Graeme Wood: Will John Bolton bring about Armageddon—or stave it off?
Having now read every word of Bolton’s memoir, I find it hard to believe that it doesn’t contain classified material. Whether it contains properly classified material is another story. It is not uncommon to discover that totally unremarkable and well known statements of fact are, in fact, considered classified. In one case, the government demanded that the authors of a CIA memoir redact a mention of the distance between the cities of Kabul and Ghazni. (They’re 80 miles apart. Tell no one.) Bolton’s book is thicketed with information considerably more relevant to national security than this, and it would be a miracle if the executive branch, which by the way hates Bolton’s guts, were so generous that it would let this memoir go public without a fight.
Moreover, even properly classified information can lurk in seemingly harmless disclosures. “If you say that on June 13, we knew Vladimir Putin had eggs Benedict for breakfast, you might be revealing how we knew something, and when we knew it,” J. William Leonard, the guardian of classified information under George W. Bush, told me. But you could also divulge classified information if you were to reveal that the United States was ignorant of Putin’s breakfast order, because you would reveal what we didn’t know, and when we didn’t know it. Late in his memoir, Bolton spends a paragraph describing an instance when senior officials did not know, and were trying to “get the facts” about, the location of the Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. If Zarif didn’t previously know that he could wander around Europe, his location a mystery to U.S. senior officials for hours at a time, he does now.
Or he will on Tuesday, when the book is available everywhere. Close observers of Washington and geopolitics will find much in it to savor (and a substantial number of iffy disclosures such as the one above, to challenge in print or in court). It will nevertheless disappoint many in the general reading public, because it has little of the salacious backbiting that made Stormy Daniels’s book or Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury such hits—nor will it, of course, bring down the Trump presidency.
Instead, The Room Where It Happened resembles the political memoirs of previous eras: by Robert Gates, Colin Powell, Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger (whom Bolton quotes or invokes reverently at least half a dozen times), and John Bolton himself (Surrender Is Not an Option, published in 2007). To read it searching for the juicy bits, in which Trump says “fuck” or recommends the construction of literal concentration camps, is a fine and worthy exercise. But the memoir should also be read as a member of this larger class of books by serious people, assessing and defending their own mixed records against the tribunal of history. Before they hold office, politicians write books about how wonderful they are, and how no one could imagine otherwise. Afterward, they write books about how wonderful they are—but now defending themselves against an implicit prosecutorial voice.