In his book World Order, American diplomacy doyen Henry Kissinger wrote: “Of all the countries of the region, Iran has perhaps the most coherent sense of nationhood and the most elaborated tradition of national interest-based statecraft.”
Kissinger knows a thing or two about the sharp deterioration of United States-Iran relations. Much of the acrimony between Washington and post-Shah Tehran stems from the latter’s brazen initiation of the 1979 hostage crisis, and the former’s failure in rescuing the incarcerated diplomats. Ever since that 444-day-long crisis, Washington and Tehran have defied Lord Palmerston’s adage about the capriciousness of alliances and enmities between states, with both showing little intent to normalise their relations.
Both countries vie to shape the politics and the balance of influence in the Middle East, and blame each other for fomenting terrorism in the very region. If that were not enough, Iran’s nuclear programme has added yet another dangerous dimension to their rivalry. That said, it was the nuclear component of their relationship that saw the antagonists cooperate with each other. It was robust, constructive diplomacy that led to the signing of the Iran nuclear deal.
Though the nuclear deal — formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — stopped Iran’s even-otherwise doubtful, uncertain journey towards nuclearisation, it was dealt a severe blow when former US president Donald Trump fast-tracked and ratified Washington’s withdrawal from it. Considered integral to punishing Iran for its nefarious and avowedly anti-American activities in the Middle East, the withdrawal exacerbated tensions between the two countries.
The evisceration of the JCPOA was, and is, termed detrimental to efforts aimed at ensuring Iran does not build nuclear weapons. It also negatively affects Washington’s nuclear diplomacy with North Korea and other potential proliferants. However, Trump’s decision to abandon the nuclear deal chuffed many a hawk inside the US, one of whom was his former national security adviser, Ambassador John Bolton.
Former US National Security Adviser John Bolton’s voluminous memoir serves as a sad reminder of a mindset that has permeated US officialdom across the political divide
In his new book, The Room Where it Happened: A White House Memoir, Bolton details his time as the country’s national security top man, laying bare how Trump, mixing impulsiveness, immaturity and showmanship, ran the show as president. Bolton does not sugarcoat his dislike for Trump, as he goes in, all guns blazing, to lambast his former boss.
Unsurprisingly, the book highlights that both Trump and Bolton disdainfully rebuked the JCPOA. However, it also brings to light that neither was entirely on the same page in meeting the challenges posed by Iran. This is primarily because of Bolton’s obsession with Iran. Calling it a regional and global threat, Bolton writes: “Iran also had the dubious distinction of being the world’s central banker of international terrorism, with an active record particularly in the Middle East of supporting terrorist groups with weapons and finance, and by deploying its own strategic objectives.” For Bolton, the threats from Iran sprouted from a variety of sources, chief being the revolutionary zeal of Iran’s theocracy.
Bolton comes across as a veritable warmonger, one who will never be mollified by whatever punitive actions are taken against Iran. He openly abhors Tehran. Castigating Trump for not militarily retaliating to Iran — over concerns about Iranian casualties — after the latter shot down a US drone, Bolton termed it a most irrational act, one that was too much for him to handle.
Bolton’s advocacy for kinetic actions against Iran shows his lack of understanding of Iran and, quite frankly, the region, and reeks of a level of grandiosity and naivety that puts even Trump to shame. A military conflict with Iran is the last thing that the US can afford; certainly the Middle East — a region ensnared in multifarious conflicts and crises — will be devastated if Bolton, or men such as him, perches upon the driver’s seat.
Though he categorically mentions the challenge that Iran’s revolutionary fervour poses, he regurgitates his desire to supplant the Ayatollahs with a new breed of politicos. Bolton’s playbook on Iran, if ever put to use, would give further impetus to that country to harm American interests like never before.
Apart from presenting himself as the torchbearer of the fight against the Iranian Ayatollahs, Bolton exposes himself to a barrage of criticism from arms controllers and nuclear revolutionaries — those who believe in the nuclear revolution theory. Denigrating diplomacy as a means of engagement with North Korea, Bolton, as national security adviser, pushed for military action against that country. Come to think of it, an official who spent years dealing with matters related to arms control, was lobbying for military action against a state that had built nuclear weapons solely to deter such attacks from the US.
Bolton totally disregards the dynamics of the dyadic relationship between Washington and Pyongyang, the latter now in a position to hold the former and its allies hostage. Under a bilateral deterrence framework such as the one existing between Washington and Pyongyang, exacting compellence through the use of force is all but impossible, unless the aggressor is willing to lose things it values the most.
Unfazed, Bolton was convinced that Washington should sidestep the laws of deterrence. He writes: “I explained why and how a pre-emptive strike against North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic-missile programmes would work; how we could use massive conventional bombs against Pyongyang’s artillery north of the [Demilitarised Zone], which threatened Seoul, thereby reducing casualties dramatically; and why the [US] was rapidly approaching a binary choice...”
Much to everyone’s relief, Trump befriended Kim Jong Un and sidelined his national security adviser. While this approach certainly gave Kim legitimacy and confidence, it averted an unwinnable, catastrophic war.
In his book, Bolton flays Trump for being a foreign policy novice and devoid of intellectual heft. While the book definitely does not shed light on Trump’s sagacity or foreign policy nous, it compels readers to question Bolton’s views on foreign policy and the role of coercion in Washington’s grand strategy.
Bolton is wrong in thinking that the US can alter external environments without paying a heavy price for those machinations. His side of the story is a tale of his growing frustrations and indignations; he comes across as overweening, believing only he can fix things. While Bolton delves into a host of issues, including those spurred by China, his takes on Pyongyang and Tehran are critical to fathoming how perilously close Washington came to waging internecine wars over the past few years. In this context, Trump is right to take credit for not wading into wars, much to the chagrin of his erstwhile associates, especially Bolton.
The Room Where it Happened is a sad reminder that a country that aspires to regain and perpetuate its global leadership, instead accommodates, rewards and facilitates individuals who neither believe in the protocols of peace, nor acknowledge the sacrosanctity of the concept of sovereignty.
Bolton’s thoughts, forcefully articulated in his voluminous memoir, reflect a mindset that has permeated US officialdom across the political divide. That high-profile and responsible US officials are dismayed by diplomatic processes, arms control and war termination is bad news. Bolton is not the odd man out when it comes to shilling for war. In fact, he finds himself on the list of illustrious people who believed, and believe in, American exceptionalism and their country’s right to dominate others in the comity of nations.
This book is a must read to understand how American policymakers think about the world, allies and adversaries, and make decisions. It also helps identify some of the reasons why Washington finds itself in the midst of many a crisis. Drawing an interesting comparison between him and his former benefactor, Trump — if Bolton’s book is anything to go by — Trump was right in calling himself a stable genius, given that he did not let the wrecker-in-chief have his way.
The reviewer is a strategic affairs and foreign policy analyst
The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir
By John Bolton
Simon & Schuster, US
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, April 18th, 2021