HITLER’S AMERICAN GAMBLE: PEARL HARBOR AND GERMANY’S MARCH TO WAR by Brendan Simms and Charlie Laderman

The dates December 5 through the 7th, 1941 mark the parameters of the most consequential week of the 20th century or perhaps any other time in history.  It was during that week that the Soviet Union began a major counter offensive against the Nazis who were threatening Moscow, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and Hitler declared war on the United States.  It was a perilous time for the British who had endured Dunkirk, the Luftwaffe’s blitz over London and other cities, fears of Japanese attacks against British held territories in Asia, and Churchill’s fear that the only thing that could save his island empire – the entrance of the United States into the war against Germany would not occur as Washington would now focus on Japan after Pearl Harbor.  The event that saved the British was the Nazi dictator’s declaration of war against the United States, an act that should be difficult to understand since Germany was already fighting a devastating two front war.

Historians have questioned for decades why Hitler would take on the United States when Germany faced so many obstacles.  The German alliance with Japan was defensive predicated on an attack on Japan which the events of December 7th made obsolete.  In analyzing Hitler’s decision making historians fall into two camps.  The first, Hitler was a nihilist who was driven by an egoistic personality in making numerous irrational decisions.  The second school of thought has ferreted out a semblance of strategic calculations in his decision making.  In his latest book, British historian Brendan Simms and his co-author Charlie Laderman entitled, HITLER’S AMERICAN GAMBLE: PEARL HARBOR AND GERMANY’S MARCH TO WAR support the latter analysis which is consistent with Simms’s 2019 biography of Hitler when he argued that Hitler was well aware of American power and war with the United States was inevitable therefore his decision was pre-emptive.

Whichever argument one accepts it is clear that Simms and Laderman have made a compelling case in analyzing Hitler’s thought process the first part of December 1941 which led him to declare war on America.  Along with this analysis, the authors dig deeply into the state of the war as of early December, the realpolitik practiced by Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, and the key role played by the Japanese government.

lend-lease-routes

The authors have written a detailed description of the uncertainty that existed between December 5-12, 1941.  It seems as if the reader is present as decisions are made by the main participants hour by hour.  The blow by blow account is incisive and the results of Hitler’s decision to declare war on the United states would launch a global war.  The authors make a compelling case that before the onset of war the Japanese government did not trust Hitler as they feared the Nazi dictator would seize Vichy French colonies in Southeast Asia.  Simms and Laderman provide an accurate appraisal of the background history leading to December 7th.  They raise interesting points, many of which have been written about by previous historians. 

Lend Lease plays a significant role in the thinking of all the participants leading up to and after the attack on Pearl Harbor.  The authors are clear and correct when they argue that the American aid policy infuriated Hitler.  For the Fuhrer it reinforced the connection in his mind that capitalism, Jews, and American policy were all part of a conspiracy against Germany.  From Hitler’s perspective American actions were driving Germany towards war against the United States.  For example, in March 1941 the American navy began to protect British convoys across the Atlantic.  In addition, the U.S. would expand its defensive zone all the way to Greenland and reinforce its Atlantic Fleet.  Lend Lease also played a key role in Hitler’s thinking even after December 7th.  The authors spend a great deal of time discussing how Churchill and Roosevelt believed that the Nazis pressured the Japanese to attack developing the hope that the Japanese attack would force an American declaration of war against Tokyo and forcing Washington to reduce its aid to England and the Soviet Union because of its own needs in the Pacific.  Hitler was under no illusion concerning US military production, but he would come to believe that the Nazis should strike before the American military-industrial complex could reach maximum production.

As Hitler contemplated declaring war against the United States, Churchill and the British government desperate for continued Lend Lease worried that the aid would be reduced because of US needs in East Asia.  Churchill was especially concerned because of the ongoing fighting in North Africa and the threat to the Suez Canal.  In fact, the authors point out that aid was stopped for a brief period as disagreement arose between Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson and Lend Lease administrator Edward Stettinius. 

From the Japanese perspective they were unsure if they could rely on a German declaration of war.  The authors mine the commentary of Japanese leaders particularly Foreign Minister Shigenari Togo who did not trust that Germany would join the war against the United States.

Roosevelt was concerned about America Firsters and isolationists in Congress.  Both groups were willing to fight the Japanese but were against involvement in Europe as they refused to fight for what they perceived to be British colonial interests.  FDR walked a fine line and refused to meet with Churchill after December 7th as to not exacerbate domestic opposition.  Hitler’s declaration made it easier for Roosevelt to declare war on Germany and overcome isolationist opposition.

The Repulse and Prince of Wales Battleships: How They Sunk

(The sinking of the British battleships Repulse and The Prince of Wales December 10, 1941)

The coming Holocaust against European Jewry played a role in Hitler’s strategy.  The Nazi dictator saw the Jews of Europe as hostages to keep FDR from taking further action against Germany.  It did not stop the murderous horror taking place in eastern Europe but as long as the US did not enter the war the fate of western European Jewry would be postponed.  However, the authors argue effectively argue that once Hitler declared war against the United States, in his mind they were no longer a bargaining chip in dealing with Washington.  He was now free to conduct his Final Solution against western and central European Jews.

Churchill & Roosevelt. /Nprime Minister Winston Churchill And President Franklin D. Roosevelt Photographed During A Press Conference In
(Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt)

The authors astutely point out the role of racism in the war.  John W. Dower’s amazing study, WAR WITHOUT MERCY: RACE AND POWER IN THE PACIFIC WAR is the best study of the issue arguing that war in the Pacific was a racial war.  For Simms and Laderman the decision making process on the part of Anglo-American military planners was greatly influenced by their low opinion of Japanese military capability.  Leadership on both sides of the Atlantic could not fathom the idea that the Japanese had the ability to launch intricate attacks such as the attack on Pearl Harbor, Malaya, the Philippines, Guam, Singapore, Southeast Asia at the same time.  This type of thinking also resulted in disaster for the Royal Navy as Japanese bombers destroyed Force Z that included the sinking of the Repulse and the Prince of Wales.

Simms and Laderman do an excellent job delving into the calculations of the major participants in the coming war.  The significant issues apart from Hitler’s decision as to whether he should declare war on the United States included whether Stalin should declare war on Japan? How would England and the Soviet Union make up for the shortfall of Lend Lease aid in the immediate future?  How would FDR overcome domestic opposition to US participation in the European War and so on?

(Japanese envoys in Washington, DC December 1941)

The authors also do an admirable job integrating the opinions of people across the globe concerning the implications for Japanese actions in the Pacific.  People as diverse as the former mayor of Cologne Konrad Adenauer (and future German leader after WWII) to everyday citizens on the streets of Berlin, London, Leningrad, intellectuals in Poland tosoldiers on the eastern front.  For all the key was what would Hitler do – would he declare war on the United States and unleash a global war as Mussolini had warned or would he allow Japan to take on the American colossus themselves.

Overall, Simms and Laderman have written a thought provoking book that breaks down the December 5-12th 1941 period for three-fourths of their narrative that includes an important introduction that sets the scene for Hitler’s decisions and the implications that the decisions would have for the future of the war which would not end until August 1945.

UNCONDITIONAL: THE JAPANESE SURRENDER IN WORLD WAR II by Marc Gallicchio

Japanese Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu, seated, signs the Japanese surrender document on the Missouri in Tokyo Bay on Sept. 2, 1945.

(Japanese surrender on USS Missouri after WWII)

The death of Franklin D. Roosevelt in April1945 vaulted the inexperienced Harry S. Truman into the Oval Office.  As Vice-President Truman was kept in the dark by Roosevelt on many issues including the Manhattan Project which would later result in dropping two atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in early August 1945.  However, before the Enola Gay released its first bomb, American policy to end the war in the Pacific rested upon the phrase “unconditional surrender” a term uttered by Roosevelt at the Casablanca Conference attended by Winston Churchill in January 1943.  The policy was employed to avoid any possibility that the defeated powers of Germany and Japan would later question whether they were defeated militarily as occurred following World War I.

The application of “unconditional surrender” to the Pacific Theater is the subject of Villanova Professor Marc Gallicchio’s latest monograph, UNCONDITIONAL: THE JAPANESE SURRENDER IN WORLD WAR II.  A major focus in Gallicchio’s narrative is the role of Truman and a cadre of individuals that includes Henry L. Stimson, Joseph C. Grew, James Forrestal, George C. Marshall, Dean Acheson, Herbert Hoover, and numerous others in debating the policy of “unconditional surrender,” with an eye on the role of the Soviet Union, China, and Japan in the post war world.  Though Truman was a novice in foreign policy he held a number of strong views concerning uprooting Japan’s military and its ideology and replacing the imperial monarchy with a pro-western democracy.

File:TRUMAN 58-766-06.jpg
(President Harry S. Truman)

After the war, the United States would help with the reconstruction of Japan and impose a new constitution on the defeated country.  As Japan flourished she would become a staunch ally that stood firmly against the rise of communism in China and a supporter of Washington’s overall all policy for Asia.  The end result was that the United States avoided creating a revanchist regime in Tokyo.

A second major emphasis in Gallicchio’s presentation is how policy decisions evolved and the application of his own insightful analysis throughout. He reconstructs events and delves into the arguments of the major personalities that led to the Japanese surrender on the USS Missouri staged in Tokyo Bay in September 1945.

Gallicchio begins by explaining the origins and rationale for “unconditional surrender” as a means to reassure the Soviet Union that there would be no separate peace.  Russia would come to an agreement that once Germany was defeated they would shift troops to the Pacific and help end the war against Japan, but as in all cases in dealing with Joseph Stalin, Moscow had its own agenda for northeast China once the Japanese withdrew. 

