John Bolton abruptly departed as national security adviser to President Donald Trump in September 2019, after just under a year and a half in the pivotal, exceptionally demanding position. This was only one incident in a continuing series of departures of officials from this turbulent administration.
Now Bolton has published a memoir, titled “The Room Where It Happened — A White House Memoir.” His visible Washington, D.C., career has involved regular appearances on Fox News, as well as service in the Reagan and both Bush administrations, including the Justice Department and the State Department. He brought that high-flyer style into the national security position, where a relatively low profile is often most effective.
White House efforts to prevent publication of his book have generated more attention and controversy. He strenuously denies circumventing standard national security review of the manuscript.
The book, just published by Simon & Schuster, is very much a discussion of personalities in the Trump administration. There is focus on the president but even more on Bolton, who is emphatic that he resigned and was not fired. However, he also provides extensive personal testimony that the relationship with the president had deteriorated badly by the time he departed.
Bolton’s exit was then only the latest in what is now a nonstop merry-go-round of senior administration officials coming and then going, often very quickly. Robert O’Brien, Bolton’s successor, is a successful lawyer from California with extensive professional credentials, and active political campaign experience, but very little background in foreign policy.
In this administration, there has been relative stability at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), a particularly influential player among our multiple federal intelligence agencies. This stands out especially in current turmoil. Mike Pompeo joined the current administration as CIA director, and then became secretary of state in April 2018.
Gina Haspel, his successor at CIA, is the first woman director and a career professional. Both qualities are major strengths, professionally and politically. She clearly has relevant experience, impact on policy, and a useful relatively low public profile.
Military dimensions remain vital policy challenges, for our nation as for others, and military officers have long been central to government leadership in intelligence and national security. During the Trump administration, two senior Army officers served as national security adviser before Bolton — Gens. Michael Flynn and H.R. McMaster.
At CIA, established in 1947, the first four directors were all senior military officers: Rear Adm. Sidney W. Souers, Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg, Vice Adm. Roscoe H. Hillenkoetter and Gen. Walter Bedell Smith.
The U.S. has paid a high price for alienation between civilian and military agencies. During the Vietnam War, there was general lack of communication between our military and CIA. The latter proved notably accurate — and prescient.
Vietnam field commander Gen. William Westmoreland encouraged conformity in outlook. He ordered military officers literally not to talk to CIA personnel. Late in that war, Congress acted to force cooperation.
Gathering and accurately assessing intelligence remain challenging. False intelligence that Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction encouraged the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Bolton harshly condemns the president for last-minute cancellation of a planned air strike on Iran in retaliation for the downing of a U.S. drone. Trump warned of “too many body bags.”
Candidate Trump pledged to avoid overseas military involvement. Washington warrior Bolton regularly advocates force against Iran, North Korea and elsewhere. Personality plus policy made his departure no surprise.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Wisconsin and author of “After the Cold War” (Palgrave/Macmillan and NYU Press). Contact email@example.com