Unreliable narrators are a staple of literature. Consider the delusional, self-serving narrator of Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl” or the way Humbert Humbert used his cultured references and gorgeous prose to dress up his crimes in Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita.”
Now along comes John Bolton and his account of time served in the administration as national security adviser. ’s latest book has been attacked as fiction by President , members of his administration and even members of the administrations of other countries (like South Korea). is a thoroughly unpleasant hatchet man who has opposed arms control treaties, diplomacy in most forms and international institutions of all varieties. He is reliably paleoconservative. But does that make him a reliable narrator of his own story as well?
John Bolton’s Lesson in the American Value of Self-Interest
The picture Bolton paints of theadministration is a familiar one. We’ve been treated to a succession of tell-all accounts of the horror that has been ’s tenure as : Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury,” Philip Rucker and Carol Leonig’s “A Very Stable Genius,” even “A Warning” by Anonymous. Each one has added a little more paint to the Hieronymus Bosch picture of the presidency: monsters, unspeakable acts, darkness and chaos.
Other than a morbid, rubbernecking fascination with atrocity, why is yet another account necessary, and from such a potentially unreliable narrator asto boot? The critics of Bolton’s trustworthiness have a point. But Bolton’s unreliability resides not so much in his ideology as his opportunism.
As a “kiss-up, kick-down kind of guy,” he’ll do whatever it takes to attain power. He has a terminal case of Washingtonitis — he thinks he’s the smartest man in the room and he reeks of entitlement. He entered the administration not as a true believer in , but only a true believer in himself. The book not surprisingly portrays as the only person in the administration with any sense at all.
It’s easy enough to dismiss Bolton’s so-called revelations. Here’s why you shouldn’t.
Taking China Off the Table
Foreign policy will not likely be the tipping point for the 2020 presidential election.’s base generally doesn’t care what happens beyond America’s borders (except to keep it beyond America’s borders). And the anti- camp just wants to get rid of the , regardless of what he has done in the international arena.
Still, tweeted back in April. “They want all of those billions of dollars that they have been paying to the U.S. back, and much more. Joe is an easy mark, their DREAM CANDIDATE!”is running on his foreign policy record. For instance, he has been busy trying to portray his opponent, , as somehow pro-China. “China wants Sleepy Joe sooo badly,”
Then came the ad campaign that portrayed “Beijing ” as “China’s puppet” who favors engagement with Beijing without caveats and ’s son as the beneficiary of sweetheart deals with the Chinese. The Trump ads slam China for its handling of the coronavirus outbreak and suggest that would have fumbled the US response out of deference to Beijing (uh, sound familiar?).
The inconvenient truth, however, is that Trump, to quote Nicholas Kristof, “has been China’s stooge, a sycophantic flatterer and enabler of President .” In fact, Beijing would prefer four more years of Trump, not so much because of this sycophancy, but because he has been busy upending US alliances that have constrained Chinese geopolitical influence. The trade disputes are an irritant, but China can’t expect to be any easier to deal with on that score. Four more years of , on the other hand, would mean four more years of the ebbing of US engagement in world affairs.
Asand escalate their China-bashing, along comes . No friend of Beijing, the former national security adviser is appalled at ’s exchanges with President . In one such conversation, effectively signs up the Chinese leader as an in-kind contributor to his reelection campaign.
filled in the blanks: “According to an unredacted passage shown to Vanity Fair by a source, ’s ask is even more crudely shocking when you read ’s specific language. ‘Make sure I win,’ allegedly told Xi during a dinner at the G20 conference in Osaka, Japan last summer. ‘I will probably win anyway, so don’t hurt my farms … Buy a lot of soybeans and wheat and make sure we win.’” was, of course, impeached for attempting the same strategy with Ukraine.had to excise ’s actual words from his book, but Vanity Fair has
The other shocking revelation from Bolton’s book is According to , “ said that Xi should go ahead with building the camps, which thought was exactly the right thing to do.” An American president encouraged another country to engage in a massive human rights violation?’s response to China’s construction of “re-education” camps for the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang province. It’s not simply that ignored China’s action, as he contends, to ensure that trade negotiations moved forward.