Joseph Grew wwwnndbcompeople023000054858grew083201jpg
(Former US Ambassador to Japan, Joseph C. Grew)

Gallicchio exhibits an excellent command of the secondary and primary materials dealing with his topic and offers a concise application of the documentary evidence in developing his conclusions.  In addition, he considers the analysis offered by previous historians who have engaged the late World War II and early Cold War period.  For example, he reviews the Yalta and Potsdam Agreements in his treatment of the “Stalin Issue,” and how the World War II alliance of convenience unraveled despite Washington’s need for Soviet troops to help defeat the Japanese military.  Truman was very concerned that the US should try and defeat Japan as quickly as possible to avoid creating a vacuum in the region that could easily be filled by Moscow.  Aside from the cost of an American invasion of the Japanese home islands this was a major rationale for Truman’s decision to drop the atomic bombs to end the war as quickly as possible.

The author’s analysis includes a deep dive inside the Japanese military hierarchy, cabinet, and bureaucracy and summarizes the views of the different factions that emerged as it was confronted by America’s policies toward surrender and the future role of the Emperor.  Gallicchio spends a substantial amount of time discussing the peace faction that surrounded Emperor Hirohito as it tried to fend off the militarists who believed that if the war could be drawn out further, with Germany defeated domestic pressure in the United States would result in Washington’s acquiescence to a lesser policy than offered by complete surrender, military occupation, and retention of the Emperorship.  Further, the military believed that the Soviet Union could become a useful tool in pressuring the United States to alter its position, in addition to what they perceived as a weakening of the allied alliance.

refer to caption

(Portrait of Herbert Hoover)

A major strength of Gallicchio’s work is his exploration of the American home front as the war was ending.  Truman was under a great deal of pressure to end the war since Germany was defeated.  Public opinion polls pointed to the desire to bring the troops home and reconversion to a domestic economy and not allowing the Pentagon to dictate economic policy.

Gallicchio emphasizes the role of American code breaking as the United States collected a great deal of information through MAGIC decrypts of Japanese diplomatic messages and analysis of Japanese troop dispositions, which were processed through a military intelligence program code-named ULTRA.  These two sources tried to keep Washington one step ahead of Japan throughout most of the war.

Hirohito
(Japanese Emperor Hirohito)

Gallicchio is correct when he argues that the Potsdam Conference played a significant role as it became increasingly clear that there was little Washington could do to keep the Russians from seizing large parts of Manchuria, even if Japan was defeated before Soviet troops entered China.  However, it is during the conference that Truman learned of the successful test of the atomic bomb providing him with a major tool in dealing with Stalin and ending the war as rapidly as possible.  Truman was ill disposed to making any special guarantees to the Emperor who he believed was as much of a war criminal as Hitler and Mussolini.  But Truman also realized that he would need Hirohito to facilitate the surrender of Imperial troops.  In the end Truman would accept the Emperor as a glorified figurehead, hopefully avoiding a resurgence of Japanese nationalism in the future. 

Henry Stimson : News Photo
(Secretary of War, Henry L. Stimson)

The end of the war did not end the debate over the “unconditional surrender“ policy.  Gallicchio dissects the revisionism put forth by those who blamed the policy of “unconditional surrender” for causing the problems in the immediate post war era that led to communist domination of Asia.  Gallicchio does an excellent job in his last complete chapter in presenting the arguments pro and con whether the Emperor was a peace candidate.  He also extrapolates that if the Truman administration had been willing to alter the policy and state that Washington had no intention to outlaw the monarchy the dropping of the atomic bomb would not have been necessary, the Soviet Union would not have entered China, and by 1949 Maoist forces would not have seized power in Beijing.  This revisionism is incorrect and reflects the inability of certain individuals including Herbert Hoover and Admiral William D. Leahy, Roosevelt’s Chief of Staff among others to accept the reality of the military-political situation within the Japanese establishment where the military dominated the government and in the case of Hirohito he did nothing to alter the conduct of Japanese forces throughout the Pacific.  Gallicchio continues his presentation by reviewing the historiography of his subject well into the mid-1990s and the cultural politics that ensued.

Gallicchio offers a tightly focused narrative that lays out the pros and cons of America’s policy of “unconditional surrender” in the Pacific at the end of World War II.  It is concisely written and stays on target with little or no meandering to other issues.  The book is a fresh look at the drama that unfolded at the end of the war and an important synthesis of what has been written before and encapsulates the important debates that led to the dropping of the atomic bombs and America’s occupation of Japan that ensued.

(Japanese surrender, USS Missouri, September 1945)

THE AMBASSADOR: JOSEPH P. KENNEDY AT THE COURT OF ST. JAMES, 1938-1940 by Susan Ronald

Portrait Of The Kennedy Family At Home
(The Kennedys)

Anyone familiar with the life of Joseph P. Kennedy, the father of John, Robert, and Edward Kennedy is aware of the flaws in his character and life story.  These elements of his biography have been fully explored in studies like David Nasaw’s THE PATRIARCH: THE REMARKABLE LIFE AND TURBULENT TIMES OF JOSEPH P. KENNEDY, Richard J. Whalen’s THE FOUNDING FATHER: THE STORY OF JOSEPH P. KENNEDY, and Doris Kearns Goodwin’s THE FITZGERALDS AND THE KENNEDYS: AN AMERICAN SAGA.  Kennedy’s life story is punctuated with “serial philandering,” a relationship with organized crime, his years as a Wall Street operator highlighted by repeated insider trading, lobotomizing his daughter Rosemary, an appeaser’s isolationist view of the world that led to his opposition to the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall plan, a cozy relationship with J. Edgar Hoover, and a world view that saw fascism as a means of overcoming a depressed economy and a means of combating communism.  All of these aspects of his life’s work have been dissected in the three previous works mentioned.

One area, his role as American Ambassador to the Court of St. James, a position where Nasaw describes Kennedy as the worst American diplomat serving US interests in England to have ever served across the Atlantic becomes the central theme of Susan Ronald’s latest book, THE AMBASSADOR: JOSEPH P. KENNEDY AT THE COURT OF ST.JAMES, 1938-1940.  In her monograph, Ronald explores the charges against Kennedy that he was an anti-Semite, a Hitlerite appeaser, an isolationist, and an admirer of what the Nazis achieved in Germany and reaches the same damning conclusions as previous historians.

The Kennedy family mystique has been carefully crafted for decades by family members and their acolytes.  However, Kennedy’s true belief that fascism was the inevitable wave of the future, leading him to consistently misrepresent American foreign policy as he intentionally ignored instructions from President Franklin Roosevelt and Secretary of State Cordell Hull as he substituted his own beliefs and opinions in place of those instructions.

john f kennedy father jfk

(In this 1938 file photo, John F. Kennedy, right, poses aboard an ocean liner with his father Joseph P. Kennedy, center, U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain, and brother Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., left.) 

Ronald was born in the United States and later emigrated to Great Britain is the author of a number of historical works.  She has mined the riches of the British and American archives and has become very knowledgeable concerning the wealth of secondary materials that have been written on her subject.  Ronald has prepared a readable work for the general public and a bit less so for the professional historian since she does not really uncover anything that is new and repeats arguments and thesis put forth by others.  But to her credit the narrative offers a fresh synthesis concerning Kennedy’s work as ambassador as she mirrors a great deal of the work that has come before her new publication. Her views are supported by others that Kennedy lacked the “temperament, training, and willpower” to serve in his diplomatic post.

Ronald’s narrative concerns a man who by March 1940 had reached the pinnacle of his  career in public service and by October of that year he would return to the United States to seek revenge against Franklin Roosevelt who he believed treated him poorly as Ambassador, ignored his views on the coming war, and not supporting him in a manner that he felt his position warranted.  On numerous occasions Kennedy lectured the president and he would alienate the White Staff, members of the State Department, especially the Secretary of State, and the British diplomatic establishment and government.

Kennedy’s revenge centered around his support for the Republican nominee for president in 1940, Wendell Willkie, in part driven by his desire to run for president himself as a Democrat.  After Roosevelt’s election to a third term in November 1940 Kennedy dedicated himself to keeping the United States out of the war offering opinions that argued the US could not survive economically if she joined the conflict.

The Curious Relationship of Joseph Kennedy, Sr. and Franklin D. Roosevelt
(Joseph P. Kennedy and President Franklin Roosevelt)

Kennedy was originally appointed Ambassador to Great Britain on February 18, 1938, as a reward for supporting Roosevelt’s candidacies for president in 1936 and earlier he was repaid for his support in 1932 as the head of the newly created Securities and Exchange Commission, a poor substitute for the office of Secretary of the Treasury which he coveted.  Kennedy had no experience as a diplomat and did not have a foreign policy background.  His driving ambition was to acquire wealth.  From his youth he believed he was discriminated against because of his Irish-Catholic roots creating a chip on his shoulder to achieve societal acceptance.  Once married his focus was to create a springboard for one of his sons to become president.  Based on Kennedy’s abrupt, opinionated, and “undiplomatic” personality he did not possess the skills to head such an important foreign posting.  Roosevelt was aware of Kennedy’s issues, and he wanted him out of the country where he believed he would cause less political trouble had he been chosen for a domestic position.

For Kennedy, the ambassadorship to a major Protestant country could help him improve his Bonafede which could assist him in running for president in 1940 as an Irish-Catholic. Kennedy was up against an administration whose members would have no use for him and resented his constant outspoken criticisms.  What was in Kennedy’s favor was the need to negotiate a Reciprocal Trade Agreement with the British.  New York Times reporter and Kennedy confidant, Arthur Krock pushed Roosevelt to appoint him by leaking an appointment before the decision was even made.

Once in England, Kennedy collaborated closely with British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain and supported his pro-fascist views and appeasement policies as he would do nothing to aggravate German Chancellor Adolf Hitler by preparing England for a war.  Ronald does a respectable job laying out the views of the English royal family and members of the government who came to despise Kennedy. A case in point was King George VI detestation of Kennedy who feared if he returned to the United States he would rile up isolations to the detriment of England.  Further, during the German aerial “Blitz” over London Kennedy acquired the nickname, “Jittery Joe” as he sequestered himself in a country estate and refused to inspect the damage that befell London. Overall, the British people viewed him as a coward.

