Bolton’s Blather: The decline and fall of political biographies

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When Dean Acheson wrote “Present at the Creation,”  a memoir of his years at the State Department, he was hailed as “probably the most consequential American diplomat of the twentieth century” and his book was applauded as  “…a must-read book not only for historians, but also for anyone interested in national policy, diplomacy, or military strategy.”

“As Truman’s Secretary of State from 1949 to 1953, he became the primary spokesman for America’s leadership in the world and for the creation of the post-World War II international system that exists today, a reviewer wrote in Foreign Policy.  “Present at the Creation is an insightful, absorbing and even occasionally humorous insider’s guide to how that system was created.”

Compare that with the reception of “The Room Where It Happened,” a memoir by John Bolton, who spent 453 days as President Trump’s national-security adviser. “John Bolton’s Epic Score-Settling – a scathing account of the President’s ‘stunning ignorance,’ incompetence, and corruption,” announced the New Yorker. “Bolton Spills the Beans,” declared the Dispatch. “John Bolton Dumps His Notes and Smites His Enemies,” wrote the New York Times.

How times have changed.

Bolton was apparently appalled by what he observed, but not appalled enough to go public with his concerns and resign in disgust. And certainly not appalled enough to forego a lucrative book advance.

Instead of offering readers a sweeping perspective of momentous occurrences, too many of the Trump books are just hatchet jobs, spiteful tell-alls written by peevish, self-aggrandizing, hangers-on. And too often they commit the cardinal sin of not even being well written.

 “The book is bloated with self-importance, even though what it mostly recounts is Bolton not being able to accomplish very much,” Jennifer Szalai wrote of Bolton’s book in the New York Times. “It toggles between two discordant registers: exceedingly tedious and slightly unhinged….(The account) has been written with so little discernible attention to style and narrative form that he apparently presumes an audience that is hanging on his every word.”

A librarian noted last year that she had found no less than 51 books about the Trump presidency, excluding self-published works, if you start counting with The Truth About Trump in May 2016.

Former press secretary Sean Spicer wrote just one Trump book, The Briefing: Politics, the Press, and the President. Cory Lewandowsi, Ann Coulter, Newt Gingrich, and David Cay Johnston have each written two Trump books.

“Eventually, perhaps there will be nothing more to say about the President’s competence or lack thereof,” the librarian said. “At that point, it’s unclear what will happen to this ballooning literary phenomenon. A bubble bust situation seems possible.”

And unlike Present at the Creation, most of the Trump screeds will likely be soon forgotten. Unhinged: An Insider’s Account of the Trump White House by Omarosa Manigault-Newman is surely one of those, as is Full Disclosure by Stormy Daniels and Michal Avenatti.

That will also likely be the fate of many Trump books still to come, including one by Trump’s niece, Mary L. Trump. Her book, “Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man,” is set to come out on July 28.

This book is being pitched as a revealing missive that, according to Amazon, “shines a bright light on the dark history of their family in order to explain how her uncle became the man who now threatens the world’s health, economic security, and social fabric.”

I can’t wait.

I suppose the next book after Mary Trump’s will be “Life with me and mine,” by Arabella Rose Kushner. Put your order in now.

Trump’s Folly: the deliberate decline of the U.S. Department of State

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“All diplomacy is a continuation of war by other means,” said Zhou Enlai, the first Premier of the People’s Republic of China.

President Trump seems to be leading America toward the reverse, where a series of ad hoc decisions, rather than a well thought out foreign policy, and decimation of the U.S. Department of State, may lead to catastrophe.

Dean Acheson, United States Secretary of State in the administration of President Harry S. Truman from 1949 to 1953, pointed out that the successful organization of power is achieved only by the harmonious merging of economic, fiscal, military, foreign, and weapons development policies.

The same principles apply today.

Effective foreign policy requires the application of talent across the board. You need the soprano, contralto, tenor, baritone and bass, the full chorus.

“In the world of policy realism, … effective diplomacy usually involves all four aspects: artful and encouraging language; the use of economic and non-economic sanctions as leverage to shift the opponent’s cost-benefit calculation; the delicate deployment of “or else” threats that credibly back up the diplomat’s commitment to resolve the matter, one way or the other; all backed up and informed by careful, all-source intelligence, Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, argued in Foreign Policy.

I’ve worked in Congress on foreign policy issues and with the Department of State on treaty negotiations, and I’ve been privileged to know many of the talented people there. I believe strongly that in a rapidly changing and challenging international environment, it is essential that the United States have a strong, trusted Department of State with an experienced staff.

But Trump and his Secretary of State, Rex W. Tillerson, appear to be functioning as a two-man foreign policy band, destroying the department, pulling it down piece by piece, turning it into rubble.

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“I’m the only one that matters” in setting U.S. foreign policy, President Trump said to Fox News’ Laura Ingraham on Nov. 2, 2017

Tillerson has frozen most hiring and recently offered buyouts to seasoned career diplomats and civil servants in hopes of pushing nearly 2,000 of them by October 2018, according to the New York Times. His aides have fired some diplomats and gotten others to resign by refusing them the assignments they wanted or taking away their duties altogether.

Meanwhile, just 10 of the top 44 political positions in the department have been filled, and for most of the vacancies, Mr Tillerson has not nominated anyone.

With North Korea’s belligerent behavior a major U.S. concern, Trump hasn’t yet nominated an assistant secretary for East Asia or an ambassador to South Korea. With all the troubles in Syria, Turkey, Egypt, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, there have been no confirmations of Trump nominees to be ambassadors to any of these countries and there is no confirmed assistant secretary for Near Eastern Affairs at the Department of State.

With Robert Mugabe having been effectively deposed as President of Zimbabwe and a new president installed in his place, there is also no confirmed assistant secretary for African affairs.

On Nov. 15, 2017 , Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) sent a blistering letter to Tillerson criticizing him and the Trump administration for “…questionable management practices at the Department of State; the attitudes of some in the Administration on the value of diplomacy; declining morale, recruitment and retention; the lack of experienced leadership to further the strength and longevity of our nation’s diplomatic corps; and reports of American diplomacy becoming less effective…”

Another letter, this one written by Ambassador Barbara Stephenson, President of the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA) for the December 2017 Foreign Service Journal, asserted “there is simply no denying the warning signs that point to mounting threats to our institution—and to the global leadership that depends on us.”

“Were the U.S. military to face such a decapitation of its leadership ranks, I would expect a public outcry,” Stephenson wrote. “The rapid loss of so many senior officers has a serious, immediate, and tangible effect on the capacity of the United States to shape world events.”

Another issue that should be of great concern, but doesn’t get much media coverage, is that the number of applicants taking the difficult Foreign Service test used to identify promising Foreign Service candidates has declined drastically.

According to Stephenson, “…more than 17,000 people applied to take the Foreign Service Officer Test last year…What does it tell us, then, that we are on track to have fewer than half as many people take the Foreign Service Officer Test this year?” The State Department has challenged Stephenson’s numbers, saying the number that actually sat for the test in 2015 was 14,480, compared to 9,519 that took the test this year. That’s a 34 percent drop.

Whoever is right, without a constant flow of new blood, the Department of State will wither.

Maybe that’s Trump’s hope. If it is, it’s seriously misguided.

As Stephenson wrote, “Where is the mandate to pull the Foreign Service team from the field and forfeit the game to our adversaries?”