True, American presidents have given the green light to such things in the past: Sukarno’s slaughter of suspected communists in Indonesia in 1965, Augusto Pinochet’s coup and subsequent crackdown on Salvador Allende supporters in Chile in 1973, the Salvadoran government’s widespread human rights violations in the 1980s. Horrifying as these atrocities were, American conservatives could rationalize support for these dictatorships because they were allies.
But China? That’s going to be a difficult sell for an electorate that’s already been primed, by the Trump administration itself, to demonize Beijing.
So, in effect, the Bolton book has removed China from the 2020 election campaign.will think twice about accusing of cozy ties with Beijing when the Democrats can literally throw the book ( ’s, that is) at the .
Impeachment: Not Dead Yet
loves to play the role of a cornered badger that emerges triumphant in the end. Impeachment would have given an ordinary politician pause. simply held up the Senate’s failure to convict as exoneration, despite all the damning evidence produced by the whistleblower and the subsequent Mueller investigation.
The Democrats wantedto testify during the hearings. He refused to do so voluntarily. Later, he said that he would testify before the Senate if it issued a subpoena. The , with the exception of Mitt Romney and Susan Collins, voted against calling additional witnesses.
argues in his book that the Democrats made a mess of the impeachment inquiry. Yet, he could have corroborated the charge of collusion with Ukraine and provided evidence of impeachable offenses in other realms of foreign policy. He didn’t do so.
Now, of course, some recently said.are saying that it would have been better for to have testified before Congress rather than save his revelations for now. “One of the things about making allegations in a book for $29.95 — certainly it’s going to be a best-seller I’m sure — the problem is that when you’re selling it in a book, you’re not putting yourself in a position to be cross-examined,” Senator Tim Scott
If Scott and one other Republican had simply voted for additional witnesses, they could have made that happen. And they could have saved themselves the cost of buying Bolton’s book.
In the end, it probably wouldn’t have made much of a difference in the final votes on impeachment. Except for Romney, the Republicans were unwilling to break with the president.
Bolton’s book, however, is disinterring all the issues surrounding impeachment and in a light unfavorable to the president. Bolton confirms the infamous quid pro quo — military assistance in exchange for an investigation into the Ukraine dealings of Biden’s son — that Trump discussed in a phone call with the Ukrainian president and that was flagged by a whistleblower. “Nor, at the time, did I think Trump’s comments in the call reflected any major change in direction; the linkage of the military assistance with the [Rudy] Giuliani fantasies was already baked in. The call was not the keystone for me, but simply another brick in the wall,” Bolton writes.
Before you shell out $29.95 for the book (actually $32.50 list price), you might wait to see if Congress drags Bolton back to tell his story. This week, Democratic Representative Adam Schiff hinted that he might depose the former national security adviser before the House Intelligence Committee.
Who knows? Trump might have to reckon with a second impeachment hearing as he heads into November.
The Benefits of Being Bolton
Bolton predictably criticizes Trump for not being sufficiently hawkish. The president wanted to withdraw troops from the Middle East. He wanted to make nice with North Korea. He had the gall to prioritize trade with China.
From a progressive point of view, that makes Bolton an unreliable narrator. Maybe he was tweaking the facts to make himself look stalwart and wise at the expense of a slow-witted, insufficiently martial president.
But here’s the thing: Bolton hasn’t written anything in his book that contradicts other accounts of the presidency. There was plenty of evidence of the quid pro quo with Ukraine. Trump did not hide his admiration for Xi. The president is obsessed with getting reelected in November, not because he particularly likes his job but because he must prove that he is a winner.
What makes Bolton’s observations most valuable is not their novelty or their acuity but his credentials as a hawk’s hawk. His book isn’t going to make any Democrats or independents or moderate Republicans change their minds about Trump. But it will introduce some doubts into hardcore conservative supporters. They might not publicly renounce the president. Like Bolton himself, they might not even pull the lever for the Democratic candidate.
But they might decide, because of Bolton, to stay home on November 3, just like so many Republicans decided not to attend Trump’s rally in Tulsa this last weekend. And that, ultimately, is what really puts the fear of Bolton into the Trump reelection campaign.
*[This article was originally published by FPIF.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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