She does equally well in describing Roosevelt’s true feelings toward Kennedy and tracing the highs and lows of their relationship.  Kennedy’s “uninhibited manipulation of the press, his speaking out against the president, and passing his own opinions for State Department policy” had ruled him out for Roosevelt’s support, particularly after Kennedy “dressed down” the president in a White House meeting on June 23, 1938.  In the end Roosevelt told Eleanor that “I never want to see that son of a bitch again as long as I live.”

The Curious Relationship of Joseph Kennedy, Sr. and Franklin D. Roosevelt

(Rose and Joseph P. Kennedy in November, 1940)

Kennedy’s errors were myriad.  He never informed Roosevelt, Hull, or the State Department that English Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax had broken with Chamberlain over the appeasement of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini in addition to Hitler.  Further, while in New York he informed German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop on June 10, 1938, that he would try and mitigate American press reports that criticized Germany and would work to keep the US out of any European war.  Lastly, Kennedy’s anti-Semitic comments are legendary, particularly statements to Herbert von Dirksen, the German Ambassador in London.

Roosevelt and Hull would keep Kennedy out of the loop as much as possible because the last thing they wanted was for him to return home creating havoc as the administration worked to deal with an isolationist Congress and overturn Neutrality legislation.  Interestingly, the British would have been glad to send him packing as they grew tired of his bombastic statements, defeatism, particularly before and after Dunkirk, including criticisms that they referred to as “Kennedyianas.”

Overall, Ronald’s book is a mixed bag.  At times she delves into her topic as a true historian evaluating historical events, important characters and their motivations, and explaining British and American politics as the Germans moved closer to war.  Obviously, the key figure is Joseph P. Kennedy whose machinations were designed to further his own political career and those of his sons, and the needs of his family.  All the major figures of the period are on full display as are lesser ones.

It is the latter group that detracts from the narrative.  There are a two chapters that deal with British society as well as references to the “London social season,”  the types of china and cutlery used at dinner, the menus provided, the types of jewelry worn, estate/house decorations among many aspects of minutiae which after awhile become tedious and difficult to digest which detracts from her historical analysis.  Ronald’s approach in this area serves no purpose for the overall thesis she presents and most of it could be excluded resulting in a more compact work of history.  Ronald should pay less attention to the frivolities of British society and Kennedy family excursions and focus more on the critical issues that Kennedy’s tenure in England involved.

(Joseph and Rose Kennedy married in 1914 and had nine children together. Pictured above on a vacation to France in 1939 is (from left to right back row) Kathleen, Joe Jr, Rosemary, Rose , Edward (Ted), (left to right middle row) John (Jack), Eunice, Joseph Sr, Patricia, (left to right front row) Robert and Jean)

THE AFGHANISTAN PAPERS: A SECRET HISTORY OF THE WAR by Craig Whitlock

(Former President Bush flashes a thumbs-up after declaring the end of major combat in Iraq aboard a U.S. aircraft carrier in 2003. He now says declaring mission accomplished was a mistake.)

In 1971 the Supreme Court ruled in a 6-3 decision, that the U.S. government had not met “the heavy burden of showing justification for the enforcement” of prior restraint. The Court ordered the immediate end of the injunctions against publication which led to the dissemination of the Pentagon Papers by the New York Times.  The Pentagon Papers, officially titled Report of the Office of the Secretary of Defense Vietnam Task Force is a Defense Department history of the United States’ political and military involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967. Though Washington Post national security reporter Craig Whitlock’s new book, THE AFGHANISTAN PAPERS: A SECRET HISTORY OF THE WAR does not rise to the level of the Pentagon Papers according to the author it is based on “interviews with more than a 1,000 people who played a direct part in the war.  The Lessons Learned Interviews, oral histories and 59,000 Rumsfeld snowflakes comprise more than 10,000 pages of documents.  Unedited and unfiltered, they reveal the voices of people – from those who made policy in Washington to those who fought in the mountains and deserts of Afghanistan – who knew the official version of the war being fed to the American people was untrue, or aggressively sanitized at best.” (xx)

The publication of Whitlock’s monograph coincides with the disjointed American withdrawal from Afghanistan the last few weeks.  The partisan debate that President Biden’s abrupt exit sparked creates the need for a more nuanced and objective analysis of the past 20 years since 9/11 and its is our good fortune as the war for America seems to have concluded a series of new historical monographs have emerged.  Apart from Whitlock’s book readers can choose from Carter Malkasian’s  THE AMERICAN WAR IN AFGHANISTAN: A HISTORY; David Loyn’s THE LONG WAR; Peter Bergen’s THE RISE AND FALL OF OSAMA BIN-LADIN; and Spencer Ackerman’s REIGN OF TERROR.  There are also a number of works that have been written over the last decade that one might consult.  The works of Steve Coll come to mind, GHOST WARS  and DIRECTORATE S; also important are Dexter Filkins’ THE FOREVER WAR; Anand Gopal’s NO GOOD MEN AMONG THE LIVING; and Lawrence Wright’s THE LOOMING TOWER.

A great deal of Whitlock’s commentary is similar to the observations of previous authors.  However, what separates Whitlock’s narrative, analysis, and insights is that they are based on documentation and interviews of key commanders, soldiers on the ground, government officials, and even important foreign players who had significant roles in the war.  Whitlock’s monograph is written in a concise and clear manner and his conclusions point to the disaster the war had become after removing the Taliban and al-Qaeda in 2002.  Whitlock astutely points out that military strategists are always taught to never start a war without having a plan to end it.  From the outset, the Bush administration never articulated how the war would be ended.  For years, the American people were told the war would be difficult but on an incremental basis we were always winning.  The happy talk of the Bush, Obama, and lastly the Trump administrations never measured up to events on the ground.

(Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and American troops in Afghanistan)

Most historians and journalists agree the swift early American success in 2002 turned out to be a curse as it gave the Bush administration the confidence to change policy from hunting terrorists to nation building.  Despite the arrogance of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, the war turned against the Americans with this change in strategy, a dominant theme that Whitlock develops as it seemed periodically Washington would change strategies and commanders on a regular basis.  One of the major problems American troops faced was that they could not distinguish between the good guys and the bad guys.  For American troops Taliban and al-Qaeda were the same, a gross error in that the Taliban followed an extremist ideology and were Afghans, while al-Qaeda was made up of Arabs with a global presence who wanted to overthrow Middle Eastern autocrats allied with the United States.  By 2002 the United States was fighting an enemy that had nothing to do with 9/11 which was the stated purpose of the war.

The early success would deteriorate as the Bush administration shifted its focus to Iraq and removing Saddam Hussein from power.  Troops, supplies, and funding dissipated quickly as Whitlock quotes numerous individuals whose frustration with Rumsfeld and company for their lack of interest and refusal to provide the necessary equipment, troops, and funding to bolster the American effort in Afghanistan only providing the minimum level of support to keep the war going.

Whitlock organizes his narrative around American errors, the corruption of the Afghan government, and the refusal of American leadership to face the facts on the battlefield. Similar to the overall war strategy the nation-building campaign suffered from an obvious lack of goals and benchmarks.  The idea of imposing an American style democracy on a country with no foundation or history of the elements of that type of governmental system was idiotic from the outset and no matter what fantasy the Bush administration could cobble together preordained its failure.

Whitlock presents a number of important chapters chief among them is “Raising an Army from the Ashes” in which he describes the issues in constructing an army from scratch.  The entire episode portended the results witnessed a few weeks ago when a 300,000 man army collapsed and faded away when confronted by the Taliban.  Other chapters point to the basic complaint by officers and troops of the lack of preparation in understanding Afghan culture which led to many disastrous decisions.  Another key issue was the role of Pakistan which had its own agenda visa vie the Taliban and indirectly its fears of India.  By creating a sanctuary for the insurgency, it made the American task very difficult.  Whitlock’s insightful analysis mirrors that of Steve Coll’s DIRECTORATE S as it explains ISI duplicity and the fact that the Islamabad government knew how to play both ends against the middle to gain American financial and military support in return for very little.

afghanistan map explainer

American errors are numerous as recounted by Whitlock.  Flooding the country with money for projects that were not needed or absorbable was very detrimental to the American mission.  Support for Hamid Karzai and his corrupt regime, along with alliances with murderous warlords was self-defeating.  Trying to eradicate the opium trade was high minded, but with no alternate source of income Afghan farmers and warlords learned to manipulate the American strategy to reduce the drug trade was very problematical.

Whitlock introduces the major players in the war from Rumsfeld, Cheney, McChrystal, Petraeus,  Obama, and Trump with all of the flaws exhibited by their thinking that led to failure.  Whether implementing counterinsurgency, huge infrastructure projects, building inside enemy territory, and Petraeus’ strategy of being “hellbent at throwing money at problems” was doomed to failure.  The bottom line as Army Lt-General Douglas Lute, a Director of Operations for the Joint Staff at the Pentagon states is that “we were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan-we didn’t know what we were doing…What are we doing here?  We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking…There is a fundamental gap of understanding on the front end, overstated objectives, an overreliance on the military, and a lack of understanding of the resources necessary.” (110)

The Trump administration would run into the same roadblocks in trying to ameliorate the situation on the ground in Afghanistan.  Trump’s tough talk about “winning,” increased bombing that resulted in higher death counts for civilians, and more happy talk did not accomplish much.  It was clear once Trump’s promises “to deliver ‘clear cut victory’ had failed he ordered the state Department and Pentagon to engage in formal, face to face negotiations with the Taliban to find a way to extricate U.S. troops from Afghanistan without making it seem like a humiliating defeat.” (264) 

For over a  decade American policy makers and commanders  knew that a lasting military defeat of the Taliban was not in the cards as they were a Pashtun-led mass movement that represented a sizable portion of the population and continued to gain strength.  However, the Bush and Obama administrations made only half-hearted attempts to engage the Taliban, deferring to the Afghan government in the diplomatic process which they would paralyze.  The U.S. would squander attempts at a negotiated settlement in 2001 by excluding the Taliban from the Bonn Conference, three years later they did not take advantage of the democratic election of Hamid Karzai as president to implement the diplomatic process.  By 2009 the Obama administration took a hardline approach with its “reconciliation” requirements dooming any hope for talks to begin and progress as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other important policy makers believed that the Taliban would never desert al-Qaeda.

