President Donald Trump would be ruing the day he appointed John Bolton as his National Security Advisor (NSA). Bolton, an arch conservative, remained in that office from April 2018 to September 2019, a brief seventeen months. In quick time thereafter he has revealed his White House experience in his book, ‘The Room Where it Happened’ which was formally released earlier this week. Its copies, though, were circulating on the internet for some time.
The Trump administration approached the court to prevent the public release of the book on the ground that it had not received all the required security clearances. The court denied the plea and held that the damage had been done with “hundreds of thousands of copies” already available world-wide. At the same time, the judge opined that Bolton had disclosed secret information and therefore was liable for prosecution if his view was confirmed. Bolton’s defence is that he had submitted the manuscript for vetting and had carried out the required amendments but that the Trump administration had ordered another review without informing him.
It is possible a full court battle will now occur. The issue of striking a balance between freedom of expression and national security is perennial and can never be conclusively settled. In the case of government officials there is another aspect. Apart from the law relating to official secrets there is the issue of trust. Interaction between officials themselves and of politicians and officials, like all human interplay, is not impersonal. It is based on trust. An official or politician may technically keep to the law but may make embarrassing disclosures of a personal nature. It is one thing to criticise policy but quite another to write or speak of personal foibles.
This is precisely what Bolton has done. He has revealed Trump’s chaotic working style, his limited attention span, his theatrics and his obsessions. He has also indicated that Trump acted improperly in his dealings with many foreign leaders, trying to gain political advantage. This has naturally greatly angered Trump. Besides, Bolton has also disclosed what some of the members of Trump’s cabinet remarked about him. These were private conversations and should such interactions be made public especially if they have no direct bearing on policy issues? At least the conventional view is that it is mean and spiteful to do so.
The book contains much material that reveals the evolution of US policy on crucial international issues relating to Iran, Syria, Afghanistan and towards important countries such as China and Russia. There will be much comment on these. Perhaps amidst all these what will be missed is a remark that Bolton records that was made to him by Brent Scowcroft, one of his predecessors; he met Scowcroft, as well his some other former NSAs after Trump announced his appointment. Such meetings are usual for they give a new appointee insight to what the job entails. Scowcroft told Bolton “The world is a mess, and we’re the only ones who can straighten it out”. The question is: how much has the US contributed to the mess?
Scowcroft now 95 years old is an eminent member of the US establishment. An air force officer he served as President Gerald Ford’s NSA from 1975 to 1977 and was then drafted in the same capacity by President George Bush in 1989. In the latter tenure he saw the end of the Cold War when the US became the sole superpower. The early 1990s was an exhilarating time for the US establishment. With the Soviet Union and the Warsaw pact consigned to the dust bin of history and Russia in dire trouble it thought that it could decisively shape the world.
That required an understanding and combatting of forces that the US had itself unleashed especially during the closing phases of the Cold War, a willingness to make sacrifices of its narrow and immediate national interest for the general global good and an acceptance that the complexities of the digital age required the active participation of many powers for effective international management. That the US establishment and US political leaders were simply unwilling and unable to do. This is partly because the task itself was too large in a world that new technologies was globalising rapidly. It was also so because of the nature of the US political system where a new administration can soon undo the meticulous work done by its predecessors. That leads to unpredictability which in international relations inevitably leads to mess making.
This is dramatically illustrated in Trump’s approaches on some major decisions taken by his immediate predecessor Barack Obama. Two areas in particular, of great significance to India too, are the Iran issue and climate change. The Iran deal represented a compromise in reining in Iran’s ambition to possess nuclear weapons (of course, its leaders have always denied that they wanted to possess any) and bringing it back to the international mainstream. Traditional US’s regional allies did not want that Iran should be enabled to spread its wings. Trump walked away from the deal fuelling regional uncertainty.
The Paris Climate Change agreement came in the wake of the advanced economies gradually reneging on commitments made to reduce greenhouse gases themselves and assisting developing countries financially and technologically to reduce their reliance on hydrocarbons while ensuring that their growth went ahead. The developing world had no choice but to accept it and yet Trump went back on it!
Can it be denied then that the US has contributed substantially to the current global mess even while countries like China are doing so too?