The memoir showcases the author’s superb storytelling skills — and the US President’s utter incompetence and mishandling of foreign affairs

My views of John Bolton, former US National Security Advisor to President Trump, are mixed.

I didn’t think much of his arguments or actions as US Ambassador to the UN for the George W Bush administration: I found many of his opinions ultra-nationalistic and somewhat ignorant of the balanced, globalised world that was rapidly emerging during the 2000s.

Yet Bolton’s latest memoir, The Room Where It Happened, greatly interested me when it was launched a few weeks ago. Not because I’m curious about President Donald Trump’s woeful unsuitability to be leader of the Free World. Nor because I crave scandalous gossip about the current US Government — the book is pitched by its publishers, Simon & Schuster, as a political ‘kiss and tell’.

Rather, I‘m deeply fascinated by geopolitics, and having encountered Bolton’s books and speeches previously, I knew his storytelling — my profession — would be second to none, despite me disagreeing with his America-first political views (these are precisely why he was hired, incidentally).

Most reviews of this memoir focus on the seemingly never-ending list of controversies involving President Trump. Seeking assistance from China for this year’s US presidential election while approving of the nation’s imprisonment of Uighurs; offering personal favours to dictators such as Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan; claiming former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called former US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley a c***; and wanting to invade Venezuela — these are a mere few of the many vile revelations featured within the book.

No wonder the Trump administration tried to ban it.

The showcasing of President Trump’s irrational and unpredictable actions is entertaining but nothing new. The real appeal of the book is Bolton himself.

His experiences, how he uses past history to establish an informed viewpoint, and how he articulates his thought process is most intriguing. Unlike Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, which I also highly recommend, Bolton writes from the position of a key decision-maker within the Trump administration, rather than as a mere observer of its ongoings. While President Trump’s antics are the focus, Bolton is the protagonist. If Hollywood brought The Room Where It Happened to the big screen you can easily imagine Morgan Freeman narrating the author’s clearly-crafted words, like the actor does in The Shawshank Redemption.

Foreign crises dominate the memoir. This is not surprising given Bolton’s role as National Security Advisor and an outspoken advocate of regime change in rogue states such as Iran and Cuba, as well as President’s Trump’s desire to meddle with anything overseas that can be used for domestic political gain. As the book moves from one event to another — from the use of chemical weapons in Syria to the launching of intercontinental ballistic missiles by North Korea, for example — Bolton showcases his ability to understand such actions, and accordingly hold frank and difficult conversations. Not just with foreign adversaries, but with long-established international allies and even colleagues within the Trump administration as well.

His portrayal of President Trump, as you would expect, is greatly detailed. Better than any other author to date, Bolton documents the frequent childish tantrums that America’s commander-in-chief throws over seemingly anything, from President Obama’s legacy to the inability of his administration to build the ‘Mexican Wall’. His account of a conversation en route to the 2018 Brussels NATO summit, where the president incessantly chars other alliance members for their lack of financial input and repeatedly threatens to withdraw from the organisation, is cringeworthy — but it’s supposed to be, highlighting the difficulty he and others have when working with President Trump.

Where there is ill-judgement from America’s commander-in-chief there is diplomatic mastery from his national security advisor. When overseeing discussions at the 2018 North Korea-United States Singapore Summit, for instance, President Trump awkwardly and incorrectly describes Bolton as once a hawk but now a dove of the North Korean regime. He makes this claim directly to Chairman Kim Jong-un in Bolton’s presence. The chairman asks the national security advisor if he can trust him, to which Bolton responds with neither a truth or a lie: “The president has a finely tuned sense of people from his business days. If he can trust you, we will move forward from there.”

Diplomacy par excellence.

His many trips to Moscow and equally as numerous conversations with Russian President Vladimir Putin not only demonstrate his ease at confronting opponents, they also display Bolton’s resolve to hold antagonists to account. When questioned about Russia’s interference in the 2016 US Presidential Election and the nation’s support for the brutal Assad regime in Syria, for example, the Russian president unexpectedly shies away from conflict, giving vague and nonsensical answers — all of which took place in the Kremlin no less. Bolton notes the Russian President’s sense of humour: “Putin joked that Russia would sell weapons to Saudi Arabia if the US did not.”

His depiction of President Putin is conspicuous. Not the narcissistic pushy hardman typically portrayed by the international media. Nor the James Bondesque villain seeking global domination as part of a new axis of evil involving other rogue states. But rather a secretive, seemingly shy man who is consistently late for meetings; an enigma who is keen to taper Iran’s influence in the Middle East and China’s worldwide; and a contrarian who is surprisingly eager to work with the US on a new weapons treaty involving all nuclear-armed states globally.

Characteristics that few knew nor will probably agree with. Classic Bolton.

The Room Where It Happened is a long read — 445 pages of text, followed by photographs and sources. In my view it’s 100 pages or so too long. Of the 15 chapters, numbers eight to 12, about one-quarter of the book, should be merged into one.

Admittedly, there are many events discussed in these chapters, including the Trump administration’s reaction to Venezuela’s economic free-fall and subsequent political demise, the rise of China’s ‘wolf-warriors’, and the shambolic second summit with North Korea staged in Hanoi, Vietnam. Quite simply, by the halfway mark of the memoir, Trump’s repeated mishandling of events go from being jaw-dropping to plain-tedious — and by this point, Bolton’s expertise has been adequately showcased. Reader interest wanes.

The book’s ending is as one expects: A spectacular fall-out between a seasoned master of US diplomacy and an egotistical yet grossly incompetent US President.

An intriguing read. ★★★★

The Room Where It Happened can be purchased at most online bookstores.

Photo by Leah Kelley from Pexels