People arriving from Afghanistan make their way at the Friendship Gate crossing point at the Pakistan-Afghanistan border town of Chaman [Abdul Khaliq Achakzai/Reuters]

(People arriving from Afghanistan make their way at the Friendship Gate crossing point at the Pakistan-Afghanistan border town of Chaman)

The Trump administration finally negotiated a deal whereby all U.S. troops would be withdrawn from Afghanistan by May 1, 2021.  Like his predecessors Trump failed to make good on his promise to prevail in Afghanistan or bring what he mocked as “the forever war” to completion.  Instead, he left an inheritance to Joe Biden who chose not to renege on Trump’s settlement with the Taliban to avoid further warfare.  This provoked a firestorm among conservative Republicans and veteran’s groups, many of which had argued against continuing the war for a number of years. Many have chosen to blame Biden for an abrupt withdrawal from Afghanistan and a Taliban victory, however that result was because of two decades of obfuscation and a war strategy that was doomed to failure once we turned our attention to Iraq and took our foot off the pedal that drove the war in Afghanistan..

No matter what successes were repeatedly announced publicly by the Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations spokespersons, in private they knew that Afghan security forces showed little progress in safeguarding the country, the Taliban retained safe havens in Pakistan, and corruption pervaded Afghan governments alienating and angering people.  If there is one theme that dominates Whitlock’s analysis is that “U.S. leaders knew their war strategy was dysfunctional and privately doubted they could attain their objectives.  Yet they confidently told the public year after year that they were making progress and that victory—winning was over the horizon.” (277)  Whitlock makes it clear that “it was impossible to square negative trends with the optimistic public messaging about progress, so US officials kept the complete datasets confidential.” (205) 

After reading Whitlock’s book it is clear that the US mission in Afghanistan was doomed to failure once we turned to nation building.  Whitlock the first important synthesis of the most basic and essential elements that led to the American withdrawal.  For those who need a quick primer or a thoughtful approach to the conduct of the war, Whitlock’s monograph is critical for our understanding as to what went wrong.

On May 1 2003, President George W. Bush stood on an aircraft carrier under a giant 'Mission Accomplished' banner+4

The infamous phrase was echoed by Trump (pictured at the White House on April 13)+

 (On May 1 2003, President George W. Bush stood on an aircraft carrier under a giant ‘Mission Accomplished’ banner, (left) a phrase echoed by Donald Trump (pictured at the White House on April 13, 2018)

REDLINE: THE UNRAVELING OF SYRIA AND AMERICA’S RACE TO DESTROY THE MOST DANGEROUS ARSENAL IN THE WORLD vy Joby Warrick

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad speaks during an interview with Yahoo News in this handout picture provided by SANA on Feb. 10, 2017.
(Syrian President Bashir Assad)

In his presidential memoir A PROMISED LAND Barack Obama does not reveal much about his thinking when it came to events in Syria other than that “our options were painfully limited…and Assad could count on Russia to veto any efforts we might make to impose international sanctions through the U.N. Security Council.”  This was the conundrum the US faced as it approached how to deal with the slaughter that was Syria since the Arab spring in 2011; a president who was seemingly obsessed with the fear Washington could be drawn into another war in the Middle East, and who if any of the rebel groups the US could rely on and not face blowback if Assad were overthrown.  Eventually President Obama announced his “red line” warning that if Assad continued to employ nerve agents in the Syrian civil war it would be a game changer for the US.  The warning that was issued on August 20, 2012 did not deter Assad and the American response was marginal at best.  With twenty-twenty hindsight this was one of the worst decisions the Obama administration made in relation to the carnage that was Syria and its results have been catastrophic.  In Obama’s defense had the US bombed Syria and taken out most of Assad’s chemical weapons would it have altered the war – we will never know.  The decision-making surrounding American “red line” policy its impact, and the attempt to destroy Assad’s chemical “stash” throughout 2014 is the subject of an informative new book RED LINE: THE UNRAVELING OF SYRIA AND AMERICA’S RACE TO DESTROY THE MOST DANGEROUS ARSENAL IN THE WORLD by Pulitzer Prize winning Washington Post reporter Joby Warrick which takes a microscope to American decision-making and the diplomatic and military policies pursued to try and obviate the horrors that the Assad regime was perpetrating.

Warrick’s effort is more than a narrative history of events sprinkled with keen analysis of the players and policies involved, but more a true to life thriller with a cast of characters that includes world leaders, physicians, weapons hunters, spies, and a number of heroes and villains.  Warrick’s account begins with the introduction of a CIA spy whose nomenclature was Ayman, “the chemist,” a Syrian scientist who informed his handlers that Damascus had constructed an efficient manufacturing center with a network of laboratories that had produced 1300-1500 tons of binary sarin, VX, and mustard gas.  Warrick lays out the issue of nerve agents produced by Syria and its implication for US policy makers.  The author’s approach is methodical as he examines all areas that impacted the Syrian weapons cache and what the US should and could do to mitigate the problem.  Once Assad employed nerve agents dropping three canisters on the city of Sarageb held by rebels who fought for overthrowing the Syrian regime on April 29, 2013, President Obama response had done little to deter Damascus.

(Timothy Blades’ “Margarita Machine”)

By 2012 Syria had become the most dangerous place on earth and after the April 2013 attack the US and the UN began to work on providing evidence for Assad’s WMD crimes.  Warrick introduces a series of important characters into the narrative who are pivotal to his story.  UN Team Leader Ake Sellstrom, who had experience hunting WMD in Iraq in the 1990s was sent to Syria and found evidence that military grade sarin gas had been used.  The list includes Andrew C. Weber, the Pentagon’s Assistant Secretary for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs who feared that should Assad be overthrown his 1300 nerve agents could fall into the hands of the al Nusra Front and its ally al-Qaeda in Iraq (which would soon morph into the Islamic State). Timothy Blades, an ingenious individual who headed the US Civilian Chemical Biological Application and Risk Reduction team developed a process referred to as “hydrolysis” and the machinery to carry out the task of breaking down and making Assad’s nerve agents inert should the US come into possession of them.  Dr. Houssam Alnahhas, also known as “Chemical Hazem,” as he prepared areas of Syria for possible chemical attacks and worked to save victims of those attacks.  Samantha Powers, the US Ambassador to the United Nations who worked tirelessly to hold Assad responsible for the atrocities he ordered but she was up against Russian and Chinese vetoes, but her work cannot be ignored as she was able to create the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) under the auspices of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical weapons headquartered in the Hague.  By 2017 JIM’s work continued as it investigated another Syrian nerve strike against the town of Khan Sheikhoun.  Lastly, Brett McGurk, the special presidential envoy for the global coalition to counter ISIS.  McGurk was the last American official to witness the Syrian conflict in its entirety,” from the earliest pro-democracy uprisings through the rise of ISIS; from the regime’s first experimental use of sarin to the dramatic; if incomplete, mission to destroy Syria’s stockpile; from the hopeful declaration that ‘Assad must go’ to the despairing reality of an entrenched Syrian dictatorship propped up by Russian and Iranian protector’s intent on reshaping the region in their own image.” (303) There are many other important players in the narrative, many of which must be given credit for the eventual destruction of much of Assad’s nerve WMD, and those who were a hinderance and supported Assad outright.

Warrick description of a UN investigation led by Sellstrom and Scott Cairns his Canadian Deputy reflected Syrian obstructionism.   However, while in Damascus their group witnessed the results of a chemical attack that killed at least 1400 in the Ghouta suburbs.  Warrick’s connections and knowledge allowed him to describe in detail the components of the WMD, its impact on the civilian population, Syrian governments obfuscation, and what the world was prepared to do about what was occurring in Syria.  Everyone points to the Obama administration for its almost “feckless” response to Assad’s actions.  Warrick correctly points out that the Obama administration in part placed itself in a bind in its response.  Obama, keen to avoid a major military commitment in the Middle East decided that he needed Congressional approval for any military response.  After the events in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001 there was little or no support in Congress.  Further, Germany’s Angela Merkel warned Obama that the US should not act and wait until the UN investigation had run its course.  In England, Prime Minister David Cameron could not convince Parliament to support military action, and lastly many feared what could happen to the UN team still in Syria.  Facing congressional humiliation Obama was saved in part by the Russians who agreed to force Assad to turn over his nerve agents to UN authorities.

(UN chemical weapons experts will use a battery of analytical techniques)

Warrick clearly explains how the deal came about and its implications for the future.  The Russians would go along with practically everything assuming that Blades’ “Margarita Machine” was a fantasy that could only fail thereby embarrassing the US.  Warrick’s account of how the “Blades’ Machine” was built, tested, and deployed is well conceived and easy to understand.  He follows the politics behind the strategy, the actual obstacles overcome particularly those set by the Syrians, and its ultimate deployment. This section of the book is perhaps the most important for the reader as Warrick builds the tension as if writing a novel that in the end would produce a mission at sea where the machines were bolted to the decks of the ship Cape Ray, deployed to the Mediterranean Sea to receive the nerve agents from the Syrian port of Latakia, run the nerve agents through Blades’ process, and then deliver the waste to cooperating countries.  Warrick employs a reporter’s eye to describe the political difficulties, delays, and roadblocks on the ground as the UN Mission tried to secure the nerve agents and even after the mission was a success one wonders how it was achieved.  For Blades and others, it came down to ingenuity, sheer guts, and a great deal of luck.

The entire process became a race to keep the nerve agents out of Islamist hands.  This became an even greater problem when on July 14, 2014, the day the ship sailed into the Mediterranean, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced from Mosul the creation of the Islamic Caliphate that stretched from Raqqa its capital in Central Syria deep into Iraq.  ISIS would miss out on Assad’s nerve agents, but began a developing a process of their own, particularly when Assad set the example by dropping barrel bombs loaded with chlorine gas which is less toxic than sarin on his subjects.

