it made a difference who sat in the presidential mansion in the chaos that was post-colonial Congo, that the man elected after the overthrow of Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, Juan Bosch, who wanted to provide some health care and education to his citizens, called himself a socialist, that elected President Arbenz of Guatemala was planning to tax United Fruit and didn’t shout anti-Communist slogans.  


A complementary behavioral trait is to dress in fashionable political garb whomever we accept as a partner on realpolitik grounds. Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin-Salman is the outstanding example. This homicidal tyrant is portrayed as the country’s great modernizer, its Ataturk, who will pull this backward theocracy into the Enlightenment. Of course, this kind of airbrushing has been commonplace. The peculiarity re. MBS is how many in and around Washington actually seem to believe the fantasy. We not only observe the budding palship between Jared Kushner and MBS, not only the Trump’s crystal orb séance in Riyadh, but the grandiose hagiography by Thomas Friedman featured in the NYT. The message: he is one of us, a worthy inductee into the American club. Especially now that women are permitted to drive cars!  


This bizarre mode of approach and attitude that is insistent on what others think has historical precedents - unsavory ones. It is highly disturbing, though, to remind ourselves of what they are.  


The inconsequence of the absence of a concrete security threat is evinced by the scant attention paid to terrorism by Bolton, and the Trump administration generally. “Terrorist” now is just an epithet with no literal meaning – like calling somebody a bastard. Terrorism only makes the most modest of cameo appearances: in debates over a continued military presence in Syria and Iraq, as additional reason to crush Iran, in smearing the Russians and Chinese, in justifying rapid switches in our factional preferences in Libya.


Let’s recall that it was ISIS that provoked our jumping back into Iraq with both feet, our tighter embrace of Saudi Arabia and the Gulfies (ISIS’ underwriters), our interventions in Syria, our stubborn folly in Afghanistan. Yet, despite ISIS’ defeat, nothing changes. We want a large permanent presence – military and political. It’s all about Iran, Russia, Assad – not ISIS nor certainly al-Qaeda & Asso. in Idlib with whom we remain tacitly aligned and whom Turkey, their sponsor since 2012, now employs as their janissaries to carve out a slice of Syria and to realize neo-Ottoman fantasies in Libya.  


Terrorism, in historical perspective, will have a greatly diminished profile as an actual threat. Rather, it is the consequences of the GWOT that will bulk large – from radicalization of Salafist extremists in both the West and MENA, to Europe’s immigration crisis, to the militarization of American society, to providing blanket rationale for operationalizing the Wolfowitz grand strategy with popular domestic backing – however tacit. In truth, it is the American psyche that has been threatened, not its security. The pervasive anxiety felt by many Americans, and magnified in the foreign policy community (which has its own interests and insecurities), stems from the loss of the psychological anchor provided by a deeply felt belief in the country’s exceptionalism and superiority. Shaken by 9/11, mixed initially with genuine fears of follow-on attacks, it has become free-floating and institutionalized.   


Those feelings have been exploited by our political elites of all stripes. The autocratic nationalists (e.g. Dick Cheney, the entire Trump apparatus) saw it as a heaven-sent opportunity to tilt the separation-of-powers toward an all-powerful executive, the military-Intelligence complex as a budgetary buffet, the Israeli lobby as the golden key to Washington’s power centers, and the Democrats as a chance to prove their toughness in a way that could brook no internal party opposition. Inertia has taken care of the rest.  



 1] Bolton had greatly impressed Trump in conversations they had during the transition. The latter admired Bolton’s articulate enunciation of a tough, ultra-hawkish foreign policy line as a FOX commentator. Their meetings confirmed this positive view and Trump indicated on more than one occasion that he wanted Bolton in the administration. In the end, the mustache was no match for the medals and Bolton declined the secondary positions he was offered. Still, he remained in communication with Trump in the period before his appointment as National Security Adviser.  


A version of this commentary appeared on CONSORTIUM NEWS website some weeks ago.

(To be concluded ….) 

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