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Friday, August 07, 2020

How John Bolton’s White House memoir is instructive for Indians

John Bolton’s political memoir explains many things, including the non-crisis of Balakot and the irrelevance of India in Trump’s eyes

Written by KP Nayar | Updated: August 2, 2020 9:57:38 am
The White House The White House Washington DC, United States at night (Source: getty images)

A touchstone of the value of John Bolton’s viral memoir was a devastating statement by Michael Pompeo, President Donald Trump’s chief diplomat, when leaked digital copies of the book were being read by anyone interested in US foreign policy across the world.

“It is both sad and dangerous that John Bolton’s final public role is that of a traitor who damaged America by violating his sacred trust with its people,” the Secretary of State said. “I was in the room too,” Pompeo claimed, and disputed accounts of the administration’s many consequential decisions by Trump’s former National Security Adviser (NSA).

Authorship of this White House memoir is, without doubt, Bolton’s last public rite. Nobody in any future American administration will tap him for any job in the Beltway after the crushing damage the book has done to his boss and many of those who were around Trump in the years since the 2016 presidential campaign, and others who still play musical chairs in his presidency.

The Room Where It Happened is not an easy book to review because its pages have a surfeit of gems of equal value. Delicious gossip and jaw-dropping insights, from Trump’s dislike of Bolton’s walrus moustache to an otherwise erudite Secretary of State Rex Tillerson telling his cabinet colleague Nikki (Randhawa) Haley, in the President’s presence, that she is a four-letter word. One marvels at how US foreign policy has survived four years of an erratic, inconsistent commander-in-chief.

Bolton, by his own admission, was not Trump’s first choice for any job, in part because of his moustache. Having raked in $2 million with his bestseller, Bolton may not need more money than he already has at the age of 71. Because he knows that he has reached the end of his public life, Bolton can write the truth, as he sees it. Few memoirists in public life have the luxury.

For an Indian, it is instructive how, in the Trump presidency, the wheel has turned full circle in Indo-US relations. With presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, America’s engagement with India was driven from the top. The bureaucracy, the State Department in particular, favoured the status quo with India. Be it on the Next Steps for Strategic Partnership, the nuclear deal, the foundational agreements for defence cooperation, environment and climate change, career civil servants tried to block new initiatives with India. This reviewer has been witness to such resistance in three successive administrations before Trump’s. Progress was made only because India became a personal policy priority with Clinton, Bush and Obama.

Bolton writes that within the Trump administration, it was the executive agencies which salvaged the relationship with India whenever there was a bump. The President did not care either way.

Hardliners in the administration wanted waivers to eight countries buying Iranian oil to be ended forthwith after Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal. “One of the worst cases involved India, which, like the others, was buying Iranian oil at prices well below the global market,” writes Bolton.

“India’s making this argument was understandable, but it was incomprehensible that US bureaucrats echoed it sympathetically.” The State Department, for a change, insisted that “India is so important.” The Treasury supported them. The hardliners won, but only after they fought hard for months and eventually convinced Trump to end the waivers.

In India, there is no limit to the time we spend in public discourse obsessing about the US. What does America think about a particular policy of our government? Reading through nearly 500 pages of how decisions were made in Washington during Bolton’s tenure, how little India matters to America comes as a shock.

When the (Narendra) Modi government opted for the S-400 missile system, defying US sanctions against Russia, scores of hours were consumed on Indian TV and in think-tanks by discussions on Washington’s reactions to the purchase. Trump only had one brief conversation with his NSA on this deal. That, too, on why India thought the Russian air defence system was better than the US Patriot missile package. All that mattered to Trump was that if India had selected the Patriot system, it would have meant more business and more jobs in the US. America First!

The book solves the mystery of why Trump said after the Balakot attack that he had “decent news” and claimed that tensions between India and Pakistan were coming to an end, when most people thought otherwise. Bolton writes that the White House view, behind closed doors, was that it was no crisis at all. He admits phone calls were made to South Asia. “The crisis passed, perhaps because, in substance, there never really had been one.”

The writer is a regular participant in Track 1.5 and Track II global dialogues on regional security, in particular on Afghanistan-Pakistan-India engagement.

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