Samantha Power during Barack Obama’s first presidential election campaign, in 2008. Photograph: Hirolo Masuike/New York Times
(US UN Ambassador Samantha Power)

Graeme Wood is dead on when he writes in the February 19, 2021 edition of the Washington Post:  “Overwhelmingly, Warrick’s emphasis is where it should be, on Assad, for whom chemical weapons were a highly developed and strategic program of terror. “Syrians died every day from bullets, blast wounds, and shrapnel injuries,” Warrick writes, “but to exterminate human beings with chemicals, as though they were fleas and cockroaches” — this was “a different order of savagery.” Lacking any legitimate military purpose, Assad’s chemical weapons existed to terrorize civilian populations by killing as indiscriminately as possible. Eliminating his arsenal was therefore a top international priority.”

It is clear today that the Syrian Civil War continues to torture millions of Syrians in Syria and in refugee camps in the Middle East and Turkey.  While the US concentrated on ISIS for the next two years its policies would allow Russia and Hezbollah, Syria’s Iranian ally to route many of the rebels and keep Assad in power. According to Warrick Assad would engage in over 300 chemical attacks over the next four years.  It does not take a serious imagination to believe that Assad, who turned over tons of nerve agents to the UN kept a secret stash somewhere.  Once the Trump administration came aboard and abruptly ended aid to the rebels and abandoned our Kurdish allies to be destroyed by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğanit it was obvious that Putin had won and Iran’s goal of a “land bridge” across the Levant was in reach – Assad had won.

Brett H. McGurk (2).jpg
(US Special Envoy Brett McGuirk)

Warrick is to be commended for his research, clear and thoughtful writing, and describing for all to see what the truth is concerning Assad’s nerve gas war on his own people. Perhaps someday he and his enablers will be held accountable by the world community – but I doubt it.

President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, pictured in December. His office said he would isolate at home with his wife for two weeks.
(Syrian President Bashir Assad)

THE MAN WHO RAN WASHINGTON: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JAMES BAKER III by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser

(Secretary of State James Baker III and President George Herbert Walker Bush in 1990)

Peter Baker, the chief White House correspondent for the New York Times and Susan Glasser, a staff writer for The New Yorker have written an engrossing biography of James Baker III, a man whose impact from 1976 through the election of 2000 can not be denied.  The book’s range is impressive as the authors describe a childhood under the thumb of a father whose nickname was “the Warden.” As an adult we witness the death of his wife from cancer at a young age and a remarriage that merged two families resulting in eight children, a number of which experienced numerous problems including drugs and alcohol.  Baker would give up the practice of law in Texas and move on to a political education in Washington, D.C. that produced lessons that stressed how to accumulate power and brook no opposition as he managed political campaigns, served as Chief of Staff to Ronald Reagan as well as Treasury Secretary, and Secretary of State under George H. W. Bush.  Based on his resume it is obvious why the authors titled their book, THE MAN WHO RAN WASHINGTON: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JAMES BAKER III.

Baker and Glasser employ the tools of investigative reporters in addition to those of a historian.  They have an excellent command of the written word and have the ability to present their narrative and analysis in a deeply thoughtful manner.  Baker is the author of books including DAYS OF FIRE: BUSH AND CHENEY IN THE WHITE HOUSE; THE BREACH: INSIDE THE IMPEACHMENT AND TRIAL OF WILLIAM JEEFERON CLINTON, and an excellent biography of Barack Obama entitled OBAMA: THE CALL OF HISTORY.  Glasser is the author of COVERING POLITICS IN POST TRUTH AMERICA,  and co-authored with Peter Baker, KREMLIN RISING: VLADIMIR PUTIN’S RUSSIA AND THE END OF REVOLUTION.  For those unfamiliar with the work of the author’s they are in for a treat.

Baker is one of the most consequential political figures of the last quarter of the 20th century.  He seems to have been involved in most issues and policy decisions of the period ranging from managing successful presidential campaigns, gaining passage of the Reagan tax cuts, the reunification of Germany, the end of the Soviet Union as we knew it, the removal of Saddam Hussein’s army from Kuwait, and heading the legal team that resulted in the election of George W. Bush as president in 2000.  Each of these topics is explored in depth as the authors delve into the personalities involved, their political agendas, and the historical impact of each decision as events played out. 

James and Mary Stuart Baker with their four boys in Houston in 1964.
(The Baker family before the death of his first wife)

Two themes that dominate the narrative and analysis is how Baker earned the nickname the “velvet hammer,” and his relationship with President George H.W. Bush.  The nickname itself as the authors develop is based on Baker’s approach to achieving power, control, and at times domination of any given situation.  He comes across as a smooth, sweet talking Texan, but in reality, he played hardball whenever he felt it was necessary.  He cut his teeth on the campaign trail, the in fighting that dominated the Reagan administration, and achieving legislative victories.  His approach in the domestic area can also be seen in his conduct of foreign policy as he sought to impose his will on those who opposed him and, in many cases, it seemed as if he was president, not the then occupant of the White House.

The second theme rests on Baker’s friendship with President Bush.  The two developed a decades long friendship from the time they met at a Houston Country Club in 1961.  Baker earned the imprimatur of Bush and when he spoke or negotiated everyone knew he was speaking for the President, or earlier the Vice-President.  The authors do an excellent job describing their relationship which rested on a similar outlook, a close personal bonding that witnessed numerous vacations together in addition to policy decisions.  Baker was artful in at times manipulating Bush to achieve his aims and periodically the president grew resentful of his friend to the point that Barbara Bush never really warmed up to Baker and at times did not trust him until later in life.

Baker did not become the ultimate insider because of any fervent ideology, though he described himself as a conservative Republican.  However, more so than anyone of his generation he figured out how to employ the levers of power.  Today, in an era of extreme partisanship, “deals” are seen as a sign of weakness, but for Baker compromise to achieve an end, diplomacy, and raw power were his mantra.  One of Baker’s talents rested on how he cultivated Congress and the press, which he did assiduously.  He realized that power was in part perception and he did more to create that perception than any of his peers.  


(Soviet Secretary General Mikhail Gorbachev (L) and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze in 1986 as they arrive in Iceland for talks with President Ronald Reagan)

As the Cold war concluded, Baker had the skill set that fit the era whether developing a close working relationship with Soviet Foreign Minister Edvard Shevardnadze or initiating bureaucratic intrigue to achieve a domestic goal in the Reagan and Bush administrations.  When Baker made a promise, he earned the reputation of being able to deliver because of his relationship with Reagan and Bush and his own negotiating abilities. Never in American history did a president and Secretary of State enjoy a genuine friendship before entering office.  Baker learned to operate in a political environment by employing his skill set, a skill set that was highly successful and current politicians would do very well if they would emulate him as he is best described by the authors as the “un-Trump.”

As successful as Baker was as a political insider and practitioner of power the authors develop his family history which is not one that one should emulate. He left it to his second wife to take care of the family as he worked twelve hours a day on domestic issues and once, he became America’s chief diplomat traveling thousands of miles each year.  The children of both marriages had difficulties integrating and there were numerous conflicts which would lead to difficult issues that needed to be faced, and for the most part he was absent.

The authors develop numerous scenarios that reflect Baker’s talents as a politician and negotiator.  He believed that there was no way to achieve 100% of one’s goals in any negotiation and was happy to obtain 75% or any percentage that he believed would deliver most of what he hoped to achieve.  This can be seen during the Reagan administration when he outmaneuvered the likes of Alexander Haig and Edward Meese on numerous occasions, as he worked with Democrats to save Social Security when Republicans were obstinate, or negotiating the Reagan tax cut with Democratic Speaker Tip O’Neill.  In all areas Baker seemed to have a superb instinct at “self-preservation,” be it dealing with the stock market crash in October 1987, his reaction to the Tiananmen Square massacre in China, or leaving US Ambassador to Iraq April Glaspie out to dry in the lead up to war in the Persian Gulf in 1991.  The authors point out that Baker was a realist and argued against the ideologues in the Reagan administration particularly as it related to  policy in Central America as he did his best to avoid the stain of Iran-Contra, again his antenna knew when to back off or proceed with a certain policy – it seemed he always knew which way the wind was blowing. 

baker glasser
(The authors)

Baker’s pragmatic and realistic approach is also seen as he worked to allow Mikhail Gorbachev a semblance of comfort as his country was collapsing.  Baker realized that the Soviet President had to deal with his own hard liners in the Kremlin and as he was wont to do would make subtle agreements behind the scenes that never became public.  Baker had an extremely hard edge to him as the Israeli government realized after the United States and its coalition removed Iraqi troops from Kuwait in 1991.  Baker had used the promise of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians as a lure to convince Egypt, Syria, and Saudi Arabia to join his coalition against Saddam.  After the war Baker pressured Israeli Prime Minster Yitzchak Shamir, who he disliked intensely withholding promised funding and loans to finance the hundreds of thousand of Soviet Jews who were immigrating to Israel at the time.  The end result was the Madrid Peace Conference which later impacted the signing of the Oslo Accords. 

Baker long sought to be considered a statesman not just a fixer or dealmaker.  However, the authors argue that he had no grand plan domestically or in foreign policy, but he had the knack of bringing people together and finding pragmatic ways to paper over disagreements.  The end result, no matter what Baker engaged in, solutions resulted.  Part of this success rests with a group of individuals that Baker and Glasser label the “plug-in unit,” a small group of aids that worked with him in the Reagan and Bush administrations.  They included Margaret Tutwiler, who handled the press and Janet Mullins, Robert Zoellick and Robert Kimmitt who handled policy.  Interestingly, the authors point out that though they worked closely together for years, Baker showed no interest in them as people and maintained a personal distance even among his most loyal staff.

Baker’s achievements did not come without some “black eyes.”  Baker would work with Lee Atwater a Republican firebrand who did not find a dirty trick that did not interest him.  The authors stress his role in the Willie Horton commercials in the 1988 presidential campaign against Michael Dukakis and Baker seemed to have no problem with it, in addition to his failures in dealing with the breakup of Yugoslavia and the ethnic and religious violence that ensued.  His approach in 2000 is typical.  When Al Gore’s spokesperson Warren Christopher proposed that the two sides work out a solution, Baker’s position was clear, no negotiations, Bush was president according to the Supreme Court.

