The line on John Bolton

Here’s the left’s line on John Bolton and his forthcoming book: Despise Bolton, but Read His Book Anyway.”

President Trump concurs with the first part, but dissents from the second. And, he would add, if you do read his book, don’t believe what he writes.

My line on Bolton and his book can’t be summarized as easily. However, it includes the following thoughts:

First, if the book contains classified information, as Trump claims, it should not be published until all such information is removed. The process of ensuring that classified information isn’t revealed may cause publication to be delayed substantially, but so what? The need to protect such information from disclosure outweighs any need to publish the book by a particular date.

Second, if, as Trump claims, Bolton has violated any criminal law in connection with this book, he should be prosecuted.

Third, as long as Bolton is providing a truthful account of his time as National Security Adviser and is complying with all legal requirements, I don’t have a problem with his book. The more Americans know about a president’s foreign policy decisionmaking, the better able we are to assess the president’s performance. There are limits to what we can know, given considerations of national security. But if those limits are observed, publication of a truthful account serves the public interest.

Fourth, I think, in particular, that Bolton has useful information to provide about President Trump’s temporary withholding of aid to Ukraine. This was the subject of an impeachment proceeding, after all. Although that proceeding is over, its occurrence makes the matter one of historical significance.

Fifth, if reports about the contents of Bolton’s book are accurate, I question whether Bolton is offering a fully honest and fair-minded account of Trump’s foreign and national security policy, and the process by which it is formulated.

According to the book’s publisher, President Trump is “addicted to chaos” and “embraced our enemies and spurned our friends.” He also was “deeply suspicious of his own government.” I have no trouble believing that Trump is addicted to chaos and that, for good reason, he is suspicious of precincts of our government.

However, Bolton is painting with too broad a brush if he claims that Trump has embraced our enemies. As president, Trump has been much tougher on Iran and China than were his predecessors. He has been somewhat tougher on Russia. And I don’t think it’s fair to say that he has embraced North Korea. Yes, he established relations with its dictator, and has spoken of a potential embrace, conditioned on North Korea giving up its nukes. But he hasn’t made any important concessions to the regime that I’m aware of.

As for our friends, Trump certainly hasn’t spurned Israel. That was Obama. Trump has asked our European allies to pay more to NATO and has given them a somewhat hard time on trade. But driving a hard bargain with an ally isn’t the same thing as spurning it.

Sixth, Bolton reportedly also claims that every decision Trump made was centered on his reelection. It would be surprising if Trump didn’t include electoral considerations in his foreign policy/national security calculus. Most presidents do. (Think of President Obama’s statement to the Russian president that he can be more flexible after the election.)

However, it’s far from clear that Trump’s key decisions are driven by electoral concerns. For example, Trump was willing to risk a trade war with China, the result of which might have damaged our economy, to the detriment of his reelection prospects.

Seventh, the real driver of Trump’s foreign policy/national security policy seems to be the platform on which he campaigned for the presidency. Trump is basically doing (or trying to do) what he said he would so — e.g. get tough with China, overturn the Iran nuclear deal, end or wind down foreign wars, etc. Bolton may not like portions of Trump’s agenda, but there’s nothing dishonorable or inherently wrong with a president implementing the policies he campaigned on. Within limits, it’s a good thing to do.

Eighth, this brings me to what is perhaps the most interesting question in all of this: Why on earth did Trump select Bolton to be his National Security Adviser? He must have known that Bolton is opposed to key aspects of the Trump agenda.

The decision to select Bolton is another in a long line of misguided (from Trump’s standpoint) personnel decisions. It may be the most inexplicable.

Ninth, the question of why Bolton accepted the post doesn’t perplex me. From his standpoint, this was the opportunity of a lifetime — the chance to have a say in vital national security matters and to try to steer Trump away from policies antithetical to Bolton’s views. It’s not surprising, though, that the venture ended badly.

Tenth, I respect John Bolton, but wonder whether the bad taste his experience at the White House left in his mouth has undercut the objectivity of his account. Once his book is finally published, we’ll have a better idea of whether this is the case.

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