2020.07.05The Room Where it Happened, Chapter Two

The front cover of the book The Room Where it Happened by John Bolton, published by Simon & Schuster.
Image credit: Simon & Schuster

Image credit: Simon & Schuster

In Chapter Two of Bolton's The Room Where it Happened, John Bolton describes his earliest days in the role of National Security Adviser for the Trump Administration in April 2018, and working to create a multinational coalition to respond to Syria's chemical attack in Douma. He also describes how Secretary of Defense James Mattis (GEN, USMC, RET) essentially framed his favored option as the only option for the coalition to act upon:

I called an NSC staff meeting for six forty-five a.m. Monday morning to see where we stood [in assessing the Assad regime's actions and developing US options in response], and to assess what roles if any Russia and Iran might have played.1

The... NSC staff meeting confirmed my — and what seemed to be Trump's— belief that the Douma strike required a strong near-term military response.... I called Defense Secretary Jim Mattis at 8:05 a.m. He believed Russia was our real problem.... Mattis and I discussed possible responses to Syria's attack, and said he would be supplying "light, medium and heavy" options for the President's consideration, which I thought was the right approach.... I sensed, over the phone, that Mattis was reading from a prepared text.2

Through the week, more information on the attacks came in, and I spent considerable time reviewing this data.... Proof of the Assad regime's chemical-weapons usage was increasingly clear in public reporting... The second Syria Principals Committee meeting convened at one thirty and again consisted largely of the various agencies reporting on their developing planning and activity, all consistent with a strong response. I soon realized Mattis was our biggest problem. He hadn't produced any targeting options for the NSC or for White House Counsel Don McGahn, who needed to write an opinion on the legality of whatever Trump ultimately decided. From long, unhappy experience, I knew what was going on here. Mattis knew where he wanted Trump to come out militarily, and he also knew that the way to maximize the likelihood of his view's prevailing was to deny information to others who had a legitimate right to weigh in. It was simple truth that not presenting options until the last minute, making sure that those options were rigged in the "right" direction, and then table-pounding, delaying, and obfuscating as long as possible were the tactics by which a savvy bureaucrat like Mattis could get his way.3

While briefing Trump for a later call with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, I stressed that we had the right formula: (1) a proposed three-way attack option with France and Britain, not just a unilateral strike as in 2017; (2) a comprehensive approach, using political and economic as well as military means, combined with effective messaging to explain what we were doing and why; and (3) a sustained — not just one-shot — effort. 4

With a full NSC meeting... coming that afternoon, I also told Trump wer ere essentially being sandbagged by Mattis on the range of target options.... The Pentagon's proposed response to Syria's chemical-weapons attack was far weaker than it should have been, largely because Mattis had stacked the options presented to Trump in ways that left little real choice.... Mattis was recommending to strike only chemical-weapons related targets, even options Trump and others had asked about had not been included. Moreover, Mattis said without qualitification that causing Russian casualties would mean we would be at war with Russia, nonwithstanding our efforts to avoid such casualties and the Dunford-Gerasimov conversation [(a phone conversation between Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Dunford and his counterpart in Russia, explaining the US' plan, precisely to prevent Russian casualities)]....Mattis was looking for excuses to not to do much of anything, but he was wrong tactically and strategically.5

Even if the President had decided on the optimal strike, the decision-making process was completely unacceptable. We'd experienced a classic bureaucratic ploy by a classic bureaucrat, structuring the options and information to make only his options look acceptable in order to get his way.... I was satisfied I had acted as an honest broker, but Mattis had been playing with marked cards. He knew how Trump responded in such situations far better than I did.... I had been outmaneuvered by an expert bureaucratic operator.6

Bolton goes on to say that ultimately, although the strike went well (such as it was), it was still far shy of the retaliation Bolton wanted; ultimately, it did nothing to deter Syria — Assad struck civilian populations again in May, 2019.7

Secretary Mattis resigned in December 2018 over differences with the Administration on its Syria policy.


1p. 45.
2p. 46.
3pp. 50-51.
4p. 52
5pp. 53-54
6p. 56
7p. 60

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