Baker and Glasser had unfettered access to Baker and many of the key characters from the period.  Their numerous interviews will not be repeated down the road by future historians, and their insider access and command of primary and secondary materials is evident.  The authors do not fall into the trap of hagiography and have written a superb book that is easily the seminal work on James Baker III, and probably will remain so for years to come.

George Bush with James Baker
(James Baker III and George Herbert Walker Bush)

SAVING FREEDOM: TRUMAN, THE COLD WAR, AND THE FIGHT FOR WESTERN CIVILIZATION by Joe Scarborough

(President Harry S. Truman)

A favorite question that was asked by pundits and historians in 1989 revolved around who was responsible for the bringing down of the Berlin Wall, and two years later the collapse of the Soviet Union.  President George H.W. Bush took credit for winning the Cold War, while others argued it was due to the Reagan presidency.  In his new book,  SAVING FREEDOM: TRUMAN, THE COLD WAR, AND THE FIGHTFOR WESTERN CIVILIZATION MSNBC “Morning Joe” host, Joe Scarborough argues that it was because of the policies implemented by President Harry S. Truman which allowed the United States to become the lone superpower in the early 1990s.

For those who are conversant with the events and personalities that dominated the foreign policy debate in the post-World War era Scarborough offers little that has not been written elsewhere.  However, to the author’s credit he tells an absorbing story that created the foundation of American foreign policy that lasted for over seven decades.

One of the books dominant themes is the idea that the United States should assume the mantle of world leadership because of the vacuum created by England’s financial distress and the socialist agenda of the Labour Party.  This concept was the anti-thesis of American foreign policy since the founding of the republic and George Washington’s “Farewell Address” that called for “no entangling alliances” and became the basis of American isolationism.  The Democratic Party had been open to world leadership dating to Woodrow Wilson’s concept of economic internationalism, but the 1920s saw a fundamental change brought about by Republican disengagement on the world stage.  Scarborough argues it took men like George C. Marshall, Dean Acheson, George Kennan, and Harry Truman to confront Soviet expansionism along with Republican senator Arthur Vandenberg for the United States to accept the challenge and implement a policy of containment rather than pre-war appeasement when confronted by a threatening autocracy.

Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, is greeted by Mrs. Acheson and President Truman as he arrived at Washington Airport from Europe.

(Undersecretary of State Dean Acheson shaking hands with President Truman)

Scarborough begins his argument with the situation that existed in Greece in 1946 and tries argues that aid to Greece and Turkey formed the basis of the Truman Doctrine discussed in the context of the history of American foreign relations.  In doing so, Scarborough, for me at least has written a rendition of “Foreign Policy for Dummies” as he provides a series of broad surveys of foreign policy issues in each chapter to explain events.  At times he goes a bit far exemplified by the unnecessary chapter dealing with Palestine.  Scarborough at times can be somewhat verbose as he frames situations, for example, “Soviet ambitions were set in motion.  Like a shark smelling blood in the ocean, Stalin was ready to move on British former colonies and clients.”  Further, Scarborough has the annoying habit at the conclusion of a number of chapters resorting to a false sense of drama by asking superficial questions, I assume to enhance a sense of foreboding.  I would suggest that he let the material playout, rather forcing the narrative.

As I read the book, I got the feeling that the monograph was overly interspersed with speeches, whether Truman on the stump trying to gain support for aid to Greece and Turkey, speeches by Senators and House members in their respective committees or on the floor of the Senate and House chambers, and witnesses called before Congressional committees.  At times I felt I was reading a book of speeches and dialogue linked by a narrative rather than a discussion that had great potential for insight and analysis.  Further, when one examines Scarborough’s sources, he provides extraordinarily little.  With no end notes or bibliography, he offers a short bibliographical essay that encompasses roughly sixteen secondary sources and the mention of the THE FOREIGN RELATIONS OF THE UNITED STATES (FRUS) series published by the State Department.  Further he should pay more attention to critical details like his discussion of  the Monroe Doctrine visa vie the Truman Doctrine as he leaves out the role of the British and their Foreign Secretary, George Canning.  He may argue that the Truman Doctrine was the successor to the Monroe Doctrine, but he forgets that at the turn of the century Theodore Roosevelt instituted the Roosevelt Corollary.

(Michigan Senator Arthur Vandenberg)

To Scarborough’s credit he writes in a noticeably clear and understandable prose.  His discussion of the debate in Congress, newspapers, and the personalities involved reflects a command of the historical material, and his coverage of political negotiations and the preparation of the American people for the passage of the Truman Doctrine and its significance is well done.    He stresses the reactionary and regressive nature of the Greek regime as an obstacle to obtaining Congressional aid and his analysis of Truman’s speech to Congress is dead on.  But again, at times he is prone to overstatement.  His key argument is strong that Truman engaged in one of the “greatest selling” jobs of any president as he convinced an isolationist leaning congress to support an internationalist policy.   

In the end we are left with a dichotomy; an incomplete narrative, but with a theme that seems to hold together in terms of the importance of the Truman Doctrine over the last seventy years or so.  If there is a lesson to be learned from Scarborough’s monograph it is the importance of pursuing bipartisan approaches to major foreign policy issues and that politicians need to weigh issues in relation to their effect on American national security, not political polls, commentary of pundits on cable news, or the demands of an autocratic leaning president.

1948_DeweyDefeatsTruman600
(Truman victorious in the 1948 presidetial election)

HENRY KISSINGER AND AMERICAN POWER: A POLITICAL BIOGRAPHY by Thomas A. Schwartz

Henry Kissinger
(Henry Kissinger)

For members of my generation the name Henry Kissinger produces a number of reactions.  First and foremost is his “ego,” which based on his career in public service, academia, and his role as a dominant political and social figure makes him a very consequential figure in American diplomatic history.  Second, he fosters extreme responses whether your views are negative seeing him as a power hungry practitioner of Bismarckian realpolitik who would do anything from wiretapping his staff to the 1972 Christmas bombing of North Vietnam; or positive as in the case of “shuttle diplomacy” to bring about disengagement agreements between Israel and Egypt, and Israel and Syria following the 1973 Yom Kippur War and the use of linkage or triangular diplomacy pitting China and the Soviet Union against each other.  No matter one’s opinion Thomas A. Schwartz’s new book, HENRY KISSINGER AND AMERICAN POWER: A POLITICAL BIOGRAPHY, though not a complete biography, offers a deep dive into Kissinger’s background and diplomatic career which will benefit those interested in the former Secretary of State’s impact on American history.

Schwartz tries to present a balanced account as his goal is to reintroduce Kissinger to the American people.  He does not engage in every claim and accusation leveled at his subject, nor does he accept the idea that he was the greatest statesman of the 20th century.  Schwartz wrote the book for his students attempting to “explain who Henry Kissinger was, what he thought, what he did, and why it matters.”  Schwartz presents a flawed individual who was brilliant and who thought seriously and developed important insights into the major foreign policy issues of his time.  The narrative shows a person who was prone to deception and intrigue, a superb bureaucratic infighter, and was able to ingratiate himself with President Richard Nixon through praise as his source of power.  Kissinger was a genius at self-promotion and became a larger than life figure.

Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon.

(Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon)

According to Schwartz most books on Kissinger highlight his role as a foreign policy intellectual who advocated realpolitik for American foreign policy, eschewing moral considerations or democratic ideas as he promoted a “cold-blooded” approach designed to protect American security interests. Schwartz argues this is not incorrect, but it does not present a complete picture.  “To fully understand Henry Kissinger, it is important to see him as a political actor, a politician, and a man who understood that American foreign policy is fundamentally shaped and determined by the struggles and battles of American domestic politics.”  In explaining his meteoric rise to power, it must be seen in the context of global developments which were interwoven in his life; the rise of Nazism, World War II, the Holocaust, and the Cold War.

In developing Kissinger’s life before he rose to power Schwartz relies heavily on Niall Ferguson’s biography as he describes the Kissinger families escape from Nazi Germany.  Schwartz does not engage in psycho-babble, but he is correct in pointing out how Kissinger’s early years helped form his legendary insecurity, paranoia, and extreme sensitivity to criticism.  In this penetrating study Schwartz effectively navigates Kissinger’s immigration to the United States, service in the military, his early academic career highlighting important personalities, particularly Nelson Rockefeller, and issues that impacted him, particularly his intellectual development highlighting his publications which foreshadowed his later career on the diplomatic stage.  However, the most important components of the narrative involve Kissinger’s role in the Nixon administration as National Security advisor and Secretary of State.  Kissinger was a practitioner of always keeping “a foot in both camps” no matter the issue.  As Schwartz correctly states, “Kissinger sought to cultivate an image of being more dovish than he really was, and he could never quite give up his attempts to convince his critics.”  He had a propensity to fawn over Nixon and stress his conservative bonafede’s at the same time trying to maintain his position in liberal circles.  Though Schwartz repeatedly refers to Kissinger’s ego and duplicitousness, he always seems to have an excuse for Kissinger’s actions which he integrates into his analysis. 

Donald Trump, Henry Kissinger
(Henry Kissinger and Donald Trump)

Schwartz correctly points out that Nixon’s goal was to replicate President Eisenhower’s success in ending the Korean War by ending the war in Vietnam which would allow him to reassert leadership in Europe as Eisenhower had done by organizing NATO.  This would also quell the anti-war movement in much the same way as Eisenhower helped bring about the end of McCarthyism.  Schwartz offers the right mix of historical detail and analysis.  Useful examples include his narration of how Nixon and Kissinger used “the mad man theory” to pressure the Soviet Union by bombing Cambodia and North Vietnam; the employment of “linkage” to achieve Détente, SALT I; and ending the war in Vietnam by achieving a “decent interval” so Washington could not be blamed for abandoning its ally in South Vietnam; and bringing about cease fire agreements following the 1973 Yom Kippur War.  In all instances Kissinger was careful to promote his image, but at the same time play up to Nixon, the man who created his role and allowed him to pursue their partnership until Watergate, when “Super K” became the major asset of the Nixon administration.

Kissinger was the consummate courtier recognizing Nixon’s need for praise which he would offer after speeches and interviews.  Kissinger worked to ingratiate himself with Nixon who soon became extremely jealous of his popularity.  The two men had an overly complex relationship.  It is fair to argue that at various times each was dependent upon the other.  Nixon needed Kissinger’s popularity with the media and reinforcement of his ideas and hatreds.  Kissinger needed Nixon as validation for his powerful position as a policy maker and a vehicle to escape academia.  Schwartz provides examples of how Kissinger manipulated Nixon from repeated threats to resign particularly following the war scare between Pakistan and India in 1971, negotiations with the Soviet Union, and the Paris Peace talks.  Nixon did contemplate firing Kissinger on occasion, especially when Oriana Fallaci described Kissinger as “Nixon’s mental wet nurse” in an article but realized how indispensable he was.  What drew them together was their secret conspiratorial approach to diplomacy and the desire to push the State Department into the background and conduct foreign policy from inside the White House. Schwartz reinforces the idea that Kissinger was Nixon’s creation, and an extension of his authority and political power as President which basically sums up their relationship.

HENRY KISSINGER MEETING WITH ANWAR SADAT
(Henry Kissinger and Anwar Sadat)

Schwartz details the diplomatic machinations that led to “peace is at hand” in Vietnam, the Middle East, and the trifecta of 1972 that included Détente and the opening with China.  Schwartz’s writing is clear and concise and offers a blend of factual information, analysis, interesting anecdotes, and superior knowledge of source material which he puts to good use.  Apart from Vietnam, the Soviet Union, and the Middle East successes Schwartz chides Kissinger for failing to promote human rights and for aligning the United states with dictators and a host of unsavory regimes, i.e.; the Shah of Iran, Pinochet in Chile, and the apartheid regimes in Rhodesia and South Africa. Schwartz also criticizes Kissinger’s wiretapping of his NSC staff, actions that Kissinger has danced around in all of his writings.

Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger
(Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger)

Though most of the monograph involves the Nixon administration, Schwartz explores Kissinger’s role under Gerald Ford and his post-public career, a career that was very productive as he continued to serve on various government commissions under different administrations, built a thriving consulting firm that advised politicians and corporations making him enormous sums of money, and publishing major works that include his 3 volume memoir and an excellent study entitled DIPLOMACY a masterful tour of history’s greatest practitioners of foreign policy.  Kissinger would go on to influence American foreign policy well into his nineties and his policies continue to be debated in academic circles, government offices, and anywhere foreign policy decision-making is seen as meaningful.

After reading Schwartz’s work my own view of Kissinger is that he is patriotic American but committed a number of crimes be it domestically or in the international sphere.  He remains a flawed public servant whose impact on the history of the 20th century whether one is a detractor or promoter cannot be denied.  How Schwartz’s effort stacks up to the myriad of books on Kissinger is up to the reader, but one cannot deny that the book is an important contribution to the growing list of monographs that seek to dissect and understand  “Super-K’s” career.

Former US Secretary Of State Henry Kissinger Sits In An Office383230 04: (No Newsweek - No Usnews) Former Us Secretary Of State Henry Kissinger Sits In An Office In Washington, Dc, circa 1975. Kissinger Served As The National Security Advisor To President Richard M. Nixon, Shared The Nobel Peace Prize For Negotiating A Cease-Fire With North Vietnam, And Helped Arrange A Cease-Fire In The 1973 Arab-Israeli War. (Photo By Dirck Halstead/Getty Images)
(Henry Kissinger)

TO START A WAR: HOW THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION TOOK AMERICA INTO IRAQ by Robert Draper

Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney. Photo is in the Public Domain.

(Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney)

In reassessing the results of the Iraq War one thing is clear, the United States made a terrible error invading Saddam Hussein’s kingdom in 2003.  If one looks objectively at the current state of the Middle East one can honestly conclude that the ultimate victor was Iran.  Iraq was a state that was held together by an authoritarian regime that dealt with Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds.  Once the war brought “shock and awe,” or devastation the country split apart into civil war eventually allowing Iran to ally with Shiite forces and influence its government, fostered the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS), contributed to the Syrian civil war, reinforced Turkey’s goal of destroying the Kurds, and diminished the American presence and reputation in the region.  One could argue that looking back after fifteen years that the mess that was created has pushed Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, particularly the United Arab Emirates closer to Israel as they have a common enemy in Iran, but that analysis does not undo a disastrous war.  The war itself is the subject of an excellent new book by Robert Draper, a writer at large for the New York Times, entitled TO START A WAR: HOW THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION TOOK AMERICA INTO IRAQ.

The book is a detailed overview of how the United States wounded by the 9/11 attacks sought revenge against the Taliban in Afghanistan for harboring al-Qaeda, but not satiated despite destroying the Taliban, the Bush administration almost immediately sought further retribution against Saddam Hussein who they tried to link the attacks on the World Trade Center.  The decision making process that is presented is often convoluted and mired in a fantasy world of polluted intelligence as men like Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Deputy Defense Secretary, Doug Feith, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, I. Lewis Scooter Libby, Cheney’s Chief of Staff, and ultimately President Bush pushed the United States into war against Iraq.  What emerges are CIA and other intelligence analysts bending and twisting intelligence to fit their preconceived notions to create an acceptable causus belli against Iraq.  There are a number of heroes in this process who tried to stop the roller coaster of bad intelligence and personal vendettas, but in the end, they failed leading to the most disastrous war in American history.  A war we are still paying for.

Wolfowitz, Paul

(Paul Wolfowitz)

Draper leaves no stone unturned as he pieces together almost every aspect of the decision making process that led to war.  Relying on over 300 interviews of the participants in the process, newly released documentation, command of the memoirs and secondary material, and his own experience in the region, Draper has written the most complete study of the Bush administration’s drive towards war.  Draper traces the ideological and emotional development of the participants, some of which longed to finish off the Gulf War of 1991 that they believed was incomplete, others who possessed a visceral hatred of Saddam Hussein, and others who saw an opportunity to foster a revolt that in the end would bring about American control of Iraqi oil.

The picture that emerges is a cabal led by Cheney and Rumsfeld who would accept nothing less than the removal of Saddam; a National Security Advisor, Condi Rice who was in over her head in dealing with bureaucratic infighting; Colin Powell, a Secretary of State who opposed the neo-cons in their push for war, but remained the loyal soldier; CIA Director George Tenet, a Clinton hold over trying to prove his loyalty though he seems to have known better, and a president who thrived on his “gut,” a version of human emotion and anger for an Iraqi attempt at assassinating his father.  All of these characters are flawed but each had an agenda which they refused to take no for an answer.

Douglas J. Feith

(Douglas Feith)

What is clear from Draper’s presentation is that before 9/11, despite repeated warnings from Richard Clarke and the intelligence community the Bush administration did not take the terrorist threat seriously with people like Wolfowitz arguing that CIA analysts were giving Osama Bin-Laden too much credit.  The administration ignored a combined CIA-FBI brief of August 6, 2001 warning that “Bin-Laden Determined to Strike in the U.S.”  Once the attack took place the US responded with Operation Enduring Freedom on October 7, 2001 and in a short time 27 of 30 Afghani provinces were liberated from the Taliban.  As the situation in Kabul was evolving, Rumsfeld was already switching the Pentagon’s focus to Iraq.  Bush, now saw himself as a wartime leader with a newly found cause and for the first time in his career equated his situation with other wartime Presidents.  By January 2002 American assets were already being transferred to Iraq.

As the narrative evolves it is obvious that Bush’s national security team is one on dysfunction with back biting, disagreements, and power grabs.  It is clear that Rumsfeld and Cheney who pushed for war disliked and disagreed with Powell, who wanted to work through the United Nations.  Powell reciprocated his feelings toward them and their cohorts, Wolfowitz, Feith, and Libby.  Draper offers a number of chapters on these principle players and delves into their belief systems and their role in developing war plans to overthrow Saddam.  The specific evidence that decision making relied upon was fourfold.  First, a senior al-Qaeda operative, Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi was captured by the United States and after failing to reveal anything of value he was turned over to the Egyptians for further interrogation.  After being coerced by the Egyptians Al-Libi would confess that two al-Qaeda recruits had been sent to Baghdad in 12/2001 to be trained in building and deploying chemical and biological weapons.  Later this “evidence” was deemed to be a fabrication by the CIA and DIA.  Second, supposedly on April 9, 2001, one of the 9/11 hijackers, Mohamed Atta met with an Iraqi diplomat in Prague, however after careful vetting this too turned out to be false.  Third was Rafid Ahmed al-Takari, nicknamed “curveball” by German intelligence claimed to be an Iraqi chemical engineer at a plant that designed more than 6 mobile biological labs.  Fourth, Cheney believed that Saddam had agreed to purchase 500 tons of yellow cake uranium per year from the government of Niger.  Former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, the spouse of CIA analyst Valerie Plame was sent to investigate, and he concluded there was no substance to the charge.

(Scooter Libby)

The dysfunction in planning for war is obvious when Bush inquired if there was a National Intelligence Estimate for the proposed invasion. Tenet responded there was none, and he had 19 days to create one a process that normally took between four months to a year to compile.  The result was a NIE that played fast and loose with intelligence and it pulled in anything that remotely was credible to make its case for war.  The problem according to Draper is that Bush had decided in August 2002 to go to war, and the NIE of October 1, 2002 had to come up with a justification for Bush’s decision.  The final NIE consisted of badly outdated intelligence which was often fabricated.  This is not the only example of a threadbare approach to intelligence.  Once Powell, because of his gravitas and reputation was chosen to address the United Nations on February 5, 2003, a speech designed to augment a coalition and the support of the international body the die was already cast.  The problem was that the evidence that Powell used in his speech, i.e., curveball and other improbable theories provoked disdain from certain American allies and the Arab world in general.  Powell plays an important role in Draper’s narrative as he conjectures what might have occurred if the Secretary of State had refused to go along with the push toward war.  However, as many other authors have offered, Powell was a military man whose loyalty was to the chain of command, so he was coopted.  In the end the neocons were hell bent on war and regime change and Powell’s reputation visa vie Cheney, Libby, Feith and Wolfowitz there was probably little else he could do.

If planning for war was disjointed, planning for post-war Iraq was a disaster.  Rumsfeld argued “we don’t do windows,“ meaning nation building.  The Pentagon refused to make serious plans once Saddam was overthrown.  Cheney and his people argued that the Iraqi people would greet American soldiers as heroes and with a minimum of American aid could oversee their own adoption of democracy.  On the other hand, Powell and his staff argued that an occupation force would be needed probably for two to three years.  A number of sketchy characters from the Iraqi exile community emerges, particularly Ahmad Chalabi, the head of the Iraqi National Congress who had not been in Iraq for decades whose machinations behind the scenes finally led to Bush’s refusal to support him as Iraq’s version of “Hamid Karzai.”  The lack of American planning or arrogance would foster a complete disaster once the American occupation was created.

Colin Powell

(Colin Powell)

If one wonders why Draper’s book should be read now Joshua Geltzer argues that it clear that “he exposes the key points about the relationship among the American president, the executive branch he leads and the intelligence he receives that burn as fiercely today as they did almost two decades ago.”*  From the evidence that Draper offers the decision for war rested with George W. Bush.  As the self-styled “decider” it was Bush as president not his cabinet and other minions who bare the ultimate responsibility for war and what occurred after the fighting ended.  Obviously, the politicization of intelligence played a major role in Bush’s decision making.  Draper’s account is extremely important , it is one “to study not just to understand a war whose repercussions loom large given the Americans, Iraqis and others who ‘eve perished – and given the through-line from Bush’s decision to the continuing American presence in Iraq and the persistent threat from terrorists there and in Syria in the wake of the US invasion.”*

It should come as no surprise that regime change is a dangerous undertaking.  All one has to do is look at Libya and Iraq.  As President Trump contemplates through his tweets about regime change in Iran, perhaps he should read Draper’s narrative before he makes a decision that would be disastrous for the American people.

*Joshua Geltzer, “Behind the Iraq War, a Story of Influence, Intelligence and Presidential Power,” Washington Post, August 21, 2020.

(Donald Rumsfeld, George W. Bush, and Dick Cheney)

 

THE ROOM WHERE IT HAPPENED: A WHITE HOUSE MEMOIR by John Bolton

(April 9, 2018, Donald Trump and John Bolton)

In all candor I debated whether to purchase and read John Bolton’s new memoir THE ROOM WHERE IT HAPPENED: A WHITE HOUSE MEMOIR.  Apart from stealing the title from a song from the Broadway show “Hamilton” I believe that Bolton’s approach is about maximizing his book royalties rather serving democracy, something he claims he has done throughout his years in government service.  By eschewing an appearance before the House Impeachment hearings for his own self-serving interests is rather hypocritical and Bolton showed his true colors.  In the past whether arguing for an invasion of Iraq or other foreign adventures one at least saw a man whose beliefs were clear, in the present instance I wonder except for the fact that his reputation for never finding a war he didn’t like remains.  After reading Bolton’s somewhat self-serving memoir one gets the feeling that had people listened to him the world and the United States would be in a better place.  This is somewhat arguable as I am trying to evaluate Bolton’s book in a measured and objective manner, but it is difficult.

Much of the book is about finding fault with others particularly former Secretary of Defense James Mattis, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin, and former Chief of Staff John Kelly who make up what Bolton refers to as “the axis of adults.”  Though much of the criticisms he points to Bolton always seems to emerge correct, with a little side inuendo about his own views, and nasty comments about the agendas and obstructionism of others.  Bolton argues that these men who were supposed to save the country from Donald Trump’s most inane actions in reality served him poorly as their approach to reigning him in led to second guessing and conspiracies that undermined what they were trying to accomplish.

After digesting Bolton’s 500-page diatribe concerning the Trump administration there is little I disagree with in terms of his insights into the president and his policies or lack of thereof.  There is extraordinarily little that is new and surprising if you have been following the last three and half years closely of a convoluted approach to governing and a lack of honesty and forthrightness.  Bolton is correct in finding Trump’s decision making erratic and unconventional seeing activity in the West Wing as that of a “college dorm” and is amusing when he quotes the Eagles song, “Hotel California” to describe personnel decisions as “you can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave.”  Bolton’s sarcasm and dry humor is ever present in the narrative  and his writing is somewhat “snappy” and noticeably clear.

Bolton rages against bureaucracies particularly the State Department which never seemed to operate quickly enough for the National Security Advisor and “always seemed to be giving things away.”  Bolton’s reasons for taking the position in the first place knowing what he did about Trump places him as a member of the “axis of adults” particularly in what transpired later under his watch be it the failure of US Venezuelan policy, trying to control Trump as he upended all norms in his approach to Kim Jung Un, failure to impact Russian policy, trade policies regarding China or events in Ukraine.  In every situation and decision Bolton was involved with he would recapitulate his past approaches and knowledge of the issues at hand to reinforce his arguments, i.e., Syrian use of chemical weapons and the American response.  He despises James Mattis who he argues was “looking for an excuse not to do much of anything” and refused to cooperate with any action that might be a deterrent to Bashir al-Assad.

         (Vice President Mike Pence)

To his credit, Bolton’s openness in describing certain figures is striking.  His commentary is caustic and at times nasty as he goes after South Korean President Moon Ja-in and his “soft” approach to the north.  In referencing Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, he points out how Abe always feared that Trump “would give away the store” in dealing with Kim.  This is also clear when describing his fears pertaining to the Helsinki Summit with Vladimir Putin as he wrote, “I was not looking forward to leaving him alone in a room with Trump.”

When boiling down Bolton’s opinion predictably his most virulent commentary focuses on Trump as anything the president seemed to want, summits with Kim, Putin, Turkish President Recip Tayyip Erdogan, or Chinese President Xi Jinping became exercises in damage control.  The media has made it clear over the last three and half years that Trump seems to have this obsession with dictators and government leaders he jealously views as “strong men.”  However, as Bolton correctly points out Trump has no understanding of these “strongmen.”  They have figured out how to flatter Trump and manipulate him.  In reference to Erdogan, Trump could never quite comprehend that he was a radical Islamist who supported the Moslem Brotherhood, helped finance Hamas and Hezbollah, and was anti-Israel.  But this did not stop Trump from abandoning the Kurds who were our allies in fighting ISIS at the behest of the Turkish president.

Trump was further obsessed with withdrawing American troops from the Middle East and Afghanistan, constantly pointing out that NATO allies were not carrying their own weight, building his border wall and on and on.  If one word is used by Bolton repeatedly to describe the Trump administration it is “dysfunctional,” and his commentary just reinforces Trump’s lack of fitness for the presidency.  The lies build on other lies producing policy that supported Saudi Arabian Prince Mohammad Bin-Salman who was responsible for the murder of Washington Post reporter Jamal Khashoggi because of a large arms deal with the Saudis which was in the interest of American national security among many examples.

(Former Secretary of Defense James Mattis)

Bolton describes a president flailing about making new threats every day, taking away security clearance away from former CIA head John Brennan, his behavior surrounding the death of John McCain, his handling of immigration-putting children in cages, and of course his total lack of leadership and falsehoods pertaining to the Covid-19 crisis.  But in making these criticisms Bolton seems to never fail to pat himself on the back.  In reference to the Venezuelan crisis he writes, “The regime wonders if the US military threat is credible, but they are most afraid when John Bolton starts tweeting.  Now that was encouraging!”

In reference to trade negotiations with China and other controversial issues over and over Trump would have people argue to try and reach decisions.  Resolution was rare and even worse according to Bolton one day there would be one outcome, then the next day another, and possibly even an hour later Trump would tweet something that would undermine the process.  In reference to Covid-19 Bolton remarks that “the NSC biosecurity team functioned exactly as it was supposed to.  It was the chair behind the Resolute (Trump’s desk) that was empty.”  Bolton’s description comes across as if he were guiding a child prone to tantrums when he did not get his big deal with China etc., but what he was most afraid was that after abandoning the Kurds, Taiwan could be next.  Bolton repeatedly points out Trump’s lack of historical knowledge and perspective which led to lectures but more importantly an inability for Trump to engage material based on the past and had rather negative implications for negotiations in the present, as well as developing sound policy.

(Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin and his wife)

It is clear from Trump’s own remarks he had no compunction bout asking foreign leaders for help for his reelection in 2020.  Remarkably during negotiations with Xi “he then, stunningly, turned the conversation to the coming US presidential election, alluding to China’s economic capability to affect the ongoing campaigns, pleading with Xi to ensure he’d win.  He stressed the importance of farmers and increased Chinese purchases of soybeans and wheat in the electoral outcome.”   Further, the reference to a Trump tweet that led to a meeting with Kim at the Korean DMZ Bolton’s view is clear in reference to the president, “he couldn’t tell the difference between his personal interests and the country’s interests.”

John F. Kelly, former Chief of Staff
John Kelly official DHS portrait.jpg

It is interesting that Bolton left the details of the Ukraine debacle to the end of the book hoping to maintain the reader’s interest.  His chapter dealing with Ukraine possesses a great deal of detail, but his commentary is somewhat verbose and does not get to the core of the evidence as he hides behind his own bewilderment.  His excuse for not testifying is that it would not have made a difference because Republicans in the Senate would never have voted for impeachment, instead he argues that the House Democratic impeachment leaders committed malpractice and are responsible for their own failure to succeed.  Bolton’s rationalization does not hold water as his checkbook seemed to be his only driving force.

In the end Bolton’s book is a monument to his own ego.  He has written a book based on the fastidious notes he has taken providing minute and, in many cases, extraneous information that was not necessary.  Bolton does provide some interesting insights and pure gossip, but the book’s length and structure leads one to doze at times trying to get through details that were best left on the editor’s floor.

Donald Trump, left, flanked by national security advisor John Bolton, right, speaks at the White House in April 2018.

(Donald Trump and John Bolton)